Substitute Car Fuels: a Tank Full of Choices


Like images from a 1979 newscast, a man from the corn growers' association buttonholes anyone who will listen. With a $200 kit, he can fix a car so it will run on ethanol. He's got one installed outside and is offering free rides.

Someone from Ford Motor Co. complains that it will be awfully hard to persuade people to buy cars that run on anything but gasoline. Some of that other stuff is dangerous.

And the fellow from Congress levels a broadside at the greedy oil companies, the whining auto companies and the stupid government for not doing something sooner about the oil situation.

Dated though they sound, these bits of dialogue were uttered just last week at a meeting here to review the prospects for finding something besides gasoline to power cars and trucks. The issue has gained visibility with the cutoff of oil from Iraq and Kuwait.

But, if some of the dialogue sounds uninspired, many experts say the outlook for automotive power sources such as methanol, natural gas and electricity has improved markedly since the oil shocks of the 1970s. And it doesn't have much to do with whether we will have enough oil.

Progress on alternative fuels in the 1980s was driven almost entirely by California's dramatic efforts to clean its air by forcing auto makers and fuel suppliers to meet tough emission standards. That program became a blueprint for Congress and, with this country's car and truck market the biggest in the world, it has affected the strategies of auto and oil companies around the globe.

It has touched off a free-for-all among hundreds of auto companies, engine makers, oil firms, utilities, natural gas producers and others in competition for the fast-approaching market for "ultra clean" cars and trucks mandated by California law.

Even so, any significant loosening of gasoline's stranglehold on the worldwide car and truck fuel market appears to be decades away. Economics, entrenched interests, technology and drawbacks of the alternative fuels themselves seem likely to assure a long life for gasoline.

Slow Change

Just building the refineries and other infrastructure needed to produce enough methanol, for example, to make a major dent in the nationwide gasoline market would take more than 20 years, experts say. And that's only if policy-makers can ever agree on the government support the controversial fuel needs to get on its feet.

"By the time you've built the capacity, you're already beyond the short term," said Frank Ament, project manager for methanol vehicle development at General Motors. "But we've got to be careful not to kill something off" before it has a chance to prove itself, he added.

But that requires the sort of long view for which Americans have never been noted.

George Olah, a chemistry professor at USC's Loker Hydrocarbon Institute, where experiments with powerful catalysts are turning natural gas into gasoline, said: "For a long time yet, mankind will live quite happily with gasoline. The question is where it will come from."

Not one of the alternative fuels now being considered is new. The electric car came along in the 1890s. GM has been playing around with methanol since 1951, and compressed-gas vehicles date to World War II in Europe. In this country, methanol has been considered the leading candidate to begin replacing gasoline, thanks, in part, to the California Energy Commission's advocacy and auto industry interest in it. It has lost some luster, however, as its drawbacks have come to light and lobbyists for other fuels hit full stride.

"In the last year, natural gas and electric and reformulated (cleaner-burning) gasoline have begun to catch up," said Bill Sessa of the California Air Resources Board. "We aren't dictating a fuel, we are just setting a standard. It will be a joint marketplace decision by the auto and oil companies."

Main Alternatives

A look at the major substitutes for gasoline: METHANOL

A relatively clean-burning fuel that is said to cut emissions by half, methanol can be made from natural gas, coal or biomass--decaying organisms such as vegetable matter.

Pure methanol already powers race cars because it allows for such high performance. Under a taxpayer subsidy from the California Energy Commission, a blend of 85% methanol and 15% gasoline can be bought at 18 Arco and Chevron stations in California, where about 800 vehicles can run on that mixture.

Under auspices of the energy commission, GM, Ford and Chrysler are producing so-called "fuel-flexible" vehicles that can run on any formula of gasoline mixed with methanol or ethanol, a related fuel that can be made from corn. About 5,000 of these vehicles are expected to be running in California by 1992.

GM's development of a sensor that will enable cars to run on different fuels answers a major dilemma: Manufacturers don't want to make a car unless there is a fuel for it, and energy companies won't develop a fuel until there are cars that burn it.

Drivers of "fuel-flexible" cars thus will be able to buy any fuel and not worry about proximity to a methanol pump. And methanol can be pumped at existing service stations.

But methanol fumes contain formaldehyde, which causes cancer and is highly toxic. Although gasoline also can be dangerous, poison experts predict a surge in the number of deaths and instances of blindness and brain damage caused by accidental ingestion of methanol if it becomes widely used. And methanol delivers less energy than gasoline, so methanol-powered cars have a shorter range.

Engineers are working on these drawbacks, but methanol, meanwhile, has driven a wedge between auto makers and oil companies.

Auto firms prefer methanol because it would mean relatively few manufacturing changes for them. And, under a new federal law, auto makers can get credits against federal fuel economy requirements for their gasoline cars if they also produce "fuel-flexible" cars.

On the other hand, methanol would require oil companies to make massive refinery investments and would mean risking outright loss of their markets to competitors, perhaps including foreign governments, depending on where and from what the methanol is made. By one estimate, it would cost $55 billion to build the methanol refineries to supply one-seventh of the U.S. motor vehicle fuel demand.

Some firms, such as Los Angeles-based Unocal, have led the battle against methanol while carrying the flag for natural gas and reformulated or "clean" gasoline.

Whatever methanol's clean-air virtues, it is unclear whether it would do much for energy security.

Making methanol from coal would foul the air. Making it from biomass is not yet feasible. That leaves natural gas, and, while the United States has plentiful natural gas resources, the cheapest sources are in the Middle East.

Because methanol is cheaper to ship across oceans than natural gas is, methanol refineries, a Department of Energy official said, would be near the natural gas fields--perhaps under the nose of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein--putting us back to a point somewhere near where we started.


Once dismissed because of safety and weight problems, this clean-burning fuel has benefited from a massive lobbying effort by about 75 companies over the last year.

Natural gas in trucks now is seen as a key to meeting California clean-air standards, giving it instant national credibility. The first assembly-line production of vehicles that run on compressed natural gas, subsidized by California natural gas utilities and others, is to begin later this year at General Motors.

Natural gas burns more cleanly than methanol and it doesn't have to be refined. Through the natural gas pipelines that already crisscross the country, it could be delivered to compressor stations, where vehicles would be fueled. New stations could tap into local gas mains.

The bad news: Natural gas requires a fuel tank four times as large and 500 pounds heavier than today's gasoline tank. And it offers an even shorter driving range than methanol--about 125 miles, compared to 250 miles on methanol or 400 miles on an equivalent volume of gasoline.

There is also potential for an explosion if a collision should rupture the tank, which is pressurized at 3,000 pounds per square inch. Energy Department officials say they have dropped natural gas-fueled vehicles from a height of 90 feet onto concrete without causing a leak, but that doesn't convince some people.

"Who wants to drive around with high-pressure cylinders strapped to your car? If you got in an accident, you'd fry!" USC's Olah said.

The size and weight of the fuel tank needed for compressed natural gas and the short driving range it offers mean that its use would probably be limited to mid-size trucks on local routes, which could be refueled at fleet-operated compressor stations.

Southern California Gas Co. estimates that the vehicle market for compressed natural gas will become significant in 1995, as state clean-air standards are phased in. In the dreams of SoCal Gas executive Jack Smith, the utility, by the year 2000, would be fueling half the 700,000 fleet vehicles in Southern California. That would use roughly 6% of SoCal's current daily output of natural gas, said Smith, who is the utility's manager of natural gas vehicle market development.

With similar success nationwide, natural gas could displace gasoline in about 10 million vehicles at a saving of 1.2 million barrels of oil daily, Smith said. Americans now use about 16 million barrels of oil a day.


In 1980, General Motors said it would produce an electric car in 1985, but, when oil prices fell, it dropped that plan. This year, GM again said it would produce an electric car--reportedly in about 1995. The reason this latest promise might actually come true, GM officers and others say, is that it is a response to the certainty of clean-air laws, not to the uncertainty of oil prices.

Some see development of a silent, non-polluting electric automobile as essential to meeting the toughest standards yet envisioned by the state of California and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Still hostage to battery technology, the electric car has been nursed along to a point where advocates in the electricity business say it can go far enough and fast enough to make it worth the trouble. But, unless it is mass produced, it remains a costly option.

Three firms--one Canadian, one American and a Swedish-British consortium--promise to deliver 10,000 electric-powered vans to Los Angeles by 1995, according to Southern California Edison. A 150-mile driving range is claimed for the one developed by Denver-based Unique Mobility.

GM, Ford and Chrysler now say their prototype electric vans can go farther than 100 miles without recharging. All are candidates for sale in California in the late 1990s, as part of the strategy for meeting clean-air mandates.

GM, meanwhile, says that it is "working to complete production plans" on what would be the first mass-produced electric car in modern times. It won't say when, but Edison puts the target date at 1995.

The car, called Impact, is all new, unlike the previously promised GM electric car, which one GM engineer conceded was little more than "batteries in a Chevette." The Impact is said to attain 60 m.p.h. within 8 seconds and to travel 120 miles between rechargings.


Outside of the Corn Belt, there is little enthusiasm for ethanol, an alcohol fuel widely used in Brazil and commonly available at filling stations in the Midwest. Although it is technically superior to methanol, some studies have shown that it takes more energy to make it than is saved by substituting it for gasoline. And there has been harsh criticism of the big U.S. taxpayer subsidies paid to agribusiness to support ethanol production.

Solar energy probably will never directly power cars in general use, said the Washington think tank Worldwatch Institute, because an automobile has too little surface area on which to capture the sun's rays. An electric car that runs on batteries recharged by solar power is possible, however, and, to renewable-energy buffs, it is the best of all answers.

A hydrogen-powered car is a long-term prospect. West German and Saudi Arabian engineers are working on extracting hydrogen from water, Worldwatch researchers said, but cars that run on hydrogen may be a mid-21st-Century phenomenon.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World