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Fuels: Availability & Application

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author photo by Autotrader October 2007

For the last few decades, filling up your car has been pretty easy Regular, Mid-Grade, Hi-Test (Super) or Diesel. But soon you may see a whole new set of pumps containing a variety of new fuels ranging from diesel enhanced with used cooking oil to grain alcohol mixed with regular gas. There could even be a few air-hose type pumps offering hydrogen, methane, or propane gases. Regardless of what does eventually make it to your corner filling station, even money says you will be seeing new choices in the near future.

One of the surest signs comes from the automotive manufacturers. The last few years have seen a massive increase in the models that come with E85 Flex Fuel capability. The additional technology was one of the easier ways for the manufacturers to meet government regulations for producing efficient vehicles. However, the problem of limited availability of E85 still faces the average consumer. According to, there were just over 1,100 E85 filling stations at the beginning of 2007.

The biggest challenge is not necessarily developing the new fuels and technologies, but incorporating them into the mainstream. The EPA program to remove lead from gasoline, 1973-1986, had to take into account not only the auto makers, but also the gas companies, filling stations, auto parts stores and manufacturers, mechanic training, and dozens of other peripheral industries. The biggest take-away from this is that no matter how optimal the fuel, the infrastructure must also be in place, and on a national scale, it can take years.

Also, fuels can be fickle in how they affect different engines. Biodiesel is a good example of a diverse fuel that has recently received a great deal of attention. It is truly impressive that used cooking oil can be used as an automotive fuel. However, it has to be added in ratio to regular diesel fuel to be effective (no mass-produced vehicle can run entirely on vegetable oil or at least it's not recommended by manufacturers). Almost every manufacturer has a different ratio that could restrict any mass-produced biodiesel to have to match only the ratio of the lowest compatible model. Finally, the amount of used cooking oil produced in the U.S. could not keep up with the massive amounts that would be consumed by vehicles (just think about how much is used each day by big rigs and delivery trucks). So a new industry of cooking oil for fuel would have to be incorporated to support the viability of developing a network of profitable filling stations or at least pump space at some filling stations.

A surge of different gaseous fuels (gaseous as in vapors, not gasoline) is being assessed in the U.S. and overseas. Hydrogen, hydrogen/oxygen mixtures, methane, and propane have all been heavily tested over the past few years. Each has attractive benefits ranging from negligible emissions to abundant and inexpensive surpluses. However, challenges ranging from low power output to safety concerns over leaking gases have slowed adoption. One of the two biggest concerns is having to develop new filling station equipment that would transfer a vapor instead of a liquid and then training consumers on how to safely use the equipment.

Many fuels have tried to gain a foothold over the last few decades and have not succeeded. It's not to say that the efforts were for naught, but rather, that lessons were (hopefully) learned about what the industry, infrastructure, and consumers need in order to accept change. As laws are instituted, consumer demands become stronger, and viable solutions come to light, we can expect to see more of these options being tested in different markets and possibly, in the not so distant future, mainstream acceptance of one or more new fuels.

Here are a few more details from the U.S. Department of Energy ( about some of the major fuel types on the market and in development:

Gasoline - Motor fuel produced when natural gasoline is separated from crude oil, then blended and refined. It combusts when it is compressed and an electrical spark is introduced.

Diesel - A heavy oil that is used as a fuel. Provides approximately 40% better fuel economy than gasoline. It combusts when it is compressed and a heat source is applied to it.

Crude Oil - Crude oil was formed from the remains of tiny aquatic plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. These remains were covered with layers of sediment, which over millions of years of extreme pressure and high temperatures became the mix of liquid hydrocarbons (an organic chemical compound of hydrogen and carbon) that we know as crude oil. Because crude oil is made up of a mixture of hydrocarbons, refineries break down these hydrocarbons into different products. These refined products include gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil, jet fuel, liquefied petroleum gases, residual fuel oil and many other products.

Biodiesel - Biodiesel is a domestically produced, renewable fuel that can be manufactured from vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled restaurant greases. Biodiesel is safe, biodegradable, and reduces serious air pollutants such as particulates, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and air toxics. Blends of 20% biodiesel with 80% petroleum diesel (B20) can generally be used in unmodified diesel engines; however, users should consult their OEM and engine warranty statement. Biodiesel can also be used in its pure form (B100), but it may require certain engine modifications to avoid maintenance and performance problems and may not be suitable for wintertime use. Users should consult their engine warranty statement.

Ethanol - Ethanol is an alcohol-based alternative fuel produced by fermenting and distilling starch crops that have been converted into simple sugars. Feedstocks for this fuel include corn, barley, and wheat. Ethanol can also be produced from "cellulosic biomass," such as trees and grasses. It is called bio-ethanol. Ethanol is most commonly used to increase octane and improve the emissions quality of gasoline. Ethanol can be blended with gasoline to create E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.

LPG / Natural Gas - Natural gas is domestically produced and readily available to end-users through the utility infrastructure. It is also clean-burning and produces significantly fewer harmful emissions than reformulated gasoline or diesel when used in natural gas vehicles. In addition, commercially available medium- and heavy-duty natural gas engines have demonstrated over 90% reductions of carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter and more than 50% reduction in nitrogen oxides (NOx) relative to commercial diesel engines. Natural gas can be stored onboard a vehicle either as compressed natural gas (CNG) at 3,000 or 3,600 psi or as liquefied natural gas (LNG) at typically 20-150 psi. Natural gas can also be blended with hydrogen.

Methanol - Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, can be used as an alternative fuel in flexible fuel vehicles that run on M85 (a blend of 85% methanol and 15% gasoline). However, it is not commonly used because automakers are no longer supplying methanol-powered vehicles.

Methanol can be used to make methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), an oxygenate that is blended with gasoline to enhance octane and create cleaner burning fuel. MTBE production and use have declined because it has been found to contaminate ground water. In the future, methanol could possibly be the fuel of choice for providing the hydrogen necessary to power fuel cell vehicles.

Propane - Propane or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is a popular alternative fuel choice for vehicles because there is already an infrastructure of pipelines, processing facilities and storage for its efficient distribution. For more information on propane vehicles, see the propane vehicles and aftermarket conversions pages. Besides being readily available to the general public, LPG produces fewer vehicle emissions than gasoline. Propane is produced as a by-product of natural gas processing and crude oil refining.

Hydrogen - Hydrogen (H2) will play an important role in developing sustainable transportation in the United States because in the future it may be produced in virtually unlimited quantities using renewable resources. Hydrogen has been used effectively in a number of internal combustion engine vehicles as pure hydrogen mixed with natural gas.

In addition, hydrogen is used in a growing number of demonstration fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen and oxygen from air fed into a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell "stack" produce enough electricity to power an electric automobile, without producing harmful emissions.

P-Series - P-Series fuel is a unique blend of natural gas liquids (pentanes plus), ethanol, and the biomass-derived co-solvent methyltetrahydrofuran (MeTHF). P-Series fuels are clear, colorless, 89-93 octane, liquid blends that are formulated to be used in flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs). P-Series are designed to be used alone or freely mixed with gasoline in any proportion inside the FFV's gas tank. These fuels are not currently being produced in large quantities and are not widely used.

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Fuels: Availability & Application - Autotrader