Recent technical advances and innovations have made them both feasible and affordable
Americans, often noted for their so-called love affair with the car, have recently begun to support alternatives to straight gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles. While they have been available for over a decade, both traditional and alternative fuels have seen recent technical advances and innovations that have made them both feasible and affordable. For reasons that include reducing air pollution, the eventual consumption of all fossil fuels, the increasing price of gas, and the dependence on foreign petroleum, alternative fuels and alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) are growing in popularity with not just environmentalists and consumers, but with auto manufacturers and the government, as well.
From 1973 to 1985, vehicle fuel efficiency rose 37 percent. However, with the popularity of less efficient vehicles like SUVs, light trucks, and even minivans, that number has dropped by 5 percent, as these vehicles are not subjected to the same emissions standards. There are also more vehicles on the roads, people are commuting more and longer distances and, in some states, weak laws exist regarding emissions and efficiency standards.
In an effort to reduce automobile pollution, alternatives to gasoline and diesel have become available. There is a variety of energy sources, aside from gas and diesel fuels, that are capable of powering cars, including alcohols, natural gas, propane, electricity, grains, trees, and even animal waste. Because of their chemical or physical make-up, these energy sources create less pollution than gas, thus identifying them as "clean fuels."
Clean fuels, generally, emit fewer and less reactive hydrocarbons (which form ozone) than traditional gasoline. Clean fuels also slow the greenhouse effect by emitting less carbon dioxide, which builds up in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. By producing fuels from natural gas and biomass (plants, animal waste, etc.) instead of petroleum- or coal-based fuels, there is a measurable difference in the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the air.
Two of the most popular clean fuels are ethanol and methanol. Ethanol, which comes from grain alcohol, has been used in combination with gasoline in the U.S. for several decades and is derived from corn and other materials like wood and paper. Providing high performance and low emissions, ethanol is popular around the world. In Brazil, it is the primary automotive fuel. The drawback is that ethanol is costlier than regular gas, although new technology may help to make it more affordable and available.
Derived from wood alcohol, methanol is another clean fuel that offers high performance and low levels of toxins. The fuel of choice in auto racing, methanol is derived from natural gas, coal, and/or wood, and costs less to produce than traditional gasoline. For these reasons, all of the major car manufacturers now offer vehicles that run on "M85," a combination of 85 percent methanol and 15 percent gasoline. Methanol is also the most commonly chosen fuel for racecars as it is an excellent performer and has special fire safety characteristics.
Natural gas is another choice that offers low-level emissions of toxins and hydrocarbons. It is used to heat homes, as well as in industrial situations. Abundant and readily available domestically, transporting natural gas (through pipelines) costs the same or less than transporting gasoline. The drawback is that vehicles that can run on natural gas, or compressed natural gas (CNG), require that the fuel be stored in pressurized tanks. These tanks are costly, however it is worth noting that vehicles that run CNG offer power that is equivalent to traditional gasoline-burning engines, low emissions and high efficiency, and great mileage.
And finally, there is reformulated gasoline (RFG): traditional gasoline whose chemical properties have been modified and innovated and can reportedly reduce vehicle emissions by up to 25 percent over current gas. Negotiations between industry, government, and environmental and consumer groups led to regulations passed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPS) in the 1990 Clean Air Act that, "resulted in cleaner burning gasoline that provides the same vehicle performance characteristics as conventional gasoline" (www.epa.gov).
In addition, vehicles in nine U.S. cities with the worst ozone air pollution problems are now required to use RFG. Because no major modifications to the fuel distribution system or the vehicle as a whole are necessary to running reformulated gasoline, this option provides some immediate solutions in regards to the environmental impact of cars and traffic. Although, while the EPA notes that RFG's "will have no adverse effects on vehicle performance or the durability of engine and fuel system components and the nation's major auto manufacturers support—even recommend—the use of RFG," there still stands the increasingly important issue of America's dependency on foreign oil, a dependency that has become a national security risk.
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