The United States is not ready for alternative fuels

There is an abundance of imaginative stories about big oil tycoons with pointy mustaches and fat cigars locking away alternative fuel scientists in massive underground dungeons to preserve high gas prices. Though such stories provide us with antagonists to target on picket signs, they turn our attention away from one undeniable fact: American consumers are significantly unprepared to utilize alternative fuels.

Alternative fuel concepts are plentiful and well-orchestrated. Furthermore, they highlight the inefficiencies of modern-day vehicle technology. They have yet to deal, however, with the grim reality that there are 600 million cars on this planet, as estimated by Climate Change Corp. That is twice the population of the United States.

Engineers have been able to put ethanol, hydrogen and gas-electric engines on the road. Putting those options in factories, however, has proven to be a problem.

E85 ethanol is a fuel comprised of a 4-to-1 mixture of ethyl alcohol manufactured from common farm-grown crops and gasoline. The idea behind it is simple: If there is anything America has too much of, it is agricultural resources. In fact, our government pays farmers not to overproduce in order to manage prices. So from an agricultural perspective, E85 sounds appealing: The country provides an abundance of employment to American workers while producing a fuel alternative that has half the smog emission of gasoline.

The downside, however, is a number of unanswered questions. For example, corn farming is dependent on machines powered by diesel fuel. There has yet to be an assessment (on any acceptable level) of the ecological impact of such a substantial expansion of crop production and the subsequent rise in machine operation.

Also, E85 is about 75 percent as efficient as gasoline, and in many instances, about 10 percent more expensive, according to Ethanol is still an abstract idea and until inefficiencies can be eliminated, it is not a viable option.

Hydrogen fuel appears to be the most intriguing alternative fuel yet, with its concept of pure water emission and dreams of refueling stations in private garages. Also, hydrogen is everywhere, literally. The design is fundamentally simple: since hydrogen can be extracted from a water molecule to create potential energy, it produces electricity when the hydrogen reacts again with oxygen to re-form water.

Hydrogen fuel seems ideal but, again, technology lags behind the concept. Hydrogen boils at 20 Kelvin (about -423?F). As a result, modern storage of hydrogen spares little expense. A cheaper option must be developed without compromising safety or efficiency. Also, it takes 2.5 times more energy to make a hydrogen fuel cell than is obtained from it during its service life, according to the VA Tech Sustainability Report.

Then there is gas-electric power, the most humble fuel alternative. Rather than a fledgling option rushed into production, it is more of a temporary segue, allowing for a smoother transition to purely electric motors.

Gas-electric engines actually have two motors running symbiotically. In stop-and-go traffic, the electric motor is more efficient, giving drivers a break on gas and preserving the engine. At higher speeds, gasoline provides more power while recharging the electric machine.

The cons of hybrid technology lie in the complexity. A car with what is essentially two engines and a multitude of auxiliary systems and computers to run them – all composed of technology produced in the last decade – is not easy to fix. Most mechanics are not fully equipped to handle gas-electric cars and those who are may place unfortunate drivers at the mercy of free-market profiteering.

Also, the 30 percent increase in fuel efficiency is made up in the approximately 30 percent cost discrepancy between hybrids and their medieval counterparts. Rather than saving money on gas, drivers are paying for it up front. Therefore, to reap the benefits, drivers should plan to keep their Prius hybrids for well over a decade, not factoring in extra repair costs.

All of these options boil down to one inescapable fact: an efficient car is easy to produce, but difficult to mass-produce. The sooner the alternative energy field can focus on mass production, the sooner the nation can eliminate the only realistic fuel option it has.

Mohammed Ibrahim is a senior majoring in biology.