November 5, 2000
Combustion or Electricity?
By Royce Carlson
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
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
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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