Alternatives for powering vehicles

Several alternative energy vehicles were on display at this year’s renewable energy fair, including an owner-converted electric truck, two diesel engines powered by biodiesel fuel, and a Honda Insight hybrid. The owners answered questions and explained the benefits and challenges of owning and operating these vehicles.

With more widespread use, any of these alternative vehicles could reduce our dependence on imported oil, balance of trade deficit, military needs to maintain access to oil, air pollution and global warming, while improving our economy and generating local jobs.

While more fuel-efficient cars could accomplish the same goals, efforts to raise fuel efficiency standards have been unable to win support of Congress or the president. The EPA reports the U.S. fuel economy has reached a 22-year low. The Natural Resourse Defense Council calculated that a 40-mile-per-gallon fuel economy standard would save 25 times more oil by 2020 than an aggressive fuel cell program.

Critics have pointed out that high performance trucks and cars could be built today, but automakers are not building them. Internal combustion engines only convert 16 percent of their available energy to vehicle movement, although efficiencies of up to 20 percent are being developed.

California encouraged alternative vehicle development with a mandate requiring that a percentage of vehicles sold in the state meet a goal of zero emissions. Under pressure from the auto industry, political support for the mandate waned, and the promising transition to electrical vehicles has stalled. The technology still has its advocates, but few electric vehicles are being produced.

Electric vehicles are particularly popular in retirement communities for internal transportation. Others convert existing vehicles to electric power.

Ted Lowe of the Illinois Solar Energy Association displayed his electric pickup truck at the fair and presented the rationale for going electric and the steps involved in converting a vehicle to electric power.

On Sept. 13, the Fox Valley Electric Automobile Association will hold an electric vehicle seminar at Triton College from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. More information can be found by e-mailing or phoning 630-260-0424.

Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts to wear out than do internal combustion engines. They have no need for radiators, water pumps, fan belts and oil changes. A quality electric motor can provide up to 250,000 miles of service with substantial torque to provide rapid acceleration. The only parts that may wear out sooner are the brakes due to the added weight of the batteries.

Although the batteries require frequent recharging, battery technology continues to improve and distance traveled per charge is increasing. Battery-powered vehicles have efficiencies of up to 80 percent.

The presence of electric cars and improvements in the power train contributed to the rapid development of hybrid electric vehicles. The new 2004 Prius is 24 percent efficient, and efforts are underway to increase efficiencies to 27 percent. Hybrid car sales could reach 500,000 units a year in the U.S. by 2008. Until now, the biggest factor limiting sales was that they were only offered in small car models.

Hybrid trucks and SUVs should have increased market appeal, particularly if they cost no more than the traditional powered vehicles.

Some model hybrid vehicles have been adapted so the batteries can be recharged by a standard electrical outlet. This ability to plug in would enable owners to rely more on battery power, and less on fossil fuel power cutting emissions from vehicle combustion even further.

Efficiencies from 40 to 46 percent have been reported. Diesel hybrids under development report efficiencies of 32 percent with efficiencies exceeding 46 percent in a plug-in version.

Fuel cell efficiencies in vehicle tests are in the 40 to 42 percent range. Fuel cells remain costly and have yet to prove their ability to perform well over time under various weather conditions.

Some reports suggest hydrogen should be used in internal combustion engines to facilitate development of the hydrogen infrastructure and allow time for fuel cell improvements.

Professor Thorsteinn Sigfusson indicated Iceland’s transition to a hydrogen-based transportation system is expected to take years. He assumes technological advances will improve efficiencies involved in the hydrogen economy.

While electric cars have all but disappeared from a list of promising technologies, they may re-emerge. If the electricity they use is produced by renewable energy sources, the efficiency of battery energy could make them suitable for everyday travel.

With impending peak oil resulting in declining supplies and rising prices, it appears biofuels are set to become an important source for transportation. Rudolph Diesel and Henry Ford, early leaders in the transportation industry, expected their engines would be powered by fuels derived from plant materials.

Over the years, efforts to run vehicles on biofuels have garnered less favor on the federal level than those powered by petroleum products.

Interest in biofuels is growing globally as oil supplies tighten, rise in price, or become less reliable energy sources. Global warming, air pollution, and the need to provide more outputs for agricultural products have also stimulated interest in biofuels. The European Union passed legislation requiring that 5.75 percent of the market share be served by biofuels by 2010.

Biofuels—ethanol and biodiesel—are expanding in the United States as well. In 1999, only 500,000 gallons of biodiesel were produced. By 2001, production increased to 15 million gallons. They are available as 2 percent and 20 percent blends with diesel fuel with the 20 percent blend more widely used. The Ecology Center in Berkeley Calif. reports powering its diesel vehicles on 100 percent biodiesel.

The Illinois Soybean Growers Association maintains a Web site updating where soy diesel can be obtained. Judd Hulting of the Association made two presentations on the wisdom of using soy diesel, its current availability and plans for the future. The Association was a sponsor of this year’s fair (

Biodiesel works on any engine made after 1992 without any modification. Older engines only need to replace hoses and gaskets made of natural rubber. Faced with new air pollution regulations on diesel engines, owners of fleets of trucks, buses and tractors may meet the standards merely by switching fuels to a biodiesel blend.

Two vehicles displayed at the energy fair were powered by biodiesel. One used recycled cooking oil from fast food restaurants. With 500 million gallons of waste cooking oil per year being produced, it would make sense to recycle it rather than dispose of it.

The advantages of biodiesel include carbon recycling, reductions in sulfur and carbon emissions, fewer cancer-causing particulates, and the presence of a locally grown and processed fuel source. Developing a biodiesel infrastructure could serve us well in the future as the need arises to expand output.

Ethanol is a more established biofuel. Blends of 10 percent, 85 percent and 95 percent (E10, E85, and E95) have been successfully tested in vehicle fleets of various sizes throughout the country. E10 is the most commonly marketed form of ethanol.

In 1997, both Ford and Chrysler announced they would manufacture as many as 250,00 flexible fuel vehicles per year. General Motors also has a model in the marketplace.

The number of vehicles that run on either E85 or gasoline have increased dramatically, although potential consumers complain that too few outlets exist to make regular use of E85. A new marketing effort by corn growers should expand the number of stations carrying the fuel.

About 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol are produced annually, primarily from corn. A wide range of other biomass sources could be used for ethanol, including sugar beets, grasses, and dozens of other plants along with agricultural, municipal and industrial wastes. Its production could soon double as

states phase out using MTBE as an octane enhancer.

Ethanol has a number of advantages over gasoline. It recycles carbon and reduces carbon monoxide, toxic gases, and volatile organic emissions. While vehicle performance with ethanol is satisfactory, there is a slight loss in miles per gallon.

The greatest environmental benefit from using fuels from biomass is that they greatly reduce the release of greenhouse gases. If renewable energy sources were to replace fossil fuels in cultivating and processing biomass, scant greenhouse gases would be released.

All energy use produces pollution and environmental damage. The challenge is to find the best combination of technologies to meet our energy needs. However, technological fixes are appealing, but only partial solutions for the need to redesign our transportation system toward more sustainable goals.

The quickest, simplest and least costly way to curb excess transportation is to stay home more and substitute phone calls and e-mails for miles traveled. Walking, biking, taking a bus or carpooling cut fossil fuel consumption for those who must leave home.

We have options if we choose to use them.

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