Fact Sheet

What You Should Know About Alternative Fuels


What is an Alternative Fuel?

An alternative fuel by definition is any fuel that is not gasoline or diesel to power motor vehicles, often with improved energy efficiency. Examples of this include hydrogen, methanol/ethanol, eletricity, air pressure.

Where do Alternative Fuels Come From?

Alternative fuels come from many different sources. Hydrogen is derived from burning certain natural gas chains as well as electrolysis. The problem with these two methods is that burning natural gas produces carbon dioxide emissions while electrolysis is very inefficient. The inefficiency in electrolysis is due to the high amounts of electricity which must be ran through water to get a relatively low amount of hydrogen gas.

Ethanol and methanol are types of alcohol derived from certain types of crops, trees, and algae with high natural oil content. By nature, these two compounds are colorless and flammable. These types of fuels are the best immediate alternative fuels because they are renewable. If you want more of these fuels, you just plant more crops.

Electricity can be generated in a multitude of ways, but the storage of it is the real problem for electrically powered vehicles. Currently, it is stored in large battery banks or large capacitor banks. Storage is a problem because batteries and capacitors cannot store enough electricity to get much range in a vehicle.

Air pressure is air that has been compressed by an air compressor and can be used in an engine the same way steam is used in steam engines. Most air compressors run off of electricity so the energy to make the compressed air would come from a power plant.


Why Should We Switch to Alternative Fuels?

Predictions show that crude oil has about 40 years until depletion at the current rate we are using it. Natural gas has been given a little more time than crude oil at 60 years. However, this is not long enough to carry human kind very far into the future. We need to switch to alternative fuels now because we will run out of traditional fuels within a century. Also, with the increasing awareness of our greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming, the switch to a 'greener' fuel will lessen the heavy burden on the environment caused by traditional fuels.


How do Alternative Fuels Affect the Environment?

Hydrogen fuels emit only water vapor whether they are burned in an internal combustion engine or combined with oxygen gas in a cell to create chemical energy.

While they are renewable, ethanol and methanol are still hydrocarbons. Many forms are more 'carbon neutral' than gasoline and diesel fuel, but they are cleaner burning by only a few percent.


The effects of electricity on the environment depend solely on how the electricity was generated. If it was created by a coal fired electrical plant, naturally it will be harsher on the environment than if it was created in a hydroelectric plant.

How do Alternative Fuels Affect Consumers?

The switch to alternative fuels will definitely cause consumers to have to adapt to the nature of whatever fuel they are using. Initially, energy prices will be high, but in the long run prices should fall below where they are now if a green, renewable fuel is used. Most alternative fuels cannot propel vehicles as far as gasoline, but after they have been widely implemented technological advances would probably take care of this issue. Fueling of the alternative vehicles may also not be as easy as just filling a gas tank but this issue too will most likely be solved after alternative fuels become widespread.


When Can You Expect to See Alternative Fuels in the Future?

Alternative fuels are actually already on the market. Hybrid electric vehicles are an example of an adaptation of electrically powered vehicles linked with gasoline power to create a vehicle which burns less gasoline. Most gas stations across the US already sell 'gasoline' which is really a 10% ethanol, 90% gasoline mixture. Some stations even sell E85, which is a mixture containing 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.


Where Can I get more Information about Alternative Fuels?

On the Internet

Alternative Fuels and Renewable Energy
Alternative Fuels for Transportation

Academic Institutions
The National Research Center for Coal and Energy
The National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium


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Natural gas as an alternative to crude oil in automotive fuel chains well-to-wheel analysis and transition strategy development. Energy Policy, 33 (5). 579-594. Retrieved February 23, 2008, from the Science Direct database:

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Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). Retrieved March 4, 2008.

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