Gasoline and diesel may be the reigning champs, but it looks like they’ve got some competition. With growing concerns of the automotive industry’s impact on the environment through carbon emissions, car owners are seeking alternative energy solutions that offer greater sustainability. Here are six alternative fuel sources that can guide us towards becoming a more energy independent nation.
Hydrogen is abundant in our environment and therefore greatly accessible – it’s in water, hydrocarbons, and other organic matter – and is used to power fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). The appeal of FCEVs rest on their efficiency, rapid filling times, and above all, emissions of only water and warm air.
Extracting hydrogen particles, however, is a rigorous process and as a result, hydrogen contains less energy content in comparison to gasoline or diesel fuel. In part because of this production bottleneck, FCEVs have yet to reach the mass market.
Developing a substantial fueling infrastructure can be difficult and costly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not feasible. In fact, LGM is a proud sponsor of Canada’s first retail hydrogen station, opening in Vancouver this month. The station will be the first in a six-station network that is a result of the partnership between HTEC (Hydrogen Technology & Energy Corporation) and Shell Canada. For more information, read the announcement we shared in March.
Sourced directly from the electrical grid and other off-board electric power sources, electricity is a highly efficient energy source that’s readily available to us through an already developed infrastructure. Electricity is stored in the rechargeable batteries of all-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), releasing considerably fewer emissions than gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles when in operation.
In gas-electric hybrids, electricity replaces gasoline at lower speeds, and for starting and stopping motions. Similarly, PHEVs use electricity to power the vehicle over longer distances, releasing zero emissions when the car is running purely on battery power.
Although electricity may have a lower fuel cost, the purchase price of an actual electric vehicle (EV) can be significantly higher compared to conventional gasoline-powered cars. Also, much of the electricity today comes from burning coal or natural gas, which introduces the debate about its overall carbon footprint.
Biodiesel is independent of what we know as conventional petroleum diesel. A byproduct of biodegradable, non-toxic resources like vegetable oils, animal fats, and even recycled restaurant grease, it is exceptionally clean-burning and renewable. Biodiesel comes in a variety of blends (for instance, B5 which is 5% biodiesel and 95% standard diesel), and in its pure form (B100).
Unlike all-electric zero emissions vehicles, biodiesel-powered vehicles do emit carbon dioxide (CO2), but there’s a silver lining. Any CO2 that’s emitted is offset by the CO2 absorbed by the feedstock crops that produce biodiesel (like soybeans), making it a cleaner substitute to gasoline or diesel.
The distribution network for biodiesel is lacking due to limited production, which is why biodiesel, particularly in its pure form, can be more costly than conventional diesel – but this is also dependent on the market and geographic location. On top of that, biodiesel has 10% less energy content, which means biodiesel-powered vehicles require more fuel than standard diesel cars.
Ethanol, an alcohol-based fuel, is made of renewable materials – think crops like corn, barley, and wheat. Several blends of ethanol are used today but E10 is most common (10% ethanol and 90% gasoline). Other blends include E15, used in models manufactured in 2001 onwards, and E85, a ‘flex fuel’ that’s used in vehicles that can operate on gasoline alone, or a blend of up to 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.
Like biodiesel, crops that are used to produce ethanol offset any CO2 that’s emitted in the combustion process. As a result, ethanol can improve our energy security and air quality by reducing the amount of pollutants that enter the atmosphere.
Producing ethanol, however, is energy-intensive. Resources are depleted in the process, which negatively impacts food prices and availability, and more opportunities for CO2 emissions arise. In terms of fuel economy (the relationship between distance traveled and fuel consumed by a vehicle), ethanol contains about one third less energy than gasoline, meaning a vehicle will typically run fewer miles per litre than if it was 100% gasoline-powered.
5. NATURAL GAS
Natural gas, as a transportation fuel source, comes in two forms – CNG and LNG (compressed and liquefied natural gas, respectively). CNG is natural gas that’s compressed to less than 1% of its volume at standard atmospheric pressure, and has a fuel economy that’s comparable to gasoline. On the other hand, LNG is natural gas in its liquid form, typically used to power medium- to heavy-duty vehicles that travel long distances.
Natural gas is widely available across the world as part of utilities for domestic use, and burns cleanly. However, the vast majority of natural gas is a fossil fuel – a product of many resources that take millions of years to form. This extensive process, matched with the rapid rate at which natural gas combustion occurs in vehicles, limits its opportunities for commercial applications and usage. Natural gas also releases harmful methane emissions into the atmosphere – a detrimental greenhouse gas that’s supposedly 21 times worse than CO2.
Storing natural gas can also be inconvenient and costly. With a boiling point that’s well below room temperature, it has to be stored in vacuum-like cryogenic tanks.
Propane, also known as liquefied petroleum gas, is a byproduct of natural gas processing and crude oil refining. When stored, it resembles a colourless liquid and only vaporizes into a gas during the combustion process. Like electricity, propane is domestically available through a well-established infrastructure built around usage, transportation, storage, and distribution – we use propane gas in our homes and water heating systems, refrigeration, and to power industrial equipment. Its clean-burning qualities present no threat to soil, surface water, or groundwater, which makes it a sustainable alternative fuel source. What’s more appealing is its relatively low fuel cost and energy-dense composition.
As with EVs, propane-powered vehicles may be more expensive despite being affordable as a fuel source. And while propane does have a lower carbon content than gasoline or diesel, like natural gas, it’s a contributor of methane emissions.