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3 Renewable Fuels That Just Might Replace Gasoline

391.40 million gallons of gas per day.*

143.85 billion gallons per year.*

In the U.S., burning gasoline for transportation is responsible for 30 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. How can we lower that impact when we still need a way to get around? Find realistic alternatives to fossil fuels. 

Some are more widely used than others, but each option on our list of alternative fuels is a promising source of energy for cars—and anything else that currently runs on dinosaur bones. 

Let’s see what they’re all about.


What Is An Alternative Fuel?

Alternative fuels are materials other than fossil fuels that can be used to power vehicles and other machinery. They include gasses like hydrogen; alcohols like ethanol; biologically-derived materials like biodiesel; as well as other sources. People also call these substances “non-conventional fuels,” “advanced fuels” and “renewable energy.” 

Many of the advantages of alternative fuels are rooted in the fact that, unlike gasoline, they aren’t petroleum-based:

  • Often cheaper to produce than gasoline because they don’t need to be refined. 
  • They usually come from renewable sources.
  • Most are produced in the U.S., reducing our need to import fuel.
  • They cause less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Some can create new revenue sources for farmers or manufacturers.

While researchers are investigating many gasoline substitutes, a few have emerged as front-runners. These are the renewable fuels most likely to power your commute—and more—in the near future.

Today’s 3 Most Promising Gasoline Alternatives

1. Biodiesel

What Is Biodiesel?

Biodiesel is a type of alternative fuel that can power the same compression-ignition engines as regular petroleum-based diesel. Vegetable oils, animal fats and even restaurant grease   can be used to produce biodiesel. And since it’s made from organic matter, it’s biodegradable and renewable. Biodiesel has been produced on a commercial scale for over a decade and is now one of the most widely used renewable fuels, either on its own or blended with conventional diesel.

Biodiesel is used for powering a huge range of vehicles, from freight trucks and construction equipment to trains and buses. But its uses go far beyond transportation. Biodiesel can: 

“From a performance point of view, biodiesel has fewer particulates and other emissions, and burns cleaner.  In other parts of the world, using agricultural residues that otherwise are burned in the fields not only provides cleaner burning fuel, but prevents that harmful black carbon (soot) from getting into the atmosphere.”

Joanne Ivancic | Executive Director, Advanced Biofuels USA

How Does Biodiesel Compare to Fossil Fuels?

Pros Cons
Works in existing engines. Even when modifications are needed, they’re minor. May briefly plug fuel filters since it loosens engine residue.
Produces 74% less net carbon dioxide emissions than conventional diesel. Performance can decrease in cold weather. Many switch to lower-percentage blends.
Provides an additional revenue source for restaurants, farmers and others. Not currently carried at many filling stations outside the Midwest.

Want to See Biodiesel Go Mainstream?

Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Always purchase fuel that includes some renewables—whatever is appropriate for your diesel vehicle (B2-B100). Look on the driver’s side door or in your owner’s manual to find out what blends you can use.
  2. If you run a business that uses cooking oil, recycle it for use as biodiesel and/or animal feed. 
  3. Make sure your local schools, universities, churches and restaurants know about opportunities to recycle used cooking oil. Offer to help them implement a recycling program.
  4. Check on the availability of biodiesel blends of heating oil, and biobased plastics and other products for your routine use.  
  5. Ask your local political candidates what they are doing to promote the understanding, development and use of biofuels. What effort do they make to use biofuels?

Joanne Ivancic | Executive Director, Advanced Biofuels USA

2. Hydrogen Fuel Cells

What Is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell?

A hydrogen fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity. While it isn’t always produced sustainably, there are many renewable sources we could use to get the hydrogen used in fuel cells. These include electrolysis, fermentation and even biodiesel. As an alternative energy for cars, their biggest benefit is that they emit nothing but water vapor. 

They’ve only been on the American market since 2015, but Hyundai, Honda and Toyota all offer fuel cell vehicles, and many other brands are working on their own models. And according to Jennifer Gangi of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA), fuel cells are gaining traction in forklifts and other equipment in warehouses and distribution centers across the country. “Customers are finding value in improved operational efficiency and cost savings using fuel cells in vehicles over battery units.”

Aside from replacing gasoline in our vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells can also be used for:

“There are now more than 5,800 fuel cell vehicles on the road in California.  FCVs are the only zero emissions vehicle capable of replicating today’s driving experience of a 300 – 400 miles range and a refueling time just three to five minutes.”  

Jennifer Gangi | FCHEA

How Do Hydrogen Fuel Cells Compare to Gasoline?

Pros Cons
Produce 90% less emissions when using hydrogen from renewable sources. Today, most hydrogen sources are non-renewable. Still 34%-50% less emissions.
Give twice as many miles per gallon as a tank of gasoline. Fueling stations are currently only found on the coasts.
Less maintenance needed, since fuel cell engines have no moving parts. Much more expensive to buy than conventional vehicles.

Want to See Hydrogen Fuel Cells Go Mainstream?

“A good place to start is reading up on the latest advancements in the industry. The FCHEA has a free monthly newsletter to keep tabs on industry news. Then you can help make a difference by letting your locally elected representative know you support hydrogen.”  

Jennifer Gangi | FCHEA

3. Ethanol

What Is Ethanol?

Ethanol is an alcohol that can be substituted for gasoline. Most often made from the starch and sugars found in grains like corn, barley and sugar cane, it’s the oldest renewable energy for vehicles: Henry Ford’s Model T ran on a mix of grain alcohol and gas. However, Joanne Ivancic of Advanced Biofuels USA points out that advanced ethanol—and other biofuels—can also be made from municipal solid waste (MSW), manure, waste carbon dioxide, and agricultural and forest waste. “Waste materials of many kinds can be converted. For example, waste from an almond and walnut orchard in California will be converted to ethanol via a gasification and gas fermentation process.” 

Today, most U.S. fuel contains a small percentage of ethanol, but flex-fuel vehicles can use a blend of up to 85 percent alcohol known as E85. Researchers are also investigating ways to produce ethanol from grasses and algae. Since these need fewer resources than grain to grow, they’d produce an even more sustainable fuel source.

While we have a long history of using it in vehicles, ethanol is also used for: 

  • Killing bacteria as an ingredient in hand sanitizers.
  • Dissolving paints, lacquers and varnishes.
  • Preserving cleaning and beauty products.
  • Enhancing the flavor of food extracts like vanilla.

“The high octane of ethanol enables us to use fewer carcinogenic chemicals in gasoline and avoids the use of harmful aromatics such as benzene.”

Joanne Ivancic | Executive Director, Advanced Biofuels USA

How Does Ethanol Compare to Gasoline?

Pros Cons
E85 produces 34% less net greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. Long-term ethanol use may damage engines in cars made before the 2000s.
Fueling stations that carry E85 are found across the country. E85 gives fewer miles per gallon than gasoline.
Grains leftover from ethanol production can be sold as livestock feed for added revenue. Transportation and energy costs often limit sale to within a 100 mile radius of the plant.

Want to See Ethanol Go Mainstream?

You can do these things today to help us get off our addiction to oil:

  1. Learn about the fossil-fuel divestment movement. Divest as an individual and advocate for your colleges/universities, religious organizations, communities and businesses to divest their fossil fuel interests (and invest in renewable alternatives).
  2. Look for fuel stations with ‘blender pumps’ in your neighborhood that give customers a choice of ethanol blended fuels. Praise them online, to your local media, and let the managers know you appreciate their efforts.
  3. If you can’t tell if there is ethanol or biodiesel in the fuel, let the fuel station manager know that you want to buy renewable fuel.
  4. Find a biofuels-related advocacy organization in your community and participate. If there isn’t one, consider starting one. Advanced Biofuels USA can help.
  5. Donate to Advanced Biofuels USA, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to promoting the understanding, development and use of advanced biofuels as an energy security, economic development, military flexibility, climate change mitigation and pollution control SOLUTION.

Joanne Ivancic | Executive Director, Advanced Biofuels USA

Excited About Alternative Energy for Vehicles?

You’re in good company. From family farmers trying to get more out or their land to consumers looking for a greener way to travel, we have a lot to gain from these gasoline replacements becoming mainstream. Biodiesel, hydrogen fuel cells and ethanol are just a few examples of alternative fuels that could change how we power our commutes and our businesses. Which will emerge as the most likely contender? It won’t be long before we find out.

Learn about other types of renewable power in the Energy section of our blog. Or learn how to start greening your home or business in other ways.

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