Fuel for thought

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By Diane Dierking

While traveling on business a few years ago, I found myself in Greece with a few days to myself. I was in an unusual mood and didn't feel like driving around the countryside alone. I therefore resigned myself to getting up at some dreadful hour of the morning to wait for a tour bus to take me out of Athens for the day.

That morning, I found myself at the bus depot talking to a long-haired, middle-aged gentleman who asked me what I did for a living. After telling him I worked in the oil business, he began to berate me for my lack of ethics -- "How could I work in such a field?" he wondered. This man seemed to hold me personally responsible for global warming and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Eventually, his wife told him to get off his high horse until he gave up his gasoline-powered car -- never mind the diesel-fueled bus we were about to get on.

I'm sure my "friend" from Greece was pleased to see several celebrities arrive at the Academy Awards ceremony on February 29 in environmentally friendly, fuel-efficient hybrid cars. However, I hear most of these stars had arrived in Los Angeles via fuel-guzzling private jets. A bit hypocritical, if you ask me.

These days, researchers are working furiously to develop an engine and fuel system for passenger vehicles that will replace the gasoline engine, and do so while providing economic and environmental advantages. The push for alternative fuel use is due in part to demand for lower and zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) -- as of last year, California mandated that 10% of vehicles on the market must be ZEVs.

Since the only true ZEV is the electric car, other states have been cautious about following California's lead, although New York has adopted an alternative compliance program. Under New York's program, 10% of the cars on the market have to be partial-ZEV or better. PZEVs include hybrid engine cars and the Ford Focus PZEV. An add-on feature apparently reduces the gasoline engine emissions of the Focus by 90%.

The most promising alternative fuel technology for cars is hydrogen. Many fuel cells extract the necessary hydrogen from natural gas, a seemingly abundant non-renewable fuel source. The high price of this fuel is a cause of concern to consumers and the chemical industry alike. It is doubtful, however, that an affordable hydrogen-powered car will be available until 2010.

This leaves us with the hybrid vehicle. There are currently three gasoline-electric cars available on the U.S. market: the Honda Civic, the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius. Although these vehicles still require gasoline, their gas mileage rating is one-and-a-half to two times that of a comparably sized car with a conventional gasoline engine.

As some consumers see it, the problem with hybrid cars is their low horsepower engines -- the Civic comes out ahead at 93 hp, but also it has the lowest gas mileage rating of the three. Another problem, for some folks, at least, is that Honda models only come with manual transmissions. I caught endless grief from my friends for even considering buying one of these "golf carts."

Not that I'd mind driving around in a "golf cart." I'm not obsessed with high-powered engines, unlike some of my friends, but there is something to be said about a car with good acceleration. If I were to consider buying an SUV, I could hold on to my car until Toyota introduces the 2005 270 hp Highlander Hybrid. But I'm just not an SUV kind of girl.

Aside from tax incentives, hybrid cars are tempting not only for their fuel efficiency and low emissions, but their cost. All three vehicles have an MSRP of about $20,000. I'm at a point in my life, however, where it seems like a higher-end car is in order. After all, I live in the Chicago area, and heated leather seats are almost a "necessity." I'm sure such cars will be available with hybrid engines at some point in the future, but my car won't last much more than a year. What's a girl to do?

The car I drive now has served me well, but she ain't what she used to be, so I will have to make a decision soon. Eventually, we will all be driving what are now known as "alternative fuel" cars, but when, and why should you make the switch? Do we engineers spend more time worrying about making gasoline -- since that's what some of us are paid to do -- and less time about how much gasoline we consume? Many of us worry about the environment while we're at work, but what about at home?

Considering how few hybrid engine vehicles I've seen on the road, it seems like most consumers are going to wait to purchase one until it is more the norm, as opposed to the exception.

In the coming months, I will have to decide which side of the fence I'm on. Only time will tell.

How about you? As usual, we'd like to hear your thoughts.

Diane Dierking is senior editor for Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail her at ddierking@putman.net.

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