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Student's Guide to Alternative Fuels

When it comes to alternative fuels, there is little doubt that future generations will be tasked with looking after the world in a vastly different manner than previous generations.

The Need for Change

If you take the U.S as a prime example, considering it is the largest economy in the world, you may be surprised to learn that on recent figures, the nation’s current transportation system accounts for nearly one third of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions.

Considering that carbon dioxide is regarded to be the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to global climate change, it is abundantly clear that minimizing energy use and finding alternatives to fossil fuel combustion in the transportation sector should be key priorities.

Eco-Driving Index

The University of Michigan have been producing an national Eco-Driving Index (EDI) since 2008 and it takes a monthly check of the average amount of greenhouse gases produced by an individual driver in the United States, who has purchased a light-duty vehicle that month.

Using a calculation that is based on the fuel economy of each specific model of motor vehicle and the distance driven, it produces an EDI figure that estimates the amount of fuel used and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted.

The EDI figures offer encouragement that we are taking a step in the right direction when it comes to reducing emissions, but more needs to be done. This is why motor manufacturers are busy designing vehicles that operate using alternative fuels, so that our roads in the future will be less polluted and our vehicles more environmentally-friendly and energy efficient.

Hydrogen Cars

Hydrogen might have had a bit of a public image problem thanks to the Hindenburg, but it is actually a safe alternative to petrol and with models like the perhaps unimaginatively-namedToyota Fuel Cell Sedan and plenty of other major motor manufacturers working away to produce their own hydrogen cars, this is an alternative fuel that has a big future on four wheels.

Hydrogen actually has the capability of fuelling two different types of car. Fuel cell vehicles run using hydrogen and cars that have an internal combustion engine can also be engineered so that they can run on hydrogen rather than gasoline.

A fuel-cell vehicle uses hydrogen to generate electricity which in turn, is then utilized to power an electric motor in the car. This is an important point, as instead of relying on battery power alone, a hydrogen-powered car is able to use its fuel cells to generate its own electricity.

The Honda FCX Clarity uses a chemical process within the fuel cell that allows hydrogen and oxygen to combine in order to create this electricity. The big bonus about this technology from an eco point of view, is that the only byproduct of this process is water vapor.

Hydrogen combustion engine

For those that like their internal combustion engine, hydrogen can be used to create what feels like a normal gas-powered car, but uses hydrogen as the fuel source rather than the more harmful-to-the-environment gasoline as its fuel.

These hydrogen combustion engine cars are also big winners when it comes to lowering CO2 emissions, as they also only produce water vapor just like the other hydrogen version.

The only issue that is preventing more widespread use of this alternative fuel in cars is the current lack of hydrogen fueling stations, but it is a technology that has surely got a future on our roads.

Electric Cars

Using electricity to power cars is not actually a new idea but it is only recent developments that have allowed electric cars to become a truly viable option.

Battery technology has been the key challenge for the motor industry and they have had to find a way of getting cars to travel high speeds and long distances without draining the battery. The early prototypes did suffer from limited range and when the battery died, they could take hours to recharge.

Thanks to new battery technology, electric cars are now definitely a viable alternative fuel option and they have conquered these previous power limitations using lithium-ion batteries, which are the same as the batteries that you will find in most laptops and mobile phones.

For those that still have concerns with an all-electric car, there are models available that switch between gasoline and electric to keep the car on the road and recharge the batteries whilst you are on the move.


Cooking oil and grease are not exactly high on a list of ingredients for a healthy diet but when it is combined to make biodiesel, which is good news for your car as an alternative fuel to consider.

Although the process can actually be done at home with a bit of know-how, you can run the risk of damaging your vehicle if you get it wrong at any stage and it is certainly safer to leave it to the experts to create the biodiesel through a proven chemical process.

Biodiesel and bioethanol are biofuels that are liquids when they are at room temperature and this means that they can be dispensed from fuel pumps in the same way that you would re-fuel your car at a petrol or gas station.

Ford, Volvo and Saab are leading the way in producing Flex-Fuel vehicles and with the increase in Biodiesel filling stations, more models from other manufacturers will become available to buy.  You can currently run Volvo C30, V70 and S40 models and  Ford Focus and Mondeo models together with Saab's 9-3 and 9-5 are all capable of running on a percentage of bioethanol blend up to E85.


This is an alcohol that is made from plants, known as biomass. Sugar cane, sugar beet and cereals such as wheat and barley are the most commonly used resources to create bioethanol.

The production process uses enzyme amylases to convert the crop into fermentable sugars and then yeast is added in order to ferment the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The final part involves the liquid fraction being distilled so that it produces ethanol.

Using bioethanol in your car involves an adjustment to the engine timing and also means you will need a bigger fuel tank on board due to the low energy density of this type of fuel. Alcohol fuels do have the capacity to degrade certain types of rubber and metal used on cars, so this means that some engine components might have to be replaced when you convert your car.


You might want to consider ethanol as an alternative fuel. It is a type of alcohol that is made from plant matter like corn and sugar cane and is already added to gasoline sometimes, as a way of helping to meet emissions targets.

It is quite common for car manufacturers to offer cars these days that have flex-fuel engines, which means that your vehicle can run on a blend that is 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol. A good number of motoring experts are predicting that ethanol could be the way America and the rest of the world for that matter, ends its obsession and addiction to oil and become the default alternative fuel of choice.

Liquefied Petroleum Gas

Supporters of LPG or liquefied petroleum gas might argue about the assertion that ethanol is going to take over the number one spot as the alternative fuel that we all convert to.

Many parts of the world would already argue that LPG is not actually an alternative fuel at all, as it is widely used in countries like the Netherlands to run their cars and cook their food. LP gas is kept pressurized so that it remains in liquid form and in the same way that liquefied natural gas is used, because this makes it so energy dense, it is suitable for powering cars efficiently.

Better for the Environment?

The advantage of using biofuel is that it has the potential to be carbon neutral, due to the fact that all of the carbon dioxide emitted when using the fuel is balanced out by the absorption from the atmosphere during the growth cycle of the crop.

There is a counter-argument to this put forward by some, that the actual process of growing the crop in the first place requires an element of fossil fuels for fertilization, harvesting and the other aspects of creating and transporting the fuel.

Greenhouse gases can still be reduced by somewhere between 60% and 90% and large reductions in emissions can be achieved with biodiesels when waste oils instead of growing the crops to produce the oil.

Electric cars are generally considered to be one of the most environmentally-friendly options for the future but their impact is influenced by the green credentials of each respective country. For example, Norway generates a lot of its power from Hydroelectricity, which means the power generated to charge the cars provides a lower environmental impact than a conventional petrol car.

In contrast, as China currently generates all of its power from coal,this drastically reduces the environmental advantage of an electric vehicle. The more the planet reduces its dependence on fossil fuels and switches to renewable energy, the more positive it will be for the eco-friendly attributes of electric cars.

Comparing Motoring Costs

Economies of scale play a big part at the moment when it comes to the cost of owning and running a biofuel car.

Forecourt prices of biofuel blends are often higher than conventional fuels as a result of the production costs and supply and demand factors. As biodiesel and bioethanol have lower energy content than either petrol or diesel, this means that more fuel volume per mile is required, which makes it more expensive to fill up, but at least you are doing your bit for the environment.

Most Economical Car to Run

If you are looking for an alternative energy vehicle that is the most economical to run, electric cars are hard to beat.

The most economical cars according to the official U.S source for fuel economy information are all-electric and it is the same story in the UK and other parts of Europe and the world.

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