Alternative fuels versus batteries

Energy independence? Could alternative fuels, such as natural gas, provide an interim solution to foreign oil independence as more long term alternative fuels and powertrains, such as hybrids and plug-in vehicles, are developed.

Could it end foreign oil dependence in 10 years?

Filling ‘er up with natural gas, really?

Over the years I've attacked alternative fuels as a distraction from reality. Biofuels, natural gas and hydrogen, I've argued, were just excuses and delay tactics against the inevitability of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure battery-powered vehicles.

In recent years, however, I've softened my stance against these alternatives to ending ending oil dependence, particularly foreign oil dependence, especially in the short term (See The great American con: Ending foreign oil dependence ). For me, it is no longer just about change, but the time it takes to achieve change.

So, do any alternative fuels – even all of them combined – match up to the potential of batteries?

According to Car&Driver's Alternative Fuels for America, there are many alternative fuels vying to compete with battery-powered vehicles. Most just aren't ready for the challenge, although E85 and natural gas offer the most compelling arguments.

E85 still requires innovations, according to C&D, regarding more viable feed crops. Likewise, natural gas still requires storage breakthroughs if it were to totally replace oil.

Of course, batteries are not on a path to displace oil either, even just foreign oil, for at least several decades. Batteries are simply not a slam dunk without major technological breakthroughs.

Yet, within a decade or two – just like batteries – there are many alternative fuel technologies that might prove just as viable as electrification. Algae, for instance, could be the key to several different biofuels according to Car&Driver. Likewise, in a few decades, enzymes might enable cars to run on “thin air”.

As for today though, neither alternative fuels nor batteries appear fully ready to displace oil any time soon.

However, there is mounting evidence that natural gas provides the most compelling case for displacing the most oil in the quickest amount of time. Likewise, many biofuels suggest potential that might one day rival batteries, or provide the perfect synergistic partner for batteries. All of these options, it seems, might be required.

Sadly, there just isn't a perfect solution to energy independence now readily available, and in two decades from now, unfortunately, there still might not be either. To use that as an excuse not to achieve energy independence in the next few decades, however, is beginning to seem far more a story of politics rather than real world capabilities.


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