Alternative Fuels 101

There has been a lot of talk, discussion, and information both, good and bad –true and false, about alternative fuels for motor vehicles. Over the next few articles I’ll get into the definitions, the pros and cons, and the best application for each type as well as some interesting areas under development.

What defines an Alternative Fuel? Without parsing words and creating confusion, think of alternative fuels as anything other than traditional gasoline or diesel that can power or assist in powering a motor vehicle. This will include but not be limited to Electric Hybrids, Hydraulic Hybrids, Electric, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG or Propane), Ethanol, Biodiesel, and many more.

ELECTRIC HYBRIDS- The most commonly available alternative fuel vehicle available today is a propulsion system that consists of a traditional internal combustion (IC) engine and some type of electrical storage and motor. Currently manufactured by nearly every major car company hybrids come in 2 major types conventional and plug in. A conventional hybrid will run off battery power under light loads and are most efficient for short trips or in stop and go driving where the batteries can be recharged via regenerative braking. A plug in hybrid (Chevy Volt) will run off of strictly electrical power as long as the battery is charged- the gasoline engine in these vehicles is there simply to extend the range of the vehicle. If you have a short commute and can plug in nightly- you may never need to buy gas!

Electric- Although electric cars have been around for over 100 years they are just now developing a following and becoming more available. Through the technology of better batteries and longer range you can now purchase a vehicle that runs strictly on electrical power. Right now there are limited choices and a higher initial cost but that will change as further advances are made.

Ethanol and Bio-diesel- These alternatives are usually combined with more traditional fossil fuels to extend and enhance their performance however both are able to operate as a stand alone fuel source. NASCAR currently uses strictly ethanol in its Sprint car series and Bio-Diesel has developed nearly a micro brew type following of home distillers using recycled vegetable oil and animal fats. Both are readily available on the open market and most often referred to as E-85 (ethanol) or B-20 (bio-diesel) by auto manufacturers.

Compressed Natural Gas- CNG is the most plentiful fuel available in the marketplace today and widely in use across the world as a motor fuel. It is a safe, clean burning, and very efficient fuel that is becoming more popular every year. Ford, GM, and Honda produce CNG vehicles for the US market while over 25 manufacturers build CNG vehicle across the world. Negatives include initial cost, lack of fueling infrastructure, and the required space for fuel storage. In areas where fueling stations are prevalent CNG is rapidly gaining popularity in the shuttle bus and transit marketplace.

Liquified Petroleum Gas- LPG or Propane has recently seen a revival in popularity due to improved power and mileage. Offered by several manufacturers as an OEM product it is also easily installed on almost any vehicle by an experienced mechanic. Conversions require the installation of a fuel storage tank which will limit some installations however with the availability of fueling stations this clean burning fuel is well established across the world.

Many, Many More are yet to come. We are already seeing Hydraulic Hybrids, Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology, solar power, and various forms of bio-mass come to the market. In the coming weeks I will explore each type of fuel in more depth- show where and how it is being used, and how it has impacted the bus and transportation business.