The Search for Alternative Fuels for Our Combustion Engines

In order to curb the encroaching effects of climate change, many forward thinkers are attempting to develop new sources of energy that could help to remove us from our dependency on fossil fuels. There is currently a lot of effort being put behind the development of technology that could efficiently harness the energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind, however, there are also those attempting to simply change the fuel source that we use in our combustible engines. The argument for this approach is that it is much more likely to be implemented in the short term as the renewable technologies, although developing quickly, are not quite at the level of efficiency where they could totally replace fossil fuels. In order to halt excessive CO2 emissions as soon as possible, the adoption of a carbon neutral, or less carbon outputting fuel source may be necessary to keep our engines running while we wait for the engineers to perfect renewable sources. A fuel source that is currently being looked at as a carbon friendly alternative for use in the shipping industry is alcohol. 

In an article posted within Biofuels International, it states that the shipping companies Maersk and Lloyd’s Register have begun to look into carbon neutral fuel sources. The COO of Maersk, Søren Toft, even went so far as to state, “We need to have a commercially viable carbon neutral vessel in service 11 years from now.” This is certainly an admirable goal, however, the question must be asked if alcohol is truly the best choice for a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. In a recent experiment conducted within the CHEM 355 laboratory, a toxicity assay was conducted using radish seeds and varying fuel sources. The goal of this study was to test the effects that various fuels would have on the growth and germination of radish seeds if they were drenched in the fuel source. The fuel sources of ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, and diesel were tested against each other. The results of this study were that ethanol proved to be the most toxic as it resulted in the least amount of germination and the shortest root growth. Since ethanol makes up a substantial component of the proposed alcohol fuel, the question arises of what negative effect would occur to wildlife if there was ever some sort of large spill.

As we pursue the goal of utilizing sustainable and low CO2 emitting energy sources, it is important that we pay attention to any other effects that these energy sources may have. Although the burning of alcohol may not emit nearly the same amount of CO2 as burning fossil fuels, toxicity assay studies have shown that it may be more directly toxic to plant life. If such a fuel source were to be accidentally spilled it could potentially have devastating effects on the local flora. The toxicity assay showed, however, that methanol is not nearly as toxic as ethanol so if the alcohol fuel was somehow able to be made with less ethanol content this proposal could be viable. Until that point, however, I would suggest that alcohol should not be used as an alternative fuel source due to its potentially harmful effects to plant life. These sort of issues which surround large industries and their attempt to reach carbon neutral status are certainly complex. Although the answers of how to achieve carbon net neutrality may not be clear at the current moment, it is certainly true that by continuing to dive into these issues we will come closer to a solution.

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One thought on “The Search for Alternative Fuels for Our Combustion Engines

  1. When I first read this chapter in the Environmental Chemistry textbook, I wasn’t aware that people were actually experimenting with different biofuels that can potentially replace fossil fuels. I am wondering, though, even if we find an alternative source of fuel that won’t be toxic to plant life and can produce as much energy as fossil fuels, will it be able to beat out big oil companies? These companies are so intertwined in government policies and politicians that these companies may still be able to thrive and sell their oil because of the amount of support they have by the government.

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