Are Alternative Fuels A Good Alternative For You?

by Don Elliott on June 2, 2011

You have more choices today than ever before when it comes to which fuel to choose for your used car. Other than the obvious miles per gallon (mpg) statistics and cost, it is necessary to also consider incentives, fuel availability, range, maintenance, and potential new technology. Commercially available choices are listed here.

Gasoline – Internal combustion engines (ICE) run on gasoline. Gasoline isn’t just a single choice. Virgin gasoline has to be reformulated for today’s modern engines. The gasoline at your gas station is a very complicated blend of several petroleum products obtained by refining crude oil. Most current automobile engines run properly on gasoline with an octane rating of 87. High performance engines require the higher energy content included with octane ratings of 89 or 91 for a higher compression ratio and to reduce engine knock. To get more gasoline to the mile, gasoline providers are allowed to add up to 5.9% ethanol (called E-10) during the winter months. Volatility (the tendency of a product to vaporize) is less likely to cause vapor lock in non-fuel injected engines in the winter. Adding ethanol also reduces the mileage because it burns less efficiently. On a positive note, reformulated gasoline reduces the emission of unburned hydrocarbons, a regulation measured closely in many major cities. As gasoline engines change, gasoline must change. This process causes an increase in the price of gas.

Flex Fuel – Some newer car models allow for the use of E-85 ethanol (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) as a fuel choice. Ethanol can be refined from petroleum or distilled from cellulose (typically corn) by fermentation. Ethanol does not burn as efficiently as gasoline because of lower energy content. This causes fewer miles per gallon. However, E-85 costs less than 87-octane gasoline. This is partly due to government subsidies necessary until refining technology becomes more cost efficient.

Diesel – Since 2007, Diesel Engined Road Vehicles (DERVs) have run on Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD). Diesel fuel has higher energy content than gasoline, resulting in better fuel efficiency. The cost of removing the sulfur results in a slightly higher price at the pump, but fewer odors are emitted when burned. As an fuel alternative to ULSD, biodiesel is manufactured from animal fats, vegetable oils, and recycled restaurant grease. Biodiesel is less polluting, biodegradable, and non-toxic. And—your car will smell like french fries!

Hybrid – Hybrid vehicles use two or more power sources. Typically, consumer vehicles are hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) powered by an internal combustion engine (gasoline fueled) and one or more electric motors. There is a wide range of power train configurations that should be understood when choosing an HEV vehicle. Generally, batteries for the electric motors are recharged while the car is running.

Electric – Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) have increased energy storage capacity (more batteries) to power the car primarily using electric energy. Lithium ion batteries or other fuel cells are recharged while the vehicle is parked as compared to using the moving energy of the car to recharge while driving.

Comparing vehicles powered by alternative fuels is not easy stuff. Miles per gallon ratings are only part of the story. Long-term operating costs and used car value retention are in many cases still unknown. Benefits to the environment also have to be considered.

Send us a comment if this alternative fuel information has been helpful to you.

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