For car-addicted Americans, high gas prices and smoggy skies may soon be nothing more than bad memories of the petroleum era. Two promising new developments in alternative fuels could replace conventional gasoline and diesel tomorrow if only American politicians could be weaned off the cash-engorged teats of the big oil lobby.
Widespread use of the new fuels, biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol, would snatch away the multi billion-dollar-per quarter profits that big oil is currently enjoying because the new fuels can be produced on a local scale with little capital investment. This would be bad news for Cheney and the big oil boys, but great news for the rest of America.
Biodiesel is produced by adding methanol and acids to vegetable oil. The products of this process are biodiesel fuel, glycerin solids and reusable methanol. Biodiesel can be mixed directly with petroleum diesel or burned pure and its performance levels are equal to or better than petroleum diesel in terms of horsepower, torque and fuel consumption.
More importantly, biodiesel is much better for the environment than traditional diesel fuel. It produces 67 percent fewer unburned hydrocarbons, 48 percent less carbon monoxide and 100 percent fewer nitrates. Biodiesel's overall production of smog-producing emissions is half that of petroleum diesel.
Cellulosic ethanol is a similarly elegant new energy alternative for gasoline-powered vehicles. It is produced by using a bacterium, commonly known as jungle rot, to convert cellulose into sugar, then sugar into ethanol. Traditional ethanol is produced by converting starch to sugar, then sugar to ethanol.
The significant difference lies in the fact that starch is found mainly in corn kernels, while cellulose is found in corn stalks and leaves, as well as almost all other plant matter. The difference in raw material input for traditional and cellulosic ethanol makes a huge difference in ethanol's future as an energy alternative.
Old fashioned ethanol had trouble competing with gasoline due to its high price, but cellulosic ethanol requires only 50 cents worth of straw or corn stalks to produce one gallon of fuel, whereas 1.67 dollars worth of crude oil is required to produce a gallon of gasoline.
Cellulosic ethanol can be burned with gasoline in concentrations of up to 85 percent in the 6.7 million 'flexible fuel' cars, which Detroit has already produced, and can be burned in normal gas engines with slight fuel system adjustments. Ethanol burning also results in significantly lower emissions with 40 percent reductions in carbon monoxide and 100 percent reductions in carbon dioxide.
The beauty of these new fuels is that unlike hydrogen engines and hydrogen fuel cells, they would not require expensive, redesigned engines, new fuel distribution networks or dangerous pressurized on-board fuel tanks. They could be distributed through the existing fuel system to normal automobiles.
A national switch to biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol would benefit more than just drivers. American farmers would once again have a steady market for their products and the government would probably be able to reduce or eliminate the expensive subsidies that currently keep the overproducing agricultural sector in business.
With price, emission levels, domestic production, ease of distribution, farmer benefits and resource renewal all in favor of a switch to biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol, why has the change not been undertaken? After all, hardly a day goes by without some politician declaring the need for a new energy plan for America.
Big oil companies are standing in the way. Alternative fuels do not need mega-corporations with huge refining and distributing infrastructures for efficient bio-fuel production. Biodiesel in particular is so simple to produce that large business could easily become fuel self-sufficient by producing the biodiesel for their company vehicles in-house.
With a little effort, big farms, school districts, universities and businesses could produce their own fuel from plants grown in local fields. Americans in general could kiss oil wars goodbye and say hello to a better domestic economy, clearer skies, cheaper fuel and energy independence. Bio-fuels fuels simply make sense for America.
Like most socially entrenched and profitable systems, petroleum energy is going to go down fighting and will have all the power of the big petroleum companies behind it. Americans should become aware of fuel alternatives and vote for public officials who will push for an intelligent switch to bio-fuels today, rather than those who sidestep the issue and speak of a hypothetical 'energy future.'