UPDATED: Dec 11, 2019
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For the longest time, gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles have been the norm. But the past decade has seen a rise in the popularity of cars which can run on non-fossil derived fuel such as ethanol. This is partly due to the spreading awareness of the negative effects and disadvantages of relying on finite sources of fuel.
Alternative fuels are primarily used because they burn cleaner than diesel or gasoline. Unlike petroleum products, they can be produced locally, eliminating the necessity of importing from oil-producing countries and over long distances. In this article, we will discuss the past, present, and future of traditional and alternative fuels for cars.
- World Economic Forum: 6 alternatives to petrol
- Consumer Reports: The pros and cons on alternative fuels
- US Department of Energy: Alternative fuels
- Green Choices: Electric cars and alternative fuels
History of Car Fuel
When automobiles were first invented over 120 years ago, scientists and engineers experimented with a variety of fuels in order to efficiently power the invention. The goal was to find a fuel that was energy-dense, relatively inexpensive, and chemically stable. In the end, they found diesel and gasoline to meet all these criteria and thus, the two became the preferred automobile fuel types in the 20th century up until today.
But before gasoline and diesel rose to dominate the car fuel industry, battery-powered and coal-powered cars once roared down the dirt roads and cobbled streets of the late 19th century. Unfortunately, battery-powered cars didn’t catch on because batteries then were not as durable and energy dense as they are today. Meanwhile, coal dust proved to be too volatile and tended to cause explosions, which made it an undesirable source of fuel.
Today, most cars use a blend of gasoline mixed with organic compounds like octane and heptane as well as other additives which are intended to improve on traits like knock resistance and cold-start capability. However, despite these advancements, traditional fuel still has the disadvantage of causing harmful emissions and political disputes as to how it is obtained and sold. Alternative fuels are being developed to combat exactly these problems.
- Autolife: The automobile and the environment in American history
- S. Energy Information Administration: Gasoline explained
- Smithsonian Institute: Early cars: Fact sheet for children
- Great Achievements: Petroleum technology history: Part 1
Current Alternative Fuel for Cars
Due to the complications that come along with the use of traditional fuels, plenty of alternative fuels for powering cars have been and are still being developed to possibly replace them. Most alternative fuels are developed in order to lessen the carbon footprint of powering cars and to give nations more stable and renewable sources of fuel.
Here are some of the alternative fuels identified by the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 1992 which are currently in use and under experimentation.
Ethanol: This plant-derived and alcohol-based fuel is typically mixed in with gasoline in order to improve the quality of emissions and increase its octane levels. Ethanol is the product of distilling wheat, barley, or corn. It is a more sustainable way of powering cars as its sources are renewable and generally do not need to be imported.
Electricity: An example of battery-powered electric vehicles is the coveted Tesla car. One of the advantages of using electricity to power cars is that it is highly efficient. What’s more, is that it is also more feasible since we already have an established electricity network. However, generating electricity still leaves a significant carbon footprint.
Natural gas: This is another cleaner and popular alternative to traditional fuel. Unfortunately, the production of natural gas also creates methane which is said to be worse than CO2.
Propane: Also called LPG, propane is mostly used for cooking but has also been used for powering vehicles. Like electricity, we already have established systems of producing and distributing propane making it another feasible way to replace gasoline faster.
Methanol: Also called wood alcohol, methanol is an alternative fuel which can be used to power vehicles which run on M85. Unfortunately, car manufacturers no longer make methanol-powered cars.
Biodiesel: This is a flexible fuel which can blended with petroleum diesel or on its own to power cars. Biodiesel is made of animal fats and/or vegetable oil which are typically recycled from restaurants that have used it for cooking.
Hydrogen: Typically mixed with natural gas, hydrogen can be a great alternative fuel for cars with internal combustion engines. Its greatest perk is that it does not emit bad or harmful byproducts. Still, hydrogen is not a feasible alternative yet because of the limitations in producing and distributing it given than infrastructure for it has not been fully established yet.
- Minnesota Go: Alternative fuels & vehicle electrification
- New York City Gov: Alternative fuels
- Pima Association of Governments: Types of alternative fuels
- New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services: Alternative fuels and vehicles
Future Alternative Fuel for Cars
Although a fully gasoline and diesel-free world is still far from reach, it is not impossible.
It seems that hydrogen and biofuels are the most popular choices of alternative fuels pegged for the future. An extensive amount of research is being done to develop these fuels. Since hydrogen power plants are also integral in producing electricity, 15 of them are being slated to be built within the next decade. Companies developing hydrogen as an alternative fuel are optimistic that they will be able to reduce carbon emissions by up to 90%.
Meanwhile, cellulosic ethanol, a type of biofuel, is currently in the early stages of being commercialized in the United States. One of the companies that is developing it is Verenium which has a large demonstration plant in the country producing over a million gallons of the fuel a year. As per the standards released by the US Environmental Protection Agency, cellulosic biofuel should become a larger share of the transportation fuel used in the country by the year 2020.
- Worldwatch Institute: Hydrogen: Fuel for our future?
- NASA: NASA researchers sniff out alternate fuel future
- Union of Concerned Scientists: Fueling a clean transportation future