There are several alternatives to using gasoline or diesel fuel for automobiles. Each, however, has its own list of pros and cons. While most of us realize that there are multiple reasons in favor of changing the way that we currently power our vehicles, no currently single solution to the energy problem is emerging.
We do need to change the way in which we power our economy in order to end our dependency on Middle East oil and reduce carbon emissions and pollution. While we know the goal, getting there is another issue that is much more complex and lacks the massive amount of public participation that it may take to get the job done.
Even if you do not believe that people are the cause of the current problems with climate change and global warming, there are still numerous benefits to both the long-term health of the economy and the environment. In order to beat the problem before it becomes a disaster we do need to aggressively pursue alternative forms of fuel. Green fuel alternatives are out there and while none of the choices will alleviate all of the problems, if we invest more in the development of green fuel alternatives, the scope of the problem may be reduced over time.
Ethanol alcohol appears to be the leading choice at the moment. Megabucks are being invested in projects to develop and produce ethanol from corn and other farm products. While producing ethanol from high sugar content corn is fairly easy to do, the ethanol fuel produced from this process contains 30% less energy that gasoline, which means that when it is mixed with gasoline or used as an E85 blend (85% ethanol), a vehicle will burn more fuel than it would with gasoline. Of concern is a recent report in Scientific American magazine indicating that ethanol use may actually increase pollution. While on the surface ethanol looks like a clean alternative, in reality it may not be. Pollution is produced both in the production and the burning of ethanol fuel.
In addition to not being a very efficient fuel and possibly exacerbating the pollution problem, current pressure to produce ethanol from corn is driving the price for corn to record levels, which affects the price of beef and other products tied to the price of corn. There are other alcohol alternative, such as cellulosic ethanol, that may be more viable over the long run if ways can be found to reduce the cost of production.
Hydrogen is one of George Bush’s favorite fuels of the future. The greatest benefit related to the use of hydrogen fuel is the fact that zero harmful emissions are created when it is burned (the only emission is water). However, the production process itself is costly (3 to 4 times the cost for producing an energy equivalent to gasoline) and very energy intensive. Hydrogen fuel can still be a very viable green fuel alternative if better production methods are discovered. Unfortunately, the production hurdles are so large that it may take an enormous investment to overcome the problem areas.
Biodiesel has become very popular in Europe. It is cleaner burning than ethanol and easier to produce. it also offers superior fuel economies with much better gas mileage than other alternatives.
Most of the articles found in the USA press are related to using waste grease from fast food fryers, which can be filtered and used as biodiesel fuel. While this is great for small scale use, not enough waste grease is produced to make this a viable alternative. Europe has a much more practical focus on the use of soybean oil to produce biodiesel fuel. Waste grease is also recycled into biodiesel. Biodiesel can also be added to regular diesel fuel in a 20% biodiesel, 80% regular diesel blend known as B20.
So why hasn’t this idea taken off in the USA? Europe has focused on the use of diesel powered vehicles to improve fuel mileage for quite some time. Diesel-powered vehicles are much more common in Europe as a result. Biodiesel fuels will not run in gasoline engines, so in order for this alternative to become viable on a large scale, more people will need to purchase diesel powered cars and trucks. I do see biodiesel as being a very good alternative for cross-country truckers.
The ideal non-polluting, green fuel vehicle is the electric car. That is, of course, if you can find a way to produce enough electricity to charge the batteries without producing pollution in the process. Other problems associated with electric vehicles include the short life and expense of the batteries needed to power the vehicles, and very short driving distances. If everyone decided to buy an electric vehicle, the increased demand for electricity would be enormous. Due to the way that energy is produced in this country, which is primarily with coal-fired power generators, the net effect on pollution could be worse.
On the plus side, electric vehicles may help reduce our dependency on foreign oil if the country focuses more on nuclear power as a way to produce electricity. Electric vehicles can also be designed to take advantage of the sun as a partial source for replenishing battery life.
Green Fuel Observations
There isn’t any one single solution to this energy pickle we have gotten ourselves into. The best solution is likely a blended plan which focuses on low-pollution, green fuel alternatives, such as biodiesel fuel and electric vehicles. The largest problem appears to be the lack of motivation on the part of the American public. There is currently not enough interest in everyone contributing to the solution by doing something on their part to move the country in the right direction. Everyone is looking fro someone else to solve the problem.