Accessibility links

High Oil Prices Drive Search for New Fuels

With rising oil prices inflating the cost of almost everything, people are looking for other ways to power vehicles, and even for alternatives to vehicles. In this report, VOA's Kent Klein looks at ways to end the era of expensive fuel. (Part 5 of 5)

Ten or 20 years from now, the car you drive or the bus you ride may be powered by something other than gasoline.

The soaring price of petroleum is adding new urgency to efforts to build vehicles that run on cheaper, cleaner fuel.

Hybrids are one step in that direction. For example, the Toyota Prius runs on gasoline with help from an electric motor.

Ron Smith is a Toyota salesman in Los Angeles, where the Prius is especially popular. "We get two or three a day, and they are usually spoken for before they come in," said Smith. "And as soon as they come in, we have salesmen fighting for who is going to sell it to who. That is a good position to be in."

Smith says the Prius has become a status symbol for people who want to show support for the environment. More than one million have been sold since 1997. But experts say the hybrid is just an interim step on the way to vehicles that use no petroleum-based fuel at all.

General Motors is hoping that the Chevrolet Volt, powered mostly by electricity, will someday boost sales for its company. G.M. plans to put the Volt on the market in 2010, or as soon as an affordable lithium-ion battery can be developed.

Some of that research is taking place at Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago, where Don Hillebrand directs the Center for Transportation Research.

"This will have the effect of driving the cost of gasoline down, because the demand will go down," said Don Hillebrand.

Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells are another option. In Japan, Honda has begun the first commercial production of a hydrogen fuel-cell car, the FCX Clarity. Todd Mittleman of American Honda explains how it works.

"It is a car that stores hydrogen on board, and, mixing the hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen in the fuel cell stack, creates electricity," said Mittleman. "So, in essence, it is an electric car."

There are very few places for drivers to refuel a hydrogen car, because there is no infrastructure yet for distributing hydrogen. But Mittleman says hydrogen cars are worth the wait. "It is zero emissions, there is no carbon," he said. "And hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe."

Honda recently leased its first five hydrogen cars to celebrities in Los Angeles, and plans to put 200 more on the roads over three years.

If new kinds of engines are one solution, new fuels are another.

Biofuels like corn-based ethanol show promise. But corn farmers have been diverting their crops from food sales to ethanol production, and the price of corn-based food has spiked.

So scientists are looking for other sources of ethanol. One is a grass called sorghum. Bill Rooney runs the sorghum project at Texas A&M University. "If we are talking about a sugar platform, one that is very similar to sugar cane, we can use sweet sorghums to do that in the very near future," said Rooney.

And then there is algae. Its oil can be used for fuel. Algae can also help eliminate greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, says David Baltensperger, who heads Texas A&M's Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. "We can pump excess CO2 from manufacturing processes or whatever into the ponds, and the algae converts it because it needs it for photosynthesizing," said Baltensperger.

And there are other ideas.

Indonesian researcher Dibyo Pranomo is a supporter of a fast-growing weed called jatropha. The seed is poisonous for humans. But it can be blended with gasoline or diesel fuel to make biofuel. Indonesia plans to have 10 million hectares of jatropha plantations by 2009. And Air New Zealand will test a jet fuel made from jatropha later this year.

Of course, the cheapest alternative to gasoline may be to avoid burning fuel at all. Chuck Wilsker leads the Telework Coalition, a nonprofit organization in Washington. It supports people who use technology - like computers and telephones - to work from someplace other than the office.

Wilsker has an office on Capitol Hill, but he conducts almost all of his business at his home 40 kilometers away. He says some 30 million Americans telecommute at least part-time, and that the number could reach 50 million within the next few years.

According to Wilsker, telework is an international movement.

"I have had calls from Israel, from people who were putting together telework groups," said Chuck Wilsker. "I had e-mails from Brazil, have had calls from France, have had calls from Finland - people around the world who are actually taking a look."

So the ultimate solution to the high cost of fuel may be a hybrid of new ways to power vehicles and innovative approaches to conserving fuel.