The days of the dominance of Petrol, as the world’s ubiquitous global super-fuel, are numbered. The rise in cost and recent restrictions on supply of both petrol and conventional diesel are expected to add urgency to the search for the next source of fuel and energy for vehicles.

There is a growing acknowledgement in North America and in the European Union that the west’s developed economies are over-dependent on petrol.

US Senator Harry Reid, who has been campaigning in Congress for hydrogen to be used as a fuel, said: “Relying on the Middle East for energy weakens national strength. The US could be energy self-sufficient with hydrogen. Trade balance sheets show that oil imports drain $US1 billion from the economy every week.”

But any pretender to petrol’s throne will have to be competitive on cost and have a distribution infrastructure which makes it practical for the consumer. Materials used to make the fuel must also be freely available and cheap to convert.

The Alternative Fuel Data Center (AFDC) in the US has highlighted a group of alternative fuels as front runners: the bio fuels biodiesel and ethanol, electric fuel, hydrogen, methanol, natural gas, propane and the outsider, solar fuel. Regarding power without combustion, electricity as a car fuel is already widely used by the motor industry, mostly in conjunction with petrol driven cars.

There is a growing aknowledgement that the USA and Europe are over-dependent on petrol

There is a distribution system already in place. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) says that the US has 98% of the infrastructure in place required for electric vehicles (EV) to operate effectively, and that cost makes this an option for the motorist in the street.

A spokesman for the AFDC said: “No tailpipe emissions is the number one benefit of owning an EV, you’re not polluting the environment. The economies of using EVS, once the relatively high initial capital cost is paid, come with the lower fuel and maintenance costs. The cost of an equivalent amount of fuel for EVs is less than the price of gasoline. Also, maintenance for EVs is less. They have fewer moving parts to service and replace.”

Furthermore, some federal and state dollars exist to help provide incentives for fleets and private individuals to purchase AFVs.

Japanese companies Takeoka Auto Craft and Hokuriku Electric Power have jointly marketed a new version of the compact one-man electric automobile EV-1 Rookie. The running distance with a single battery charge has been increased by 10% compared with before and the electric charge equivalent to the fuel cost has been decreased by 20% while the cost of the vehicle has been reduced by 40,000 yen to 435,000 yen.

The vehicle’s maximum speed is 35km/hour (22mph) while the running distance per charge in summer is 40km (25 miles) and 30km (20 miles) in winter. The battery charging time is a maximum of 10-11 hours and the vehicle can be run for 6-7 hours with 90% of charging. With alternative fuels likely to grow into a huge market in the future, supporters of the various options are increasingly keen to point out the merits of their preferred choices.

Roy McAlistair, president of the American Hydrogen Association, is one man not moving backwards in coming forward. He said: “Hydrogen will be produced for fuelling engines in converted cars, buses, and trucks that will clean the air. Renewable Energy Vehicles – Minus Emissions (REV-MEs) clean the air as they are driven.”

“oil imports drain $US1 billion from the economy every week”

Hydrogen gas is renewable and emissions are low. But an AFDC report comments: “The main problem with hydrogen is bulk storage required for fuel tanks.” For an equivalent energy content of gasoline, liquid hydrogen and the necessary refrigeration system require six to eight times more storage space than gasoline while compressed hydrogen gas requires six to 10 times more storage space.

Another problem – in the minds of consumers at least – is safety. The infamous film of the Hindenburg airship combusting almost instantaneously as it approached its New Jersey mooring still looms large. While no-one has cracked the storage and safety problems, key players in the market are ploughing resources into research vehicles. Mercedes Benz and Daimler cars use liquid hydrogen, while Mazda has opted for gas. And in Arizona, the American Hydrogen Association has tested two vehicles which use compressed hydrogen.

Nonetheless, even if the companies crack these thorny issues, the infrastructure for hydrogen just does not exist. Natural gas does not have that problem. The clean-burning fuel is already used for other purposes across the globe and the pipelines are in place. Stored as compressed gas or liquid, consumers would fill up in their own garages using a small compressor connected to the domestic natural gas supply – but refuelling would have to be done overnight and the investment involved would be high.

The US Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition says vehicles cost up to US$7,000 more than petrol run vehicles, while conversions of light duty vehicles are cheaper at between $3,000-5,000. Converting larger vehicles costs more. But the running cost could be less.

A spokesman for the coalition said: “Gasoline vehicles converted to natural gas are subject to a small power loss when running on natural gas; however, vehicles designed specifically to run on natural gas will have no loss of power and may even have greater power and efficiency. Natural gas has a 130 octane rating, compared with the 87 to 94 octane rating of [US] gasoline.”

Natural gas vehicles have been built in prototype forms by all major manufacturers. Honda is launching a Civic GX using natural gas. Daimler-Chrysler is offering a dedicated Dodge Ran Van and Wagon. Ford is offering dedicated Crown Victoria sedans, dedicated Econoline Van/Wagon, dedicated and bi-fuel F150 pickups and bi-fuel Contours. General Motors is offering full-size pickup trucks and the Cavalier from Chevrolet. Toyota is offering a CNG Camry Sedan and Volvo is testing the S70/V70 bifuel sedan/wagon.

The compact one-man electric automobile EV-1 Rookie

Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is already beginning to appear on the forecourts of Europe with cars being converted to take conventional petrol as well. In Britain, Her Majesty The Queen ordered her fleet converted several months ago and British government ministers whiz around in gas-fuelled Jaguars and other makes.

Meanwhile, in the US, read ‘propane’ for ‘LPG’. More than 350,000 vehicles are propane-powered from taxis in Las Vegas to school buses in Kansas City. Propane-powered vehicles apparently have less carbon build-up compared to their petrol and diesel powered brethren. According to America’s National Propane Association, spark plugs in a propane engine last from 80,000 to 100,000 miles and engines themselves can last two to three times longer. This is progress indeed but these new fuels still have to make headway against the oldest forms of alternative fuel for the combustion engine, namely biofuels – alcohols, ethers and esters -made from wood-based material, vegetation and increasingly from domestic waste.

Their development was born out of the ersatz demands of Germany while facing fuel blockades in the First World War. Today, the high price of crude is helping to fuel their development. The chief biofuels are bioethanol and biodiesel and the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fuels Development (OFD) is working to bring bioethanol and biodiesel to market.

Ethanol is the most widely used biofuel today. More than 1.5 billion gallons are added to gasoline in the US each year to improve vehicle performance and reduce air pollution. Ethanol is an alcohol and it’s made in the same way. Ethanol made from cellulosic biomass materials instead of traditional feedstocks – such as sugar cane – is called bioethanol.

Ethanol is used to increase octane and improve the emissions quality of gasoline. In some areas of the United States, ethanol is blended with gasoline to form an E10 blend (10% ethanol and 90% gasoline), but it can be used in higher concentrations such as E85 or in its pure form.

In Brazil cars fuelled by alcohol – or alcool as it is branded – have been trundling around Rio for many years. Biodiesel (or vegetarian Diesel as it was described recently by the Devon branch of the Women’s Institute) is perhaps even more intriguing. It is an ester (similar to vinegar) that can be made from several types of oils such as soybean, rapeseed and vegetable or animal fats.

“Ethanol is the most widely used biofuel today”

It is put through a process called transesterification where organic oils are combined with alcohol (ethanol or methanol) and chemically altered to form fatty esters such as ethyl or methyl ester. These can be blended with conventional diesel fuel or used as a neat fuel (100% biodiesel).

Biodiesel is typically used as a fuel additive in 20% blends (B20) with petroleum diesel in compression ignition (diesel) engines, although other blend levels can be used depending on the cost of the fuel and the desired benefits.

US production of biodiesel is about 30 million gallons per year and growing. Producers use recycled cooking oils and soy oil. Biodiesel is used in some federal, state, and transit fleets and other equipment.

In the UK, some fleets of city buses have been converted to run the fuel that leaves just a faint whiff of fried chips in their wake. There has been pressure to make these biofuels cheaper through reduced taxation. But recently, though, there has been a set back. The tax regime, exempting bio-fuels from excise duty in France, has been undermined by a European Court of Justice ruling that some of its exemptions break European Union law. The case was brought against the European Commission – which had authorised the system – by BP Chemicals Ltd, who claimed it had been the subject of discrimination because it is the largest European producer of synthetic ethanol.

France had secured the right to exempt other alternative fuels from excise duty, namely rape-seed and sunflower oil, and ethyl alcohol derived from cereals, artichokes, potatoes and beetroot, combined with petrol. Under the 1992 directive on fuel excise duties, EU Member States have the right to remove excise duties from an innovative fuel which is part of a pilot exercise and which might promote the development of a new product. But the ECJ has ruled that the French action merely assisted the existing producers of these bio-fuels.

Limiting its ruling to the fuels that were in direct competition with BP’s synthetic products, judges said that the commission should not have allowed the French government to remove excise duties from the ethyl alcohol mixes made from various vegetables and cereals.

The ‘Necar’ – a Mercedes-Benz A Class that uses a metanol/hydrogen fuel cell

What the court would have said when faced with a tax on solar energy is anyone’s guess. But efforts to tap in to the primary source direct have – so far – proved fruitless. Despite a few promising experiments using cars covered in photovoltaic cells, the long term possibilities of operating a car on solar power alone are very slim.

However it may have a bright future running some of the little bolt-on luxuries [a Mazda already uses solar cells in the sunroof to run ventilation fans when parked]; most satisfying of all would be to use power from solar cells to run the air conditioning unit.

But while there is no shortage of alternatives to conventional petrol and diesel, there is no shortage of petrol and diesel. For a global alternative to be forthcoming, political pressure must be such that the research vehicles become everyday roadrunners and the petrol stations adapt to a new infrastructure.

Only in times of hardship will that pressure be forthcoming. If it does not hurt, the funding will not be funnelled into research. Once again it is up to the consumer to turn the thumbscrews on the powers that be.

Author: Kate Ellerton