Fueling the debate

Enough has become enough and Americans are fed up. The burning of fossil fuels has poured carbon dioxide - the main culprit in global warming - into the environment. As the largest single consumer of fossil fuels, the United States is responsible for a quarter of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and is the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. The past decade has been the earth's warmest in the 105-year recorded history, the first visible sign of global warming stemming from greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly 30 percent of the fossil fuel consumption in the United States stems from the operation of cars and light-duty trucks. Additionally, the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) as an additive in reformulated gasoline (RFG), as mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) for use in our nation's most polluted cities, has compounded the health dilemma caused by internal combustion engines (ICEs). Consumer frustration has set in around the nation as health problems, such as cancer and respiratory disease stemming from hazardous air emissions (CO2 and benzene) have risen. Despite the myriad adverse effects on human health and the environment caused by the ever-increasing consumption of fossil fuels, it is the high cost of gasoline, a national average of $1.57 per gallon for regular unleaded (March 2000), that seems to be the largest target of consumer interest. Industry officials and environmentalists are taking advantage of this consumer dissatisfaction to promote alternative fuels as more environmentally safe and cost-effective replacements for gasoline. "It's ridiculous at this point," said Mike Fox, 33, manager of a non-profit agency in New York, "I do as little driving as possible because it is so expensive." According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), gasoline prices have risen more than 54 percent over the last 14 months (January '99 to March '00), with consumers in California paying as much as $1.84 per gallon for regular unleaded. With OPEC's March decision to increase oil production by 1.45 million barrels a day, relief for high gas prices is on the way. However, American dependence on oil imports will continue to place domestic gasoline prices in the hands of foreign markets. "We are captives of the foreign oil cartels," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colorado. The United States currently imports 56 percent of its oil, and according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), oil imports could rise to 65 percent by 2020 as the number of cars on the roads and number of vehicle miles traveled increase. In addition, although not an immediate concern, the Earth's remaining fossil fuel reserves are limited and increased consumption hastens the end of such energy sources. "There is clearly a limit to fossil fuel. Resources and supplies are likely to peak around 2030 before declining slowly," said Chris Fay, chairman and CEO of Shell UK Ltd. "Far more important will be the contribution of alternative renewable energy supplies."

The need for alternatives

Clean fuels are gasoline blends or substitutes, including ethanol, methanol, electricity and hydrogen fuel cells, that create less pollution than gasoline. The DOE estimates that about 334 million gallons of gasoline were replaced by clean fuels in 1999, representing 0.3 percent of the total gasoline market. Another 3.9 billion gallons of methanol and ethanol were blended with gasoline for motor vehicle use, meaning about 4.23 billion gallons of gasoline were replaced by clean fuels (approximately 3.6 percent). The Energy Policy Act of 1992 set goals of having such alternative fuels replace at least 10 percent of the nation's projected petroleum fuel consumption by 2000 and at least 30 percent by 2010. Economic factors, however, such as low petroleum production costs versus high production costs for alternatives, have worked to limit the further spread and development of clean fuels. A recent report by the General Accounting Office shows that the 2000 goal will not be met and the 2010 goal may also be out of reach, according to the DOE. Combined with low petroleum prices over the past decade, a growing economy and U.S. population growth, the number of automobiles on the road today and the number of miles being traveled have increased substantially. The total number of vehicles traveling America's roads has increased from approximately 100 million vehicles in 1970 to 212 million in 1998 according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The number of vehicular-miles traveled has increased from one trillion miles in 1970 to more than 2.5 trillion in 1997. All of this has meant an increase in the amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases released into the environment. The Energy Information Administration, a department of the DOE, indicates that U.S. emissions of CO2 will reach 1,585 million metric tons in 2000, mostly from mobile sources (cars, light-duty trucks, etc.). This would be an increase of 248 million metric tons from 1990 levels. The advancement of alternative fuels offers potential solutions to the environmental damage caused by the burning of fossil fuels as well as American dependence on foreign oil. "Clean energy technologies can help us tackle the problem of global climate change, improve air quality and increase our energy security," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.


Much like the Model-T Ford - originally built to run on ethanol - this fuel was long ago passed up for a cheaper, better performing alternative. Henry Ford originally viewed ethanol as the most viable option for the burgeoning automotive industry. The relatively non-toxic alcohol made from biological feedstock, most often corn, seemed the logical choice for what was then an agricultural-based economy. The industrial revolution that took place, helped along by improved manufacturing techniques pioneered by Ford, ushered in an increased reliance on fossil fuels. Gasoline's automotive performance, as well as its lower production cost, pushed ethanol to the wayside. Although ethanol received some attention during the oil crisis of the 1970s, it is only now that improved technology is making ethanol a more cost-effective replacement for gasoline. Ethanol can be used as an alternative fuel and as an octane enhancer. It also offers immediate potential as a replacement for MTBE in reformulated gasoline. Because ethanol feedstock converts CO2 into energy during plant growth, ethanol essentially contributes no additional CO2 to the environment, although it does produce approximately the same amount of other greenhouse gases as gasoline. Approximately 30,000 vehicles in the United States will operate on a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (E85) this year, according to the DOE. Currently, 58 ethanol plants in 19 states produce 1.8 billion gallons a year according to the American Coalition for Ethanol. The Governor's Ethanol Coalition, an organization of 24 states as well as international alliances with Brazil, Canada, Mexico and Sweden, said that amount could quickly rise. "The latest information indicates an estimated 1.1 billion more gallons of ethanol a year could be available shortly," said Coalition Chair Tom Vilsack. The biggest drawbacks to ethanol concern its performance capacity, which although enhanced by current technology, is about 90 percent of gasoline.


Methanol offers hope as an efficient, clean burning alternative to gasoline. Manufactured primarily from natural gas, methanol can also be made from renewable resources such as wood, biomass, solid waste and sewage. Offering the highest performance capabilities of all the alternative fuel technologies to date, methanol has been used to fuel the Indy Racing League (the Indianapolis 500, etc.) since the1960s. Neat methanol - 100 percent methanol - replaced gasoline in high-performance racing cars following a series of explosive crashes resulting in driver deaths in 1961. Methanol offers a higher fire-safety level than gasoline due to its solubility in water. Close to 20,000 vehicles in the United States will operate on a blend of 85 percent methanol and 15 percent gas (M85) this year. Methanol emissions are low in hydrocarbons and other toxic compounds such as nitrogen oxide, reducing the amount of air pollution generated compared to gasoline or ethanol. The American Methanol Institute lists 18 production plants in the United States with a total annual production of more than 2.6 billion gallons. Current market factors mean methanol could be produced, distributed and sold at prices competitive with gasoline. However, the majority of the methanol produced in the United States is used in the production of MTBE for RFG. The use of MTBE as an additive in RFG saves 10 times as many gallons of gasoline than all other alternative fuels combined.


Electric vehicles (EV) have been around for more than 150 years. First put to practical use in 1834 by Thomas Davenport, the dawn of the 20th century saw more EVs on the road than ICE vehicles. However, the cost and performance of ICEs soon made electricity an obsolete fuel option. Technology today is reversing those trends. Where electronic vehicles were once limited by the distance they could travel between recharging, as well as performance, today's versions average 40 to 100 miles between charges, more than enough to handle the 40-mile average daily use of today's private vehicles, according to the Electronic Vehicle Association of America (EVAA). Most EVs are also capable of speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour. Charging an EV can take place from any standard electrical outlet. The United States currently has close to 8,000 such vehicles on the roads today with that number increasing. The Big Three automakers - DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors - all produce EVs. The U.S. Postal Service recently made the largest single purchase of EVs ever, buying 500 from Ford, with an option on 5,500 more. EVs are classified as zero emission vehicles (ZEVs). Even taking into account the emissions from the power plants used to charge them, EVs are still 95 percent emission-free. Another benefit to EVs are their cost, since recharging an EV costs substantially less than fueling an ICE. According to the EVAA, the average monthly fuel cost for ICE drivers ranges around $50 a month versus an average of approximately $15 a month to charge an EV. Improving the performance and cost of the batteries needed to power EVs is the determining factor in the EV's future development. A variety of battery options are being developed and tested, ranging from nickel-metal-hydride to lithium. Current technology affecting battery size and cost make EVs more suited for applications such as public transportation.

Hydrogen fuel cells

According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership - a coalition of auto manufacturers, oil companies, Ballard Power Systems and the state of California - fuel cell vehicles have the potential to compete with conventional cars in performance and cost. They will provide good fuel efficiency and lower noise, vibration and air emissions than vehicles powered by ICEs. This combination makes fuel cells the most likely alternative technology to power the vehicles of the next century. "Fuel cell vehicles have great potential to offer future families the same comfort as today's vehicles with zero emissions and increased fuel economy," said Ford Chairman Bill Ford. Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Honda, Nissan and Volkswagen are all partnership members. Fuel cells operate like a battery (Figure 1), but do not require recharging and will continue to produce energy as long as fuel (hydrogen) is supplied. The fuel cell relies on chemistry, not combustion, to produce energy, heat and water by combining hydrogen and oxygen. "The fuel cell is a remarkable technology that has the potential to replace the internal combustion engine as a clean and economic source of power," said David Hocking of the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian-based environmental organization working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The type of fuel used to produce hydrogen will ultimately decide the amount of harmful emissions fuel cells generate. "Until renewable sources of hydrogen (solar, wind, etc.) are commercially available, we must continue to use the next best option, natural gas," said Hocking. Stripping hydrogen from natural gas would cut emissions of CO2 by 70 percent according to the Climate-Friendly Hydrogen Fuel report produced by the Suzuki Foundation. Stripping hydrogen from gasoline would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent. Fuel cell technology is advancing quickly, with fuel cell-powered buses already in operation in Europe. Plans for consumer fuel cell-powered cars are also underway with DaimlerChrysler setting a target date of 2004 for release of a fuel cell Mercedes-Benz A class.

End of the road

Americans spend approximately 60 to 100 hours a year sitting in traffic. The rise in the number of automobiles on the road each year as well as urban sprawl have created monumental traffic problems for major cities all over the United States. The resulting increase in gasoline consumption has led to the current economic dependence on foreign oil. Alternative fuel options may signal an end to fossil fuel dependence and perhaps halt consumer displeasure at the pump.


Alternative Fuels Data Center - www.afdc.doe.gov The American Ethanol Coalition - www.ethanol.org American Methanol Institute - www.methanol.org Electric Vehicle Association of America - www.evaa.org Fuel Cells 2000 -

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Hu Fleming, PhD, is vice president of the Water Purification Solutions Group, Severn Trent Services Inc., Ft. Washington, Penn.

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