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Wednesday, 18 July 2007 00:00

Fuels down the pike

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This week’s alternative fuels column will discuss three fuels (methanol, p-series and hydrogen) that all have one thing in common — unavailability. Two of these fuels’ futures look bleak but that could, of course, change with a wave of the government’s magic “incentives and subsidies” wand.

Methanol is wood alcohol with many of the same traits as ethanol. It once received lots of attention as an alternative fuel but ran into problems because it produces large amounts of formaldehyde emissions. Because of the pollution concern automakers stopped producing methanol vehicles.

P-series fuels are blends of natural gas liquids (pentanes plus), ethanol, and the biomass-derived co-solvent methyltetrahydrofuran (MeTHF). They are clear, colorless, liquid blends and are formulated for use in flexible fuel vehicles (FFV’s).

P-series fuels, however, are not being mass-produced at this time and are not widely used. And if you happen to be in a place where you could obtain p-series be sure to read the warranty of your FFV, as some will not cover p-series fuels.

The third fuel on our list this week is hydrogen. Hydrogen clearly enjoys the favor of our current administration and there are lots of monies out there going for research and development. But hydrogen, today, is totally unavailable to the average car buyer. There are no commercial hydrogen vehicles for sale and only about 30 or so “demonstration” refueling stations across the country.

For some, hydrogen is seen as the silver bullet that will provide a safe, affordable, domestic fuel for the U.S.

Hydrogen is a clean fuel. If combusted it produces few emissions and if it is used in fuels cells (the preferred alternative) the only emissions are heat and water.

However, there is no significant source of free (elemental) hydrogen. Hydrogen is found in composition with water and hydrocarbons and, thus, must be separated.

While touted as an alternative fuel, 95 percent of today’s hydrogen is manufactured from natural gas and this process is four times as expensive as producing an equivalent amount of gasoline. A recent study by the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory estimates that creating a commercial hydrogen infrastructure around renewable sources would cost around $600 billion. And the fuel cells needed to propel a hydrogen vehicle cost about 10 times as much as an internal combustion engine.

Joseph Romm a chief official in the Clinton administration’s Department of Energy, founder of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions and author of The Hype About Hydrogen, believes it will be awhile before hydrogen technology is propelling us along the highway. In a New York Times interview, Romm said “People who want to build hydrogen highways and drive a hydrogen car in 10 or 15 years on a mass scale, are just kidding themselves.”

Romm thinks of himself as a hydrogen proponent — hydrogen research funding increased tenfold while Romm was at the Department of Energy — but also a realist. He notes that any alternative fuel vehicle has to overcome a “trillion-dollar investment in the gasoline infrastructure,” and that hydrogen technology and the production of fuel cells and hydrogen cars lags way behind hybrid production and technology. “Based on my discussions with experts around the country, I think it unlikely that hydrogen cars will achieve even a five percent market share by 2030,” Romm said.

If the hydrogen star continues to rise methanol may once again find favor — this time as a hydrogen producer. Methanol can be produced from many organic sources and research is ongoing to find a way to use methanol for large-scale hydrogen production.

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