Alternative Fuels


Alternative Fuel Vehicles You Can Buy Today

From the earliest days of the automotive industry alternative fuels have always competed with petroleum for powering vehicles. Nicholas Cugnot made the first self-powered road vehicle in 1769 with a steam engine, and the first gasoline automobile didn't appear until over 100 years later from Karl Benz. Through the late 19th and early 20th century steam and electric power remained strong contenders. The invention of the self-starter for gasoline engines by Cadillac eventually proved the undoing of the early steam cars, which required warming up. Electric cars continued to be produced for a while longer, but the expanding road network gradually made their short range of 8-15 miles between charges too inconvenient for many uses.

Today we understand that the wholesale burning of petroleum can't continue forever. As the new century opens alternative fuel vehicles are becoming more and more common. Major manufacturers such as Ford, Daimler/Chrysler, and Fiat offer dual fuel cars and trucks now. These vehicles allow you to choose between gasoline and compressed natural gas (CNG) for cleaner emissions. Other large manufacturers such as General Motors, Toyota, and Honda are concentrating on electric vehicles. These global automakers are slowly moving from conventional to alternative power as the technology is developed and refined. Current battery technology allows a maximum range of about 125 miles per charge.

The leading edge of electric vehicle technology is occupied by much smaller companies. Bombardier, Pivco AS, and S-LEM AG have designed small, lightweight city cars intended for daily use in dense urban environments. Corbin-Pacific and Zebra Motors have chosen to concentrate on performance. Both companies produce creditable sports cars that just happen to be electrically powered.

Do you have an idea that you think will work for an alternatively powered vehicle concept? The U.S. Department of Energy invites small businesses (500 employees or less) to submit grant applications on hybrid electric vehicle technology. Applicants may receive up to $75,000 US for a Phase I grant to develop the feasibility of the idea.

Hydrogen Vehicles

Fuel Description

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but is rarely found in its uncombined form on the earth. When combusted (oxidized) it creates only water vapor as a by-product (4H + O2 = 2 H20). When burned in an internal combustion engine, however, combustion also produces small amounts of nitrogen oxides and small amounts of unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide because of engine lubricants. The exhaust is free from carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen is normally a gas and can be compressed and stored in cylinders. It can also be kept as a liquid, but the gas only turns liquid at temperatures of minus 423.2 degrees Fahrenheit (below zero)!

Today, hydrogen is mostly obtained by cracking hydrocarbon fuels, but it can be produced by electrolysis of water (using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen) and photolysis (chemical decomposition). The main problem with hydrogen is bulk storage required for fuel tanks.

For an equivalent energy content of gasoline, liquid hydrogen and the required refrigeration system requires six to eight times more storage space than gasoline and compressed hydrogen gas requires six to ten times more storage space.

Another development using hydrogen is as a blend of hydrogen and methane (natural gas) called Hythane. Preliminary information presented in mid- 1994 at the 10th World Hydrogen Energy Conference in Cocoa Beach, Florida, says that a test car's exhaust using 30 percent hydrogen and 70 percent methane contained 80 percent less nitrogen oxides than U.S. EPA standards for 2003. This blend has much higher content of hydrogen than other Hythane blends, which typically run about five percent. To learn more about hydrogen go to the Hydrogen Fuel Page.

Vehicle Availability

There are no vehicles currently available that use hydrogen as a fuel; however, automobile manufacturers have experimented with developing vehicles that use hydrogen. Research vehicles have been produced by Daimler-Benz, BMW and Mazda. The Mercedes-Benz and BMW vehicles use liquid hydrogen. The Mazda vehicle stores its hydrogen as a gas in a metal-hydride lattice of shaved metal. Other vehicles have been built using compressed hydrogen, including two vehicles in Arizona operated by the American Hydrogen Association.

High production costs and low density have prevented hydrogen's use as a transportation fuel in all but test programs. It may be 20 to 30 years or more before hydrogen is a viable transportation fuel and then perhaps only in fuel-cell-powered vehicles.