Future Fuel Considerations

Illustrator Rube Goldberg is best known for drawing what he called “absurdly-connected machines”—those same contraptions found in the board game Mousetrap—that require a number of steps to achieve some otherwise simple goal. We’ll use such a machine to introduce the tremendous difficulty in getting the world to use fuels other than the current, conventional ones.

The Rube Goldberg Machine for a healthier planet

Let’s say you’ve built one of these contraptions around the properties of a golf ball. On one end, you drop the ball. It passes through a series of devices and accomplishes a number of tasks suited for a golf ball before emerging at the other end.

This is a functional device so long as you have a golf ball, but what happens if you don’t—can you use an apple instead, or a marble? Of course not, because every step along the way was designed to react positively with the qualities of the golf ball, such as size, shape, weight, even rolling ability.

Gasoline, like the golf ball, is supported by a similar system, called an infrastructure. This infrastructure was designed at every crucial stage to accommodate the properties specific to liquid gasoline. As a result, it can’t readily support other fuels without extensive—and extremely expensive—modifications. Can you imagine how much it might cost to modify thousands of miles of pipeline, or how about every single gas station and every single gas pump in the United States alone?

Other considerations include:

Production: How cost-effective and energy effective is the fuel production process? We typically think of refining oil in this case, but every fuel requires some processing. Even biomass such as plants and grasses first must be grown and tended to, then collected, dried out, fermented, and more, and when ready for use, there has to be a wider infrastructure to support it reaching the market.

Emissions: If asked, most everybody would say that they want to live in a healthy environment, free of atmospheric pollutants, especially if the only alternative was to live in an unhealthy environment, full of atmospheric pollutants. Given the simple choice, it’s an easy answer. But when faced with buying a convenient, inexpensive gasoline-powered car, or a costly battery-electric vehicle that will save money down the road, most consumers will inevitably choose the former.

Compatibility: Does the fuel work in conventional gas tanks? If not, is it possible to modify the car, and will these modifications be protected under the warranty? Some alternative fuels seem great until you remember that they have to be stored on board the car. What are the risks of flammability and explosion? If the fuel weighs a lot, how will it affect performance and fuel efficiency?


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