Could Diesel Cars Lead the Way to Biofuels?

By Jordan Mammo email: , Feb 12, 2013 03:38 PM EST

When President Barack Obama agreed to bail out General Motors and Chrysler as they declared bankruptcy, his administration required the two companies to do one thing: Reinvent themselves as manufacturers of fuel-efficient cars.

As we know by now, the two have effectively turned themselves around, and they're planning to revive the country's long-dormant diesel car industry.

The market in the United States is small — diesel cars only make up 3 percent of all automobile sales — but the vehicles have been moving at a surprisingly fast clip over the last year. Sales in 2012 are expected to be in double-digit growth territory, and car makers are itching to supply customers with more options as the new year unfolds.

GM recently announced plans to target Volkswagen's diesel dominance with its new Chevy Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, and Chrysler unveiled a diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee at last month's International Auto Show.

These models are a far cry from the diesel cars that crashed and burned during the 1980s (which were riddled with production issues that left them smelly, noisy and slow), leaving the diesel territory a barren wasteland until just a couple of years ago. Improved models, the high price of gas and more fuel-efficient engines are the main reasons car companies see diesel as an emerging market, but could they also help pave the way for future biodiesel adoption?

Biodiesel is an alternative fuel for diesel engines that has been typically manufactured from soy beans and corn (although Brazil has successfully adapted the use of sugar-based biodiesel, government subsidies for corn have limited its use in the States). Although considered an alternative fuel, it can be used in virtually any type of diesel engine with little or no modification. If more Americans purchase diesel-powered cars, perhaps more of them will consider supplementing traditional diesel with fuel derived from other plant products.

An uptick in diesel consumption presents its own problems, however. Recent droughts have wreaked havoc on a  number of farms, causing food shortages around the world. The changing climate has sparked new questions about the use of edible products such as corn and soy to make fuel. If they can be used to feed hungry populations around the world, shouldn't these crops be used for those purposes rather than filling up a gas tank?

Fortunately, one of the most promising developments in biofuel doesn't come from edible plants: It comes from algae. Scientists are currently working on efficiently producing fuel from algae that could potentially be used to power cars and other vehicles, even airplanes.

Algae fuel has many benefits, including the fact that the process of growing it actually removes carbon from the atmosphere, while burning it produces fewer emissions than fossil fuels. Additionally, "algae fuel can also be used in the vehicles we already have, and putting the changes into effect would be far less difficult than, say, switching everybody to electric cars," wrote Jacob Joseph at Digital Trends.

Of course, these fuels are more expensive to produce, but that just about sums up the situation with every alternative fuel source at the moment. A future in which we rely on them still requires some major scientific breakthroughs. If diesel cars can start growing, however, it might eventually ease the pain of nationwide fossil-fuel dependence.

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