Image © nattul, iStockphoto

June 30, 2006

As the Canada Day long week-end approaches, no doubt gas prices are going to increase. But how much higher can they get, really? Over the past few years fuel prices have gone up dramatically, and when 91.9 cents/liter was once an outrageously high price for gas, these days you will see cars lined up around the block when price drops that low!

You have probably heard reports talking about the ever increasing price of oil and our current dependence on it. Maybe you are gearing up to get your driver's license...Has the thought of filling up your gas tank comes to mind? With the rising gas prices are you going to have to work endless hours at your part-time job just to keep your tank full? Are there any other options out there?

There are indeed! With all the recent damage to oil refineries from hurricanes, the ongoing war in Iraq, and the concern over global warming, alternative fuels are getting more and more attention. In order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, scientists are looking at more sustainable ways to fuel our cars that may even have the potential to save us a bit of money and be cleaner for the environment. There are many ideas in development out there. Let's take a look at the top three alternative fuels getting attention right now: ethanol, electric hybrids, and hydrogen fuel cells.

Did you know? Alternative fuels that are being developed to replace fossil fuels include ethanol, electricity, and hydrogen.

ETHANOL

When it comes to alternative fuel sources, ethanol has been used for a long time compared with other options that you may be familiar with. Many gas stations offer ethanol-blended gasoline as a 'green' fuel alternative to standard gasoline. Ethanol burns more completely and cleanly than gasoline, with blended gas producing 3-8% less greenhouse gas emissions. Modern cars can run on 10-30% ethanol blended gasoline with no modifications needed to their vehicles, with similar performance and consumption characteristics as regular gas.

Did you know? Ethanol burns more completely and cleanly than standard gasoline, but produces more volatile organic compounds that can contribute to smog.

There is also ongoing research to develop cars that are able to run on 85% ethanol-blended gasoline, which could result in a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 75%! On the down side, ethanol produces more volatile organic carbons (VOCs), which contribute to smog.

Despite this, ethanol as a fuel source has a lot of promise as it can be made from any crops that contain sugar or starch, such as corn and wheat. These plants also absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, helping to reduce overall air pollution. When it comes to cost, ethanol is currently more expensive to produce than gasoline, but many provinces offer tax breaks on ethanol-blended gasoline, which reflects in savings at the pump. New technologies are also being developed to help make ethanol a more affordable and competitive option.

Did you know? Ethanol is produced from sugar and/or starch.

ELECTRIC HYBRIDS

In the past few years, car manufacturers have started to offer a variety of electric hybrid cars, promoting them as the newest environmentally friendly way to get around. These cars combine both an electric battery with a standard internal combustion engine, using both sources to power the car. When stopped at lights or running at low speeds, these cars can run solely on battery power, helping conserve gasoline and reducing pollutants. The ability of the car to 'switch' power sources like this reduces fuel consumption by 50% or more, in addition to overall greenhouse gas emission reductions of up to 28%! This could amount to some significant savings in your pocket as well.

Did you know? An electric hybrid vehicle switches from standard gas-powered internal combustion engine to an electric battery when the car is driving slowly or is idle.

You may be thinking though, "Do I have to plug these cars in? ", which is a real inconvenience most of the time and was a problem with older battery-powered vehicles. Well, good news! Electric hybrid vehicles never actually need 'recharging'. These cars are extremely smart and are able to harness the energy produced by braking and coasting to charge the electric battery. While hybrid cars aren't currently getting the mileage that manufacturers hoped, technology is progressing, and you can expect to see more efficient hybrid models being developed in the near future.

HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS

Fuel cells generate electricity by electrochemically combining hydrogen with oxygen from the air, producing only heat and water from the tailpipe. This means that the only greenhouse gases produced come from the initial hydrogen extraction process, and this allows for up to 90% reduction in emissions!

Did you know? Hydrogen fuel cells use an electrochemical reaction that combines hydrogen with oxygen found in the air.

Hydrogen can be generated from a wide variety of sources, including water, natural gas, and sugar, and so provides great potential as a reliable source of fuel. The performance of fuel cell-powered vehicles is comparable, or better, than those run on diesel fuel, and they are more powerful at lower speeds. Unfortunately, of the three alternatives mentioned, fuel cells currently have the most holding them back; there is a very high initial cost for the technology needed to extract hydrogen, and a current lack of facilities to distribute or 'refill' hydrogen in these vehicles. Additionally, there are still challenges related to the safe storage of hydrogen. A great deal of research is ongoing though, so keep your eyes peeled for more developments!

While these three alternatives to gasoline are currently thought of as the front-runners to helping us reduce our dependence on oil, there's another "up-and-comer" also getting a lot of positive press: biodiesel. Have you ever wondered what becomes of all that grease from your fast food french fries? Well scientists have found a way to use that oil in cars to make an alternative fuel that can be both produced locally as well as provide comparable performance and value to gasoline. For more on this exciting new fuel, stay tuned for an in-depth look coming soon!

Learn More!

Natural Resources Canada, Office of Energy Efficiency

http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/vehiclefuels

http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/earth/2690341.html

http://www.howstuffworks.com/hybrid-car.htm

http://www.eere.energy.gov/

Amanda Hindle has a degree in Biology with a focus on in Ecology. She is currently working as a technical writer and editor at Health Canada.

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