To reduce their dependence on increasingly expensive petroleum and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), motorists in the United States, Brazil, and Canada are switching to relatively small volumes of fuels other than gasoline or diesel oil to run their vehicles.
While the last bucket of oil is still a few decades away and another OPEC oil embargo is not considered too likely in the near-term future, the three countries have embarked on several forward-looking programs to prepare for the possibility of an oil shortage sometime in the future and also to support their own domestic energy producers.
[The US now produces about 63 percent of all the petroleum it uses.]
Alternative fuels now being used are 100 percnet ethanol alcohol in Brazil and gasohol (a blend of 90 percent gasoline and 10 ethanol) in the US.
In addition, Canada is setting up a couple of programs to encourage motorists to use propane, especially in the western provinces. Alberta, for example, is also seriously studying the advantages and disadvantages of using part of its large resources of natural gas direcly in cars and trucks, or possibly turning the natural gas into methanol for vehicular use.
At present Brazil has the most aggressive alternative-fuel program. It almost coerces its motorists into using ethanol alcohol by closing gasoline stations on weekends, making it easier to finance alcohol-fueled cars, and other measures.
The program has succeeded in reducing the importation of fuel for cars and trucks from 95 percent to 80 percent.
Ethanol is largely produced from the abundant and cheaply produced sugar cane in Brazil. Motorists in this large South American nation also burn gasohol.
In the US, more than 2,000 service stations, mostly in the Midwest, now sell gasohol to several hundred thousand motorists. The ethanol alcohol which is mixed with gasoline generally costs more than gasoline and yet has only two-thirds as many Btus of heat, or energy as gasoline.
Largely stimulating the current efort on gasohol are the Midwestern farmers who grow the grain and corn that is distilled into ethanol. Despite several multinational-dollar grants to gasohol producers by the Carter administration in its final days, there is a growing feeling that the time for gasohol may be passing.
Federal and state suspensions of fuel taxes on gasohol are primarily responsible for gasohol prices remaining competitive with the higher-powered gasoline. Now the feeling is growing in Washington as well as across the nation that such projects stand on their own economic feet or be discarded.
Canada recently began a series of petroleum-extending measures by offering a than gasoline or diesel oil.
The fuel that appears most attractive for exploiting this opportunity is liquefied petroleum gas, or just propane.
Propane, which normally represents only 2 or 3 percent of the US petroleum reserves, can be a byproduct of either natural gas or the oil-refining processes. Canada now exports a good deal of its excess propane to the US for home heating and camper use, but this export will probably be halted.
Ford Motor Company is discussing with the Canadian government the possibility of Ford's building propane-fueled cars.
The technology of such cars has been around for half a century, and Ford is building a small number of propane-fueled trucks at its Louisville, Ky., truck plant. Chances are quite good that Ford will soon be building such vehicles in Canada.
Dr. Roberta Nichols, a California engineer and race-car driver, who took charge of Ford's alternatively-fuels program 18 months ago, says she feels that 100 percent methanol alcohol is the best of all alternative fuels for the US. It is potentially even cheaper than gasoline.
Methanol alcohol, the fuel used in Indianapolis race cars, has only about half as much energy as gasoline and 75 percent of the energy of ethanol. However, the compression ratios of methanol-fueled engines can be raised from 9: 1 to 12:1, thus making it possible to develop about two-thirds as much power as gasoline provides.
Methanol now sells for about $1 a gallon, compared with $1.30 to $1.50 for gasoline. But methanol prices are rising at a slower pace than gasoline. When gasoline prices generally climb to more than $1.50 a gallon, methanol will probab ly be cheaper.