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Fuels of the Future

Fuels of the Future

By Jeff Youngs, August 10, 2012
Oil is a finite resource, and while Americans are consuming less of it on a per-capita basis than historical averages, emerging economic powerhouses like China and India are burning more oil than ever and, in terms of overall global consumption, at greater percentages than other countries. As a result, world oil markets are able to sell their oil to the highest bidder, driving prices up for everyone, even as oil-producing nations increase production.

Oil is expensive, and it's also a source of pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Modern cars have relatively clean emissions systems, and in certain regions some models are even considered to be Partial Zero Emission Vehicles (PZEV). But other methods of transportation, which rely on petroleum for power, such as heavy trucks, buses, trains, planes and cargo ships, emit significant pollution into the atmosphere.

The quest for alternative fuels that can replace oil as a source for fuel is ongoing, focused on reducing pollution and finding renewable sources of energy. Currently, there are four fuels of the future either already in production and used in small quantities, or which are being considered for widespread use in the years and decades to come. We discuss each below, listed in alphabetical order.

Country singer Willie Nelson is perhaps the most famous advocate of bio-diesel, a fuel made from vegetable oil that can be burned in a conventional diesel engine without modifications. In fact, Nelson sells a commercial bio-diesel fuel called BioWillie. The exhaust, which is said to reduce harmful emissions compared to a traditional diesel engine, smells like French fries.

Ethanol, commonly produced from corn, can be burned in "flex-fuel" vehicles designed to run a fuel blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol. However, E85 vehicles typically go fewer miles on each gallon of fuel, and, as a result, cost more to operate even if E85 is typically less expensive per gallon. Additionally, critics claim that using corn to create the fuel keeps world food crop prices high, and that the refining process results in zero net reduction in carbon emissions.

Beyond this, researchers have figured out how to create fuel from green algae, and a team at the University of Southern California is working on developing bio-fuels from carbon dioxide by exposing it to electrically charged bacteria.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG, or propane) are both in limited use as gasoline substitutes. Honda sells a factory-built version of the Civic that runs on CNG, while many companies offer conversion kits designed to retrofit existing vehicles to run on propane. Either substitute burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel.

Electric vehicles aren't new; the first electric car was built in 1890. However, automakers are now turning to electric power as an alternative to gasoline, and are building a variety of electrically assisted and electrically powered vehicles, with more models on the drawing boards. Today, consumers can choose gas/electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids with short electric-only range, and full electric cars that can be charged to 80-percent battery capacity in as short as 30 minutes using a municipal quick-charge unit. Tomorrow, perhaps solar-cell technology will evolve to the point where energy harnessed from the sun can power a family-d vehicle.

Hydrogen is an abundant chemical element that, in its gaseous state, is highly combustible and produces water as its only combustion emission. Not surprisingly, car companies are working to make hydrogen a long-term replacement for gasoline as a way to power vehicles. Honda currently leases a hydrogen-powered vehicle on a very limited basis to residents of Southern California, where hydrogen filling stations exist. The Honda FCX Clarity stores hydrogen gas in a pressurized tank, and converts the hydrogen fuel into electricity using an onboard fuel cell. The only tailpipe emission is water vapor.
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