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With choices like Biodiesel and Ethanol, what’s the best fuel for your vehicle?

October 3rd, 2007 · No Comments

With the rapid growth in vehicle use around the world, it would be nice to know what are the most efficiency, economic, and least carbon emitting fuels. The number of motor vehicles on the road is increasing rapidly. The number of cars and trucks in China is up over 3,600 percent in the last thirty years. Data from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Ward’s Communications, Ward’s World Motor Vehicle Data provide an interesting view of the growth in motor vehicle use.

Figure 1 China Truck and Car Registration
China Vehicles

While the U.S. still accounts for the largest motor vehicle market, the rest of the world is quickly accelerating towards more vehicles on the road. Figure 2 shows the number of vehicle registrations over the last thirty years for China, the U.S. and the rest of the world (ROW). Vehicle registration growth in the U.S. has been growing at a 2% per year rate from 1975 to 2005. The largest growth in vehicle registration is in China and India where growth in the last ten years is up 195% and 99%, respectively.

Figure 2 World Vehicle Registration
World Vehicles

With an explosion in motor vehicle use, what fuel should we be using to better performance and reduce emissions? Let’s go back to two basic concepts of energy: Specific Energy and Energy Density. For a quick review, (Molecular Weight Calculator) the specific energy of a fuel relates the inherent energy of the fuel relative to its weight. Specific energy is often measured in kilo-joules per gram (kj/g). One kilo-joule equals one kilowatt-second meaning one kilowatt-hour (KWH) equals to 3,600 kilo-joules. Also one British Thermal Unit (BTU) equals 1,055.05585 joules. A reference to the specific energy and energy values of most fuels can be found at Hydrogen Properties

Figure 3 Specific Energy
Specific Energy

By specific energy hydrogen is the clear leader. However, vehicles must inherently carry their fuel supply, so to determine which fuel is best for motor vehicles, energy density of the fuel is the next measurement. While vehicle fuel efficiency is dependent upon a number of factors such as engine type and performance, make and model of vehicle, road conditions and fuel, we are focusing on fuel energy.

Figure 4 Energy Density: KWH per Gallon
Energy Density

Figure 4 illustrates how fuels compare with respect to energy density, that is, energy relative the container size. We again are using KWH to measure energy value. Hydrogen, because it is so light, requires 15.9 times the container volume to provide the same energy as diesel. Biodiesel provides more power per gallon than Ethanol, which requires 1.6x, the container size for the same amount of energy as diesel. Biodiesel and diesel are relatively similar with respect to energy density. While both Ethanol and Biodiesel are both form of renewable energy, Biodiesel offers more bang per gallon. Before we are able invest more into hydrogen and solar energy to bring alternative energy into parity with conventional hydrocarbon fuels, diesel and biodiesel offer better energy efficiency among hydrocarbon fuels.

Table 1 Specific Energy, Energy Density & CO2
Specific Energy

As a final assessment of hydrocarbon fuels, let’s compare carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions among our list of fuels. CO2 emission is a function of carbon concentration and combustion process of the fuel. Fuel energy research at the Department of Environmental Protection (EPA) and DOE indicate 99% to nearly 100% combustion of with fuels used in vehicles. That means almost all of the atoms in the fuel are converted to either heat or byproducts such as CO2.

Figure 5 illustrates how much CO2 is produced per gallon of fuel. Remember the molecular weight of CO2 is about 44 with oxygen contributor nearly 73% of the weight and is taken from our atmosphere during combustion. This is why more CO2 is created than the actual weight of the fuel. A second factor needs to be considered when evaluating CO2 emission and that is how much CO2 is produced per energy value. In comparing CO2 emissions per KWH of energy, Ethanol produces about 7% less CO2 than diesel or Biodiesel and 5% less than gasoline. Neither of these estimates considers the emissions from the processing to produce Ethanol or Bioiesel.

Figure 5 CO2 per Gallon

The bottom line is Ethanol and Biodiesel provide marginal relief to our energy crisis with biodiesel offering better efficiency and Ethanol marginally less CO2 missions. The only real solution to our imminent energy crisis is alternative energies such as solar, hydrogen fuel cells, and wind.

Tags: Alternative Energy · Automobile Fuel Efficiency · Biodiesel Energy · Carbon and Climate · Carbon Economics · Carbon Emissions · Carbon Footprint · CO2 Emissions · Energy Density · Energy Economics · Energy Independence · Energy Security · Ethanol Energy · Fuel Cells · Fuel Efficiency · Hydrocarbon Fuels · Hydrogen Energy · Natural Gas Energy · Oil Energy · Propane Energy · Solar Energy · Specific Energy · Transportation Energy Economics · Wind Energy