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James R. Cochran

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Switching from gasoline to ethanol – touted as a green alternative at the pump – may create dirtier air, causing slightly more smog-related deaths, a new study says.

Nearly 200 more people would die yearly from respiratory problems if all vehicles in the United States were to run on a fuel blend made mostly of ethanol by 2020, the research concludes. The author of the study acknowledges that such a quick and monumental shift to plant-based fuels is next to impossible.

Each year, about 4,700 people, according to the author of the study, die from respiratory problems related to ozone, the unseen component of smog, combined with small particles. Ethanol would raise ozone levels, particularly in certain regions of the country.

“It’s not green in terms of air pollution,” said Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor and author of the study. “If you want to use ethanol, fine, but don’t do it based on health grounds. It’s no better than gasoline, apparently slightly worse.”

His study, based on a computer model, was published Wednesday in the online edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology. It added to the messy debate over ethanol.

Farmers, politicians, industry leaders and environmentalists have clashed over just how much ethanol can be produced, how much land it would take to grow the crops to make it and how much it would cost. They also disagree on the benefits of ethanol in cutting back fuel consumption and in fighting pollution, especially of the gases linked to global warming.

In January, President George W. Bush announced a push to reduce gas consumption by 20 percent over 10 years by substituting alternative fuels, mainly ethanol. Scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that such a change could mean approximately a 1 percent increase in smog.

Jacobson’s study troubles some environmentalists, even those who work with him. Roland Hwang of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that ethanol, which cuts one of the key ingredients of smog and produces fewer greenhouse gases, is an important part of reducing all kinds of air pollution.

Jacobson’s conclusion “is a provocative concept that is not workable,” said Hwang, an engineer who used to work for the California pollution control agency. “There’s nothing in here that means we should throw away ethanol.”

And Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, the largest Washington ethanol lobby group, said other research and real-life data show that “ethanol is a greener fuel than gasoline.”

But Jacobson found that it all depended on where you lived, with ethanol worsening the ozone problem in most urban areas. Based on computer models of pollution and air flow, Jacobson predicted that the increase in ozone – and the diseases it causes – would be worst in areas where smog already is a serious problem: Los Angeles and the Northeast.

Most of those projected 200 deaths would be in Los Angeles, he said, and the only place where ozone would fall was in the Southeast, because of the unique blend of chemicals in the air and the heavy vegetation.

The science behind why ethanol might increase smog is complicated, but according to Jacobson, part of the explanation is that ethanol produces more hydrocarbons than gasoline. And ozone is the product of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide cooking in the sun.

While praising Jacobson as one of the top atmospheric chemists in the nation, Hwang said that he had problems with some of Jacobson’s assumptions, like that of an entire switch to ethanol by 2020.

Jacobson is also ignoring that ethanol reduces greenhouse gases, which cause global warming, and that global warming will increase smog and smog-related deaths, according to an international scientific panel, Hwang said.

As consumers face rising prices of gasoline, many have already abandoned their plans to purchase large vehicles such as SUVs and pickups in favor of smaller vehicles such as sedans and crossovers. This demand has led car manufacturers to invest in the research and development of alternative technologies to make their production vehicles as gas thrifty as they can while still offering a good level of performance.

For the past years, the hybrid technology has been the favorite of environment and gas price conscious car buyers. Aside from hybrid technology, flex-fuel vehicles also gained momentum. These vehicles are designed to run on gasoline or a combination of gasoline and bio-ethanol. While these vehicles are designed to be environment-friendly, the scarcity of refueling stations offering E85 has led flex-fuel owners to use plain gasoline thereby defeating the environmental purpose of their vehicles. In fact, in a recent study it was found out that 99 percent of flex-fuel vehicles on the roads of the United States are still using conventional gasoline for fuel. This issue has led to the rise in the popularity of diesel engines.

It can be remembered that the American public has shunned diesel engines since in the 1980′s diesel engines are known for their loud noise and huge amount of soot produced. In fact, diesel engines received a very bad reputation that it was even believed that diesel engines will not become popular in the United States. Overseas though, European car manufacturers have been investing in harnessing the power of the diesel engine and has succeeded in producing diesel engines with noise and emission similar to that of a gasoline engine.

The popularity of the diesel engine in Europe is evident in the fact that even the German luxury carmaker Audi has produced a diesel powered luxury car. The massive torque produced by these engines gives good acceleration which is common on high performance cars such as that produced by Audi. This acceleration provided by these new-generation diesel engines is not lagging behind the performance of gasoline engined vehicles that are equipped with aftermarket parts such as the Iceman cold air intake system.

After the European auto industry has succeeded in producing clean diesel engines, Americans’ view of the engine changed. In fact, Ford has introduced a heavy-duty pickup truck equipped with diesel engines. The diesel engine used by Ford on the Ford Super Duty is proven to produce gas emissions similar to that of a gasoline engine. Furthermore, precision engineering has led to a quieter operation for the diesel engine. Another good thing about diesel engines is that they consume less fuel than gasoline engine. Diesel fuel is also less expensive than gasoline which makes it more appealing as the prices of gasoline once again reached the three dollar mark.

The increasing popularity of diesel engines has led to European and Japanese car manufacturers expressing their intention to introduce diesel engined vehicles in the United States auto market come the year 2008. Mercedes-Benz is one of these car manufacturers set to introduce diesel versions of their models such as the M Class, R Class and the GL Class.

Another European car company in the form of BMW is also slated to introduce diesel vehicles in the United States auto market next year. Volkswagen, the German car manufacturer has already introduced diesel vehicles n the United States but is expected to introduce a cleaner diesel engine which it calls “Blue Motion”. As far as the Japanese are concerned, Nissan reported that they will be coming out with a diesel version of their best selling Altima sedan in the near future.

As the number of diesel powered vehicles to be released in the United States auto market increases, the oil industry is responding with positive support. The Marathon Oil Corp. recently announced that they will be investing a total of $3.2 billion in a refinery that will produce clean diesel. Currently, only 42 percent of the fuel refilling stations in the United States offer diesel. The investment made by Marathon shows that the oil industry is supporting the increasing popularity of diesel among the American car buying public. With the auto and oil industry working together it will only be a matter of time before diesel engines become more popular than gasoline engines.

When a new product enters the market, there is always an air of confusion and queries; the same is the case with the hybrid cars, which hit the road in the recent years with its high-power and environment-friendly features.

Let us look at the myths spreading in the market about them.

1. Hybrid cars maintenance costs are very high

Hybrid technology offers a better maintenance on its own with its cleaner fuel and low emissions. So it does not require a frequent maintenance as required by conventional cars. The only worrying cost is the service charges, which is normally higher than a conventional car. As hybrid technology is new, getting a professional to repair your car may be a costly affair for a few more years.

2. Hybrid batteries need to be replaced

It is true that a hybrid car battery is costlier than a normal one. It may cost upto $4000 to get a new battery system installed if the warranty is void. But the hybrid car manufacturers assert that the battery is intended to work for a lifetime of the hybrid car, and so rarely needs to be replaced.

3. Hybrid cars are not spacious

If you consider the size of Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, it is true that they are not up to the expectation of an average user. But new models such as Ford Escape and Lexus RX 400h offer you more space and still more models are waiting to hit the road in the near future.

4. Hybrid cars do not offer a performance speed

The Honda Accord hybrid, world’s first hybrid sport sedan, is the fastest among the models available in the market, offers a speed of 253hp @ 6,000RPM. Lexus RX400h and Toyota Highlander have a 208hp speed. The market will witness revolutionary models such as the Lexus GS 450h sedan with a 300hp and Toyota Volta with a 408hp in the near future.

5. A hybrid car needs to be plugged in

Although hybrid technology works with the help of electricity, yet there is no need of any plug to start the action of the battery. In fact, due to the regenerative action of the battery, the energy which is normally wasted when a car is stopped, is redirected to the batteries. Because of this continuous action the battery remains charged always.

6. Hybrid cars are expensive

At one glance it seems to be so. The price of the popular hybrid range starts from $19,000 to $53,000. The relief to this problem is the resale value which is offered to the hybrid cars. Toyota Priuse has been sold almost at the cost of a new built in the resale market. Moreover, the government is offering many tax incentives to hybrid car owners. With all these into consideration, it would not be a bad idea to own a Civic or a Prius, below $30,000.

7. People buy hybrids only because of their fuel efficiency

Though the first priority of a car buyer is its economical advantage and fuel efficiency, hybrid cars shine in the market because of its environment-friendly aspects too, the car is a sign to let others know how serious you are about the environment.

Whenever there is a talk about the environmental issues caused by the use of fossil fuels, especially those used in the automobiles, a list of polluting agents who are playing the villainous roles are targeted. Most of these are the byproducts of the combustion of the fuels, while others are the chemicals used in the operation of the engines and batteries.

The pollutants created by the vehicle emission fall into two categories – solid pollutants and gaseous pollutants. Let us analyze each pollutant along with the hazards associated with it.

Carbon monoxide (CO)

A poisonous gas produced as a result of incomplete combustion of fossil fuels or any fuel containing hydrocarbons. Carbon monoxide when inhaled combines with the hemoglobin in the blood and forms a compound called carboxyhemoglobin.

Carboxyhemoglobin affects the supply of oxygen from the blood to different body parts, causing severe coronary problems leading to death. Generally known as carbon monoxide poisoning, it is affecting largely those who have a history of respiratory problems.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)

Commonly known as green house gas (GHG), CO2 is the major contributing agent to global warming. As the reports show, the temperature of the earth has increased by 0.6 ± 0.2°C since the late 19th century.

A great percentage of the emissions from the fossil fuels are carbon dioxide.

Nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2)

These powerful gases are produced when fuel is burned at a very high temperature. The hazards of these compounds in the air are many. Nitrogen oxides along with the air particles form a reddish suspension in the air.

When the humidity is high, these gases combine with water particles and form acid rain. Acid rain is found to be one of the reasons for the tarnishing of archeological structures and buildings.

When inhaled, these gases cause serious threats to the respiratory system.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2)

Sulfur is present in the raw form in the fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. When these fuels are burnt, SO2¬ ¬ is formed. This gas dissolves in water easily and forms sulfuric acid, which in turn results in another form of acid rain.

Due to the stringent measures adopted by the EPA in the use of such pollutants, the emission of SO2 has been reduced by more than a third in the past 30 years.

Lead

The main source of lead in the atmosphere is the automobiles. Though leaded gasoline is not used nowadays in most of the vehicles as a fuel, lead batteries still pause a threat to the environment. When inhaled, lead directly affects the brain, nerves, and kidneys and causes severe damage to the respiratory system.

As a result of the drastic steps taken by the EPA, the amount of lead has been reduced considerably.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reported that the levels of lead in the blood samples of people have been decreased by about 78%.

The ongoing search for an sustainable, alternative fuel has been a top concern for governments for many years.

With the hybrid technology being a success in the US markets, a wider technological application has been sought in this area. With more and more fuels such as ethanol, bio-diesel and hydrogen, added to the alternative fuel list of hybrid cars, the option of choosing Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is also not ruled out.

CNG has been widely used in buses and heavy load carriers in many parts of the world. Yet it has not dominated the car market. The difficulty of converting a conventional engine to a CNG-compatible one has been a serious concern for the manufactures as well as the car owners.

CNG contains a large percentage of methane (CH4) along with traces of other hydrocarbons. It is extracted from natural gas, which is produced by the decomposition of animal and plant wastes.

CNG as future fuel for vehicles promises a lot of benefits. Being a cleaner fuel than the petroleum fuels, CNG promises low emissions, and it can be compressed under high pressure, between 2000 and 3600psi making it easy to store in cylinders.

How does the world respond to CNG alternative? Worldwide examples show that the feasibility of using CNG in all types of vehicle is not under question. Argentina and Brazil are the two countries with maximum number of CNG vehicles, approximately 1,460,000 and 1,230,000 respectively. Here CNG is widely used in buses and trucks. Also a ‘Blue-network’ of CNG refilling stations is being developed on the major highways of Southern Cone of Latin America, including Chile and Bolivia. In the East, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India are the main players offering CNG fleet to their transport network. Pakistan is world’s third largest consumer of CNG. In the Middle East and Africa, Egypt tops with more than 63,000 CNG-run vehicles on its road.

The option of using CNG in cars has hit the market with many important players emerging with CNG-run vehicles. The Honda Civic GX is the first of its type. The Civic GX has been awarded as the cleanest internal combustion engine on the earth by the EPA. Another cool fact about the CNG cars is the possibility of refilling the gas from your own home. With the help of Phill, Honda offers this facility to its customers to get the fuel refilled from their home gas line.

The only hurdle in the use of CNG in vehicles is the cost of conversion of the engine. If proper support is offered by the public and private agencies in order to promote such an environmental-friendly fuel, consumers all around the world will be motivated to use this technolgoy, thus contributing to a cleaner environment and saving of fossil fuels. Already a scheme is on in the city of Santa Cruz allowing the CNG car owners to recover up to 60% of the conversion costs with the help of a ‘free-CNG’ vouchers offered to them. Apart from these, a lot of investment has to be made in the R& D along with creating awareness in the consumers about the necessity and viablility of converting their vehicles into a CNG one.

It’s no question that the scarcity of conventional fuels such as coal and petroleum has turned many car manufacturers to performance-guaranteed alternate fuels.  While costs do fluctuate up and down, the inherent limited supply will have to be dealt with eventually

And although the cost of production and the feasibility of these fuels are the priority concerns, the environmental impacts of these fuels are equally important.

Taking into account several factors such as availability, emission, cost of production, etc. the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has approved a number of fuels as the alternate fuels for the future which can be safely used in vehicles. To promote the consumption of alternate fuels, the Federal government has initiated many tax incentives to consumers who purchase vehicles with alternate fuel technology.

Hybrid cars thus have been a choice of many consumers. It works on a technology that uses two sources of energy, by which the fuel consumption and emission can be reduced.

Let’s take a look at the most viable…

Ethanol

Ethanol is an alternative fuel produced by the fermentation of crops such as wheat, corn, sugar cane, and fruits, etc. This fuel offers cleaner combustion with less carbon dioxide emission and can be used mixed with petrol. E85, which stands for 85% ethanol and 15% petrol, is found to be the suitable fuel for hybrid cars.

Other combinations such as E70 are also available in the market. The drawback of this fuel is that it offers less mileage than that offered by petroleum fuels.

Bio-Diesel

Bio-Diesel is produced from vegetable oil and animal fat. Bio-diesel can be used alone (B100) or can be blended with diesel. The available blends are B2, B5, and B20. B2 and B5 can be safely used in diesel engines, whereas the use of higher blends is not encouraged by the auto manufacturers. Though bio-diesel ensures less emission of CO and CO2, it emits more nitrogen oxides compared to other fuels. BioDiesel Made Easy!
All You Need To Know About Biodiesel, Where To Buy, How To Make It And Where To Get More Information

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)

The main component of the Compressed Natural Gas is methane, one of the cleanest alternate fuels. There are vehicles that run only on natural gas, and some other vehicles run on two fuels- CNG and diesel/petrol, giving an option to the user to switch to diesel/petrol when the CNG is not available. The U.S. domestic market supplies 87% of the CNG required for the daily demands at present. The only hurdle involved in using CNG is the difficulty in converting a conventional engine to a CNG-compatible one.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen is the undoubtedly cleanest and the most efficient alternative fuel there is. There are many sources of hydrogen such as coal, nuclear power and water. Hybrid cars use a technology called fuel cells in which hydrogen is used as the main fuel. The exhaust produced here is water, which of course, is not causing any harm to the environment.

Another technology that produces hydrogen from water works in the opposite way the fuel cell works. Both these technologies are in the embryonic stage; a lot of investment and research have to be made in order to make them popular in the market.

Though these are the main fuels that are considered as the best, many other fuels such as propane, butane are also considered as options for the future cars. A future technology that can utilize the benefits of these fuels would promise a better and greener earth for tomorrow.