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Friday, February 27, 2004

The Future of Fuel

The auto industry is somewhat unfairly maligned for being responsible for most of the crude oil consumption in the world. In fact most oil consumption is done by industries, not by cars. But there is room for improvement at all ends of the spectrum, including American customer's tastes in vehicles.

Living here in Los Angeles, California, I experience firsthand what it is to breathe in a polluted city. My own experience has not been too bad; I don't have asthma or other breathing problems. Yet I can "see" the effects of gasoline, the ever present brown sky overhead. And I have had to contend with record breaking temperatures, probably due in large part to global warming. And I have had to contend with extremely high (for America) gas prices. It's clear to me now that there is a finite amount of oil left in the world, and that gasoline exhaust damages the environment. There is overwhelming scientific evidence supporting these facts, and I won't bother to bore you with links. Suffice it to say, disagreement here is foolish.

What there is disagreement on is what to replace gasoline with. We all love performance, and virtually all the options out there to replace gasoline in our cars would reduce performance at the current level of technology. Switching from gas to ethanol would result in larger fuel tanks, and heavier cars. Switching to hydrogen would be expensive, and dangerous. Ethanol too is quite explosive. Both are invisible when on fire, making them extraordinarily dangerous. Both pollute dramatically less. Electricity is an option, but from where to generate the electricity. This is a problem with hydrogen too. Will the plants generate these from gas? Then the point of switching from gas is lost, as this is less efficient then directly running cars on gas. Ethanol requires vast amounts of farmland too, farmland that might not exist with growing populations, and vanishing arable areas. And then there is the nuclear issue. Is that a solution?

I think the solution lies in the only renewable resource, the sun. From the sun we can harness energy through wind farms and solar panels. The sun causes the wind to blow, and of course blowing wind powers wind propellers. Solar panels are even more direct. These will generate electricty, which can then be used to create hydrogen in plants, or perhaps electric generators, for electric engines in cars.

There will also be a performance lag. Europe after World War II was reduced to using very small cars to survive fuel shortages; it took years to come back. The same might happen here as well once fuel runs out. There is a solution to that too: Invest in research and development to bring hydrogen or whatever nonpolluting engine, to the same level as gasoline cars now. The alternative is to continue to invest in wars abroad, and pipelines around the world, to bring gas here. It's an expense we might not be able to afford much longer.

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