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'Goodbye Petrol & Diesel, here comes alternative fuels'

With the price of oil shattering the $100 per barrel mark - and continuing to climb - finding immediate, realistic alternative fuel choices has become the hot topic everywhere from water coolers to board rooms, cocktail parties to locker-rooms.

Will we ever wrench ourselves free of our decades-long dependence on fossil fuels? I have no idea. And it's a debate I'm not going to get into here. (Mainly because guys much, much smarter than me don't seem to have a clear answer.) Some of these options are available now. Some are just a year or two away. And some may take several years to show up, if ever at all.

But because we are guys, and according to the women in our lives, we're supposed to know everything about cars and what makes them go, here is a quick and simple guide to some of the alternatives being researched, developed and argued over. And a little info on the cars they power. So you can speak somewhat intelligently at that next cocktail party.

ETHANOL -
What it is: An alt fuel made by fermenting sugar with yeast, with corn being the most common choice right now. Essentially the same alcohol created when distilling sugars to use for spirits like vodka and granddad's moonshine, this version is created to fuel you car, not your libido.

In its most typical usage, ethanol is mixed with gasoline. The "E85" ethanol you are hearing about and seeing on some flex fuel cars (see below) means it runs on a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. If you don't have a flex fuel car, and still want to go green, most cars on the road can run on E10 (10% ethanol/90% gas). Why even add gas at all and just go E100? It's possible, but that small amount of gas helps cold starts and drivability.

Pros: Much cleaner burning. Better for the environment. Has a higher octane than regular gas, giving a noticeable power boost. Grown in America. Renewable resource. Relieves dependence on foreign oil. Depending on fuel prices, can be mixed with gas in different ratios to save money.

Cons: No widespread distribution and sales infrastructure, so it's not widely available at US stations. (And retrofitting stations to serve E85 is expensive.) Fuel economy is significantly lowered - by about 20-25% in most cases. Some argue the cost of growing, harvesting and processing the corn to create ethanol is way higher than the cost to produce gasoline. Some disagree and say corn is cheap, there is a surplus and is renewable. So the debate rages on.

Interesting fact: After distilling, ethanol must be "denatured", or made undrinkable. Because it's basically sugar turned into alcohol - as are most spirits - in it's pre-denatured form it's considered to be a potable spirit and would be taxed accordingly (read: highly), by the government. Too bad. It would make a stop at the fueling station a helluva lot more fun. A little for the car... a little for me...

CELLULOSIC ETHANOL -
What it is: Similar to regular ethanol, but is made from the sugars found in certain waste products, wood and grasses - hence the nickname "grassoline". (This is the option that induces visions of Doc Brown dumping garbage into the DeLorean's flux capacitor for fuel in Back to the Future. "Where we're going, we won't need roads...)

Pros: Uses waste (like underbrush, sawdust and corn cobs), that would normally be thrown in landfills and compost heaps, or just burned off. Virtually limitless supply of material can be used for creating fuel. Does not impact the food supply, as argued against corn-based ethanol. Processing plants can be set up right where the supplies are, no need to transport it miles, using more fuel.

Cons: See ethanol's cons above.

HYDROGEN -
What it is: When mixed with oxygen, hydrogen creates a chemical reaction that produces two things: water vapor (H2O, remember from high school chem class?), and electricity. The electricity given off powers a motor that drives the wheels of a fuel cell vehicle (see description below).

Pros: About as clean a fuel as you can get. The "exhaust" given off is just water vapor. Eliminates the need for an engine or transmission, meaning less mechanical problems and no need for fluids, gasoline or oil, saving you money in repairs and more of the environment's resources. And since there is no engine, there is no engine noise, eliminating some of the noise pollution as well.

Cons: Very limited availability. Just a handful of hydrogen fueling stations exist in the US. Question as to the cost of using hydrogen for mass consumption. Cost of producing the cars is astronomical, and could take years for those costs to come down to where the average person could afford one. And since there is no engine, there is no engine noise, eliminating one of the things we love about our cars.

ELECTRIC -
What it is: Just like your vacuum cleaner, blender or Wii, the juice coming out of the socket in your wall can be used to power your vehicle.

Pros: Very clean. Renewable. Somewhat inexpensive (there's a debate on that as well). And like hydrogen, very, very quiet.

Cons: Balancing battery size with a decent driving range has been a high-wire act. More milage capability means exponentially larger batteries, which in turn means more space needed and more weight added. Using smaller, lighter batts means the cars run and handle better, but have a much shorter range. And refueling takes hours, not minutes, so letting the battery run down doesn't mean a short stop at a station, it means plugging in and sitting around for half a day.

A LITTLE ABOUT THE CARS
FLEX FUEL VEHICLES -

They have been around for decades (especially in Brazil), but are now back in the limelight. Flex fuel vehicles are specially equipped and tuned to run on either gasoline or E85 ethanol. This gives you the flexibility (hence the name "flex fuel") to pump in whatever happens to be the best choice for you, depending on the price and availability of either fuel. Or your level of "eco-friendliness".

Pros: Cars are in production and widely available. Gives you a choice of what fuel to use. Can go green without sacrificing engine power. Talk of having the ability to select ethanol-to-gas ratios right at the pump for greater economy.

Cons: Current limited availability of E85 at the pumps hampers your ability to take advantage of its full potential and environmental impact. Fuel economy (miles per gallon) suffers by as much as 25% when using E85.

HYBRIDS -
They run on both gas and electricity, with the engine automatically switching back and forth depending on need and optimal economy.

Pros: Widely available in many popular models. Best of both worlds: you can increase your fuel economy, lessen your need for gas and help the environment, and still have the convenience of refueling at a gas station. The batteries recharge when the gas engine is in use, eliminating the need for "plugging in". Many SUVs and trucks are available as hybrids now, increasing the economy of many popular gas-guzzlers.

Cons: More expensive, in many cases much more, as their gas only counterparts. Some of the larger vehicles don't deliver the significant milage increase seen in smaller vehicles, therefore some people don't see a dramatic cost savings (when you include the cost of buying the hybrid), over gas only.

FUEL CELL VEHICLES -
These are engine-less, transmission-less, oil-less vehicles powered by the electricity created when hydrogen is mixed with oxygen. (See my post on Chevy's Equinox Fuel Cell here.)

Pros: No mechanical parts means less maintenance and repairs. Gives off no pollutants. Extremely quiet.

Cons: Almost no hydrogen fuel stations in your area. Cost of producing the cars makes them unaffordable. Debate as to the practicality of using hydrogen for fuel consumption. No clear date on when, or if, these vehicles will become available.

ELECTRIC -
Running on the same electricity that powers all your other toys, electric cars will store juice in their on-board batteries. Some models will also include a small gas-powered engine, to get you to your destination in case of a run-down battery.

Pros: Very clean. No exhaust (in electric mode). Economical. Plug in at home overnight, or at work during the day.

Cons: Not a significantly long enough range (in some cases about 40-50 miles vs. several hundred miles on a full tank of gas), to make them useful for anything other than commuting. Long refueling times make this a bad choice for procrastinators and those who fail to plan ahead.

Overall I think the solution is clear: there is no clear solution. But the variety and options being developed today, do give us some solid choices (once the kinks are worked out), for better driving tomorrow.

 
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