In general, alternative fuels hang their hats on producing low emissions to reduce air pollution and making few demands on fossil fuels by tapping more from sustainable sources.
The U.S. Energy Policy Act of 1992 identified and encouraged use of eight alternative fuels. Some are currently in use, while others are considered more experimental. Read on for a glimpse at what the future of energy might look like.
The facts: Ethanol is an alcohol fuel distilled from plant materials such as corn and sugar. It’s been around for years and is typically blended with gasoline at different levels: E10, E30, E85, etc.
“Since corn is abundant, we’re producing more ethanol than our country can consume,” says Steve Markham, merchandiser and director of ethanol and DDGS for CHS. “So there’s a concerted effort to increase the percentage of ethanol blends sold domestically and increase ethanol exports.” In 2015, the U.S. exported 850 million gallons of ethanol. CHS produces more than 250 million gallons of ethanol annually at its plants in Annawan and Rochelle, Ill.
The benefits: Because it’s biodegradable, nontoxic and dissolves in water, E85 has been praised by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as producing emissions that contain less carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide than emissions from vehicles that run on gasoline alone.
Cellulosic ethanol is a biofuel produced from grasses, wood, algae and other cellulose and plant fiber. Corn cobs and corn stover are the most popular ag biomass sources. Cellulosic ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent over reformulated gasoline.
What’s new, according to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), is that some ethanol plants have adopted advanced technologies that allow producing commercial volumes of cellulosic ethanol from corn kernel fiber. This means both starch-based and cellulosic ethanol can be produced by the same facility. Stand-alone cellulosic facilities now have the capacity to produce 50 million gallons a year.
The facts: A combustible, gaseous mixture of simple hydrocarbon compounds, natural gas is found in deep underground reservoirs formed by porous rock, according to the American Gas Association. The fossil fuel was formed millions of years ago from plants and tiny sea animals buried under sand and rock. Natural gas is composed almost entirely of methane, but contains small amounts of other gases, including ethane, propane, butane and pentane.
The benefits: Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, producing primarily carbon dioxide, water vapor and small amounts of nitrogen oxides. Natural gas supplies nearly one-fourth of all energy used in the U.S., with Texas being the largest producer.
Compressed natural gas (CNG) is methane stored at high pressure that can be used in place of gasoline, diesel and propane.
“CNG continues to be competitive because we’re flush with natural gas in the U.S.,” says Patrick Hessini, vice president of CHS Transportation and Distribution. “It continues to be viable, even though it doesn’t have a big cost advantage with our current low diesel prices.”
In general, CNG costs about 50 percent less than gasoline and emits up to 90 percent fewer emissions. It’s increasingly being used in the Asia Pacific region, India, South America and Europe, with some growth in North America.
CHS operates a CNG fueling station near its Fairmont, Minn., soybean processing plant.
“With few CNG stations in remote rural areas, diesel remains the fuel of choice,” Hessini says, “but CNG works well for fleet vehicles with predictable, return-to-base operations, such as waste disposal trucks, delivery vehicles and transit buses.”
The facts: Propane is a byproduct of natural gas processing and petroleum refining. Producing natural gas involves removing butane, propane and large amounts of ethane from the raw gas to prevent condensation of those volatile compounds in natural gas pipelines.
The benefits: The advantages of propane are tough to beat. According to DOE, propane is one of the cleanest-burning of all energy sources and a fuel more than 60 million Americans rely on.
Shuttle vans and police vehicles benefit from propane power, says Dennis St. Aubin, director of sales, marketing and energy equipment for CHS. Companies like UPS and Schwan’s, with a fleet of more than 3,000 home delivery trucks, are fueling up with propane. More school districts are switching to propane-powered buses, too.
“Since the U.S. produces more propane than anywhere in the world and at the lowest price, it spurs investment in technology that farmers can use,” says St. Aubin. “Besides being used in grain dryers and heating, propane is ideal for farmers who irrigate.”
Nearly 98 percent of the propane consumed in the U.S. is produced in North America. About two-thirds comes from natural gas and one-third from refineries.
The facts: Biodiesel is a renewable, clean-burning diesel replacement made from feedstocks such as soybean oil, recycled cooking oil and animal fats. It’s often blended with diesel at a rate of 5 to 20 percent and is produced in nearly every state, according to the National Biodiesel Board.
The benefits: According to EPA, biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 57 percent and up to 87 percent when compared to diesel.
The biodiesel industry has grown steadily over the past decade and more than 2 billion gallons were produced in 2015, EPA reports.
The facts: Often difficult to explain and hard to understand, electricity is defined as the flow of electric charges. It’s all around us, from cell phones to computers to welders, and now runs automobiles and even trucks.
The benefits: It’s clean, green energy. According to DOE, electric cars are more popular than ever, with trucks starting to share in the limelight. On a national average, it costs less than half as much to travel the same distance in an EV (electric vehicle) as in a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle.
“We’re even seeing some electric semis from Nikola Motor Company [nikolamotor.com] with a range of 1,100 to 1,200 miles,” says John Macpherson, manager of maintenance compliance at CHS Energy Transportation.
Hefty strides continue to be made in producing better high-tech batteries. Research funded by DOE has helped reduce the costs of rechargeable batteries by 40 percent in just three years. Macpherson expects sizable growth in electric cars by 2035.
The facts: A hydrogen fuel cell converts chemical energy stored by hydrogen fuel into electricity. Similar to a battery, a fuel cell with a supply of hydrogen and oxygen can be used to power devices and vehicles that use electricity. Most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, specifically natural gas.
The benefits: When pure hydrogen is used as fuel, the only byproducts generated from the fuel cell are water and heat. That makes fuel cells efficient with minimal environmental impact.
According to DOE, light-duty highway vehicles running on hydrogen reduce emissions by 50 to more than 90 percent over gasoline engines, and by more than 35 percent over diesel engines. The biggest challenge for hydrogen production is providing it at a reasonable cost.
The facts: Also known as wood alcohol, methanol has similar properties to ethanol. The fuel is generally produced by steam-reforming natural gas.
The benefits: Methanol is a high-octane fuel that is cheap to produce, is less toxic and has higher energy density relative to other alternative fuels, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center. In many countries, methanol is used in racing cars.
The facts: P-series fuels comprise a family of renewable, non-petroleum liquid fuels that can substitute for gasoline. It’s a blend of MTHF, ethanol and natural gas liquids with octane ratings of 89 to 93 and can be used in flexible-fuel vehicles.
The benefits: P-series fuels cannot be used in gasoline cars. Mileage for vehicles using P-series fuels is about 10 percent less per gallon, and greenhouse gas emissions are about 50 percent lower than those using gasoline.
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