Manic for Organic: a Guide to Alternative Fuels
Apart from personal transportation, everything from the food that arrives on our table, every product that is manufactured in oil-powered plants, even modern technology such as computers and microchips depend in one form or another on the availability of crude oil.
To be hooked on something as this soon-to-be-scarce natural resource can't be a good thing. Especially since according to several theories such as the Hubbert Peak, we're almost running out of the necessary oil that sustains our very existence. Leaving the “OMG! The end is nigh!” theories aside, at least from the personal transportation point of view there is still hope. Current automotive technologies already allow the pass from internal combustion-only powered cars to more nature-friendly hybrids or even all-electric cars. The only problem with these alternatives to the old “Suck, squeeze, bang, blow” is the higher cost.
So, until we're all driving plug-in hybrids, electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, let's see what other options we have. Let's talk alternative fuels:
Made by fermenting and distilling starch crops such as corn or from biomass such as trees and grasses, ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel that is already here. Mixed with gasoline it can be used in almost any normal spark-based ignition engine that uses internal combustion. It now comes in two large spread versions: E10 (a blend of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline) which is approved to be used in any gasoline vehicle today and E85 (a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) which can be used only in flexible fuel vehicles that run on gasoline.
The real solution from the two seems to be the E85, so let's look at some of its ups and downs:
- it can be domestically produced almost anywhere in the world;
- lower pollution that comes from emissions;
- engine knocking is reduced;
- rather small extra cost for a flexible fuel vehicle.
- lower energy content, which means slightly bigger fuel consumption (in some flex-fuel vehicles exactly the opposite happens though);
- can only be used in vehicles which are flex-fuel ready (can use either E85 or straight up regular gasoline);
- limited refueling infrastructure throughout the world (currently most refueling stations are in the US and Sweden);
- currently it's more expensive to be produced than gasoline.
Technically still a diesel fuel, Biodiesel is manufactured from a whole range of odd resources: vegetable oil, animal fat and even recycled fast-food grease (yum!). It can be used in regular form or blended with diesel made from petroleum. The blended version can be classified in three categories, from B2 (2% biodiesel and 98% regular diesel), to B5 or even B20 (20% biodiesel and 80% regular diesel). Before all you TDI fans out there jump for joy, you should be notified that most car manufacturers do not recommend using Biodiesel blends that exceed a 5% use of pure Biodiesel, which means that warranty might be voided if engine damage is caused by the fuel you used. Now let's look at the ups and downs of this alternative fuel:
- can be used in almost any diesel engine;
- it can be cheaply produced from renewable resources;
- less emission pollutants and greenhouse gases;
- biodegradable and non-toxic.
- use in its purest form or in any blend above B5 means your warranty will become void;
- the fuel consumption is slightly higher because of lower efficiency;
- currently it's more expensive than regular diesel;
- some concerns about engine reliability when used in its purest form (B100);
- more nitrogen oxide emissions
So, there you have it. There is a choice for each of regular petroleum based fuels but neither of them is available worldwide and neither is a breakthrough alternative. The choice is still yours.