MadSci Network: Engineering

Re: What alternative fueled vehicles are available to consumers in the US?

Date: Tue Feb 15 19:28:40 2000
Posted By: Arnold Anderson, Staff, Tribology/Friction systems, retired (Ford Scientific Laboratory)
Area of science: Engineering
ID: 949593346.Eg

My favorite alternative fuel is food.  It is used, with a bicycle, to make 
a very energy-efficient and cost-effective transportation system.  
Unfortunately, there are not many other alternatives.  Petroleum-based 
fuels are very cheap, fewer than twenty cents a pound before taxes, they 
are very well established, and generally are well accepted.  We all know 
that some other fuel will be needed for the future.  Presently, we do not 
know what it will be.

Hydrogen has been used to power several research vehicles, mostly by 
Ford.  No one has found a cost-effective way to assure its safe use.  
Hydrogen leaks are potentially explosive.  Hydrogen is odorless, so leaks 
are not readily detected.  In addition, storage containers and fuel lines 
for hydrogen appear to need more work to be crashworthy.

Compressed natural gas (CNG) powered cars and light trucks are available, 
primarily for special fleet usage.  Conversion kits are available for many 
vehicles.  Natural gas powered vehicles have very long engine life, even 
in difficult usage and weather conditions, since there is no fuel dilution 
of the engine oil.  CNG appears to provide the best choice at this time as 
an alternative to liquid petroleum fuels.

Brazil is unique in that it has alcohol fuel available at service 
stations.  The Brazilian government subsidizes usage of alcohol.  Without 
this subsidy, alcohol would not be an economically attractive fuel 

Electric vehicles have been around for a long time.  Presently, no battery 
has the energy density and power density needed for general acceptance by 
most drivers.  Energy density is needed to give acceptable vehicle 
acceleration, primarily passing ability.  Power density is needed to 
provide acceptable driving range between recharges of the batteries.  
Early battery powered vehicles were slow, had no air conditioning, 
heating, or other power-consuming accessories.

Future vehicles may use electric propulsion, with fuel cells to generate 
much of the electricity for long trips.  Energy efficiency will be 
improved by use of regenerative braking and higher efficiency motors and 
controls.  This appears to be the most promising of the current choices.  
Unfortunately, it will take some time to bring fuel cell costs down to 
acceptable levels. 

I hope this helps to answer your questions, Aaron.  People such as you 
should help our industrial and governmental stay motivated to find a 
better fuel for transportation.  The reference below may be used to 
provide more details, and much more background material.

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