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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2003 : Special Section

Special Section

Can Gas Be a Thing of the Past?
We're not there yet, but many of the alternative fuels now being explored hold the promise of replacing traditional petroleum - based fuels - and the toxic fumes they emit.

Special Section

- Alternative Fuel Web Sites
- ECD Ovonics: On the Road to a Hydrogen Future

Transportation accounts for 65 percent of all oil consumption in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division. It is also the predominant source of air pollution. Yet, new transportation technologies under development are intended to reverse this consumption pattern by improving the efficiency and emissions of vehicles using petroleum-based fuels, as well as provide cleaner-burning alternative fuels altogether.

Which alternative fuel will predominate in the future remains to be seen; each fuel’s pros and cons is under considerable debate, constant scrutiny—and continuous development. For example, at the 2003 Challenge Bibendum, the distribution of technologies was markedly different than the previous year. Hydrogen powered cars (fuel cells and ICEs), diesels and several hybrid technologies dominated the field this year, yet in 2002 it was compressed natural gas (CNG), liquid natural gas (LNG) and electric vehicles that were in the majority.

One thing is certain: alternative fuel options are both varied and complex. For those without a chemistry degree, the following is a brief overview of some of the most common alternative fuel options along with their characteristics and uses:

* Biodiesel
Biodiesel is promoted as a low-polluting diesel alternative that can be made from vegetable oils, rapeseed oil, animal fats and even recycled cooking greases. Available in liquid form, it can be used in any vehicle that currently runs on diesel fuel with no modifications for up to five percent blends. Many engines also are compatible with blends up to 20 percent. Proponents say biodiesel reduces particulate matter and global warming gas emissions compared to conventional diesel; opponents claim that NOx emissions may be increased. Biodiesel is domestically produced and has a fossil energy ratio of 3.3:1, which means that its fossil energy inputs are similar to those of petroleum. Currently, there are approximately 25 states that have biodiesel stations available to the public.

* Electricity

Electricity is considered a fuel when used in electric vehicles because it shifts the burden of pollution control to the electrical supply systems, resulting in much lower emissions per mile traveled. Coal, however, is electricity’s main fuel source; however nuclear, natural gas, hydroelectric and renewable resources also can be used. Electricity is currently used to power neighborhood electric vehicles, bicycles, light-duty vehicles as well as medium and heavy-duty trucks and buses. Proponents of electric vehicles (EVs) cite zero tailpipe emissions; yet some amount of emissions can be contributed to power generation. Most homes, government facilities, fleet garages and businesses have adequate electrical capacity for charging, but special hookups or upgrades may be required. It is estimated that more than 600 electric charging stations are available in California and Arizona.

* Ethanol
Mainly used today as a liquid fuel additive, ethanol is also used in an 85-percent-ethanol/15-percent-gasoline blend called E85. The main technical goals are to lower the cost of ethanol while expanding the ethanol infrastructure. Currently, the industry is supported by various fuel standards, codes and legislation. Ethanol proponents say E85 vehicles can demonstrate a 25 percent reduction in ozone-forming emissions compared to reformulated gasoline. It is produced domestically and it is renewable. Most E85 fueling stations are located in the Midwest; however there are approximately 175 stations available in 23 states.

* Hydrogen
Available in compressed gas or liquid form, proponents look to hydrogen as the best option for reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Although hydrogen can fuel an engine directly, or serve as a fuel additive, the current emphasis is on the use of hydrogen to supply fuel cells, which power electric vehicles. Hydrogen has also been blended with methane to form a fuel called hythane. Pros include zero regulated emissions for fuel cell-powered vehicles, and only NOx emissions possible for internal combustion engines operating on hydrogen. Relatively few hydrogen stations operate across the country and most are privately owned.

* Methanol
Like ethanol, liquid methanol is blended with gasoline in a ratio of 85 to 15 to form M85. When burned in an engine, methanol produces low emissions; estimates show that M85 vehicles can demonstrate a 40 percent reduction in ozone-forming emissions compared to reformulated gasoline. It can be produced at prices comparable to gasoline from natural gas as well as coal and wood. Methanol is also the fuel for the direct-methanol fuel cell. Cars that burn pure methanol offer much greater air quality and efficiency advantages. Many automakers have developed advanced M100 prototypes and it has long been the fuel of choice for race cars because of its superior performance and fire safety characteristics. Developing a methanol refueling infrastructure is essential to expand its use.

* Natural Gas
Natural gas is a clean-air alternative to conventional fuels. It is used in vehicles as compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). Natural gas is sourced from underground reserves and can be used to fuel many types of vehicle classes including medium and heavy-duty trucks and buses. Both CNG and LNG vehicles demonstrate a reduction in CO2 and NOX emissions compared with conventional fuels, however hydrocarbon emissions may be increased. Also at issue is the availability of refueling sites for vehicles that run on these fuels. While an estimated 1,200 CNG stations operate nationwide, the highest concentration is located in California. Home fueling options also have recently been made available. Public LNG stations, however, are more limited—estimates show that less than 50 are available nationally. LNG is available, though, through several suppliers of cryogenic liquids.

* Propane

Propane is usually used in the form of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). It is a by-product of petroleum refining or natural gas processing. Available in liquid form, it can be used to fuel light-duty vehicles, as well as some medium and heavy-duty trucks and buses. LPG vehicles can demonstrate a 60 percent reduction in ozone-forming emissions compared to reformulated gasoline. It is widely available with an estimated 3,500 refueling sites nationwide. The disadvantage is that 45 percent of the propane fuel in the U.S. is derived from oil.

* P-series
P-series fuels are new fuels that have recently been classified as alternative fuels. These fuels are blends of methyltetrahydrofuran (MTHF), ethanol and hydrocarbons. The fuels contain at least 60 percent non-petroleum energy content derived from MTHF (manufactured solely from biomass feedstocks) and ethanol.

Additional Considerations
To further complicate the debate about alternative fuel type is the subject of energy and propulsion systems. The two topics are inexplicably linked, says Mark Gainsborough, head of Fuels at Shell and its representative on environmental issues. “We have seen over the past few years that while new technological developments are possible in motor vehicles, we can also develop new types of fuels. The two go hand in hand. We must therefore think in terms of the vehicle-fuel pairing; this will be all the more true in the near future.”

What are some of the newer car technologies that could impact the future direction of fuel sources?

* Hybrids

A hybrid vehicle combines two or more sources of power. Hybrid cars run off a rechargeable battery and gasoline. Hybrid engines use the battery to provide extra acceleration power when needed. When the car is stopped, hybrid gasoline motors can shut off and run off their electric motor and battery. They can recover braking energy and use it to charge the battery; no plug-in or long extension cords are necessary.

* Fuel Cells

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that produces electricity from the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. Its only byproduct is water. Fuel cell vehicles are similar to battery-powered electric cars in that the fuel cell produces electricity that powers motors at the wheels. But while a battery must be recharged, a fuel cell is “refillable” in the sense that recharging the vehicle only requires refilling the fuel tank. The hydrogen fuel required to power it can be stored directly on the vehicle in tanks or extracted from a secondary fuel, like methanol or ethanol, that carries oxygen.

* Bi-fuel Vehicles

A bi-fuel vehicle has two separate fuel systems with the capability to easily switch from one to the other. The vehicle can be powered by either system. One fuel system is usually designed to run on gasoline or diesel. In currently available U.S. models, the other fuel system is usually designed to run on compressed natural gas or propane. The need for two separate fuel systems and a storage tank for a gaseous fuel increases the cost of bi-fuel vehicles and reduces cargo space.

* Turbocharged, Direct-Injection (TDI) Diesel Engines

Unlike the diesel engines of the 1970s and ‘80s, modern passenger car diesels are quieter, smoother, more responsive and almost entirely free of diesel odor. They are also substantially more energy efficient. Today’s “new” diesel engines directly inject fuel into the combustion chamber rather than having part of the combustion occur in a prechamber (indirect injection). The advanced fuel injectors atomize the fuel into a fine mist in two stages, a process that advocates claim eliminates heat loss and increases fuel economy by 20 percent over conventional diesels (40 to 50 percent over conventional gasoline engines).

* Electric Vehicles (EVs)

The only vehicles to meet California’s Zero Emission Vehicle requirement, battery electric vehicles offer quiet, pollution-free operation. However, electricity generation is not pollution free so EVs produce indirect environmental impacts, but are still far cleaner than gasoline-powered vehicles. Though still range limited, recent advances in battery and electric motor technologies have made EVs more practical than ever before.

The Future for Fuels
Few involved in the research of alternative fuels will predict with any degree of certainty where developments may lead in the next few years, yet they remain cautiously optimistic about progress. The bottom line, though: it’s simply too soon to tell, they say.

“It’s far too early yet to pick a winner,” said Dr Ferdinand Panik, former head of Daimler-Chrysler’s Fuel-Cell Project and co-founder of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, during an interview at Challenge Bibendum. “We have to tackle clean technologies step by step, and not decide before having solved the key problems necessary to achieve a realistic and reliable roadmap or plan toward commercialization. We should avoid promoting innovations over-hastily. Creating public interest and demand that we won’t be able to satisfy could spell the death of these new technologies.”

What seems to be a sure bet, though, is that the general public is starting to pay more interest. According to the J.D. Power and Associates 2003 Escaped Shopper StudySM, gas mileage is now fifth on the list of reasons that new vehicle buyers reject one model over another—a sharp jump up from 13th place in 2002.

“Between the concerns over the Middle East, high gas prices and the growing trend toward larger and more powerful engines, it is not surprising that 15 percent of new vehicle buyers cite gas mileage as a reason for rejecting a vehicle they once considered buying,” said Chris Denove, partner at J.D. Power.

As research and development in alternative fuels continues and availability increases, new vehicle buyers may soon have many more options to satisfy their concerns about energy efficiency—concerns they will be able to act on at something other than the conventional gas pump.

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