I don’t know what you’ve been told growing up, but you know what makes the world go round? Fuel. I’m not just talking about the usual gasoline that we fill our vehicles with every time we need to use them to go from point A to point B. Technology and advances in mobility have given us ways to keep our different vehicles running and rolling.
In this article, we’ll be talking about the different types of fuels that you may encounter or have heard of. From fossil fuels to alternative energy sources, if you own something with an engine, chances are it needs some sort of fuel. Let’s break them down here.
By far the most commonly used and encountered fuel by motorists around the world. It starts out as crude oil extracted from the ground, then shipped to an oil refinery where it is heated to above 350°C in a pressurized chamber and distilled into gasoline.
In order to be sold, this unfinished gasoline is blended with additives to boost its octane rating to increase efficiency and avoid damaging engines. Usually blended with ethanol or aromatics, or a combination of the two, once the gasoline reaches its desired octane level, it is then shipped out to gasoline stations. Vehicles that use gasoline range from passenger cars to SUVs and performance vehicles.
Used by: All vehicles that require gasoline, in varying octane ratings
Primarily used in trucks and heavy equipment, some passenger cars utilize diesel engines for increased fuel efficiency and range. Generally, diesel at a usable state is cheaper to obtain.
Like gasoline, diesel fuel must also undergo a refining process before use. At the refinery, crude oil is heated to temperatures between 200°C and 350°C and then distilled into diesel fuel. While diesel is generally acknowledged as being more efficient than gasoline and emits fewer greenhouse gases, diesel engines have trouble starting in cold weather and produce more nitrogen oxide (NOx), one of the main components of smog.
Used by: Trucks, heavy equipment, and passenger cars with diesel engines
Also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, this flammable, colorless liquid is made by the fermentation of sugars in certain plants. Most of the gasoline we buy every day already contains ethanol – up to 10 percent. Adding ethanol to gasoline increases octane, which boosts engine power and performance. Ethanol can be made from a variety of plants, including, corn stalks and some varieties of cactus. The ethanol derived from these sources is called cellulosic ethanol. Ethanol can also be processed from supplies of natural gas.
Since most gas station fuels have amounts of ethanol mixed in, all vehicles can utilize ethanol when it is used as an additive. If your car has been modified or is flex-fuel ready, you may use 85% ethanol mixtures.
Used by: All fuels have a mixture of ethanol, so it's safe to be used in almost every vehicle. Higher concentrations of ethanol must be used with only ethanol-approved fuel systems
Methanol is an alternative fuel for internal combustion and other engines, either in combination with gasoline or directly ("neat"). Also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, this flammable, colorless liquid is the simplest alcohol. Therefore, the process for converting raw materials to methanol is simpler than with ethanol, making the potential cost savings to the consumer very attractive.
Anything that once was biomass can be converted to methanol for use as a fuel. Unlike ethanol, methanol is toxic and not fit for humans to drink. It’s used in making antifreeze, solvent and window cleaner. It’s the main component in windshield wiper fluid, which we dump directly to the atmosphere. Race car drivers have been using methanol for decades because it has a higher octane and a lower flashpoint than traditional gasoline, making it safer in the event of a crash.
Methanol has been used as an additive in fuel mixtures for quite some time now, so any vehicle is capable of using methanol in their system. Pure methanol is used exclusively for track built machines and purpose built race cars.
Used by: Methanol can be found mixed in to regular fuels, meaning vehicles can safely use the additive with no issue. Pure methanol is used only in motorsport as a race fuel
Methane (CH4) is the main component of natural gas, and it’s often found in the same wells that bring up oil. Methane is a simple molecule that burns cleanly. As a fuel, methane, in its gas form, has to be compressed (CNG) to be used in vehicles.
CNG is mostly used in heavy-duty or commercial vehicles. Some types of vehicles, such as delivery trucks, use liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is cooled to -162°C. For passenger vehicles to use natural gas as an alternative, one must convert the vehicle’s power plant to accept the new type of fuel.
Used by: Trucks and heavy vehicles as an alternative to diesel
A key element of water, hydrogen (H2) is used as fuel for several types of “fuel cell” vehicles on the market, including the Honda Clarity and Toyota Mirai. Hydrogen is pumped into the fuel cell as a gas, and when it ignites, it combines with oxygen to produce only water and heat, with zero toxic emissions.
Leaks are a concern during storage, however. And it takes a lot of energy to compress into an energy density appropriate for vehicle refueling. These vehicles are also much more expensive than vehicles that run on gasoline or alcohols.
Used by: Right now, hydrogen powered vehicles can be extremely pricey due to the technology and research involved. Passenger cars are a main focus for hydrogen power, as well as some SUVs and performance vehicles.
Biodiesel is a renewable fuel that can be used instead of the diesel fuel made from crude oil. It can be made from vegetable oils and animal fats. This is vegetable oil that has had a glycerol removed, a process that involves adding methanol and lye.
Biodiesel works in the engine in the same way as standard diesel, and has added benefits to human health and the environment in that it produces less toxic particulates and greenhouse gas emissions. You can even switch between both diesel and biodiesel fuels if you need to.
Used by: An alternative to diesel for trucks and heavy equipment, some passenger vehicles can be converted to use biodiesel as a fuel