For decades, the world’s relationship with oil has been akin to a dysfunctional marriage: some believe we can live with it, others say we should live without it.
From the Oil Crisis of 1973 and again in 1979, to dozens of major spills like the Atlantic Empress into the Atlantic Ocean and the devastating BP Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, millions of gallons of oil have found their way into oceans, lakes, and streams.
These disasters and others, like the deadly 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail accident in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and a fiery train derailment in Saskatchewan this February igniting almost 1.2 million litres, further soured the world’s views on oil.
With the most recent glut in supply caused by the oil price war with Saudi Arabia – and the embroilment of the entire planet into the COVID-19 crisis – some industry insiders are predicting oil could plunge to $10 US a barrel, as overburdened storage tanks reach capacity.
From record highs of over $140 US a barrel in 2008, plummeting to under $20 US per barrel in March, and prices at the gas pumps dipping below $2 per gallon in some American states, many are questioning alternative sources to oil, gasoline, natural gas, propane, shale, and coal.
Shift to biofuels
Factors including high fuel prices, unreliable sources, global political strife, fears over worsening climate change, protests worldwide against oil and gas pipelines, and recent improvements in green energy technology and battery storage, have led to advocacy of alternative fuel options.
Defined as fuels derived from non-fossil sources – unlike crude oil or coal – alternative fuels come in different forms, including liquid, gas, and solar.
While some alternative fuels are combined with petroleum-based products, others, like ethanol, are made entirely from biomass materials with high sugar and starch content like corn, beets, sugar cane, wood chips, and even some grasses.
With added enzymes, these and other raw materials are processed into a mash, cooked and cooled, fermented into alcohol, and distilled.
Although ethanol – sometimes called bio-alcohol – has been in the news recently with stories about farmers converting land used for crops such as soybeans into corn for ethanol (not without controversy, owing to production costs and land use), ethanol has been around for a long time.
Since the time that ethyl alcohol was used in early combustion engines by German inventor Nikolaus Otto in 1860, the history of alcohol fuels has been controversial.
Progressing from heavy taxation during the American Civil War to controversial federal ethanol-production subsidies under the Carter Administration in the late 1970s, and ducking claims by the petroleum industry that ethanol is inferior to gasoline, bio-based fuels, despite the attacks, are not vanishing from the fuel landscape.
The alternative vehicle
Always looking for a telling advantage, visionaries and automobile manufacturers have long experimented with cars powered by sources of energy other than gasoline or diesel.
While cars like the popular Tesla bring environmentally friendly attributes, they also come with their share of negatives. Powered by rechargeable batteries, these cars lack practical range, a consistent theme emanating from owners and reviewers alike. Recently, improvements have been made to the distance obtainable per charge, but even the endurance of the 2020 Tesla Model 3 – which sees the company claim 322 miles for the Long Range version – falls short in real world testing.
Of course, technology guru Elon Musk’s Tesla is not the only electric fuel vehicle on the market. Other manufacturers including BMW, Volkswagen, Honda, Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet, Volvo and Kia are also on board with models like the BMW i3, the Nissan Leaf, and the Chevrolet Bolt.
But, long before battery-powered electric vehicles, cars fuelled by organic-based products were on the road. Even Henry Ford’s famous Model T was assembled with a carburetor enabling it to use gasoline, ethanol, or a mixture of both (but not with a dual-fuel dashboard switch, an urban myth).
This was followed by Ford making lines of trucks and buses, so called ‘generator vehicles,’ with engines running on wood (charcoal) gas.
The number of vehicle manufacturers producing cars powered by alternative sources grew as more facilities worldwide began making biofuel. The first alternative producer in the United States was Pacific Biodiesel.
Opening in 1996, the plant – which transformed used cooking oil and grease from waste traps into fuel – was in operation until 2014, when it was forced to close due to new requirements and permits from the Maui County Department of Environmental Management.
Along with the U.S., which was responsible for the biofuel production of 38,088 metric tons of oil equivalent in 2018, other nations are on board with petroleum-based alternatives. These include Brazil (21,375 metric tons of oil equivalent), Indonesia at 4,849, Germany at 3,445, China at 3,099, and France at 2,727 (all 2018 figures).
From solar to biodiesel
A combination of improved technologies and lower prices for solar cells, government incentives, a growing acceptance of wind power, and reluctance to remain dependent on fossil fuels has spurred growth in alternative fuels. As the world keeps going green, non-petroleum based sources of sustainable energy – which create little or no harmful emissions – are becoming more popular.
As with any fuel, there are pros and cons. While ethanol is readily made from corn, wheat, or other plant-based substances, some question this use of land: removing it from food production and thus impacting food prices.
Other alternative fuels like biodiesel, which can be made from new or recycled vegetable oils and animal fats, are safe and produce far fewer carbon monoxide emissions than gasoline. And unlike oil, biofuels do not need to be extracted from the ground.
One of the key criticisms of biodiesel, however, is that the acreage needed for its creation must be offset by more forests to neutralize carbon dioxide.
Another issue surrounding fuels like biodiesel and methanol is the occasional admix of petroleum products, depending on the type of engine being used. Also, pure methanol, sometimes called wood alcohol, is toxic to the central nervous system if ingested, and can cause blindness.
However, methanol does present some advantages, including that it is harder to ignite than gasoline, has a higher octane rating, and is cleaner-burning. For these reasons, it’s frequently used in racing cars.
According to Petroleum.co.uk, approximately 90 percent of the world’s vehicles still use oil-based fuels, accounting for about 70 percent of all petroleum. While electric vehicles like those from Tesla and even massive electric-powered mining trucks from Komatsu are gaining ground, the coming years will see considerable growth in alternative sources like biofuels.
One of the biggest industries poised to utilize plant, animal fat and recycled grease-based fuels is transportation.
To date, about 98 percent of America’s transportation sector is fuelled by petroleum products. As new technology emerges and engines become more efficient, the use of biofuels will keep increasing. More automotive manufacturers worldwide are embracing dual-fuel or flexible-fuel vehicles (FFV), made to operate on more than one kind of fuel.
Two of the biggest markets are Brazil and the United States, known for their production of oil-based alternative fuels. In the U.S., the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) has served the nation’s ethanol industry since 1981, and is leading the way towards a cleaner and energy-independent future.
Big jobs & billions of dollars
In its Focus Forward: 2020 Ethanol Industry Outlook, the RFA notes the importance of the ethanol industry to rural Americans in particular.
In 2019, 68,684 jobs were directly associated with the ethanol sector, which also supported another 280,327 indirect/induced jobs, creating $23.3 billion in household income. A huge contributor to the American economy, spending over $27 billion on “raw materials, inputs, and other goods and services,” the ethanol sector also provided $43 billion of America’s GDP (gross domestic product).
The world’s leader in ethanol production, consumption, and export, America last year produced approximately 16 billion gallons, 54 percent of the global total.
As more countries see ethanol and other bio-based fuels as alternatives to oil and gas, the planet will be closer to energy security. While fossil fuels will probably never completely disappear from our daily lives, alternative greener sources will continue to grow.