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Fuels Of The Future

By Carey Russ



    Much has been said of late about the future evolution of the 

automobile. Low-emission vehicles, ultra-low-emission vehicles, 

zero-emission vehicles, and alternative fuels are being considered by 

government and industry as solutions to pollution problems. You've 

probably heard some of the talk and may be wondering how it 

could affect you personally.

    You will be affected. There is absolutely no doubt about that. If 

you live and drive in any of the more populous parts of the country, 

you are already filling your tank with reformulated fuel. If you are 

considering the purchase of a new car, you will pay extra because 

of environmental regulations. If you are considering purchase of an 

older car, you may be in for possible problems and expensive 

modifications in order for it to run on current and future fuels. Even 

if you don't drive you will be affected by changing pollutants and 

more expensive transportation. Both cars and the fuels that they use 

will be changing in the future; how much change and in what ways 

are the major questions.

    The first changes will be to fuel. Leaded gasoline is virtually 

extinct in this country. This affects older vehicles and additives are 

available to keep problems at bay if you have an applicable 

machine.  Lead-free gasoline is actually much better for engines as 

there is no lead to build up gummy deposits and sludge. Lead was 

used as an inexpensive octane booster and to help seal old-tech 

valve seats. There are cleaner if more expensive octane boosters 

and new materials for valve seats that render lead obsolete with 

minor expenses and great benefits to engines and everybody who 

breathes.

    Also already here is oxygenated fuel. This is gasoline enhanced 

with oxygen-containing additives in order to reduce carbon 

monoxide emissions. Carbon monoxide reduction is a worthy cause 

as carbon monoxide (CO) is highly toxic. It is what kills people 

who breathe exhaust fumes. Reducing CO emissions will be 

beneficial to all life on this planet. 

    There are several non-gasoline alternative fuels that are currently 

being used, although in relatively small numbers of vehicles and 

mostly by fleets. These are primarily compressed natural gas and 

alcohol.

    Natural gas is one of the best alternatives to gasoline. This is the 

same natural gas used in stoves and heaters throughout the country. 

For a vehicle fuel it is used in compressed form and stored under 

high pressure in metal tanks. Combustion of natural gas produces 

very low levels of pollution. Gasoline-powered cars can be 

converted to run on natural gas fairly easily. Some manufacturers 

are already building cars, vans, and trucks designed to operate on 

natural gas. Government and utility company incentives can make 

natural gas powered vehicles economically feasible. Right now, 

natural gas is less expensive than gasoline. The chief drawback of 

natural gas is decreased operating range because of limitations in 

storage tank size. This is not necessarily serious for urban use, and, 

because of its extremely low pollutant emissions, natural gas can be 

an excellent urban fuel. It appears to be the best alternative to 

gasoline at this time. However, it is a finite resource (although so 

far little-utilized). Also, competition with heating uses could cause 

serious problems.

    Alcohol and alcohol/gasoline hybrid fuels are already here. 

Gasohol, an ethanol/gasoline blend, has been used since the fuel 

crises of the 1970s. Methanol and methanol/gasoline blends are also 

available, although not yet on a widespread basis. Both decrease 

carbon monoxide emissions. Although gasohol has been blamed for 

fuel system damage in the past, methanol is far more destructive. 

Modifications to rubber and plastic fuel system components are 

necessary for its use. For normal use, methanol has been blended 

with gasoline. However, it is a perfectly good fuel on its own - all 

CART and Indy Racing League race cars use methanol-based fuel, 

as do many dragsters. Ethanol and methanol can be manufactured 

from a variety of sources, and can decrease petroleum use.

    Natural gas and alcohol-powered cars feel perfectly normal in 

use providing that the proper fuel system modifications have been 

performed. Future vehicles that operate on these fuel sources will 

provide clean transportation with minimal impact in convenience, 

still using internal combustion engines.