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Alternative-Fuel Cars

Alternative-Fuel Cars

By Jeff Youngs, February 24, 2012
Although gasoline has been the fuel of choice for passenger vehicles for the past century, numerous alternatives are now available. Some alternative-fuel vehicles run on both gasoline and electricity, while others run on diesel, ethanol or hydrogen gas.

While alternative fuels may seem like new technology, many have been in use for decades-in some cases, for more than a century. The diesel-fueled internal combustion engine, for example, was invented by German engineer Rudolf Diesel in the late 1800s, and was originally designed to run on peanut oil, which farmers could easily produce. Years later, the oil was replaced with what became known as diesel fuel, an oil byproduct derived from refined petroleum.

Today, a fuel called biodiesel, a renewable, biodegradable alternative fuel derived from vegetable oil and animal fats, is used throughout Europe. While it has been used in the United States in fleet vehicles for decades, only recently has it become more widely available to the general public. Some drivers have even been known to purchase used vegetable oil from restaurants or run their diesel vehicles on straight vegetable oil.

Henry Ford was an early 20th-century visionary of alternative fuels, and planned on having his early cars powered by ethanol. In fact, his first Model T could run on gasoline combined with alcohol. However, the first large-scale production flex-fuel vehicles, or FFVs-those that run on either gasoline or ethanol or a mix of both-didn't appear on the market until the mid-1990s. In 2007, it was estimated that there were more than 6.65 million flexible-fuel vehicles on U.S. roads. By the end of 2008, that number is expected to rise to nearly 7.5 million, and the Detroit Three U.S. automakers (GM, Chrysler and Ford) have committed to increasing production of FFVs annually to 2010. GM, for example, has said that half of all its vehicles could be FFVs by 2012, pending availability of E85 fuel. FFVs are capable of operating on E85, which is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Ethanol is a common ingredient in most gasoline formulations as well, but is only used in quantities of 5 to 10 percent to reduce smog-forming emissions and greenhouse gases.

The increase in E85-capable vehicles has gone hand-in-hand with an increase in the availability of E85 fuel. In March 2008, there were about 1,500 E85 fuel stations in the United States, with an ever-increasing number of additional stations scheduled to come online in the coming years. In contrast, in 2000 there were only about a dozen E85 stations. Although this is a small number compared to about 200,000 gas stations in the United States, it is a huge step forward in making this alternative fuel more widely available.

While the first modern-day hybrid vehicle was introduced in the United States in December 1999, it was not the first hybrid ever seen in this country. The Dual Power, introduced by Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago in 1916, could operate on electric power only, on gasoline only, or on both simultaneously. It also featured regenerative braking, a feature common on today's hybrids.

Hybrid vehicles have become increasingly popular, with more than 200,000 units sold annually in the U.S. in 2005 and 2006 and 350,000 in 2007. By the end of 2008, GM will have eight hybrid vehicles in the marketplace. In 2009, the next-generation Toyota Prius will debut, along with Honda's unveiling of a new hybrid replacing the Insight (discontinued in 2006). Sales will most likely continue to increase as the range of hybrid choices grows: Some 44 hybrids are expected to be on sale by 2012, up from 15 in 2008, according to J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Forecasting.SM

With the world's oil supply declining and the increasing effect of greenhouse gases on global warming, the push for alternative-fuel vehicles will only continue to grow. In addition to increased production of the types of vehicles discussed here, the next step in alternative-fuel vehicles is fuel cells. A fuel-cell vehicle is essentially a hybrid vehicle that is powered by an electric motor, which gets its power from a fuel-cell stack rather than an internal combustion engine. Compared to gasoline vehicles, fuel-cell vehicles using compressed hydrogen formed from natural gas use 50 percent less energy while emitting 60 percent less carbon dioxide from "well to wheel," meaning from the time the fuel is produced at the well to when the vehicle's wheels move. Only a handful of fuel-cell vehicles are in use today because the technology is still in development, and few fueling stations provide hydrogen, the fuel used to power the fuel cell stack.

The U.S. Department of Energy, the agency that oversees a federally funded program to pursue fuel cell development, will decide by 2015 whether fuel-cell technology is viable. Even if the decision is made to move forward, hybrid vehicles and gasoline-powered vehicles-as well as those powered by diesel,ethanol and solar energy-will most likely remain in use for many years.
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