Why Gasoline Is Still King: Electric Roadsters Are the Darlings of the Press, but Ralph Kinney Bennett Predicts That Gasoline Will Dominate Personal Transportation for Years to Come

Article excerpt


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

--Arthur C. Clarke's "Third Law"

A little respect, please.

For gasoline.

Yes, we know it contributes to pollution, and yes, it is "nonrenewable," and yes, we still haven't learned to use it as efficiently as we could. But the fact remains: no other fuel delivers so much energy in such a small package with such flexibility, utility, safety, and simplicity.

That's precisely why it caused so much national heartburn when its price spiked this summer. It was like suddenly being told you had to pay for air.

Even though the higher prices caused a temporary downturn in gasoline consumption, the general figures still hold true: We Americans drive our 210 million motor vehicles--from abstemious little Smart Cars to big Mercedes S-Class sedans and hulking Hummers--7 billion miles and consume 390 million gallons of gasoline every day. But we still don't seem to appreciate this amazing liquid. Gasoline is just ... well, there. At the pump in about 167,000 locations across the country. Ready to power a Lamborghini or a leaf blower. One gallon contains so much energy (113,000 to 117,000 Btus) that even though almost 80 percent of it is wasted as heat and exhaust, it will still carry a loaded Chevy Suburban over the mountain or a Mini Cooper to the mall swiftly and with ease.


U.S. refineries currently wring about 20 gallons from each 42-gallon barrel of oil they process. And although this mysterious mixture of hydrocarbons has been adulterated, oxygenated, and reformulated to improve its performance and reliability and comply with ever-more-stringent air pollution standards, gasoline remains an incredibly elegant helpmeet for our personal transportation.

Once feared for its explosive properties, sometimes used as a cleaning fluid, and often dumped by early refiners as a "useless" byproduct, gasoline grew to become the magic elixir of the modern world. We've lost sight of the magic because gasoline is so commonplace. We grumble about its price, but we don't really think about its true value to us.

Whatever the price, gasoline is still an extraordinary bargain. The utter simplicity of its daily use belies its exceptional complexity. Crude oil can contain as many as 100,000 carbon compounds, and gasoline is a refined blend of several hundred of these compounds, formulated to perform in extremes of hot and cold and at widely varied altitudes, not burn too fast or too slowly, burn as cleanly as possible, and remain stable during transportation and storage.

Gasoline comes to us through a prodigious formulation and delivery infrastructure. It leaves refineries mostly through pipelines and is stored in bulk terminals near main consuming areas. Then, it is pumped from the terminals into tanker trucks that typically hold 10,000 gallons. Special additives such as ethanol or detergents that keep fuel systems clean, as well as lubricants and stabilizers, are blended into the gasoline as it goes into the tankers. When you buy nationally branded gasoline, you are essentially getting its special additive package. The gasoline itself may have been piped to bulk storage from refineries that have processed a variety of domestic and imported crude oil, which makes it impossible to boycott oil from a particular country by your choice of gas station.

The result of all this complexity, this technical sophistication in manufacture and delivery, is gasoline of reliably high quality throughout the country--a user-friendly substance, simple to dispense; a compact and powerful liquid sitting in our fuel tanks, waiting to be summoned into the combustion chambers of the engines of our cars, boats, motorcycles, lawn mowers, string trimmers, and home generators. We may expatiate on the latest developments in electric cars and the delicious prospects of hydrogen fuel cells and various biofuels made with everything from switch grass to garbage; we may earnestly speculate about flywheels and compressed air and various gases, natural and unnatural--but we go with gasoline. …