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A Life-Cycle Comparison of Alternative Automobile Fuels

journal contribution
posted on 01.01.2012, 00:00 by Heather Maclean, Lester B Lave, Rebecca Lankey, Satish Joshi

We examine the life cycles of gasoline, diesel, compressed natural gas (CNG), and ethanol (C2H5OH)-fueled internal combustion engine (ICE) automobiles. Port and direct injection and spark and compression ignition engines are examined. We investigate diesel fuel from both petroleum and biosources as well as C2H5OH from corn, herbaceous bio-mass, and woody biomass. The baseline vehicle is a gasoline-fueled 1998 Ford Taurus. We optimize the other fuel/powertrain combinations for each specific fuel as a part of making the vehicles comparable to the baseline in terms of range, emissions level, and vehicle lifetime. Life-cycle calculations are done using the economic input-output life-cycle analysis (EIO-LCA) software; fuel cycles and vehicle end-of-life stages are based on published model results.

We find that recent advances in gasoline vehicles, the low petroleum price, and the extensive gasoline infrastructure make it difficult for any alternative fuel to become commercially viable. The most attractive alternative fuel is compressed natural gas because it is less expensive than gasoline, has lower regulated pollutant and toxics emissions, produces less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and is available in North America in large quantities. However, the bulk and weight of gas storage cylinders required for the vehicle to attain a range comparable to that of gasoline vehicles necessitates a redesign of the engine and chassis. Additional natural gas transportation and distribution infrastructure is required for large-scale use of natural gas for transportation. Diesel engines are extremely attractive in terms of energy efficiency, but expert judgment is divided on whether these engines will be able to meet strict emissions standards, even with reformulated fuel. The attractiveness of direct injection engines depends on their being able to meet strict emissions standards without losing their greater efficiency. Biofuels offer lower GHG emissions, are sustainable, and reduce the demand for imported fuels. Fuels from food sources, such as biodiesel from soybeans and C2H5OH from corn, can be attractive only if the co-products are in high demand and if the fuel production does not diminish the food supply. C2H5OH from herbaceous or woody biomass could replace the gasoline burned in the light-duty fleet while supplying electricity as a co-product. While it costs more than gasoline, bioethanol would be attractive if the price of gasoline doubled, if significant reductions in GHG emissions were required, or if fuel economy regulations for gasoline vehicles were tightened.


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