Introduction to the GREEN

With the first episode of “Big Ideas for a Small Planet” mere hours away, we wanted to take a peek at some of the ideas you’ll be watching tomorrow night at 9pm on the Sundance Channel. That is, if you haven’t downloaded the free sneak peek from iTunes yet [], and if you haven’t, you’d better hurry — it’s only free through tomorrow! Tomorrow’s episode is all about fuel, taking a closer look at some of the greener, more sustainable options for filling up your car while doing less damage to the planet. Let’s take a gander at the fuels, so you’re fully prepared for tomorrow night.

Biodiesel: We’ve mentioned it before on this blog [], but it bears repeating. Usually derived from vegetable oil (though animal fats can be used as well), it is produced by undergoing a chemical process known as “transesterification” whereby alkyl esters (what ends up becoming the fuel) are separated from glycerine; the esters go in the tank, and the glycerine usually has another life as soap or other beauty products. Biodiesel typically produces 60% less net carbon dioxide emissions than petroleum-based diesel and runs in unmodified diesel engines: that’s right, no alteration required.
Pros: It can be domestically produced; when crops (like soybeans, for example) are used, it’s a carbon-neutral product (because the plants absorbed carbon dioxide as they grew, and, when burned, can only produce as much as they absorbed); waste oil (like from restaurants who use fryers) can also be used to produce it.
Cons: It can turn to gel at low temperatures, requiring it to be mixed with petro-diesel to maintain proper viscosity; it’s more expensive (usually) than petro-diesel and still requires planning ahead to find it on the road.
Further reading: National Biodiesel Board []

Ethanol: An alcohol that’s also usually produced from plants (like corn, sorghum, potatoes, wheat, sugar cane, even biomass such as cornstalks and vegetable waste). When you mix it with gasoline, it increases octane levels while also promoting more complete fuel burning that reduces harmful tailpipe emissions such as carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. Ethanol is produced either through wet milling or dry milling, in a process similar to distilling the alcohols we drink. A 10% ethanol blend (known as E10) will run in most cars manufactured since 1982 without modification, and many newer cars have been designed to run on an 85% blend (E85) — The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition [] can provide a listing of all flexible fuel vehicles.
Pros: Also domestically produced, and can use waste from crops in some cases. It can offer increased performance, leading it to be considered in Formula 1 and NASCAR racing. Some crops offer fuel-to-energy yields that are better than gasoline.
Cons: Some crops (like corn, the most popular) offer fuel yields worse than gasoline, decreasing efficiency and gas mileage. Some engine modifications are required if your car isn’t “flex-fuel compatible” — things like fuel filters and fuel lines — as ethanol tends to be more corrosive than gasoline.
Further reading: Renewable Fuels Association [] & National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition []

Straight Vegetable Oil/Waste Vegetable Oil (SVO/WVO): Just what they sound like, this is what you can buy at the store and what comes out of a fryer and biodiesel, before undergoing transesterification. It only runs in diesel engines, and only after a bit of modification, but can cost pennies on the dollar if you find consistent sources for used or fresh oil.
Pros: After you get set up, you may never have to pay (much) for fuel again; many restaurants are more than happy to give you their waste oil, because they usually have to pay to have it hauled away. It’s also domestically produced, and can use just about any vegetable oil.
Cons: It requires a bit of tinkering and a special kit (pictured at right — we don’t recommend you trying it yourself) that can be spendy and may void the warranty on your car. Because it’s thicker than petro-diesel, it requires time to warm up to a temperature that will flow through your engine (this is part of the reason for the kit — it basically adds a second tank and a filter for the SVO/WVO) so you have to run a bit of diesel or biodiesel through your car before it’s ready to go, especially in chilly weather. As with any non-dealer, non-authorized modification, it can be hard to find someone to work on your car after the mod is complete.
Further reading: Wikipedia [], Grist [], Greasecar []

There you have it: a quick ‘n dirty primer on the alternative fuels you can see in action, in living color, tomorrow night on “Big Ideas for a Small Planet” — don’t miss it!