To most of us, the fuel choices for our car are petrol, diesel or – if you’re very green – electricity. Of course, these aren’t the only fuel options out there, they’re just the most common. Let’s look at some of the more ‘out there’ alternative fuels on offer.
The Prince of Wales still owns the Aston Martin given to him for his 21st birthday by the Queen. However, there have been a few upgrades made to it since he first drove it, the main one being that it is now run on fuel made entirely from wine.
Of course the wine is not just the leftovers from lavish royal dinners, it’s excess produced by the wine industry. The EU’s limits on wine production mean that thousands upon thousands of gallons of perfectly good vino can’t legally be sold. They can, however, be used to make bioethanol for fuel.
Charles’ stunning, booze-fuelled DB6 Volante can manage about 10 miles to the gallon. That’s 10 miles for around 4 bottles-of-wines-worth of bioethanol. You might have spotted it at the recent royal wedding…
Did you know that during WWII it was very, very common for vehicles to be converted to run on wood gas, a fuel produced by burning wood in a tank mounted on the vehicle? Sounds pretty odd, no?
Technically referred to as ‘producer gas cars’, vehicles adapted to run on wood gas work by heating combustible material to 1,400 °C. At that temperature, organic materials like firewood are converted to a combustible gas which can fuel engines.
You’d assume that converting a car to run on wood gas would be a complicated process, but you’d be wrong. Once you’ve got your wood gasifier up and running, it’s essentially a case of just pumping gas into the places you’d normally find petrol. The miracle of the internal combustion engine handles the rest without much fuss.
This surprisingly efficient and easy yet desperately inelegant method of fuelling cars fell out of favour pretty much as soon as the war ended and people could get their hands on petrol again. However, it’s still used in remote areas of the developing world.
In the 1950s Ford began wondering what the world would be like if cars were powered by radiation rather than petrol. Thankfully, the sheer size of nuclear reactors made it impossible for the good people at Ford to make a working nuclear car. However, they did dream up a design for one, just in case someone worked out how to make a nuclear reactor the size of a microwave.
The design was named the Ford Nucleon and looked a lot like George Jetson’s pick-up truck with a safe in the back. The Ford people planned to have the car run on a steam engine powered by uranium fission (basically, ripping atoms apart to cause heat to power a steam engine).
Luckily for the world, the Nucleon never made it past the design stages. Even today, the smallest radioisotope thermoelectric generators used aboard satellites and the Mars Curiosity Rover are about the size of a person. Even those cutting-edge power sources are powered by plutonium, nasty radioactive stuff you’d not want sitting in your car.
That’s right, cars can be powered on poo, but don’t go emptying your cat’s litter box into your petrol tank just yet, there’s a catch.
It’s not the actual poo that can power engines, but the methane gas generated by the sewage treatment process. As you can probably imagine, all the poo down at your local waste treatment centre generates quite a bit of foul-smelling gas. Once that gas has been treated to lower the carbon dioxide levels a bit, you can use it in the same way as any other gas fuel.
In fact, Wessex Water have a car they call the Bio-Bug. It’s run entirely on the gas produced at their waste treatment plants and it doesn’t smell funny at all, apparently.
Wessex Water estimate that it would take the annual waste output of around 70 homes to run the car for 10,000 miles (roughly the annual mileage for the average motorist).
In Bougainville, a small island in Papua New Guinea, high energy prices and fuel shortages have forced locals to look for alternative fuel sources. Rather than turn to one of the boozy, smelly, smokey or downright dangerous options covered so far, they’ve turned their attention to something a little sweeter: the humble coconut.
As an island utterly dependant on imported fuel, Bougainville is particularly susceptible to fuel shortages. However, coconut fuel refineries set up in back gardens across the island now offer the people of Bougainville some small measure of independence from imported fuel.
The coconut fuel even helped to power a revolution. The people of Bougainville managed to resist some of the effects of a military blockade of their island thanks to their resourceful use of coconut oil as fuel.
Image courtesy of John Lloyd.