Striving toward alternative energy in automobiles

Mitchell Lafrance

At a time when fossil fuels power everything on the streets, a new wave of technology aims to change the minds of people around the world and encourage the implementation of alternative energy sources. 

Alternative energy is defined as any source of energy that is an alternative to fossil fuels. A fossil fuel, much like the petroleum in you car, or the propane in your barbecue, is derived from the decomposition of buried, dead organisms. 

There are two major concerns with using fossil fuels to power cars: emissions and a finite number of resources. While we have gasoline cars that are much more efficient than they used to be, they still emit large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. 

Fossil fuels are a finite resource, meaning once all of the current resources have been exhausted, they can no longer be utilized. 

“It’s really cool because I can go to the pump right now and put it in my [snowmobile] and it’s a lot cleaner,” said Austin Dewberry, technical director for the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge team. 

The SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge team participates in annual competitions held in Michigan, where collegiate teams from across the country modify snowmobiles to efficiently run ethanol fuel in their engines. 

Ethanol is commonly found at gas stations around the country, and especially in Iowa. It is rated as E-85, meaning the fuel you are putting in your car’s gas tank is about 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. 

Two of the most common forms of alternative energy used today in the automotive industry include electric power and biofuel gasoline. 

Ethanol alcohol, a common biofuel, is a fuel additive in gasoline that creates cleaner emissions compared to using just gasoline. 

“Ethanol can be stored as a liquid, and we have fuel tanks and gas pumps that work the same way, whether they pump gas or ethanol,” said Jacob Heinberg, senior in mechanical engineering who is doing research with biofuels at the BioCentury Research Farm in Boone, Iowa. 

“So you don’t have to upgrade all of your infrastructure, because it’s still the same material,” Heinberg said. 

“One of the current downsides to using biofuels is energy density,” Dewberry said. “If you take a molecule of ethanol and a molecule of gasoline, gasoline has a higher energy density. [Ethanol is] technically not as efficient, but it’s generally cheaper. Plus, ethanol has a higher octane rating than race gas, which can be almost $10 for one gallon.”

Energy density refers to the amount of energy available in a system per unit volume. At the current rate, a gallon of gasoline will provide more energy to a system than one gallon of ethanol fuel. 

Many people have also explored using leftover vegetable oil from restaurants as a fuel source, said Arthur Bootsmiller, project director for the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge team. 

“I remember back in high school, we were looking into using some of the waste vegetable oil as a way to power the buses,” Bootsmiller said. “We ended up rerouting the buses so that it was more efficient, but many people do use waste vegetable oil to power their vehicles.”

Biofuels provide an alternative to gasoline consumers can adopt today, but other technologies have been on the rise lately that provide an additional option for people, namely electric cars.

Tesla has been at the forefront of the electric car revolution for the past few years, given their wildly popular Model S car. They have also recently introduced a new Roadster performance car, as well as a fully electric semi-truck.

Tesla broke new ground with their Model S electric car, which showcased long-range driving capabilities, while also still maintaining the practicality of a normal gas-powered vehicle.

PrISUm, Iowa State’s solar car team, recently returned from the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge held in mid-October. The competition pits collegiate teams from around the world to build and design solar powered vehicles capable of traveling from Northern Australian to the Southern part of Australia.

Matt Goode, member of the PrISUm Solar Car team, said while there are many advantages to electric car technology, there are also a number of challenges that come with implementing them on a large scale.

“If we all switched over to electric vehicles overnight, our power lines would physically fall on the ground because of the load required to charge all of those cars,” Goode said.

“So biofuels gives you that option of being all available today,” Goode said, referring to the already available ethanol fuel at many gas stations across the country.

While both applications are useful solutions to fossil fuels, one might have current advantages over the other.

“Right now, ethanol is more energy dense than electricity,” Goode said. “When electricity surpasses liquid fuel in energy density it will be a whole new ball game, but until that happens, I think we’ll see electric vehicles do in-town driving and liquid fuels will drive longer distances.”

One unique aspect of adapting to alternative energy is helping other people to see the advantages and how it can be more efficient, both Heinberg and Goode said.

“We’ve made gasoline into a pretty efficient fuel, but that didn’t come without lots of research and development,” Goode said. “We can make electric cars perform better than any gas car, we just have to put that research and development into it.”

Heinberg added the concept of charging your car overnight can be viewed the same as charging your phone.

“You charge your phone overnight, just like you would your car, and then the next day you’re at 100 percent so you don’t have to worry about running out of charge.”

Part of Heinberg’s research revolves around looking into how to use more of the plant when converting it into a biofuel.

“Normally, we would just use the corn kernels themselves to make ethanol, but now we’re starting to develop ways to use the rest of the stalk as well, so that we’re producing more ethanol without wasting as much of the plant,” Heinberg said.

Part of the issue that comes with running ethanol-based gasoline in modern engines is tuning them to run at a higher octane than what is normally found at the pump, said Goode. 

“We can electronically control when the spark plugs ignite in an engine, but right now, valve timing is still limited to a mechanical process,” said Heinberg. “There is a company called FreeValve that is looking into engines where you can electronically control the valves.”

Being able to electronically control the valve timing in an engine would making tuning the engine to run ethanol much easier, and also make the internal engine components last longer.

The overall trend of alternative fuels has risen in the last few years, given recent plans to overhaul the auto industry and convert it to mainly biofuel and electric energy instead of relying on fossil fuels.

“I think it will be really cool to see where we end up with cars as these alternative energies are developed more and more,” said Bootsmiller.