Last week, I talked about how to save some money on fuel costs and do better by the environment by making slight modifications to your driving habits. This article is sort of related to the first. If you’re interested, you can find the first article here
Credit: G.D. Abir, Flickr
At this writing, it’s difficult to get away from energy, more specifically, oil. As of late, there has been the unforgettable and despicable oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the suspicious absence of what I call the “summer spike” in gas prices. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see that gas prices stayed down during memorial day, but despite the popularity of gas, there are other fuels out there. These “alternative fuels” are monitored by the EPA just like gasoline, and in most cases are more sustainable, cheaper and better for the environment. Today I’ll go over the more popular ones and how you can begin using them.
Ethanol is made from starch, sugar or cellulose, and is made similar to alcohol. It is first fermented, then processed through a still (just like grain alcohol). It is typically higher octane than gas, and it also burns cleaner. Ethanol does contain less energy per unit than gasoline does, so you will most likely see a decrease in your fuel economy. The EPA estimates this decrease to be about 20-30%. The best part about ethanol is that it’s already used in many cars. ”Gasahol” is sold in places (not where I’m from) but is a mixture of 10% ethanol, 90% gasoline, and is sometimes known as E-10. Along with E-10, you can purchase E-85 and Vehicles at gas stations nation-wide, although there are reports that it’s easier to find E-85 and E-85 vehicles (sometimes called “flex-fuel”) in the midwest than other parts of the country.
Benefits of Ethanol: Grown (typically from corn) in the United States, so there is no geo-political concerns with the fuel, lower air pollution, resistant to engine knocking, little or no cost difference.
Drawbacks of Ethanol: Only for flex-fuel vehicles, lower miles per gallon.
In my area, E-85 is about 20-30 cents cheaper per gallon than gas. This could potentially save you $3,600 per year if you drive the average of 12,000 miles. To find out if your vehicle can use E-85, consult your manual or your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) or contact your dealer.
Biodiesel is a type of diesel made from vegetable oil, animal fats or used fryer grease. Currently, there is a lot of research being done with this fuel, as some have gotten usable oils from algae. It is biodegradable, perfectly safe, and produces less emissions than a diesel engine using conventional diesel fuel. Biodiesel is nice because it can be used pure (B-100) or in any blend. Most common blends are B-2 (2% biodeisel), B-5, and B-20. Along with being able to blend with conventional diesel, biodiesel requires few modifications to a diesel engine to use. Many auto manufactures will still extend the warranty of the car with biodeisel blends up to B-5 as well.
Advantages of Biodiesel: Domestically produced (sometimes from things that would be thrown out), easily used in most diesel engines, non toxic, biodegradable, safe to handle.
Disadvantage of Biodiesel: Slightly lower power output (2% when using B-20), warranties invalidated with blends above B-5, can gel at low temperatures, slightly higher NOx (Nitrous Oxide) emissions.
Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fuels on the market, and is almost all 87% domestically produced. Natural gas was typically used for large fleets of vehicles, although is not relatively available for consumers, with the exception of the Honda Civic GX. Along with difficulty finding a Natural gas car, fueling is also difficult, leading some manufacturers to put dual fuel systems in the vehicles, allowing for a user to get a gas or diesel engine that can run on natural gas if it is available.
Advantages of Natural Gas: Less Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, less smog inducing particulates, typically cheaper than gasoline.
Disadvantages of Natural Gas: Difficult to purchase a vehicle for, difficult to find fuel, less miles on a tank (due to size constraints)
Propane is similar to natural gas. It is stored in tanks and can be used in vehicles along side gas or diesel. Unfortunately, no vehicles have been produced to run on Propane since the 2004 model year, but an engine conversion from diesel or gasoline is possible.
There has been many discussions on the future of vehicle fuel, and it seems like hydrogen is emerging as the front runner. Hydrogen is clean burning, and if the fuel is used in a fuel cell, there are no emissions, but if it is used in an internal combustion engine, there are NOx emissions. Hydrogen is also produced domestically, removing energy fears from the process. Unfortunately, Hydrogen powered vehicles are too expensive for most consumers to afford, and there are very few fueling stations in the United States (Of the few that do exist, most are in California). This seems to me like a future technology.
What about electric cars, you ask? Good question. I’m currently researching, and will post an article on them when finished (I left them out of here because there are a few coming to market, such as the chevy volt and the nissan leaf)
So, if you were an average consumer who is looking for a fuel other than your current one, what are your best options? In my opinion, you’d be best served with ethanol or biodiesel, depending on your current vehicle. Biodiesel is easy to set up and get going, and you can even produce it yourself if you like. That being said, I’m betting few of you have diesel vehicles, as there are not many diesel vehicles available (other than trucks) in the US. So, your best choice would probably be ethanol fuel for your current vehicle, or if you are considering upgrading soon, look into ethanol or a gas hybrid. Me? I’ve currently got a gas powered vehicle, but am hoping to get a diesel vehicle in the future and fuel it with biodiesel.