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An open-source engine?

Will the American cars of the future be powered by gasoline, biofuels, natural gas, or electricity? If the Set America Free Coalition has their way, the answer will be "all of the above."

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Other types of flex-fuel vehicles can run on a greater variety of fuels. In Brazil, where flex-fuels make up almost a quarter of all cars, it's common to see cars that can run on pure ethanol, ethanol or methanol blends, or on compressed natural gas. What's more, many of these cars are made by Ford and General Motors.

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You can even bring electricity into the mix. "Why not have a flex-fuel plugin hybrid?" Korin asks. She predicts that China's recently announced plug-in hybrid, which costs just over half of what the Chevy Volt is expected to cost, will soon be configured to run on flex fuels.

Set America Free estimates that such a vehicle, which would have an E85-hybrid engine powered by a battery that plugs into a standard electrical outlet, could achieve efficiency of up to 500 miles per gallon of gasoline (this doesn't count the ethanol being burned).

Of course, biofuels have their critics, particularly in light of the global spike in food prices. Does running vehicles on products made from corn and sugar force empty stomachs to compete with empty tanks?

Korin doesn't think so. The food crisis, she says, is primarily caused by growing prosperity in the developing world, rising oil prices, and a general rise in commodity prices caused by capital flight from the dollar (here's a YouTube video of her saying basically the same thing she told me.)

The role of biofuels in driving up food prices, Korin says, is "negligible."

Korin's claims are at very much odds with a July 2008 report by the World Bank [PDF], which found that 70 to 75 percent of the rise in food prices "was due to biofuels and the related consequences of low grain stocks, large land use shifts, speculative activity and export bans."

The World Bank's findings, while hotly contested, are consistent with a May 2008 report by the International Monetary Fund, which found that "rising corn-based ethanol production accounted for about three-fourths of the increase in global corn consumption in 2006-07," an increase that also drove up prices for edible oils and for meat.

Oxfam has also taken a strong stance against biofuels. A June 2008 report [PDF] says that their use has deepened global poverty.

But even if these reports are correct, there may still be a way to grow fuel without contributing to hunger. Brazil, where cultivation of sugarcane for ethanol is widespread, is often held up as a sustainable model. And so-called second-generation biofuels, which use inedible plant parts such as stems and leaves, or inedible plants such as switch-grass or jatropha, show some promise, as those made from algae.

I asked Korin if she thought that, perhaps in a few years, the next time I pull into the gas station, I'll be able to choose more than just my octane rating.

"Not a gas station," she corrected me. "A fuel station."

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