Car Buying Tips

Alternative Fuels

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Alternative Fuels, Hybrids and The Future

An alternative fuel is any fuel other than gasoline or diesel. The bottom line --since many alternative fuels can be produced in the U.S. they could reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Some alternative fuels come from renewable sources, like plants that can be harvested and re-planted to keep the production cycle going indefinitely. Other alternative fuels such as biodiesel, ethanol and methanol have been produced and used on a small scale for decades, and electric cars go back to the end of the 19th century, before refined gas became the industry standard for motorcars.

The Alternatives:

Biodiesel, a renewable fuel that can be burned in a diesel engine, is produced from the oil extracted from plants including peanuts and soybeans. Biodiesel can also be processed from animal fats or even used grease from burger joints and taco stands. Sound gross? Maybe, but it works, and not just in old Volvos: Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow both use biodiesels in their tour buses and trucks.

Biodiesel is non-toxic, biodegradable and nearly free of sulfur and carcinogenic benzene — two of the components of petroleum diesel that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state emissions boards have issued regulations on. The main drawback to biodiesel is that it is not widely available yet.

Diesel engines are more efficient when it comes to MPGs, but the particulate and other emissions that make their way out the tailpipe are typically higher than those from gasoline engines. But not these days with the advent of clean diesel. Companies like Mercedes-Benz offer bluetec with adblue to reduce the particulate matter in the engines. Audi, VW and BMW are also coming out with engines that meet the new 50 state regulation.

Lou Ann Hammond, an MSNBC correspondent on automobiles and energy adds, “Because diesel gets more miles per gallon there is less CO2 per gallon of diesel than gasoline.” That’s a good thing.

Noting that Shell Oil company is expanding their refinery to produce more diesel, Hammond who is also CEO of www.carlist.com offers, “The next step is to standardize bio-diesel which can be added right into the diesel fuel pipeline.”

Ethanol, another renewable transportation fuel is primarily made from starch crops such as corn. Hammond differentiates ethanol into two groups: first generation and second generation.

First generation ethanol is produced from food products such as corn or sugarcane. Second generation, which should be on the market in the 2011 timeframe, is called cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from non-food sources, including wood by products, corn husks and landfill.

Ethanol can be blended with gasoline and used in cars with little or no modification of the engine. FYI, nearly one-third of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol in a low-level blend to reduce air pollution.

When ethanol and gas are blended, you get gasohol, a mixture of about 10-percent ethanol and 90-percent gasoline that will run in an unmodified car. In fact, when you fuel up at a gas station in many U.S. states, this is exactly what you're buying.

Ethanol E85, nicknamed “hamburger helper” because you mix it with gas, is produced in the US from corn. Made up of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, E85 can be used in a flexible fuel vehicle (FFV) – one that runs on gasoline or a mix of gasoline and ethanol.

Dodge makes a number FFVs that burn E85, including the Chrysler Town and Country minivan, Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Chrysler Sebring sedan and Dodge Ram 1500 pick-up. Ford and GM offer a similar range of ethanol-friendly FFVs.
“One of Barack Obama’s initiatives is to work with Congress and the auto companies to ensure that all vehicles have FFV capability by the end of their first term in office,” says Hammond.

Another alternative, the electric car, runs on electrical power stored in batteries. Considered zero emission vehicles, some electric vehicles have onboard generators; others plug into an outside source.
One electric car currently for sale in limited numbers is the energetic Tesla Roadster (0-60 in 4.4 seconds as tested by Car and Driver). There are also small “neighborhood” vehicles called NEVs with top speeds of about 35 mph) which work for errand-running city dwellers, but aren’t built for weekend retreats on the open highway.
The fuel-cell vehicle uses a sophisticated electrochemical energy conversion device similar to a battery. The power is put to the wheels by an electric motor. The core source of energy is hydrogen, which is sometimes extracted from water. Aside from hydrogen’s clean-burning qualities, its potential for domestic production and the fuel cell vehicle's potential for high efficiency (two to three times more efficient than gasoline vehicles) make it a very appealing alternative fuel source. The Honda FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle takes 5.3 kilos of hydrogen--- that’s 270 miles of driving time.

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) combine high fuel economy [electric] and low emissions with the power, range and convenience of conventional diesel and gasoline. HEV technologies have the potential to be combined with alternative fuels and fuel cells for additional benefits.

For example, the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid is a 5840 pound SUV that runs on electric power at low speeds; its fuel economy is around 20 mpg city/21 mpg highway. Two other truck-like hybrid offerings from GM are the Yukon SUV and the 2009 Cadillac Escalade at 20/21 mpg city/highway. Other examples of hybrids include the Honda Civic hybrid (40/45 mpg city/highway), Saturn Aura Green Line Hybrid, a mid-size sedan, the Chevy Malibu Hybrid, both of which deliver 24/32 mpg city/highway and the Nissan Altima Hybrid which has a combined fuel economy of 35 mpg.

There are also forms of alternative energy that one would most likely not consider. For example Michelin has taken that empty space in the wheel and put an entire electric drive train inside of it.

“Gone is the engine under the hood, the traditional suspension, the gearbox and the transmission shaft. All those components have been miniaturized and integrated into what Michelin is calling the active wheel,” says Hammond. The active wheel will be used on the Venturi Volage roadster and the Hueliez, both European electric vehicles.

An alternative energy that you don’t hear about much, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) , is typically used for heating, cooking and cooling. However, when it is compressed and stored in a fuel tank, CNG can be used as a very clean-burning fuel for cars and trucks. Most CNG vehicles are part of commercial fleets (taxicabs, municipal buses, etc.) that have on-site pumps for convenient refueling. One such vehicle that is available to the public is the Honda Civic GX.

“You can purchase the Honda CNG vehicle and it’s component called PHILL. Install Phill, the size of a public phone, in your garage and you can fill your CNG vehicle in the comfort of your own garage,” notes Hammond.

Even though prices are going down, Hammond sites that about 40% of our trade deficit, goes to purchasing oil from other countries. Our goal is to find a way to produce that energy in the US. Learning about the options available is a first step.