WITH the latest wave of concern over automotive emissions and fuel economy, there's new interest in developing successful alternative fuels. Later this year, Congress will begin wrestling over the first comprehensive rewrite of the Clean Air Act in years. The revision will call for tougher motor-vehicle emission rules.
Concurrently, Congress is re-considering automotive fuel economy standards that were relaxed under the Reagan administration. Some conservationists feel fuel economy standards should rise from the current 26.5 miles a gallon to as much as 40 miles a gallon or more by the end of the century.
As part of the new Clean Air Act ``there will be some incentive for alternative fuels,'' says Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Environmental Protection.
Although a variety of alternative fuels are actively under study, none seems so promising for the moment as methanol, a simple alcohol already used by race car drivers in events such as the Indianapolis 500.
Some alternatives, such as powdered coal, have few advantages and less likelihood of finding use. Others, which potentially offer the brightest solutions for solving both environmental and energy problems, seem to be nowhere near ready for market.
Some experts would like to see cars running on liquid hydrogen fuel, but there are problems. ``Hydrogen is a great fuel,'' says Joe Colucci, an expert in alternative fuels with General Motors Research. ``We just don't know how to get it, store it, or distribute it.''
Another energy alternative that has been looking hopeful for decades is the electric automobile. Its biggest drawback is the need for heavy, expensive, and inefficient batteries. Even if the battery problem could be solved, the electric car isn't necessarily a panacea. ``If the electric car is powered by a coal-fired plant, we've just transferred the source of carbon dioxide from the tailpipe to the smokestack,'' says General Motors president Robert Stempel.
Then there's methanol. As race car drivers have discovered, it actually has a much higher octane than gasoline and burns far more efficiently. The turbocharger on a prototype Dodge Daytona modified to run on methanol had to be tuned down because the engine was generating more horsepower than it was designed to handle.
``That means we could get more horsepower out of smaller engines,'' notes Gene Zimmerman, a systems engineer with Chrysler's Advanced Engine Systems Development unit.
The biggest advantage is that methanol is a relatively clean fuel. Chrysler's test vehicles are putting out barely half the hydrocarbons, carbon monoxides, and nitrous oxides of equivalent gasoline-powered vehicles.
Proponents note that methanol could be produced from coal, of which the United States has an abundant supply, and that would help to reduce dependence on foreign oil sources. But skeptics caution that to fuel the nation's fleet of motor vehicles, the US would have to double its current output of coal. Far more likely, it would have to use at least some imported natural gas, another raw material that can be used for making methanol.
Significantly, methanol would be the alternative fuel with which to solve what Chrysler Corporation engineer Gordon Rinschler calls ``the chicken-and-egg problem.'' It took years to get all the nation's service stations to carry unleaded fuel. Imagine the infrastructural problems if the auto industry were suddenly to introduce vehicles running on liquid hydrogen or compressed natural gas. As far as service stations are concerned, methanol is pretty much the same as gasoline.
As far as your car is concerned, there are some big differences. Many people who have used the gasoline/methanol blends already on the market have experienced some troubling difficulties. Alcohols are remarkably good solvents, and they can corrode metal gas tanks and eat away rubber fuel lines. Prototype methanol vehicles under development by the Big Three use stainless steel fuel line components.
Even if a tankful of methanol and gasoline were to cost the same, gasoline has a much higher energy content. A modified Chrysler LeBaron delivers a city fuel economy rating of 21.2 miles a gallon with gasoline but only 12.9 m.p.g. with methanol.
Would motorists, particularly those who take long-distance trips, be willing to sacrifice fuel economy for lower emissions? Industry officials admit the answer is likely to be no, except where mandated by law, and so with little demand it might be years before gas stations in states with no air quality problems were to add methanol to their pumps.