Beyond the environmental and economic benefits, one of the most exciting aspects of alternative fuels is the seemingly endless possibilities.
Alternative fuels are already being derived from an eclectic range of sources; the future will surely hold many more.
For example, we did a story last year about a Swedish company using black liquor, a byproduct of the pulp and paper industry, to produce an alternative fuel called BioDME. The company touts the fuel, a form of dimethyl ether (DME), as a renewable and cleaner alternative to diesel.
A few years ago, we wrote about a San Diego firm that says it can produce crude oil from a process using algae, sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. The "green crude" is reportedly chemically identical to petroleum, and the firm said it has used it to produce diesel, 91-octane gasoline and jet fuel.
It remains to be seen whether some of these more exotic alt-fuel projects will pan out in the long term, but this type of innovative development is important in advancing the green movement.
For now, the pupil transportation industry has several proven alternative-fuel options available. School bus manufacturers offer models powered by propane, compressed natural gas (CNG) and hybrid-electric systems. Now, Trans Tech Bus is debuting an all-electric 42-passenger school bus.
Also, many operations have been running their school buses on biodiesel. Our latest Equipment Survey found that 10 percent of respondents have some or all of their buses powered by biodiesel. Seven percent are using some CNG, 3 percent are using some propane and 2 percent have some hybrid buses.
Those numbers aren't overwhelming at this point, but there's certainly a lot of room for growth.
If you're attending this year's National Association for Pupil Transportation conference in Cincinnati, be sure to attend the alternative-fuel technology forum. I've been asked to moderate this panel of experts from the major school bus manufacturers, who will discuss the features and benefits of the various alternative fuels and associated bus offerings.
Looking to the future
On the cover of the February 1965 issue of SCHOOL BUS FLEET was an intriguing illustration with the caption "School Bus of the Future."
The conceptual "bus," which was thought up by engineers and designers at Wayne Works, looked like something from a Jetsons episode. The craft would "float on a cushion of air," and the driver would "sit in a plastic bubble, operating a 'uni-control,' which replaces the steering wheel, accelerator and brakes."
Who knows? Maybe these space-age buses will be flying kids to school in the next century. But I would imagine that the "School Bus of the Near Future" won't look all that different from the big, yellow vehicles we have now.
The key change may be a "power shift" away from foreign oil and toward domestically produced, renewable energy sources. In other words, our school buses may always be yellow on the outside, but they'll keep getting greener inside.