Manic for Organic: a Guide to Alternative Fuels

Fuel pump 1 photo
Oil. It has managed to enter into almost every aspect of our human lives. From its main purpose of fueling (in one form or another) almost the entire transportation fleet on Earth, to its important place in the economy, life standards and even politics, oil has a key role in practically any area out there.
Apart from personal transportation, everything around us - the food that arrives on our table, every product that is manufactured in oil-powered plants, even modern technology such as computers and microchips - depends 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.

Still, there are a lot of problems with these alternatives to the old “Suck, squeeze, bang, blow.” Much more weight, higher buying costs and even range anxiety when it comes to plug-in hybrids and electric cars,

So, until we're all driving hyper-efficient plug-in hybrids, electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, let's see what other options we have. Let's talk alternative fuels:

Ethanol-based fuel

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:


One of the main advantages is that it can be domestically produced almost anywhere in the world and there is a rather small extra cost when buying a flexible fuel vehicle. On both E10 and E85-powered cars, there is less pollution coming from emissions, while the possibility of engine knocking is reduced.


The biggest drawback is the lower energy content, which translates into a slightly higher fuel consumption. That said, in some flex-fuel vehicles exactly the opposite happens, so take this with a grain of salt.

Keep in mind that it can only be used in vehicles that are flex-fuel ready (can use either E85 or straight up regular gasoline) and there's a limited refueling infrastructure throughout the world (currently most refueling stations are in the US and Sweden). Last but not least, it's much more expensive to manufacture 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 into 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:


Its main advantages are that it can be used in almost any diesel engine and it can be produced from renewable resources. On top of it, cars running on Biodiesel will emit fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases, not to mention that it is biodegradable and is not toxic.


You shouldn't use it in its purest form or in any blend above B5 or otherwise your warranty will become void. Also, you should keep in mind that your fuel consumption will be slightly higher because of the slightly lower efficiency, not to mention that it's currently more expensive than regular diesel.

On top of it, when used in its purest form (B100), there are some concerns regarding long-term engine reliability, but we are talking many thousands of miles of operation.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)

Compressed Natural Gas, mostly known as CNG, is usually used instead of gasoline, with lots of carmakers and aftermarket dealers offering conversions based on this type of fuel. Its use is less predominant in the U.S., especially when compared to ethanol-based fuel, but rising gas prices and even environmental concerns have made it quite popular in Europe and certain Asian countries.

It can be extracted either from above oil deposits or it can be manufactured by collecting gases from landfills, waste water treatment plants or manure in a similar way to that settlement in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.


Probably the biggest upside is the significant less pollution when combusted compared to gasoline, the actual number revolving around 25 percent. Also, since it's a gaseous fuel, it can mix more evenly with air, while the extra sealing of CNG fuel systems makes fuel losses from evaporation a thing of the past.

In most countries, CNG is also much, much cheaper than gasoline, which is one of the reasons for its proliferation in not-so-rich markets. Crashing a CNG-powered car will probably not result in a small explosion either, since some studies into the matter conclude that they are actually safer in this regard than regular gasoline cars.


Because of a slightly lower energy content, CNG fuel will also make your car use more of it to supply the same performance, meaning that your MPG will worsen compared to a gasoline-online vehicle with a similar engine.

That said, the biggest drawback is probably the large space required for compressed natural gas tank. Some factory-built CNG cars come with special tanks located underneath the body of the vehicle, but most aftermarket CNG systems are fitted into the luggage compartment of a converted car.

So, there you have it. There is a choice for each of the regular petroleum-based fuels, but none of them is available worldwide and none is a breakthrough alternative. That said, the choice in the end is still yours.
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About the author: Alex Oagana
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Alex handled his first real steering wheel at the age of five (on a field) and started practicing "Scandinavian Flicks" at 14 (on non-public gravel roads). Following his time at the University of Journalism, he landed his first real job at the local franchise of Top Gear magazine a few years before Mircea (Panait). Not long after, Alex entered the New Media realm with the project.
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