Low-carbon alternative fuels for vehicles

When it’s time to fuel up your vehicle, you’re likely heading to the gas station or an EV charging station like most drivers in the U.S. But what if you owned a vehicle fueled by vegetable oil?

It may sound far-fetched, but alternative vehicle fuels (like hydrogen and biofuel) are quickly gaining attention across the nation. This shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles comes with several benefits, including improving the country’s energy security and lowering vehicle emissions, which creates a healthier environment for all.


One of the newest alternatives to power a vehicle is with hydrogen in the form of a fuel cell. This form of fuel is potentially emissions-free and can be produced using domestic resources. The hydrogen goes through an electrochemical process to produce electricity, which then powers your car. The only byproducts of this process are water and heat, emitted in the form of water vapor and warm air. Since the byproducts are clean, vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells produce no tailpipe emissions and are classified as zero-emissions vehicles.

With hydrogen, drivers can refuel a vehicle in under 5 minutes and gain more than 300 miles of driving range. However, there are a limited number of hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., most limited to California. Hydrogen fuel cells are expensive to produce and transport, which is a major obstacle for widespread hydrogen fuel cell technology. Although hydrogen fueling infrastructure is limited and the technology is expensive, there are commercial efforts underway to expand that infrastructure and lower the costs.


Another alternative vehicle fuel is biofuel. Renewable biofuels are produced from biomass which can be used in gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles. These fuels work in the same way gasoline or diesel does by fueling compression-ignition engines. One of the most common biofuels is ethanol, which is produced from sugars in corn or other grains, like sugar cane, sugar beets or rice. Biofuels can be blended with gasoline or diesel or used in pure form. Almost all gasoline sold in the U.S. includes 10 percent ethanol, mostly from distilled corn. Scientists are working to find new ways to expand ethanol production by experimenting with different plants.

Biodiesel, a different form of biofuel, can be produced from vegetable oil, animal fats or recycled cooking grease, and used to power older cars that run on diesel. Since biodiesel is non-toxic and biodegradable, it is safer than petroleum diesel if released into the environment. The most common sources for biodiesel production in the U.S. are soybean oil, corn oil and recycled feedstocks. Less common, there are other non-mainstream biodiesel sources that can be manufactured from algae, municipal waste and wood chips.

These alternative fuel options may not be mainstream yet, but over time, may help lower our reliance on gasoline and diesel. These clean-burning options help to improve air quality and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

There is great potential to see these alternative fuels expand over the years, and additional research efforts may help these fuels reach more individual consumers nationwide.

Photo: Scientists are currently working to find new ways to expand ethanol production by experimenting with different plants. Photo Credit: Genevieve Martin, Oak Ridge National Laboratories/Department of Energy