Alternative Fuels: A Primer

By Bill Howard  |  Posted 2006-06-16 Print this article Print

Alternative fuels aren't a perfect alternative to gasoline. Here's why. (TechnoRide)

Alternative fuels arent a perfect alternative to gasoline. They have less energy than gas and cost more; its improbable that production will be ramped up for more than a fraction of Americas vehicles; they have corrosive effects on normal fuel systems; and its not certain well get the technology to work soon.

Popular Mechanics (May) calculated the cost of driving a small car coast to coast on various fuel sources: It ranged from $60, for an all-electric car using coal-fired powerplants to generate power, to $804, using hydrogen.
Gasoline was pegged at $231 for the trip, although the run-up in prices since the article was written would bring the cost to around $275.

Ethanol, or grain alcohol, is the special ingredient in gasohol (10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline) and E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline). Its derived from fermenting corn, apples, or sugar cane (maybe Fidel has held on so long by selling black-market E85?) and its also how you make moonshine. Ethanol fuel mixtures burn cleaner than gasoline, and there are about 6 million flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) in the U.S.

But ethanol as a primary energy source for all cars doesnt add up: an acre of corn produces 300 gallons of ethanol per season, and all the U.S. ethanol refineries last year turned out 4 billion gallons of ethanol—but Americans burned 200 billion gallons of motor fuel. There isnt enough farmland in the U.S. to grow food, along with the feedstock for ethanol. According to Popular Mechanics youd need to use 675 million of the nations 938 million acres of farmland to make enough ethanol.

In addition, ethanol is corrosive and has only two-thirds the energy of gasoline. Some critics even say ethanol is energy-negative (in other words, more energy is expended farming, harvesting, fermenting, and transporting it than is saved in vehicles), though the Department of Energy says the process is about 35 percent positive.

Methanol is ethanols poor cousin. Also called methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, its poisonous, has only half the energy of gasoline, and is much more corrosive than gas on fuel tanks and fittings. Methanol can be made from a variety of sources. Most typically, natural gas is converted to methane and then into methanol. But sewage, manure, landfill emissions, coal, sawdust, grass clippings, and other plants can also be used. In FFVs, methanol is mixed with gasoline, often to make M85 (85 percent methanol).

Read the full story on TechnoRide: Alternative Fuels: A Primer Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis in programming environments and developer tools.
Bill Howard

Bill Howard is the editor of, the car site for tech fans, and writes a column on car technology for PC Magazine each issue. He is also a contributing editor of PC Magazine.

Bill's articles on PCs, notebooks, and printers have been cited five times in the annual Computer Press Association Awards. He was named as one of the industry's ten most influential journalists from 1997 to 2000 by Marketing Computers and is a frequent commentator on TV news and business shows as well as at industry conventions. He also wrote the PC Magazine Guide to Notebook & Laptop Computers. He was an executive editor and senior editor of PC Magazine from 1985-2001 and wrote PC Magazine's On Technology column through 2005

Previously, Howard spent a decade as a newspaper editor and writer with the Newhouse and Gannett newspapers in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Rochester, New York. He also writes a monthly column for Roundel, a car magazine for BMW enthusiasts.


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