Alternative Fuels

By Catherine McNulty

March 25, 2011 4 min read

Do you dream of a world in which cars are powered by sunshine and sea plants, one in which you still can have your own personal vehicle but reduce your carbon footprint?

It's not so far-fetched as you might think.

With prices at the pump rising every day, it may be time to assess your fuel intake and start looking for alternatives. Now more than ever, there are options beyond the traditional gas-and-go method. Hybrid vehicles and converting your current vehicle to biodiesel are just two options. But figuring out what's available on the market now and what's the best option for you can be tricky.

If you're in the market for a new vehicle altogether, electric/gas hybrid vehicles should be where you begin your search. Hybrid vehicles have been around for more than a decade now, and you probably have seen a Prius or two running around town. Hybrids work by running on battery power with a backup gas tank to supplement it. They get far better gas mileage than traditional all-gas cars and have the added benefit of low greenhouse gas emissions. The Toyota Prius is just one of many electric/gas hybrid vehicles available. Hybrids also don't have the limitations that early incarnations of electric vehicles had, and generally they can go farther and faster than an all-electric vehicle can. The Chevrolet Volt is a new breed of hybrid; it is primarily electric but has a backup gas tank for long drives.

Early electric cars were hampered by the limitations of battery life and the ability to hold a charge, but continual advances in technology have fixed most of the flaws. All-electric cars still can't go so far or so fast as electric/gas hybrids, but the gap is closing. If you want all-electric, the Nissan Leaf is slowly rolling out across the country. With a speed cap of 87 mph, it never will win the Indy 500, but it will go about 100 miles on a single charge. It also features a solar panel installed on the rear spoiler to add a supplementary charge to the battery.

If you have a vehicle that runs on diesel -- a pickup truck or the like -- you easily could run it on biodiesel and start saving yourself some money. According to Umbra Fisk, a writer on the environmental website Grist, biodiesel is "vegetable oil that has undergone a simple chemical process that yields a fuel compatible with diesel engines." This means that you can buy veggie oil, refine it yourself, pump your diesel engine full of it and set off for adventure. It should be noted that Rudolf Diesel, designer of the diesel engine (yes, that's how it got its name), originally planned to run the engine on peanut oil.

There can be complications from running a vehicle on biodiesel. Make sure the engine is compatible, and replace any rubber that comes in contact with the biodiesel with synthetic rubber, as biodiesel can corrode rubber over time. If you want to run your vehicle on straight vegetable oil ("SVO," in biodiesel parlance), then further conversions to your engine may be needed. Make sure you find a knowledgeable mechanic to help you.

For a while, it seemed that ethanol would save us all from gasoline woes. Most cars can run on a mixture of 90 percent gas and 10 percent ethanol with no harm coming to their engines. However, flexible-fuel vehicles can run on an 85-15 percent ethanol-gasoline mixture. But because of ethanol's lower energy content than standard gasoline, most flex-fuel vehicles experience a 25 percent or more drop in miles per gallon. Though they still can be found, flex-fuel vehicles have fallen out of vogue.

And what about powering your car by something as fantastical as seaweed? It could happen! Currently, a team of chemical engineers at the University of Arkansas has figured out a way to convert algae into butanol, which can be used in combustible engines.

So don't get trapped by paying high gas prices; there are other options besides gasoline.

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