Among automotive engineers, industry watchers, politicians and other pundits, there's consensus that one day we'll all be driving hydrogen-powered vehicles. The consensus evaporates as soon as somebody asks, "When?"
Some would answer, "Now," and point to the fleet of 100 hydrogen-powered fuel-cell Equinox SUV that Chevrolet is putting up for lease, or a smaller California-only lease program now offered by Honda and their all-new FCX Clarity hydrogen/fuel-cell sedan. BMW fans will no doubt say that the Munich-based manufacturer is leading with their fleet of one hundred hydrogen-powered 7-Series sedans that are now being given to celebrities on short-term loans.
The truth is that while these cars represent movement in the right direction, they're not really available to the public. Typical consumers can't buy or lease a vehicle that runs on hydrogen and, if we did, where would we fill it up? That's one of the biggest problems to be overcome by the backers of the hydrogen economy. Estimates of when we'll have a hydrogen economy with convenient refueling stations are all over the map, but all of them say that we're decades away. I want to know what I can drive now that will make a difference, as I'll be long since dead before hydrogen powers anything of consequence on American highways.
Ethanol in the US
Ethanol is one alternative to conventional gasoline. Arguments continue to rage as to whether it makes sense as an alternative fuel simply because it takes so much energy to produce gallons of fuel from bushels of corn. However, ethanol does have a greater energy output compared to gasoline (ed. note: as it relates to horsepower), and it does emit approximately 22 percent fewer greenhouse gases when you total the emissions from production and consumption. For these reasons, especially in the corn-rich Midwest, ethanol is the alternative powering a growing national fleet (in the millions) of E85-capable vehicles from Detroit manufacturers and some imports.
But ethanol isn't the answer for the near future. Right now, industry divining rods are coming together over the next most probable big thing: bio-diesel, a vegetable-based fuel that can power any diesel engine with little or no modification.
First things first: forget most everything you know about diesel engines ... and the fact that they used to be noisy, clattering, dirty, smelly and black-cloud belching. Today, diesels are as quiet as gasoline engines, smooth running, powerful, and nearly soot-less in terms of exhaust emissions. Simply put, modern diesels are not dirty anymore. Even that objectionable "eau d'diesel" that makes diesels so unpleasant to tail in traffic is pure history. However, if you recall that diesel engines are efficient, do keep that in mind because today's modern oil burners are exceptionally fuel-efficient. This efficiency is why over half of all vehicles in western Europe are diesel powered.
Now imagine the benefits of being able to run a modern diesel engine on a non-petroleum diesel fuel. Wouldn't that be fantastic? It would be even better if the fuel were made from something other than what we directly or indirectly eat, like corn. Rising prices for milk, beef, and tortillas as a result of corn now being used to make ethanol.
Currently, biodiesel in the US is made from rapeseed (canola) and soy oils. These oils are plentiful and cheap, and turning them into usable fuel is not too complex provided you understand transesterification and don't mind working with methanol (a toxic substance). Lucky for us, there are plenty of people who do understand how to safely turn these plant oils into fuel, and US biodiesel production has increased from a mere 500,000 gallons in 2000 to over 75 million gallons in 2006 according to figures published at biodieselnow.com. Additional high-capacity plants are said to be coming on-line so biodiesel will continue to become more available. See bio-diesel stations around the country here.
The Biodiesel Boom
Because we here at AOL Autos are in the business of watching what's new within the automotive industry, we see big things happening in the world of diesel, and specifically in terms of bio-diesel.
A strong indicator of a trend is the fact that more automotive manufacturers including Mercedes and Volkswagen are offering a wider selection of diesel-powered vehicles. Domestic manufacturers are also in on the movement. This summer, General Motors announced plans to produce a 4.5-liter light-duty diesel engine that will be fitted to cars and trucks. Ford additionally announced its plans to extend the availability of diesel power to its popular F-150 pickup. Currently, Ford only offers their 6.4-liter Power Stroke diesel V8 engine in F-250, F-350, and F-450 Super Duty pickup models. Mercedes and Volkswagen are also importing more diesel-powered vehicles.
Beyond these official industry actions, when we walked the halls at November's SEMA show (Specialty Equipment Market Association) we saw many diesels that touted biodiesel in their tanks. Several vehicles were particularly interesting, including the enormous F-450 built by Beau Boeckmann of Galpin Auto Sports in California (the group is part of the Galpin auto dealership kingdom in Van Nuys, California).
When this truck's engine isn't running on pure hydrogen, it runs on bio-diesel. To match the truck's customized looks, the engine is also modified to make the most of every ounce of bio-diesel, and it claims to produce 500 horsepower when running on the fuel. A stock Ford 6.4-liter diesel produces 350 horsepower. We interviewed Boeckmann at SEMA where he told us, "I really love the presence of this vehicle. We didn't want to do something that was wimpy environmentalism. We wanted to make a serious environmental statement. This truck proves that you don't have to give up performance to be environmentally friendly."
Tom Holm of the Eco Trek Foundation also had several bio-diesel-powered trucks at the SEMA show. Holm's runs Eco Trek, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to producing vehicles that have less negative impact on the earth. You may recognize Holm from his show on cable TV's Outdoor Life Network called Adventure Highway. Tom's story provides an interesting blend of high-horsepower fun and ecology. "Doing 'Adventure Highway' gave me the chance to go to some of the most beautiful places on Earth and then do great things when I was there; surf, ski, you name it," he said. "But then I realized that I was driving to these unspoiled places in monstrous trucks that were getting like six miles to the gallon." He knew there had to be a better way.
Holm's search led him to biodiesel, and he has tapped engineers to help him increase the horsepower and fuel economy of his 'Adventure Highway' vehicles to truly astounding levels. The HUMMER H2 shown here is not yet available from the factory with the GM Duramax diesel engine, but Holm's team made it fit. Then they super tuned it to produce 500 horsepower while attaining 24 mpg, about triple that of the gasoline-powered H2. "We can tune the engine to produce more power, but then the mileage goes down. Plus we also have really good emissions from this engine calibration. I drive this truck all the time and it works great, and I feel good driving it because I'm not burning any petroleum-based fuel."
The Eco Trek H2 shows that Holm's dedication to the environment is well rounded. All of the "bling" visible on his H2 is polished aluminum, not chrome. "Chrome is a really nasty thing, very toxic to produce and bad for the world because it can't even be recycled," he said. The shiny bits and pieces on the H2 are all polished aluminum, a material that is much less toxic to produce and is recyclable. Touches inside continue this line of thought and include carpets made from recycled soda bottles, floor mats from recycled rubber, a headliner woven from Canadian hemp, and seats trimmed in imitation leather. "The leather tanning process is super toxic and I wanted this truck to be as responsible as possible," Holm said.
Holm has made many aspects of his Eco Trek HUMMER available to new truck buyers through special arrangements with General Motors, Ford, and Dodge. Eco Trek up-fitted pickups and SUVs can be ordered by your local dealer and then transformed into a more environmentally friendly vehicle by a large automotive supplier that Holm has partnered with. The company is Southern Comfort out of Birmingham, Ala. The Eco Trek package for the H2 (minus the diesel engine conversion) even shows up on the HUMMER's regular production option sheet.
The Biodiesel Advantage
Aside from the fact that biodiesel is organic and renewable, it holds several other advantages according to many authorities, including biodieselnow.com. First, it is naturally a super lubricant ... if you've ever cooked without oil you know what happens to whatever is in the pan. It sticks. Adding oil to the pan keeps your food from sticking as it's cooking. Biodiesel does the same thing in an engine: it lubes everything up so there's less friction. This is particularly important now because today's petroleum-based diesel fuels are now ultra-low sulfur, and sulfur acted as an added lubricant within the fuel.
Bio-diesel's second advantage is that in its many forms, the fuel does not require any engine modifications. If you have a newer diesel-power vehicle, it can likely burn the bio-fuel without any issues. Third, biodiesel actually helps clean the internals of a diesel engine, another quality that helps improve fuel efficiency.
When compared to ethanol and petrol-based diesel, biodiesel produces more power from each gallon of fuel, helping engines produce more horsepower and torque.
Lastly, and importantly, this fuel is much less toxic to the environment. Spill it, and it's biodegradable. Burn it and many forms of diesel exhaust emissions -- including soot and CO2 -- drop by as much as 68% depending on the blend according to the EPA. For those concerned about global warming and man-made CO2 emissions, this may be one of the fuel's most important attributes. Only nitrous oxides increase when the two fuels are compared.
Hundreds of small-volume producers are "brewing" biodiesel all over the country. Nearly all of it is used to blend with conventional petrol-based diesel. Currently, there are industry standards for these blends, and they include fuels with names like B5, B10, and B20. The "B" stands for Bio, as in bio-diesel. The numerals (5, 10, 20, etc.) stand for the percentage of biodiesel per gallon. So, a gallon of B5 is 5% biodiesel and 95% petrol-based diesel.
Biodiesel may be made from many different sources, including common kitchen waste grease or fat proteins produced by algae. This source flexibility is great to have, as most of us realize that the single source of petrol-diesel (ancient plant matter and dinosaurs) won't last forever. There are industry standards for all grades of biodiesel up to B100, however there are some issues with the fuel that prevent auto manufacturers form approving the use of bio blends above a B20.
Problems with Biodiesel
While additives can help, most readers will go, "Ah Ha" when the fuel's primary roadblock is pointed out. When biodiesel gets cold ... just like the bottle of vegetable oil in your refrigerator ... it turns gel-like. It won't flow. A fuel that won't flow below 32 doesn't do a driver in Duluth any good in December. The fuel also has issues at high temperatures, when it tends to oxidize, a process that releases acids into the fuel and forming deposits that can clog the fuel system.
Additionally, because the fuel is actually derived from a food, microbes can grow in it. Compared to petrol-based diesel, the bio-fuel absorbs water more easily, and water isn't good for engines or combustion.
The Future of Biodiesel is Growing
In addition to coming from canola or soy, biodiesel could one day be made from other natural sources such as switchgrass or algae. Until then, we can drive cleaner and without compromise using existing biodiesel fuels. Great progress is being made to overcome B100's negative qualities, and all grades of biodiesel are becoming more widely available. With more manufacturers building more diesel-burning engines, all signs are pointing toward something good.
About the author: Rex Roy is a Detroit-based automotive writer and journalist. His new book, Motor City Dream Garages, will be on shelves in November.