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Alternative Culture Articles

November 5, 2000

Combustion or Electricity?
By Royce Carlson

100 years of gasoline and diesel internal combustion engines has gotten us into quite a fix. Our air is polluted, our streets are noisy, and we are destroying the environment and depleting a non-renewable resource that we have become dependent on. What a mess! Now that gasoline prices are creeping towards $2 per gallon (I hear itís between $6 and $8 per gallon in the UK) once again peopleís minds are turning toward alternatives to gasoline for our vehicles.

The two main alternative approaches to getting a vehicle from one place to another have mostly boiled down to electric motors or internal combustion engines that run on something besides gasoline or diesel. Which way is best? Here is some of whatís going on in the alternative fuel field:

If you are going to power a vehicle with electric motors you need to either store enough electricity via batteries of some kind or produce the electricity as you travel. A lot of work has gone into rechargeable battery technology but they still canít get the batteries to store enough electricity for a decent driving distance, especially with a vehicle that can carry more than one person plus a reasonable payload.

Photovoltaic panels on the vehicle can help the mileage some but still, even with that, it looks like battery powered vehicles are not going to become very popular unless some new breakthrough in battery technology happens. That doesnít mean that electric vehicles are out, though. Fuel cells can produce electricity as you travel.

The fuel cell is a way of taking hydrogen and oxygen and getting electricity. The hydrogen can be stored in a tank and the fuel cell will keep producing electricity as long as the fuel is supplied. The emissions from a hydrogen fuel cell running on pure hydrogen is zero. Actually, they emit water vapor but thatís all. So, not only is a fuel cell a viable option for keeping an electric vehicle going, it is quiet and as clean as you can get.

You can also use other hydrocarbons like methanol, alcohol, natural gas or even gasoline in a fuel cell. The fuel cell extracts the hydrogen to produce electricity. Hydrocarbons produce some emissions when used in a fuel cell, but they are far less than todayís gasoline engines. The fuel cell is probably the most practical and viable option available right now. Daimler/Chrysler is planning to come out with a production fuel cell vehicle by 2004.

In the meantime, we donít have to give up on the internal combustion engine in order to stop or reduce pollution and our dependence on a non-renewable resource. We can burn other things besides gasoline.

Bio-fuels are being researched and they are also being used in greater quantities lately. In the Midwest, methanol is added to gasoline. Methanol is produced mostly from corn. It can also be produced from any agricultural waste products. Methanol is a much simpler hydrocarbon than gasoline and will put less toxic emissions into the atmosphere. We can expect to see an increase in the use of methanol to power our engines over the next several years.

The funny thing about bio-fuel is that it is old technology. It is as old as petroleum fuel technology. In 1900 the diesel engine was invented by a German agriculturalist named Diesel. He intended it to run on vegetable oil. At the 1900 Worldís Fair he amazed the world by running his engine on peanut oil. After his death in 1911, the vegetable oil fuel idea was discarded.

You can still run any diesel engine on fuel made from vegetable oil. The Veggie Van runs on used cooking oil from the fryers at fast food restaurants. It is converted to fuel by filtering the oil, heating it and adding a little methanol and lye. Then it is mixed and left to settle for a while. After settling, the liquid on top is siphoned off, put through another filter and then put directly into the fuel tank. It can even be mixed with petroleum diesel fuel. The Veggie Van gets 25 miles per gallon and has traveled over 25,000 miles on bio-diesel. One unusual side effect of bio-diesel is that the exhaust smells like french fries!

Hydrogen is another fuel that can be burned in an internal combustion engine. As with fuel cells, when hydrogen burns it produces only water vapor as its emission. Hydrogen is everywhere. We can never use it up. You can extract hydrogen from water and when it is done producing energy it turns back into water again!

For many years diesel locomotives have produced their power via both electricity and internal combustion. A diesel engine runs a generator that sends electricity to motors in the drive wheels of the locomotive engine. Right now a few auto manufacturers are producing similar vehicles called hybrids that use a combination of internal combustion and electric motors to power their cars. They still run on gasoline but their fuel efficiency is better than most cars.

My bet is on the fuel cell as the winning technology for the future. It will reduce our dependence on oil, foreign or domestic. It will drastically reduce air pollution and noise pollution, and it can operate on renewable resources like bio-fuels or even pure hydrogen. There are already some buses running on fuel cells and, as the price of fuel cell technology comes down, they will find their way into passenger vehicles. Letís hope that, if gasoline prices come down, we can keep the pressure on toward a more sustainable and earth-friendly way of powering our cars and trucks.

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Royce Carlson