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Alternative Fuels: Exactly What are the Best Prospects for Escaping Energy Dependency

As the United States' dependence on foreign oil increases, and prices for fuel continue to skyrocket, the country's energy-conscious have never had a better platform.

Clearly, alternative fuel sources must be created, and all the political candidates, regardless of their side, are talking about becoming energy independent.

trucks alternative fuel

Trucks that use biodiesel fuel -- made from vegetable oil, rendered chicken fat or used fry oil -- emit 75 percent fewer emissions than trucks running on ordinary diesel fuel.

Americans, it seems, are all for it. A poll by Mellman Group found that 74 percent of Americans say they want increased production and use of domestic renewable fuels.

Will it happen, and if so, how? Let's take a look at some of the best prospects in alternative fuel to find out.


Easily the most talked about fuel alternative, ethanol is grain alcohol made, of course, from grains. E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, is already at pumps in 36 states across the country.

Ethanol is clean-burning and may provide more horsepower than gasoline, but because the alcohol is corrosive anything exposed to it must be made of corrosion-resistant stainless steel or plastic.

There are also concerns that producing ethanol requires more energy to produce than it provides. However, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), growing, fermenting and distilling ethanol creates a surplus of energy from 34 to 66 percent.

Meanwhile, according to Argonne National Laboratory, Center for Transportation Research, "It takes 23 percent more fossil energy to create a gallon of gasoline than that gallon of gasoline itself contains. With ethanol, it's the other way around. It takes 22 percent less fossil energy to create an equivalent amount of energy in ethanol."

Ethanol shows promise as a renewable fuel source, however for it to fully replace gasoline, 71 percent of the nation's farmland would need to be devoted to growing the grain to produce it -- and that would likely cause another problem: a food shortage.


Biodiesel includes fuel for diesel engines made from rendered chicken fat, vegetable oils, and used fry oil instead of petroleum. Modern diesel engines can already run on 100 percent biodiesel fuel with only slight differences.

electric vehicles

Although electric cars produce no tailpipe emissions, they can only travel just over 100 miles before needing to be recharged.

Further, according to the DOE, pure biodiesel reduces CO emissions by more than 75 percent compared to diesel fuel made with petroleum.

The future for biodiesel fuel looks bright, the only downsides being that it costs about $3.50 per gallon and in cold temperatures the highly concentrated blends turn into waxy solids (and therefore need special additives to keep them flowing).


Electric cars and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles get their energy from a rechargeable battery pack and produce no tailpipe emissions. Even when the emissions from power plants are factored in, they still emit just 10 percent of the pollution of an ordinary vehicle.

However, electric cars can only travel for 100 to 120 miles before needing to be recharged -- a process that typically must be done overnight.

The other issue is that most electricity in the United States is generated in coal-burning power plants, and coal is another limited resource. The future for electric cars depends on new technology that can produce longer-lasting batteries and electricity from renewable resources.

Compressed Natural Gas

Natural gas is clean-burning, produced domestically and has already been used for decades to fuel natural gas vehicles. Natural gas is also inexpensive at about $1.20 a gallon.

However, most vehicles and fuel stations would need significant updates to be able to function using this fuel (for instance, vehicle gas tanks would need to be larger and heavier to carry compressed natural gas). Further, natural gas is also a non-renewable resource, which makes its future as a fuel source iffy.


Hydrogen can be produced from fossil fuels, organic matter (biomass) and even by electrolyzing water. As an alternative fuel source, it produces no pollution and vehicles run by hydrogen fuel cells are two to three times more efficient than gasoline-powered vehicles.

The outlook for hydrogen as a clean-burning fuel is very promising, but first distribution systems and manufacturing systems need to be developed. Right now, producing hydrogen is still expensive and energy-consuming, but researchers are engaged in revealing cheaper, energy-efficient ways to produce it.

Recommended Reading

How "Extremophiles" in Toxic Waste Sites May Hold the Cure to Cancer

Pharmaceutical Pollution: What it is, and How Pharmaceutical Pollution Threatens Your Health


U.S. Department of Energy

Renewable Fuels Association

Popular Mechanics May 2006

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