This month’s annual automotive heat-treatment issue and the high price of gasoline prompted thoughts of what is currently happening on the fuel front. Since it’s hard to keep up with it all, let’s see if we can provide a review in one page or less.

Some of the technologies, and combinations thereof, being explored and being tested by carmakers are hybrids, electric, hydrogen, natural gas, propane, clean diesel, bio-fuels and ethanol (flex fuel). Based on the number of models currently available (nearly 40), hybrids are winning the day. Hybrids are designed to run on their gas engines, electric motors or a combination of the two. Because the electric power is often used in stop-and-go traffic, you will notice that city fuel mileage is often better than highway. One of the latest hybrid technologies is the plug-in hybrid, which provides fuel economy twice that of the conventional model. The hybrid downsides are their higher relative costs and the hazardous nature of the battery manufacture and disposal.

Electric-only vehicles – about 10 models available – suffer with the same battery downsides although battery technology is advancing. The move is away from lead and nickel-based batteries toward lithium-ion cells. Presently, lithium-ion batteries are expensive, and they also get very hot. They must be cooled evenly to prevent a chain reaction that could ruin all of the batteries in the battery pack.

Ethanol is clearly one of the developing technologies in the biofuel category. Ethanol – made from corn – may hold the least commercial, long-term promise. A previous editorial (Nov. 2007) discusses ethanol in more detail. Flex-fuel vehicles – using E85 fuel – are the first phase of this new system. There are presently at least six flex-fuel vehicles being marketed, and the number of fuel stations carrying E85 is scant. Another ethanol drawback is that it is 20-30% less efficient than gasoline.

Today’s news is full of cautions by top scientists warning against a rush to biofuel. The argument is that they may not be sustainable without increasing deforestation. This could further increase food prices and threaten biodiversity, which would “have a detrimental impact on the environment.” An illustration is that it takes 450 pounds of corn to produce enough ethanol to fuel the average SUV. That’s enough corn to feed one person for a year!

In this subcategory, there seems to be one success story that bears watching. J.C. Bell, CEO of Bell Bio-Energy, says he has isolated and modified specific bacteria that will naturally change plant material – including food leftovers – into hydrocarbons to fuel cars and trucks. The basic idea is an all-natural process, which is the same as in the digestive system of cows – a major creator of natural gas. The first pilot plant will be operational in a few months, and full-scale production is anticipated by October 2009. The expectation is that “5 billion barrels of oil could be produced per year. That would be about two-thirds of what we use now.”

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles seem to make a lot of sense, but the technology is challenging, and there are many hurdles to overcome. Although being billed blandly as having water-only emissions, how long it will take for H2O vapor to take on the same negative connotation as CO2? The scientifically flawed models used to calculate global warming omit the effects of water vapor in spite of the fact that it accounts for 20 to 30 times as much heat absorption as CO2 – a natural product of respiration and a necessary sustainer of plant life on the planet.

By late 2008, the first “clean diesel” fuel will be available. The technology involved includes improved injection and combustion systems in addition to better exhaust traps and treatment systems. Like ethanol (sans subsidies), diesel is more expensive than gasoline. But unlike ethanol’s 30% fuel-efficiency penalty, diesel has a 30% fuel-efficiency benefit over gasoline. With the latest technological developments, this benefit could be increased to 40% or more. Adding a micro-hybrid “stop-start” technology to diesel engines could result in the highest commercially available fuel-efficiency improvements.

An example of current automotive development that enhances available technology, is Ford’s EcoBoost engine. These smaller-displacement power plants with direct fuel injection and turbocharging (GDTI) provide a fuel economy boost of 10-20% without any loss of performance. An additional benefit is the smaller EcoBoost engines also save weight (150 pounds) and size.

There is much being done and much yet to do in our effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil and reduce emissions. One immediate way we can all contribute is to conserve. Did you know that if, by maintaining our vehicles a little better and driving a little more conservatively, everyone was able to save just one mile per gallon, almost 600,000 barrels a day in oil imports would be saved?IH