What Your Car Will be Powered by in the Future



A look at the fuels beyond petroleum that are likely to be used in the future.

Cellulosic Ethanol

Ethanol fuel is not likely to be the ultimate solution, but it can help reduce pollution further as well as our dependence on foreign oil. Ethanol is blended with gasoline to produce E85, which is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline and the vehicles that run on it are called “flex-fuel” vehicles because they can run on E85 if there is an ethanol station or gasoline if there is not. The biggest appeal ethanol holds is that the added cost to build one (cost to manufacturer) is about $100 and the consumer is not charged anything extra. You can walk into a Ford dealership and buy an F-150 pickup truck that runs on E85 for the same price as one that does not.

In addition, millions of these cars are on the road today and the technology is available all across the spectrum of models; you can buy anything from a car to a cargo van that is E85 capable. Unfortunately, as with every alternative fuel solution, there is a problem. The problem is that ethanol is made from corn (fermented) and America does not have enough corn/land to fuel this country’s automobiles. In addition, the corn used to produce E85 could be going to slow world hunger. Cellulosic ethanol solves this. Cellulosic ethanol is ethanol fuel produced from the fermentation of garbage, switch grass (wild grass that can be grown in large open areas and takes less land than corn/doesn’t feed people), woodchips, or essentially most plants.

These do not cause any problems in the food market, are much more cost-effective, and America is able to produce enough of these items that produce the fuel to meet the demand our nation would have. The final benefit is that pollution is lower because of less energy used to produce the items. Expect this to come into play by around 2010.

Plug-in Hybrid (Includes Electric Vehicle Information)

In the 1990’s and a short part of the beginning of the 21st century, electric vehicles were produced by the major car companies. Few were produced, but the companies promised more in the near future. The flaw in this technology was the cost (and inefficiency) of the battery. An alternative fuel vehicle that goes into production needs to meet all the performance and convenience consumers’ demand. Unfortunately, whether they were right or wrong, automakers deemed the technology unviable because it did not meet these requirements. By 2003, the (mass-produced) electric car became dead overnight with little public information given as to why. The car companies eventually moved to hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles because they meet all consumer requirements while achieving high gas mileage.

Unfortunately, they still run on gasoline (and with increasing population, there will be more cars, so even if all cars where hybrids, consumer demand would virtually nullify the positive effects). Today, many models from small cars to large SUV’s and even heavy duty vehicles like big rigs and busses are available with hybrid models. The next step up is the plug-in hybrid, which can be plugged in and powered by electricity but do not have the mileage limits of electric vehicles. For example, an electric vehicle might travel 60 miles on its batter, but what would happen if you go on vacation and travel over 60 miles? In the case of the plug-in hybrid, you can travel about 40 of the total on the electric battery alone and then the conventional hybrid engine (gasoline, E85, hydrogen, natural gas, or anything else). Plug-in hybrid technology makes a vehicle more efficient and more convenient for the consumer.

For a background on the battery technology, today most hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles use a nickel-metal batter. The future battery is the lithium-ion battery, which is more efficient and is not used today only because the cost is high. Many major automakers, like Ford, GM, Chrysler, and Toyota are researching this technology. Expect a vehicle in showrooms from around 2010-2015. Full electric vehicles are being produced today, but not by the major automakers and not at an affordable price. For example, the infamous Tesla roadster is an all-electric sports car…only problem: over $100,000 MSRP. Expect an affordable electric vehicle after 2015.

Absorbed Natural Gas Powered Vehicle

Today, natural gas vehicles are most popular in fleets. Natural gas fuel is currently produced for the most part by drilling for fuel reserves, like oil. In the future however, natural gas will likely be mass-produced by collecting the methane emitted from landfills and cow manure. The reason natural gas fuel is used is that it is a low-carbon fuel, so it emits much less than a gasoline vehicle. In fact, the greenest car in the world is the natural gas Honda Civic.

All the major automakers produced natural gas vehicles until 2003-2005 when the only model left was the Honda Civic. A part of the reason for this was the inconvenience. Natural gas fuel tanks were big and bulky (taking up trunk space) and the fuel had to either be compressed (CNG-usually around 3600 psi) or liquefied (LNG-usually around 15psi). Either method cost more. A new way to store natural gas fuel has the potential to not only make the vehicle more convenient, but also allow a fueling infrastructure to grow overnight at low cost. For the future, the fuel could be mixed with hydrogen (HCNG) and then completely become hydrogen supplied because hydrogen and natural gas are very similar fuels.

Essentially, the new system would allow a natural gas fuel infrastructure and then a hydrogen fuel infrastructure to be created overnight. The new system was developed in a partnership with the University of Missouri and uses corn cobs to make carbon briquettes, which store the fuel and can be shaped like regular gasoline tanks. The reason an infrastructure could grow quickly is because the fuel (ANG) is at the same pressure as natural gas in pipelines across America that go to homes. Essentially, the pipeline could be tapped into to fuel the car (using a low-cost device). In addition, fuel pumps would just use a pipeline rather than trucking their fuel or having to compress it. The impact is that our energy independence could be solved and our global warming crisis slowed by this technology. It is not guaranteed, but it is an option. If available, expect a vehicle in the showroom around 2013.

Hydrogen Vehicle (Includes ICE and Fuel Cell)

Many people know about hydrogen technology, but do not know the specifics. Hydrogen powered vehicles have two different classifications. The first is Hydrogen ICE (Internal Combustion Engine). This technology is cheaper and will likely be in showrooms sooner. In the US, Ford is making a limited number of hydrogen ICE shuttle busses for a $250,000 lease. BMW and Mazda are also researching this technology. Expect these in the showroom anywhere from 2010-2020. These vehicles still have some emissions, even though they are reduced by 99%. The tailpipe emissions consist solely of water.

The vehicle only pollutes because of the oil used in the engine. The second classification is the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The sole emission is water and the engine is completely quite. Virtually all the major auto manufacturers are researching this technology. Honda is currently leasing 100 fuel cell vehicles in California for 600 dollars a month; do not expect to easily purchase this vehicle though because Honda is aiming to lease mostly to celebrities and the well connected. Expect these vehicles in the showroom from 2013-2025.

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