The urgency of decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels is becoming more apparent.
Gas prices have reached record highs as we deplete reserves of a nonrenewable, mostly foreign resource. Burning fossil fuels in such excess is having dire effects on our planet — it is imperative that we drastically reduce emissions. We have got to start transitioning toward alternative fuel sources.
In light of all this, it is no surprise that alternative car fuels have been the subject of much attention recently.
Just look at all of the neat things we can use to make car fuel! Biodiesel can be made from just about anything — algae, animal fats, soy, or mustard. Carbohydrate-rich crops like corn and sugarcane can be used to make alcohol fuels (like ethanol, for example). We can even run our cars on waste cooking oils and vegetable oils (although that doesn’t mean you should pour that leftover bacon grease into your gas tank!). Check out what this guy does at McDonald’s. Cars can be outfitted with solar panels, batteries, or hydrogen fuel cells and powered by sunlight, electricity, or hydrogen. Read more here.
The resources that can be used use to make renewable alternative car fuels seem limitless. But wait… what is gasoline made from? Why is it so great? Why can’t we figure out a way to make more of it?
As most people know, gasoline is a product of petroleum, and petroleum is a fossil fuel. Does that mean that it’s made from stegosaurus bones? Not quite. In fact, the majority of petroleum was probably formed before the time of the dinosaurs. However, prehistoric organisms are the main ingredient.
Most scientists believe that petroleum was formed from the carcasses of ancient aquatic microorganisms (e.g. algae and zooplankton). During geologic periods in Earth’s history when the planet was warm and waters were thick with microscopic life, a layer of dead organic material accumulated on the ocean floor. Over time, it was covered with successive deposits of sediment. As more and more sediment piled atop the layer, the organic matter was subjected to an increasingly intense degree of heat and pressure. The heat and pressure set of molecular transformations, resulting in the eventual formation of the liquid substance we know as petroleum. Fossil soup.
One way to think about petroleum and other fossil fuels is as concentrated solar power. Solar energy is stored in plant organisms via photosynthesis, and, subsequently, to other organisms when they consume plants as food. So when the dead bodies of tiny organisms amass, compact, and liquefy, the solar energy is converted into a concentrated chemical form, known as hydrocarbons, that we burn as car fuel.
This process of taking ancient sunlight and concentrating it inside the Earth is estimated to take hundreds of thousands of years. Since today’s algae and zooplankton could one day become petroleum, the resource isn’t technically nonrenewable. But the next batch isn’t going to be ready for awhile.
Fossil fuels are relatively easy enough to dig up and contain a large amount of energy per unit. That’s what makes gasoline so great. The downside: when burned, the carbon stored in the fossil fuels is released in the form of carbon dioxide, the most notorious greenhouse gas. It’s probably a good thing that we can’t make more of the stuff.
Maybe it would be wise to keep focusing on alternative fuel sources. Before it’s too late.