Can the United States break its addiction to foreign oil?
With gas prices in the U.S. surpassing $3.00 per gallon, and likely to exceed $4 in the near future, many people are looking for less expensive alternatives to power their vehicles. There are even commercials from the automotive industry that tout the ‘new’ biofuels that are more environmentally friendly than their petroleum-based counterparts.
What is particular interesting about this so-called new biofuel is that it’s not really new at all. In fact, it has been over 100 years since Rudolph Diesel invented his diesel engine and it didn’t burn fossil fuels – it ran on peanut oil.
Diesel believed that using biomass fuel would provide a way for the farmers, citizens and smaller industries to compete with the large monopolies that controlled all energy production. He also hoped it could serve as an alternative to the inefficient steam engine.
The invention was a success, but by the 1920’s the petroleum industries were growing and the oil tycoons were very influential. As a result, diesel engines were modified to use fossil fuels with lower viscosity.
Consequently, biomass fuel soon became little more than a memory.
These days there is a growing interest in renewable energy, such as biomass-based fuels that can be manufactured right here in the United States.
Kits are now available that will convert any diesel engine to run on used vegetable oil – straight from the restaurant.
Country singer Willie Nelson has a fleet of vehicles that run on BioWillie, his own brand of biodiesel fuel.
Even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a vegetarian research vessel that runs on soybean oil. In August of 2005, the Huron Explorer became the first modern U.S. research vessel to operate free of petroleum products.
Biodiesel and vegetable oil powered engines have exhaust that contains no lead, virtually no sulfur and smells like French fries. Burning this fuel also produces lower quantities of cancer-causing emissions than oil-based fuel.
Hybrid electric cars can now be found on roads throughout the United States.
But despite the oil crisis of the 70’s the battle for alternatives to our oil addiction continues.
A decade ago electric vehicles (EVs) were the next big thing. In fact, according to Home Power 113, in the early 1990’s every automobile manufacturer had at least one EV in the works; but not because they wanted to. They were forced into production by a mandate by the California Air Resources Board to phase-in EVs. 10 percent of vehicles for sale in California would have to be electric by 2003.
But that isn’t exactly what happened.
Due to the auto industry’s long history with internal combustion engines the automakers didn’t allow it. Despite the fact that there are thousands of affordable EVs on the road, electric vehicles were declared a market failure and were crushed.
Nonetheless, there are now a variety of bio-fuels that can power our vehicles. These alternative fuels range from grain alcohol to natural gas to electricity and even hydrogen.
According to Popular Mechanics, all alternative have their advantages and disadvantages.
Ethanol/E85 is one alternative. Like moonshine, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is made from grain. Also known as grain alcohol, ethanol burns clean and has potentially more horsepower than gasoline. But it’s not volatile enough to start an engine on cold days, so it is mixed with gasoline. Ethanol/E85 is a blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol.
However, only specially modified vehicles can run on it. Flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) can burn pure gasoline, E85 or any ratio of gas/ethanol. According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, to date, an estimated six million FFVs have been sold in the United States.
Even small blends of ethanol and gasoline can have a positive impact on our environment. According to DOE studies, burning such blends in 2005 had the same effect on greenhouse gas emissions as removing one million cars from American roads.
Another positive aspect of burning ethanol-based fuel is that the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by combustion actually started out as atmospheric CO2 which was captured by the plant during growth, thus making ethanol greenhouse gas neutral.
That’s the good news.
The bad: alcohol is a corrosive solvent and anything that comes in contact with it will have to be made of plastic or stainless steel. Consequently modifications to fuel injection components, gas pumps and even the tankers that deliver the fuel would be necessary.
Additionally, one acre of corn can produce 300 gallons of ethanol per growing season. Therefore, over 70% of the nation’s farmland would be needed to replace the estimated 200 billion gallons of petroleum per year. So do we import oil or food?
Another option is compressed natural gas (CNG). Although CNG has an octane rating of up to 130 it also requires a much larger tank and compressing the gas not only requires energy – such as electricity – it reduces efficiency. And like petroleum products natural gas is not a renewable resource.
Then there is biodiesel, also known as “liquid solar energy,” since it gets its energy from plants through photosynthesis.
If he were alive today, Rudolph Diesel would be happy to know that biodiesel began with farm co-ops and local entrepreneurs hoping to save money and take advantage of fallow farm land.
Biodiesel is made by converting oil (vegetable oils, rendered chicken fat and used fry oil) into fuel. The process, known as transesterification, removes glycerin and other contaminants.
Biodiesel can be manufactured on a small or large scale; the process is virtually the same. This means anyone can make it in their own garage.
Not only that, biodiesel will power any diesel engine. Biodiesel burns cleaner than petrodiesel, with reduced emissions, and unlike petrodiesel, biodiesel molecules are oxygen-bearing, and partially support their own combustion.
Although there are still some drawbacks, such as the tendency for high concentration blends to turn into a waxy solid in cold climates, the outlook for Biodiesel is good. According to the Department of Energy pure biodiesel reduces CO emissions by more than 75 percent over petroleum diesel. A blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petrodiesel (such as BioWillie’s B20) reduces CO2 emissions by around 15 percent.
Still another alternative are electric vehicles (EVs). EVs have rechargeable battery packs that can go for 100 to 120 miles between charges. When slowing down or applying brakes the motor becomes an electric generator that assists in charging the batteries. EVs run silent, require no warm-up and have zero tailpipe emissions. They are also relatively inexpensive to operate, around 2 cents per mile at the average price of 10 cents per kilowatt.
Drawbacks to EVs are the long charging times (even dedicated high capacity rechargers can take up to an hour to charge) and the vehicles cannot be driven while charging.
The future is mixed for EVs and hybrids. Hybrid electric vehicles show more promise since they can switch between electricity and gasoline.
Plug-in hybrids can charge overnight at home. However, the future for pure EVs will depend upon developing longer-lasting and less expensive batteries as well as reduced production costs. Another point against electrics is the environmental impact of charging them, since about half of the Nation’s electricity comes from coal-burning plants.
Finally, there is hydrogen as a source of fuel. The most abundant element on the planet, hydrogen can be made by electrolysis – passing electricity through water. It is a relatively simple process but still very expensive and energy consuming.
Although hydrogen can power a modified internal combustion engine, fuel cells will more than likely be the method used to power electric cars. The only byproduct of hydrogen fuel cells is water.
However, most experts agree that this technology is still decades away and won’t be widely available until 2020.
Perhaps using a combination of these many options will help the United States become less dependent on petroleum. Many households typically have more than one automobile so owning a variety of vehicles that run on alternative fuels would certainly be good for the environment as well as help reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
And just think of the health benefits to children riding in school buses powered by biodiesel.