Published on 08/07/02

Alternative-fuel vehicles slowly gaining ground

By April Reese
University of Georgia

Bill Fox has pleasant memories of the first alternative-fuel buses he rode as a University of Georgia student.

"Back in the 1980s, alternative fuel was used in buses for campus transit," said Fox, now director of the university's motor pool. "They were fueled by peanut oil and smelled like a big Nutter Butter rolling down the road."

Unfortunately, the cost of running the peanut-oil buses was too high, Fox said. But great strides have been made over the past 20 years, and the UGA motor pool now has a number of alternative-fuel vehicles, including bifuel passenger vans and trucks, electric vehicles and a compressed-natural-gas passenger van.

Bifuel vehicles use two types of fuel. Equipped with two tanks and a switch that converts from one tank to the other, these autos combine propane and gasoline or CNG and gasoline. They're classified as low-emission vehicles.

Big car on campus

The electric cars are ideal for campus use, he said, as most campus vehicles travel just 5 miles a day.

"Electric cars are perfect for people who live in cities and residential areas," he said. "Their top speed is 25 mph. And they can only operate in areas with a speed limit of 35 mph or less."

But don't plan any long trips. The $3,000 battery pack, which lasts about three years, has to be recharged at a 110-volt outlet every 35 to 40 miles.

While neighborhood electric vehicles are classified as having zero emissions, Fox said, you have to remember how the electricity was produced to begin with.

Distant tailpipe

"You consider them (emission free) because they have no tailpipe," he said. "But the tailpipe is somewhere else. It just wasn't attached to the car."

Alternative-fuel vehicles are making their way into the automobile market.

"We have to reduce our dependence on foreign oil as a means to national security," said Susan Varlamoff of the Office of Environmental Sciences of the UGA College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. "As a nation, we are confronted with this big problem of how to wean ourselves off of gasoline."

Testing bifuel vehicles

For the past 20 years, UGA agricultural engineers have researched the use of alternative fuels. Biodiesel is derived from crops like peanuts, corn, soybeans and canola. The CAES is testing two bifuel vehicles on loan from the Ford Motor Company.

"With the flip of a switch, these vehicles give you the choice of running either on gasoline or an alternative fuel source," Varlamoff said.

"Our college has been developing and testing various alternative fuels for years," she said. "So it only seems right that we would test vehicles that use these fuels."

Biomass fuel, power

The U.S. Department of Energy Industries of the Future provided a grant to the CAES Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering's outreach program for an on-campus office to study biomass fuel and power.

Other government agencies, industry and Georgia Tech will collaborate with the UGA engineers, Varlamoff said.

"Alternative fuels such as biodiesel burn cleaner," she said. "More and more cities are choosing to use alternative fuels in their buses and fleet vehicles."

Many alternative fuels

Many alternative fuels can help reduce the pollution problems associated with cars burning gasoline. Cars can run on compressed natural gas (CNG), biodiesel, electricity or any combination of these fuels.

CNG cars are considered ultralow-emission vehicles. CNG burns much cleaner than gasoline.

The biggest reason more public vehicles don't use alternative fuels, Varlamoff said, is the matter of supply. Bio-diesel, compressed natural gas and liquid propane gas aren't among the choices at your neighborhood filling station yet.

"Liquid propane is available at most RV and U-Haul stores and at companies that sell LP gas," Varlamoff said.

"Major cities like Atlanta have compressed natural gas pumping stations," she said, "because the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) requires government entities to include alternative-fuel vehicles in their fleets."