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Everything you need to know about alternative fuels

Looking for a vehicle that runs on something other than gasoline? Here are some alternative fuel sources you should know about.

Gasoline has long been the common fuel standard for vehicles in the United States. However, many alternative fuel sources have gained traction, especially in recent years. Here is a look at the emerging landscape of alternative fuel options.

Natural gas

Natural gas is an alternative fuel that is widely available and already quite popular with many auto manufacturers. Natural gas burns clean and emits far less carbon dioxide than gasoline, but methane emissions are higher than what is typical for gasoline engines, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Natural gas is typically inexpensive, often times a full dollar less per gallon than gasoline. Refueling stations have also become more common, which makes filling up the tank a breeze. Natural gas is one of the alternative fuels available with low barriers to entry for the average consumer.

However, if saving the ozone is your top priority, you may want to look elsewhere, due to the high levels of methane emitted.

Electricity

With nearly every major automotive company channeling large amounts of money into developing electric vehicles, the buzz behind this alternative source of energy in the media is palpable.

Giving off no emissions, providing ample power and requiring low maintenance, electric cars are attractive options for the consumer wanting to make a green change. However, many electric vehicles are still expensive and short on range, some needing a full charge every 200 miles.

Demand for battery production and cost for eventual battery replacement is also a potential issue for manufacturers and consumers alike. Costs are expected to be driven down as electric vehicles continue to be adopted but, until then, many electric and hybrid vehicles stay out of range for many consumers.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen is an excellent alternative fuel option, in that it is green in its emissions — the only byproducts are water and warm air.

While this benefit makes hydrogen an attractive option, there are potential production and storage issues if adopted en masse. Hydrogen requires a cool, compressed environment to be stored, which makes it a costly and logistically difficult alternative fuel option.

Propane

Propane — also called liquefied petroleum gas or LPG — is a byproduct of natural gas processing and crude oil refining. Already widely used as a fuel for cooking and heating, propane is also a popular alternative fuel for vehicles.

Propane produces fewer emissions than gasoline, and there is a highly developed infrastructure for propane transport, storage and distribution.

However, because propane is a byproduct of natural gas processing, the same drawbacks exist for propane as natural gas. Natural gas production creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times worse for global warming than carbon dioxide.

Biodiesel

Biodiesel is a renewable, biodegradable fuel manufactured from vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled restaurant grease. It is a cleaner-burning replacement for petroleum diesel fuel. Engines can be converted to burn biodiesel in its pure form, and biodiesel can also be blended with petroleum diesel and used in unmodified engines.

Biodiesel is safe and reduces air pollutants associated with vehicle emissions, however, production is difficult, along with a distribution infrastructure.

Ethanol

A popular alternative among tuners and other high-performance enthusiasts, ethanol is an alcohol-based alternative fuel made by fermenting and distilling crops such as corn, barley or wheat, according to Edmunds. It can be blended with gasoline to increase octane levels and improve emissions quality.

Most gasoline engines are engineered to burn small amounts of ethanol but can be modified to burn an ethanol-rich mix commonly called E85. While they boost power and improve emissions, ethanol-rich mixes are not as efficient as burning pure gasoline and can have a negative impact on food prices, as farmers switch from growing corn for eating to growing it for driving.

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