Are biofuel hybrids a silver bullet?

A Q&A with EarthTalk, republished with permission.

Q. What would be the feasibility of having hybrid cars run on E85 or biodiesel? Wouldn’t this solve multiple problems?             

– Bob Pendergrass, Broken Arrow, OK

A. Environmental advocates would love to see carmakers mass-produce a biofuel-electric hybrid. From a technology standpoint, it’s a no-brainer: Major automakers already turn out vehicles that can run on E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol, derived from corn and other crops, and 15 percent standard gasoline. Ford’s light duty F-series pickups are examples of such “flex fuel” vehicles. And gasoline-electric hybrids, like Toyota’s Prius, are all the rage and beginning to be ubiquitous on the roads.

Cost, however, is an issue, says Jim Kliesch at Traditional cars and trucks powered by diesel, biodiesel or ethanol cost more to manufacture than equivalent gasoline-power vehicles. And gas-electric hybrids also cost more than conventional cars, largely because their market share is still small and economies of scale have not yet kicked in.

So combining two costly technologies in a biofuel-electric hybrid would constitute “a double whammy,” says Kliesch, “limiting the vehicles to a very small slice of the market.”

Nonetheless, Ford last year unveiled a prototype of its popular Escape Hybrid SUV that runs on E85. Like the gas-electric hybrids now on the road, the E85-electric hybrid Escape maximizes fuel economy by alternating between its internal combustion and electric engines. And it never needs to be plugged in because its high-capacity batteries store electricity generated from braking and other processes in-car.

Ford estimates that if only five percent of U.S. vehicles were powered by ethanol-electric hybrids oil imports could be reduced by 140 million barrels a year. Such vehicles would also produce about 25 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) — a chief contributor to global warming — than traditional cars and trucks. What’s holding up mass production, says Ford, is a lack of E85 fueling outlets — only 1,200 exist across the U.S.

Not to be outdone, General Motors (GM) has its own ethanol-electric hybrid in the works via its Sweden-based Saab subsidiary, which unveiled a prototype in 2006. The company claims that, whereas Toyota’s gas-electric Prius emits 104 grams of CO2 per kilometer, their E85-based hybrid should emit just 15 to 20 grams. Industry insiders don’t expect to see such a vehicle available to the public until 2010 or later.

With regard to diesel-electric hybrids, though diesel spews particulates and other nasty ground level pollutants into the environment, it contributes significantly less CO2 to the atmosphere than gasoline. And biodiesel, a form of the fuel derived from plants, is both carbon-neutral (burning it contributes no additional carbon to the atmospheric balance of the pollutant) and cleaner burning in regard to particulates. It can be used interchangeably with regular diesel in most diesel engines. Thus combining biodiesel with an electric motor in a hybrid car or truck would yield one of the cleanest burning engines on the road.

GM and Chrysler have already collaborated on developing a diesel-hybrid platform that combines dual electric motors with a diesel engine to offer unparalleled fuel efficiency. But whether such vehicles ever see the showroom floor — and whether consumers will be able to even afford them—is anybody’s guess.



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petty's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 39 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 01/20/2009

Hybrid cars are cleaner and more efficient.. though hybrid cost more, than the regular cars like nissan and nissan auto parts. So I think the best thing to do is to start the manufacturers and governments make their green option more affordable to people.

Rivka Cephus
Rivka Cephus's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 36 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 10/31/2010

In a world where fuel costs more than ever before it makes a lot of sense to do car pooling, this way you can save on fuel costs. Also for people who cannot get car pooling in their country it is more sensible to use fuel efficient cars. For many people fuel cost is a major head ache. If you are looking to keep track of your monthly fuel expenditure then using a fuel card. This way you know how much you are spending on a weekly and month basis.

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