Cleaner burning fuel in Chicago buses

While environmentalists, climatologists and various governmental administrations argue about the actual effects of global warming, the Chicago Public School system is attempting to go “greener.”

Packed into a tiny classroom on Nov. 14, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan announced a pilot program for using a cleaner-burning fuel in buses. Duncan spoke about the new plan to use an ethanol-diesel fuel blend for its bus fleet at Louisa May Alcott School, 2625 N. Orchard St.

“It will make an immediate positive impact on the environment with no additional cost to our busing program.”

The new project focuses on a team-up with Falcon Transportation, Inc., a contracted bus company for the Chicago Public Schools, and O2Diesel, an ethanol fuel company.

Falcon, which transports about 1,600 of the 30,000 Chicago public school students around Chicago daily, is testing 25 of its fleet of 69 buses with the ethanol-diesel fuel blend. The O2 fuel consists of 7 percent ethanol and the rest diesel fuel, according to Alan Rae, president of O2Diesel.

Ethanol is an alternative fuel “produced by fermenting and distilling starch crops [like corn] that have been converted into simple sugars,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy website. Microbes in a controlled environment feed on the sugar; the byproduct of this consumption produces ethanol and carbon dioxide. The ethanol is then purified and blended into gasoline for a cleaner-burning fuel.

Rea said that the ethanol-based fuel reduces particulate matter in vehicle emissions by about 40 percent. Particulates are tiny particles in vehicle exhaust that can cause asthma problems in people.

Children are more prone to respiratory illnesses due to pollution because they spend 50 percent more time outside than adults, according to a 2000 study by the American Lung Association. The ALA wrote that almost 27.1 million children 13 years old or younger are exposed to unhealthy ozone levels.

The study also noted that minority children are especially vulnerable ; 62.9 percent of Hispanic children and 61.3 percent of black children reside in unhealthy ozone areas in the United States. Still, more than 50.8 percent of white children live in places with poor air quality.

However, the amount of reduced pollution depends on the type of equipment used on the buses. Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the American Lung Association, explained that the equipment on the test buses will reduce sulfur particles but better devices exist.

“It’s not the best technology in cleaning up the soot,”?Urbaszewski said. “But it cleans up 25 to 30 percent of the pollution.”

He said that better particulate-cleaning devices can reduce soot by up to 90 percent. While current school buses don’t have this equipment, the 2007 diesel-using models will automatically have these devices.

Urbaszewski also said that recent federal laws mandated oil refineries to start producing an ultra-low diesel fuel; this may also contribute to reduced emissions whether its combined with ethanol or other bio-fuels.

While the Carblue O2 diesel-ethanol blend creates less auto emissions than using regular diesel, Chester Tindall, general manager of student transportation for the Chicago Public School system, said the cost to add any fuel adapters needed to run buses on ethanol-based fuel is not in this year’s budget. Theses adapters, also called “spark arrestors,” fit from the vehicle’s gas cap to tank, according to Thomas Sopko, spokesman for O2Diesel.

Tindall said since the technology is still new, the school system plans on studying the how well the buses run on the ethanol-based fuel versus the regular diesel fuel.

“We’ll sit down and evaluate what are the long term impacts of reduction of the emissions as well as the cost of these items both to the private fleet managers and to the school system itself,” Tindall said.