Have you heard the legend of the steam-powered car? Many decades ago, according to rumor, a gas-powered engine prototype and a steam-engine car were both tested side by side. The large audience in attendance gasped in amazement when the steam engine suddenly exploded.
Neil Chambers, who wrote the book “Urban Green” and is a green-tech consultant at Chambers Design, says the legend may not be true, but does point to an interesting fact: the reason most of us drive a gas-powered car is not necessarily because gasoline is the best combustion agent. He says the story may be one reason why people started trusting internal combustion engines more as a safer engine fuel.
In speaking to several automotive experts, FoxNews.com found there are several fringe options for alternative fuel in cars. Some are so out there that there’s only one working prototype, others are a cause of serious concern over safety in both transporting the fuel and using it in modern engines.
The US consumed about a quarter of the gasoline used in the entire world last year, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report. We like our cars. Yet, because it takes millions of years for fossil fuels to form, many automakers are looking for better options, a fuel source that is plentiful like water or at least one that causes fewer carbon-dioxide emissions.
One of the most promising alternative fuels is hydrogen. Chambers says the main benefit of hydrogen is that it can be generated from water, an abundant source, and that carbon emissions are much lower than gasoline.
Mercedes-Benz is a leading proponent. Their hydrogen-powered 2012 B-Class F-CELL, which is currently available in Southern California, has a 134 horsepower electric motor and a range of about 190 miles. A hydrogen fuel cell stack uses a chemical process to generate the electricity to power the car, so the kind of large, heavy battery pack used in conventional electric cars is unnecessary. Even better, refueling takes no longer than filling up a car with gasoline.
John Hanson, the national manager for environmental, safety, and quality at Toyota, told FoxNews.com that, of the alt-fuels we discussed, hydrogen is on the top of their list. The automaker currently has a demo fleet of about 100 Toyota Highlanders that run on hydrogen fuel cells. He says there is a 2 to 1 advantage in per mile fuel costs over gas engines.
Harvard-trained geologist Byron King with Agora Financial says the main problem with hydrogen-powered cars is that the hydrogen has to be created first by electrolyzing water. He says the process is expensive and complex, two killers in the auto industry.
A few years ago, automotive experts started talking about using sawdust as a potential fuel source. The idea is that, instead of using corn or other foodstuffs to create ethanol, you generate ethanol using sawdust, corn husks, and other waste materials.
“Straw, sawdust, and human waste are all potential feedstocks for syngas, which is convertible into ethanol, butanol, and other liquid alternative transportation fuels,” says Mark Maher, the General Motors executive director for powertrain vehicle integration. According to Mahr, waste material research is in a start-up phase with companies like Coskata leading the charge.
However, King says the idea of using sawdust is not realistic. He cited a Chevron study that said it would take an area the size of New Mexico to produce enough raw materials to create enough ethanol to satisfy U.S. consumption.
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