Four Alternative Fuel Types

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Today’s world is well aware that our dependence on oil as a primary source of energy cannot be sustained. As a result, it is necessary for us to discover other forms of energy. Toward that end, a number of alternatives have been brought forward. These can include hydrogen, ethanol, solar power, and nuclear energy.

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Energy from hydrogen, an environmentally friendly gas, is one of the more popularly desired energy sources. Iceland is already well on its way to becoming the first nation to generate the bulk of its power needs by means of hydrogen fuel cells. These fuel cells are essentially silently running continually refilling batteries that generate an electrical current by introducing hydrogen to oxygen, a combination that produces energy. While vehicles utilizing hydrogen power are not widely available to the public as yet, the technology has been developed beyond the research and development stage for use in light and heavy-duty applications. The chemical composition of this fuel is very simple, being nothing more than Hydrogen, the ‘H’ in H2O. Being the dominant compound in water, a very abundant resource in the world, the use of hydrogen as a fuel source means the only emissions to be concerned about with this fuel source is water vapor. Unfortunately, though, extracting hydrogen from water is currently a very costly endeavor and hydrogen gas is highly flammable. This makes it difficult to ensure safety during transport, both to supply stations as well as while it exists in reserve in individual fuel tanks. In addition, production is not necessarily an improvement over current fuel supplies. “The more widely used method is to split the hydrocarbons in fossil fuels into hydrogen and carbon. This is much cheaper but it defeats the point somewhat as it still uses fossil fuels and creates carbon dioxide as a by-product” (“Alternatives to Oil”, 2002). In spite of this, the use of hydrogen-powered transports would effectively ease air pollution because of its end product while methods of producing the gas can be improved to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. This argument can also be used in the use of biofuels. “The Energy White Paper (EWP) identifies liquid biofuels and hydrogen as the most promising candidates for tomorrow’s low carbon transport fuels” (“Towards a UK Strategy”, 2004).

Bio-fuels are distilled from an easily replenished source and emit no additional pollutants into the air. The most common type, Ethanol, has the ability to be mixed with gasoline while bio-diesel, vegetable oil derived through the same processes, can be burned in diesel engines without even the need for engine modification. At the very least, this type of ‘green’ fuel can serve as a bridge fuel while scientists work to develop more efficient and sustainable fuel sources. This is because it can be used directly in existing engines with little to no modification, as would be necessary for converting to hydrogen power. Another benefit of bio-fuels is the concurrent advancement of the agricultural industry (“Towards a UK Strategy”, 2004). Unfortunately, it takes about 70 percent more energy to make ethanol than is contained in the same amount of ethanol produced. At the same time, fossil fuel is also used in the production of crops grown for use as ethanol. “Increasing ethanol production will increase degradation of vital agricultural and water resources and will seriously contribute to the pollution of the environment. In U.S. corn production, soil erodes some 20-times faster than soil is formed” (Pimentel, 1998, p. 5). In the face of large-scale hunger issues in many parts of the globe, this use of resources may not be the best option.

While problems of production and distribution plague technologies such as ethanol and hydrogen, other forms of energy may contribute to an already abundantly available distribution network. Geothermal energy comes directly from the earth as steam and can be used to power electric producing plants as well as other less complex applications. This energy source is a plentiful, sustainable, and affordable way to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. In California, geothermal energy supplies supply approximately five percent of total electric requirements. This same energy source supplies as much as 25 percent of energy needs in the Central American country of El Salvador. Iceland uses its vast resources of geothermal heat to warm many of its buildings and other power applications. The State of Idaho is also a large consumer of this naturally occurring power source from the earth. The benefits are being utilized all across the nation. “In thousands of homes and buildings across the United States, geothermal heat pumps use the steady temperatures just underground to heat and cool buildings, cleanly and inexpensively. Geothermal energy has the potential to play a significant role in moving the United States (and other regions of the world) toward a cleaner, more sustainable energy system” (“Geothermal Energy”, 2006). Technological advancements in this field during the past 25 years have reduced the cost of energy production via this method to approximately five cents per kilowatt-hour (“Comparative Cost”, 2003). This makes it highly competitive with coal-fired plants. Geothermal energy is still a virtually untapped resource despite its great availability, affordability, and lack of harm it causes to the atmosphere. In its ability to contribute to the nation’s electrical grid, it can provide an alternative form of fuel with the production and widespread distribution of plug-in hybrid vehicles, making it as easy as plugging in the car to the garage outlet to refuel.

Solar power is a widely used technology projected to be a prolific energy source for the future. Today, solar energy supplies electric power to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. More than ten thousand people are employed in the solar energy market that producing revenues of at least $1 billion dollars. The advantages of solar power are obvious. It is an abundant, non-polluting, and free energy resource as long as the sun shines. The sun provides the earth with 10,000 times more energy than its people consume, however, this resource remains essentially unexploited. At present, the expense of individual home installation is prohibitive for most consumers but this is changing with time. “Solar power is a prime choice in developing an affordable, feasible, global power source that is able to substitute for fossil fuels in all climate zones around the world” (“Solar Generation”, 2003). While the cost of solar cells and the feasibility of installing them on individual homes has been a point of contention and extreme expense, new developments in technology have made it possible to establish large-scale solar ‘farms’ that can contribute to the larger national electrical grid while other technologies are introducing the possibility of generating solar energy through specially designed windows that would take less expensive to produce as well (“Cost-Effective Devices Available Soon,” 2008). Like geothermal energy, contributions to the national grid make fuel in the form of electricity available in households for the powering of all devices, including plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

While therseveralber of options for alternative fuel sources are currently being developed, it is important to look beyond the simple end results of using these fuels to understand the cost of production and the logistics of distribution. All available alternatives today will require some adjustment, either by significantly modifying the vehicles used and the energy source they operate on or reallocating other finite resources toward fuel production. The most feasible options today seem to focus on the conversion to electric vehicles as these methods of power production offer the fewest risks both now and into the future at the same time that widespread distribution channels already exist in the form of the national electric grid.

References

  1. Alternatives to Oil.” Disposable Planet? BBC News UK. (2002). Web.
  2. “Comparative Cost of California Central Station Electricity Generation Technologies, Final Staff Report.” California Energy Commission (CEC). (2003).
  3. Cost Effective Devices Available Soon.” Science Daily. (2008). Web.
  4. “Geothermal Energy: Tapping the Energy in the Earth’s Core.” Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI). (2006).
  5. Pimentel, D. “Energy and Dollar Costs of Ethanol Production with Corn.” Hubbert Center Newsletter. Vol. 98, I. 2, (1998). M, King Hubbert Center for Petroleum Supply Studies
  6. “Solar Generation Report.” Greenpeace. (2003).
  7. “Towards a UK Strategy for Biofuels – Public Consultation.” (2004). Department for Transport UK.

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