Cars that run on alternative fuels are in high demand right now, with both scientists and consumers clamoring for them for environmental reasons, financial reasons, or simply because of a desire for the latest and greatest technology. Gasoline blended with corn-based ethanol is now the standard in the United States, and cars with gasoline-electric hybrid engines are a common sight on the highway. So what’s on the horizon when it comes to alternative fuels?

Fully electric cars are finally rising to prominence and becoming more widely available. From the high-end Tesla to the relatively more moderately priced Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, these cars are starting to share the road with their traditional fossil-fuel-powered siblings. In support, charging stations are popping up across the U.S., and the U.S. government currently offers tax-based incentives to those who choose to purchase and drive electric cars.

The current crop of electric cars run cleanly and get reasonable mileage before needing to be charged. However, there are concerns about the byproducts of the energy that is used to charge an electric car’s battery, and electric cars still need charging more often than the tanks of gasoline-powered cars need refilling. However, consumer options for electric cars are growing as more manufacturers develop their own versions.

After electric-battery-powered cars, hydrogen-powered cars may be the next big thing. Presently only available for lease in California, hydrogen cars utilize fuel cells that convert hydrogen to electricity. Rather than emitting noxious fumes, these cars simply release steam into the atmosphere.

However, at this time hydrogen-powered cars are prohibitively expensive for most people, with some estimates putting the cost of the first cars on the market at over $100,000. There are real dangers inherent in the use of hydrogen, which is highly flammable, and the creation of hydrogen energy does produce carbon emissions. There also is no plan in place for the establishment of a cross-country network of accessible hydrogen refueling stations. But there are ongoing government programs to study this technology in the hopes of making it more environmentally—and wallet—friendly.

In the biofuel arena, scientists are making improvements to corn and soybean fuels but are also studying microalgae and switchgrass as additional fuel sources. Algae flourishes in a variety of habitats and is biodegradable. In 2013, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, were able to turn algae into crude oil using a process that took less than an hour.

Unlike corn-based ethanol, the fuel created from algae does not need to be blended with other products like gasoline and can instead power vehicles by itself. Right now, oil from algae remains cost prohibitive when compared to other fuel options, but scientists are hopeful that this will change over the next few years. As for switchgrass, it has been found to have a higher rate of return on energy investment than either corn or soybeans. Neither fuel option is ready for consumers just yet, but they may be available over the next decade.

Finally, some consumers are turning to upgrading existing cars to run on alternative fuel sources. For example, some people have converted their cars to run on biodiesel made from used vegetable oil. The conversion process takes some know-how, and the exhaust smells like French fries, but these cars can then run on a fuel source that is otherwise seen as a waste product and that often can be had for free or nearly free. Experiments in alternative fuels abound, and there are even cars that have been adapted to run on coffee.

With consumer demand and government incentives fueling the research, car manufacturers are actively competing to bring to market a car that runs cleanly but that is also affordable (and stylish). It is likely that the majority of cars will continue to run on fossil fuels in some form for the foreseeable future, but soon consumers will have more options than ever from which to choose regarding how their cars are run.

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Photo credits:
1) Hydrogen fueling station in California; f00sion / iStock
2) Gephyrocapsa oceanica algae magnified; by Photo by NEON ja, colored by Richard Bartz - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.