America’s current crop of hybrid vehicles have gained increasing
prominence in the nationwide energy debate, but they aren’t the
only options available. In Europe, where gas prices hover around $6
a gallon, the quest for fuel efficiency takes on a more fevered
pitch. Across the pond, the diesel engine is proving to be the most
popular option for improving gas mileage.
Americans tend to associate diesel with loud engines clattering
their way down the road, spewing clouds of exhaust as they go. In
reality, diesel engines can be just as quiet as their gasoline
counterparts. And while diesel particulate and nitrogen oxide
emissions are higher than gasoline’s, diesels are 30 to 60 percent
more efficient in fuel use and produce fewer greenhouse gases. Most
diesel engines can also easily be converted to run on biodiesel,
fuel made from vegetable oil.
The purely electric car lost favor nearly a century ago and has
yet to return successfully. Today, demand for electric cars remains
tempered by their limited 100-mile range and lack of power.
However, some hybrid models can be altered to become plug-in
optional, allowing the owner to charge the car from an outlet and
forgo the use of gas for short periods of time. Such a system
allows the car to drive about 50 miles on battery power before
automatically switching back to gasoline.
Finally, there is the much-hyped, but still unavailable, fuel
cell. Powered by hydrogen gas (usually cultivated from
petrochemicals), fuel cells can provide more energy than gasoline
engines. Popular with the White House, fuel cell cars have become
the Holy Grail for engineers, and many leading car manufacturers
promise to be the first to mass-market such a vehicle. But most
researchers don’t see them as a viable option for at least 10
years. In a recent issue of Science magazine, researchers
David Keith and Alexander Farrell noted that fuel cell technology
is likely to be based initially on petroleum hydrocarbons. As a
result, it would be just as effective and far cheaper to simply
encourage energy-saving technologies to hold on to those
hydrocarbons for the future.
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Green Car Journal
A quarterly consumer magazine focusing on, well, greener
Union of Concerned Scientists’ new hybrid consumer information
The Environmental Protection Agency’s fuel economy site, which
allows you to make side-by-side comparisons of any make or model,
including both mileage and smog and carbon emissions.
Thoughtful weblog for more technical news about developments in
green transport, from biofuels to hybrids to electric
A retrofit option for hybrids that allows you to plug in your car
overnight, making your engine effectively gas-optional for short
trips. Currently available on a demonstration basis only.
Encyclopedic Web site chock full of useful information, including
overviews of hybrid cars and biodiesel, with instructions for
converting a diesel engine from fossil fuels to veggie oil.