All over the world, the extensive –and also intensive– use of fossil hydrocarbons, especially coal and oil, as the main source of fuel has carried the potential risk of exhausting this resource in many oil producing countries. It is memorable that during the 70’s and a part of the 80’s, the world had to cope with a serious world energy crisis. As a result, the development of new technologies with regard to alternative fuel sources for automobiles and other motor vehicles has been a top priority for some countries such as Brazil, the United States (US) and, in more recent years, Costa Rica.
Let’s take a closer look at what projects Brazil, the US, and Costa Rica have been developing in regards to new technologies intended to create alternative fuel products. We will overview the production of fuel made from biological organisms, such as sugarcane and corn, and the recycling of hydrocarbon-based products –also known as polymers– such as plastic waste.
First, let’s look at how sugarcane and corn can be used as bio-fuel – fuel obtained from biological organisms. To start, it is important to talk about a substance called “ethanol”, which is one the many varieties of alcohol. It is worth commenting on the fact that the Brazilian experience with ethanol’s use as a fuel dates back to the World War periods (1914-1918 / 1939-1945).
The Alcohol Program in Brazil was first implemented in 1975 because of the trend of international sugar prices, and due to the increasing burden of their oil bill after 1973. Up to now, this is one of the largest commercial applications of biomass for energy production and use worldwide. By far it succeeded in demonstrating the technical feasibility of large-scale ethanol production from sugarcane, and its use to fuel car engines.
From 2006-2007, Brazilian ethanol production reached 18 billion liters, of which 3.5 billion liters were exported. Until 2004, Brazil was the largest producer of ethanol in the world. Since then, the US has moved ahead of Brazil in ethanol production. Combined, the two countries produce approximately 70% of the world’s ethanol supply.
In Brazil, ethanol is used first as an oxygenated additive to gasoline in the form of anhydrous ethanol. This blend of gasoline-ethanol is called gasohol. The second use of ethanol in Brazil is direct, and is being used by “flex-fuel” cars –automobiles equipped with a double system for fuel– from 0-100% of gasohol and/or 0-100% of hydrous ethanol.
And now in relation to the recycling of polymers as an alternative method of obtaining fuel, let’s look at Costa Rican experience with regards to plastic waste recycling. That waste material that people usually throw away, and thereby causing pollution in the streets and rivers, may be converted into fuel. A pollution-free country with the cheapest gasoline in the world would be possible thanks to an invention designed by Costa Rican engineers.
Experts in chemical engineering designed a reactor that is capable of extracting fuel from plastic waste. 130,000 kilograms of plastic are used daily in Costa Rica. With such an amount of plastic, they might extract approximately 130,000 liters of fuel per day, which then could be used to fill the tanks of 1,300 buses and 2,900 cars.
For more than 2.5 years, a team of engineers at the Universidad Nacional (UNA) has been working hard to make it possible. So far, about 450 liters of fuel can be produced per day. They are also looking for the financial support of municipalities and enterprises in order to design an even larger reactor so they can increase that amount. Additionally, a part of this team works with propane gas, which is also extracted out of plastic. One liter of fuel produced in this way would be 40% cheaper than the traditional liter of gasoline. No doubt about it, this percentage in savings would have a considerable and positive impact throughout the Costa Rican economy.
To sum up, the development of new technologies for obtaining alternative fuel sources is increasing day by day. For almost one and a half centuries, the over-intensive consumption of fossil hydrocarbon-based fuel has begun to exhaust the traditional sources for obtaining it. That is why certain countries such as Brazil, the US, and Costa Rica have started important projects to develop new technologies aimed at finding alternative fuel sources, and in that way, they may reduce their pollution levels. With that ultimate aim, they feel confident they will be able to obtain self-sustainable “clean” and “ecological” fuel sources that will ultimately benefit their general population in many different and important ways.
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