All About Alternative Fuels

October 31, 2012

The use of alternative fuels to power our vehicles has become an important issue as the world begins to move away from the consumption of fossil fuels. However we've all become so used to using regular gas, that many drivers today don't know much about the alternatives available to them. Here is a quick catch up for car owners interested in the possibility of using alternative fuels in their cars. It may be a lot easier to make the switch than you think.

The easiest alternative fuel to take advantage of for many drivers is ethanol. Most ethanol in the United States is made from corn, but that's not the only source. The distillation process that makes this type of alcohol will work on grass clippings and any kind of starchy plant. There are two forms of ethanol currently available commercially. The first is called "E10" or "gasohol." This is one of the most widely used alternative fuels and, in some states, it is the only form of gasoline product you can buy. It is a blend of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. This blend can be used in any gasoline engine.

The other form sold is E85. This is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Only specially designed vehicles (called "Flex Fuel Vehicles") can burn E85. There are a variety of vehicles with flexfuel capabilities, so check with your dealership about running E85. For vehicles that aren't capable of running E85 right from the manufacturer, there are cheap (under $500) conversion kits available.

There are several advantages to both forms of ethanol. They help to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil since they can be domestically produced. They also emit less harmful emissions than pure gasoline. There are a couple disadvantages. One is that it has less energy than gasoline, so a gallon of ethanol blend will get you fewer miles than a gallon of pure gasoline. Second, land used to produce ethanol is land that can't be used to produce food. That adds stress to food supplies and causes prices to increase.

Bio Diesel and PVO
As diesel engines get more popular, more owners are hearing about biodiesel and PVO. Biodiesel is diesel fuel manufactured from biological materials such as animal or vegetable fats or used grease from restaurants. It is high-grade fuel and can be burned in virtually any conventional diesel motor. Various blends are available, with names like B5, B20 and B100. The name refers to the percentage of biodiesel in the blend. So, B5 is 5 percent biodiesel to 95 percent standard diesel, while B100 is all biodiesel. Auto manufacturers don't recommend using blends above B5 in unmodified engines.

Even more exciting than biodiesel are PVO technologies. A PVO diesel is a modified diesel engine capable of running completely on pure vegetable oil. PVO technology has been around awhile but is becoming more prevalent. Both biodiesel and PVO reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and don't contain as much harmful sulfur as conventional diesel fuel. In fact, when you run a PVO diesel motor using corn oil, the exhaust smells like popcorn.

Disadvantages include the fact that it has less energy in it than true diesel fuel. That means that gallon for gallon, biodiesel delivers less mileage. Also, while there are fewer emissions overall, biodiesel produces more nitrogen oxide emissions than standard diesel.

Electric vehicles are also becoming more common. While electric vehicles of the past used to be very limited by battery storage capacity, hybrid cars have provided a breaking ground for new technologies capable of storing larger amounts of electricity and using it more efficiently. That means true electric cars are on their way soon. The 2010 Chevy Volt is a great example of the new generation of electric cars with a range of over a hundred miles and comparable performance to their gasoline relatives. As technology progresses, expect to see electric cars become more prevalent. They are already cheaper to drive than their gasoline counterparts, as they reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and are zero-emissions vehicles; which is great for the environment.

Natural Gas
Often used for heating homes, some vehicles have been equipped to use natural gas as fuel. Some vehicles are converted to exclusively run on natural gas, while others can use either natural gas or diesel fuel. The advantages of natural gas as a vehicle fuel include lower emission of greenhouse and smog producing gasses. Most of the natural gas we use comes from this country, so it helps to reduce dependence on foreign fuel sources. On the negative side, natural gas provides lower mileage per gallon than other fuels, and it is not as easy to get as diesel fuel and gasoline (or even biodiesel or ethanol blends).

Technically, propane is a petroleum product because it is a liquefied petroleum gas. There are no propane burning vehicles in regular production today, but any car that runs on diesel or gasoline can be retrofitted to burn propane. Since the majority of the propane used in the United States is produced here, it helps to reduce our dependence on foreign fuel sources. It burns much cleaner than other petroleum-based products. The main cons to using propane are the fact that you get fewer miles per gallon from it (but it's less expensive, so that's a trade-off) and it isn't as readily available as gasoline or diesel fuel.

Hydrogen fuel cells are considered by many to be one of the best options as an alternative fuel. Burning hydrogen produces no harmful emissions, so that is one big advantage. It can also be produced domestically. The central problems with it include the fact that storage and distribution can be a problem. It requires large quantities of hydrogen to produce the same amount of mileage as gasoline, requiring larger storage tanks on vehicles.

There are alternative fuels pros and cons. The United States Department of Energy provides an Alternative Fuels Data Center that is an excellent resource for further research on the subject.