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Ethanol, Recapture, Efficiency, Oh My!

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author photo by Autotrader October 2007

If you are looking for a simple solution to solving your fuel-saving concerns, this may not be the article for you. The market is beginning to face a steadily growing stream of alternatives to the standard choice of gasoline or diesel engines. And as more and more come to market, we find ourselves having to make decisions of one over the other.

Fuel Options
Two of the current leaders in alternative fuels are E85 and biodiesel. While there are several other types of fuels (e.g. methane, hydrogen, propane), the availability, limitations, and other drawbacks currently do not show them as vying for pump space at your local gas station anytime soon.

Before going further into details about the fuel, a term should be addressed: "Flex-Fuel." The basic principle is that a vehicle designated as being flex-fuel compatible can utilize a variety of fuel types. While no models allow for all fuel types, many being produced can take two types (in many cases, the owners don’t even know their cars are equipped with these capabilities). The basic principle is that when there are two fuels that are close in composition, the engine is designed to handle both with a special computer that detects which fuel is in the tank and makes the needed adjustments.

E85 has made the most headway in the last few years as many manufactures have adopted it and evidence from its use in other countries is very promising. The “E’ stands for “Ethanol." Ethanol is commonly a fuel derivative from organic materials such as corn in the U.S., and sugar cane in Brazil. The “85” stands for 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.

Currently, ethanol costs more to refine than gasoline, produces less power than gasoline, and is not readily available. But, with increases in production volume and improvements in refining technologies, it is expected that not only could E85 become a mainstream (partial) alternative, but it could also generate a domestic boom in farming corn.

Biodiesel is the application of a new form of recycling. Diesel is very similar in many aspects to the oils that are used for frying food. The process takes used cooking oils through a series of refinements and then mixes them with a percentage of diesel fuel (ratio based on the vehicle).

For years, many diesel models have included specifications outlining the percentage of biodiesel the manufacturer recommends, but only in the past few years have most diesel owners become aware of this option. Some of the obstacles for this type of fuel such as the cost of refinement, the availability of refined fuels, and the amount of used oil (from restaurants, food processing plants, personal cooking, etc.) fall short of the demand from consumers. But even with these shortcomings, this serves to be a viable recycling option for used cooking oil and a step toward domestic oil production.

This is the basic principle of the current hybrid technologies. The concept is to find where energy may be being released from existing systems and then use that energy to return additional power to the vehicle.

The energy hybrids currently focus on is braking. If you were to count how many times you touched the brake pedal during normal usage, you would probably be surprised. Braking is implemented on most cars by adding resistance to the drive train (wheels, transmission, etc). When this occurs, the energy is converted into heat and dispersed into the air. Hybrids use special generators to add the resistance, which in turn creates electricity instead of heat. This electricity is used to charge the batteries that run the electric motor.

The mainstream acceptance of this technology has spawned research into other areas where energy can be recaptured. The tailpipe has become the next major focus as it is a source of heat, force (of the exhaust pushing out), and unspent fuel.

Leading in heat recapture, BMW has announced a prototype model that uses the heat to evaporate water, which is used to turn a fan that produces electricity (much like the power stations that supply electricity to our homes).

The force of the exhaust has long been tapped in what has been commonly referred to as a “turbo." Although traditionally thought of as a feature of high-performance vehicles, it is gaining popularity in more everyday cars as it is being adapted to be more of an efficiency device rather than one of performance.

Much to the surprise of many, not all of the fuel that goes through your engine is burned. The amount of fuel put through the engine, how you drive, and the design of the engine all affect the efficiency of actual fuel use. The challenge is in how to separate the spent and unspent fuel for practical use. While this concept has the most difficult hurdle to cross in terms of recapture, it possibly offers the most in improvements to the environmental impacts of driving.

Creating entirely new ways of generating power is a very difficult task. Currently, there are very few concepts in development that show promise to make it to mainstream application. However, borrowing from existing technologies in other industries has shown to be beneficial. A few of the leaders are cylinder shut-off, fuel cells, and improvements to that all too familiar energy source — solar.

Several different manufacturers are currently embracing the simple and quite effective process of cylinder shut-off. A computer senses when you are driving at a level speed, without increased power needs (e.g. towing a large load), and shuts off one or two cylinders of the engine thus reducing the amount of fuel being consumed. Once you increase the power (push the gas pedal) all of the cylinders instantly engage. In most cases, the computer cycles the cylinders to ensure all of them receive equal time-off so as not to wear down some cylinders faster than others.

Fuel cells are already in wide application in various areas of the transportation industry, just not so much in the automotive industry. The biggest problems are the costs and the availability of maintenance facilities and fueling stations. There are several variations, but the basic concept is that when hydrogen and oxygen are mixed to produce water, they generate an electric current.

The biggest advantage to this technology is that its only emission is water. However, the oxygen and hydrogen have to be accumulated, stored, and pumped into the vehicles. Pumping a set of gases versus the pumping of a liquid (gasoline) would require a major change in how we fill up our cars. In addition, there are several concerns over the storing and transferring of flammable gases that could leak more easily than a liquid. Finally, the components that make up the cell would require occasional replacement, and the production and disposal could create environmental challenges.

Solar has long been a focus of an underutilized power source. New technologies and materials are making the energy from the sun a more convenient and practical option. Unlike the bulky and fragile apparatus of the past, the newer devices may be able to be seamlessly applied to vehicles turning a long day parked in sun into a fill-up.

An honorable mention in this category should go to those working to make water a practical power source. In contrast to the fuel cell mentioned above, the process of electrolysis separates hydrogen and oxygen into combustible fuel. The two biggest problems: hydrogen is very combustible, making a tank in a car potentially dangerous, and the process is very slow. There are some applications in use where small hydrogen generators are used in heavy-duty vehicles as a small source of additional power. Put many feel that until the process can be performed at, or near, an on-demand level, it will not have a widespread practical application.

A long-time understood method for improving efficiency has been in the design of vehicles. The biggest problem, though, is making the designs attractive to consumers. The basic principle is that when anything moves through air it is met with resistance. The challenge has several different aspects: lower is better, but not safer; some designs are too racy (a concern for those not wanting to attract attention if they were to possibly be exceeding the speed limit); some designs are too round or egg-shaped; and many are too small for the average consumer's lifestyle. But with more creative uses of colors and shapes, positioning of interior space, and accepting of trade-offs, the designers and consumers are finding the middle ground.

The strength of a vehicle's materials often translates to the safety of the vehicle. However, the weight that has often come with strength creates an inverse to the desired effect of fuel efficiency. Two methods that have been popular in trying to reduce the weight have been to replace non-safety related panels with light weight materials and to replace structural sections with lighter, yet still as strong, materials.

One of the more popular replacement solutions for the panels was to use plastic or fiberglass. While lighter and more dent resistant, these materials proved to have some shortcomings. Warping, uneven gaps between panels, and inconsistent appearance with the metal panels provided challenges to this application being accepted by a large portion of models (not as evident with models entirely fitted with these panels). But with new composites, such as carbon fiber, a resurgence is currently underway for this practice.

Producing structural components to replace those that were traditionally made from steel has been a long road for designers. Advances in how alloys are created, how composite materials are formulated, and how both are engineered have made for significant improvements in reduced weight while maintaining the safety of the structural integrity.

As with any product, the buyers will be the driving force behind the success or failure of an application. Some are adapted instantly, others over time, and some are shelved with hopes of being reintroduced once science or society finds a way.

To read more about alternative fuels and technologies, visit the Going Green Interest Center.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Ethanol, Recapture, Efficiency, Oh My! - Autotrader