Pity the Fuel


With the cost of crude oil up 40 percent since the war in Iraq began three years ago, many consumers have begun clamoring for alternative methods of fuel. As prices hover close to $70 a barrel, interest in Ethanol, hybrid vehicles, and biodiesel have increased. Consumers are seeking answers on how to decrease fuel costs and help reduce the amount of emissions released by vehicles.

Electricity is one of the most popular choices for alternative fuel. Currently, it is widely used to power motors in hybrid vehicles.

Electric vehicles are run by batteries and can travel about 60-70 miles per day, then must be charged overnight. Because they take so long to charge, the idea of electric vehicles never really caught on.

Many places across the state have electric vehicle charging stations, but most go unused.

"We do have a charging station, but it doesn't work anymore," said Martha Ayard, who manages a Shell Gas Station in Long Beach. "No one ever asks about it and no one ever used it so we just shut it down."

Because electric vehicles have only attracted a small amount of buyers, manufacturers took the idea to the next level by producing hybrid vehicles.

Hybrid cars have two engines, one that runs on gasoline which helps it accelerate, and then it has an electric motor which helps it cruise at higher speeds. The gas engine turns on and off depending upon the power demands, and, the engine and the friction from braking helps to charge the battery which powers the electric motor. The generator runs on gas, so the fuel tank must have gas in it to run the generator. Hybrid vehicles are efficient because of small engines and generators. On average, these cars can travel around 50 miles per gallon.

Sterling Harris, 27-year-old CSULB Engineering student, is the owner of a 2005 Toyota Prius hybrid.

"It's not about global warming," he states, "It's about the depletion of oil. The fact is that people are living longer, using more resources, and suffer from high standards of living."

He says the result is a massive demand for energy from a source that cannot be replenished.

"The long term economic picture isn't going to be pretty. Eventually, we could run out of oil."

Many people are looking towards purchasing a hybrid to save money and to reduce how much and how often they consume oil. Dr. Barry Groves, Los Altos School District Superintendent, is a Prius enthusiast.

"I purchased it because it is good for the environment, saves gas, makes a statement about the environment, and is economical," Dr. Groves said, "we need to find alternatives to fossil fuels, so maybe this [vehicle] will help to provide incentives to do the research."

Ethanol is another alternative fuel that is growing in popularity. It is a grain-based alcohol made from a natural feedstock containing sugar, starch or cellulose. Sugar cane and corn are the most useful raw materials for manufacturing ethanol. These days, there is high demand for ethanol as motor fuel.

Even though it contains about 25 percent less energy than traditional gasoline, ethanol will help to reduce petroleum consumption and improve the environment. It has a high oxygen content allowing it to burn cleanly and more completely than any other fuel. Ethanol production also helps rural economic development because it increases the demand for crops and farmers.

Brazil is the world leader of ethanol use. Joseph Costello, a transportation specialist for Stericycle, Inc., traveled there last spring for vacation.

"Ethanol was still expensive in Brazil," he said. "Even though it's not cheap; you don't have to worry about the oil and you can be independent from oil import."

In the United States, ethanol commonly exists as E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The most common low concentration blend of ethanol is E10, a blend of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline, even though E10 is not considered an alternative fuel, it can work in any type of car.

And as for those with diesel engines, the best choice for alternative fuel is biodiesel. Similar to ethanol's use of corn, biodiesel powers engines off natural, renewable sources like new and used vegetable oils or animal fats. The fuel is usually a blend of petroleum fuel and 20 percent biodiesel B20, yet pure biodiesel or B100 is available.

45 percent of the biodiesel industry uses vegetable oils, usually soy, for manufacturing the fuel. The other 55 percent of the industry are able to use any animal or feedstock fat and even recycled cooking grease to make biodiesel. It is cheaper to make the fuel with animal fats.

B100 produces the least amount of emissions by reducing the release of carbon dioxide by 75 percent over petroleum fuel. A 15 percent reduction is seen when using the B20 blend. Biodiesel also helps to reduce other emissions such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. Engines running on the fuel produce less particulate matter as well. These are all pollutants listed under the United States Clean Air Act.

Using biodiesel is also safer than filling up with petroleum oil because it is less combustible. This makes it easier to transport, handle, and store. Other incentives are federal tax credits.

California's current price per gallon for biodiesel is close to $3.50, whereas regular diesel is only $3.23.

B20 can be used in most standard diesel engines with virtually no problems, yet B100 often require special engine modifications.

With all the benefits of biodiesel, the market has grown dramatically in the past few years. In 1998, when the Energy Policy Act was amended by the Energy Conservation Reauthorization Act to include biodiesel, it helped to make the alternative fuel requirements for federal, state, and public utility companies.

This created a sharp increase in how many were using biodiesel for alternative fuel. Soon, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Energy were using biodiesel along with numerous school districts, national parks, public utility companies, garbage and recycling companies, and transit authorities.

The demand for biodiesel is estimated to increase from the current 75 million gallons to at least 124 million gallons per year.

Harris urges consumers to keep in mind the EROEI or Energy Returned on Energy Invested when seeking answers in alternative fuels. "It's pretty simple, and it's critical when it comes to discussing any alternative fuel. If a particular fuel requires more energy to produce than it gives back, it doesn't make any sense to produce that fuel. It would make more sense to just use the original fuel.