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Alternative Fuels – A Breakdown

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Popular Mechanics has done a great service for those of us interested in the pros and cons of various alternative fuels. The magazine outlines, in detail, the positives and negatives of the following alternative fuels: ethanol, methanol, compressed natural gas, biodiesel, electric batteries, hydrogen, hybrids, and even fast-food cooking oil. (The article can be found on their site. Read it. The whole thing. I highly recommend it, even though it is a bit long…)

My impression from reading the article is this: 100% gasoline-powered cars are going to be with us in large numbers for another decade or two, but they are a dying breed. And although many of the alternative fuels include a small percentage of gasoline in the mix (to ensure start-up on cold days, for instance), it is in a relatively trivial amount that could easily be produced domestically, and would have a limited impact on the environment.

Of course, hydrogen fuel cell-powered automobiles are the ultimate green dream, but we are a ways off from seeing them in most garages. The technology isn’t quite there yet for this particular alternative to be affordable, and the infrastructure for their widespread use hasn’t been built yet (and it will probably take some serious nudging from the federal government before it ever is).

In the meantime, E85 and biodiesel are greatly increasing in popularity, despite some drawbacks. But we should all remember that the “alternative” to alternative fuels is gasoline prices that continue to climb, foreign enemies that use our present addiction to oil as powerful leverage in international disputes, and further damage to the environment.

So, warts and all, I am a strong proponent of alternative fuels. And if it takes decisive action from the federal government to act as a catalyst for the upcoming energy revolution, this libertarian-minded blogger is all for it.

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About RJ

  • Dave Nalle

    Glad you posted this, RJ. I’ve been working on an article on the same topic, using different sources and in somewhat more depth and with a lot of grumbling about how business and government are failing us in this area. You’ve inspired me to push ahead with it.


  • Good to hear! I look forward to reading your article, which will surely provide more depth than my own, quickie blog… :-/

  • Dave Nalle

    Well, more ranting and bitching anyway.


  • RedTard

    I’m starting to come around on the Ethanol idea. It’s so hard to get good information on these things. Almost every study is either paid for by agribusiness or oil companies making the results suspect.

    The bottom line is that it takes approximately one gallon of fossil fuels to create one gallon of ethanol, you can add or subtract 15% either way depending on who funded the study. That’s not exacly the stellar answer some would hype it to be.

    The thing that puts me behind it is that we can use coal, which we have lots of, to power the plants that make fertilizer and ethanol. It’s a great way to convert our local coal resources into oil replacements and with efficiency improvements there might even be a net energy gain.

  • Maurice

    Is it true we can extract oil from shale?

  • Druxxx

    RedTard has the right idea. We have to make sure converting some cars to E85 reduces the amount of fossil fuels we use. Growing corn requires equipment that burns fuel and the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides that require fuel.

    And how much corn can we grow? What other crops can be turned into ethanol efficiently?

    Good article. I wish they would have talked about how much fossil fuel goes into creating ethanol and if there is a possibility of making ethanol with very little use of fossil fuels. I just hope we don’t go and put all our eggs in one basket when it comes to alternative fuels. Ethanol looks good now because the technology for hydrogen is lagging behind. I think we need to invest in hydrogen, biodiessel, and ethanol. By using all three, at some point we may not have to import another drop of crude oil.

  • gonzo marx

    good Read here, RJ..and an excellent linkage

    but mark yer gonzo here, i said it almost a year ago…

    bio-diesal hybrids

    all the farm subsidies that get paid to grow nothing, put in some soybeans for their oil…take out the premium tank in those conveninece store gas station and put in the fuel

    yer done

    then, America can grow it’s own damn energy…if we need more…well this hemisphere has a lot of farmland

    just a Thought


  • i gotta say rj, that that danged book title “shucking the sheiks”, made me laugh out loud.

    my first move will be to biodiesel. always wanted a car that smelled like french fries.

  • gonzo marx

    oh yes…great point about the ineffeciency of ethanol…just a ruse for some farm states to get subsidies…

    as for hydrogen…one word on that


    “oh the Humanity”


  • Dick Morris has some thoughts

  • Joey

    I did a research paper on Hydrogen fuel… and if you google Hydrogen economy, there’s a lot there.

    The infrastructure will take years. But it’s coming.

    If there is a national security issue with petroleum, there are alternatives which have been muzzled for 30 years or so, but we should seriously consider ramifications and analysis of threat before going there. To completely rule out those options will never happen.

    I do have a question concerning Eth. I currently have 3 vehicles. A 96 Camry, 98 Windstar, 01 Malibu… Is eth going to melt the O-rings in my fuel injection system? I know for a fact that on older Volvo’s eth would.

    Back in the 80’s I was running a 63 caddie with a 472, I used to run eth all the time, and didn’t care if any plastics or rubber pieces crumbled/melted. because I understood carbs.

    Fuel Injection? I don’t know squat, except my mechanic’s phone number.

  • I’ll be running on biodiesel starting next week when I finally have time to purchase my new pickup.

    As for ethanol, that 1 gallon of fossil fuel for 1 gallon of ethanol figure is deceptive, because the production of ethanol also produces byproducts which are highly marketable, including mash which makes an excellent fertilizer and other biomass which can be burned to generate electricity. Byproducts actually pay the fuel cost of producing the ethanol, so it can potentially be cheaper than gasoline.


  • gonzo marx

    biodiesel > ethanol

    hydrogen = Hindenberg

    nuff said


  • Dave Nalle

    The refining process for biodiesel – more like the filtering process – is safer and simpler than for ethanol, that’s for sure. My concern is the finite supply of raw materials for making biodiesel. I can see a future of oil pirates driving up in a tanker and illegally sucking out those hideous oil bins out behind fast food restaurants, or big bidding wars for waste oil.

    But the nice thing about both of them is that I know how to make them in my back yard if I have to – I already have a small still we built for a science project. Can’t do that with gasoline.


  • steve

    everyone needs to go out and buy a VW Golf TDI…it is a little turbo diesel hatch that gets way better mileage than any of those lame hybrids. it might not be the best for the air…but you will save a ton on gas! 40+ mpg!

  • Steve, a commendible idea, but the Prius does get 60+ mpg and the new Honda sub-compact hybrid is in the same range.


  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    “Fuel Injection? I don’t know squat, except my mechanic’s phone number.”

    This brings back memories of a Cavalier my wife bought 18 years ago. It was a fuel injection vehicle, when fuel injection consisted of a tiny chip put on the engine (I forget what part exactly).

    We drove the vehicle out to the country to a motel to see if it would start in the morning (like that’s all that we were interested in, right?). Well, it snowed and it was cold and I tried starting the car – and I flooded the engine. Being the absolute idiot that I am about cars, I managed to get a hold of AAA and some guy came out and told me I had flooded the engine. He popped the chip off and floored the accelerator to get the darn thing going. Vroom! vroom! The car had started and was running just fine.

    Fuel injection is just a lot of horse manure.

    There is a pretty cheap way out of the fuel crisis, but I’m keeping quiet about it for now.

  • Ruvy!!! You You You You know a Mechanic’s phone number????? Quick e-mail it to me!!!

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    That was 18 years ago, Jet. I don’t even have a driver’s license here. It ain’t worth having…

  • steve

    I agree with you dave…but you could save 10-13k by getting a tdi…the hybrids only pay off if you have the car for over 10 years….most average owners have their cars between 4-6. the tdi is the best buy IMO.

  • Joey

    Hybrids also have a batt change-out period after 3 or 4 years which costs around 3 grand.

    Diesel technology has a bad connotation in the U.S., but the Europeans have it fine tuned, with less emission problems than U.S. gasoline burning engines. Diesel is easier to process, and has an octane rating at 30 (I think).

    I like diesel, it’s a challenge to find diesel around town though. Lot’s of diesel pumps in the country, but city pumps are a challenge in some localities.

    The VW TDI is a great little car… but, VW’s do have problems with other components, Consumer Reports really doesn’t like European Cars and rate Japanese and Korean cars much higher.

    Too bad the Japanese doesn’t really have a diesel fleet to purchase from. There are a few but a diesel Civic, or Camry might be a nice option. If the technology was comparable or even out performed the European models.

  • Valery Dawe

    Toyota makes a diesel Corolla that for some reason isn’t exported to North America. A compressed air car is being manufactured in France although it’s still going through trials. The company website is ‘theaircar’ dot com. Windmill/solar power filling stations for compressed air cars? Why not?

  • steve

    just look at past turbo diesels…..you wouldnt have a hard time finding Mercedes-Benz turbo diesels w/ 300k…they are around here in the north easy all the time. this is what we need!