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Join the Drive for Alternative Vehicle Fuel

Not too long ago, talking about cars powered by something other than gasoline might have resulted in chuckles and raised eyebrows. But these days, everyone's talking about alternative fuels. Clean energy, green energy, renewable energy... these concepts all threaten to take gas out of its leading position in the fuel game.

What's behind the drive for alternative fuels?

Concerns about the supply of fossil fuels like gasoline are one factor. The rising costs are another. And there is mounting evidence that gasoline-driven cars are taking a toll on the environment. As a result, researchers are looking for cleaner, cheaper fuel sources.

Alternative fuels can include electricity, ethanol (an alcohol-based fuel), biodiesel (made from soybeans or recycled vegetable oil) or natural gas.

"Many drivers are pushing the need for clean energy alternatives for transportation," says Jeremy Wise. He is the team leader of a project that gives students the chance to design and build vehicles that have a minimal environmental impact.

Wise says some of the reasons for using clean energy are "petroleum energy cost, availability and security, the threat of climate change, and health concerns due to toxic emissions. These transportation alternatives can address all of these priorities."

So if you're looking to follow a career in developing alternatives to gas-powered cars, where do you start? Wise suggests with an engineering degree. Mechanical, computer and electrical engineering will all be useful in the future, he says, as vehicles become more electrified.

"The vehicle is now a complex mechatronic system requiring design skills from all disciplines," he says.

Lyle Rudensey is the owner of BioLyle's Biodiesel Workshop in Seattle. He suggests finding out if local community colleges offer courses related to alternative fuels, as well as taking matters into your own hands.

"Check hobby magazines," he says. "There's tons of stuff out there for folks interested in electric cars, fuel cells, etc.... Use online social networking sites to connect with others with similar interests. You might find a local club which meets regularly. Finally, a group called Solar Energy International offers classes on biodiesel and electric car conversion."

Carol McClelland is the founder and executive director of Green Career Central, a website based in California. She suggests seeking out an internship at any local businesses that convert cars to run on electricity or accept diesel.

"Getting a good understanding of how these cars run would be good baseline information," she says. And there are more businesses like that opening up. Even traditional dealerships may be more involved than you think with alternative fuels. Ask around and keep your eyes peeled for new companies.

"There are a couple of organizations ... that are already designing and building alternative cars," says McClelland. "I believe most of them are still at the early stage and hiring very highly educated/experienced people to work through all of the bugs and design challenges."

Wise agrees that experience can't be beat in this field. He says that classroom knowledge will only get someone so far. It's the experience that counts.

"Hands-on experience in vehicle design is the best way to stand out," he says. "Automotive manufacturers consistently hire students that work on these types of projects. The experience gained by students working on a vehicle project allows them to be hired with the expectation of familiarity with industry standards and a smaller training requirement."

Don't forget about other forms of transportation. Alternatives are not just being explored for cars and trucks. McClelland reminds us that the skills learned with one type of vehicle can often transfer to another.

"There are also other alternative vehicles -- scooters, electric carts, etc." she says. "Doing research on the web will bring up a lot of companies of this sort. It may be easier to break into that kind of company than an actual car company. Yet the knowledge learned would probably be transferrable."

While it may have once seemed like a fad, the time has come for alternatives to gas-powered cars. They are becoming more and more mainstream. As they become more popular, there will only be more job opportunities surrounding them.

"As indicated in the news, there is a substantial requirement for automotive manufacturers to pursue sustainable vehicle technologies in the near and longer terms," says Wise. "The skills obtained in hybrid vehicle design are highly in demand and the prospects are great."

John Foster is involved is vice-president of an electric vehicle association. Foster agrees with Wise that this is a realistic career path.

"Sure," he says. "Since oil is running out, we will be switching on electric transportation. Unfortunately, society is running on inertia, schools are pumping out more auto techs and heavy-duty diesel mechanics. Some of this knowledge will be transferrable, but keeping a heads-up on the changes will help you get employment."

Rudensey feels there is a lot of opportunity right now, but people should approach this line of work with a realistic outlook. "It's not for the faint at heart," he says. "Many biodiesel companies have gone out of business in the last couple of years, as the price of the raw oil skyrocketed, and then the economy crashed. You have to really know your stuff, and have a good business plan.

"For example," he continues, "the only biodiesel companies succeeding right now are ones that are using waste oil, instead of virgin oil; it just makes a lot more sense to turn the waste into something valuable. As far as other alternative fuels go, I think you'd have to get an engineering degree at a school that has opportunities for research where you can really delve deeply into the material."

There are many different careers involving alternative fuels, Wise says.

"In addition to the automotive industry, the knowledge and experience gained in working with these technologies is directly transferrable to other careers. For example, the skills required for designing renewable energy applications like wind turbine or tidal power control systems overlap to a great extent. Much of the same software and hardware systems are used in both industries and the optimization processes are similar."

Foster says people should start by looking at the range of present careers in electric transport. "Operators and transit mechanics working on the electric trolley fleet are a great example," he says.

What can you expect to make? The range is huge. If you are a researcher and break through with a new technology you could be raking in the high salaries. If you're slogging it out with a new company, you may -- for now -- be making little.

"There is a wide range of salaries," says Foster. "Depends on what you can do and how well you concentrate at it."

"I'd expect the salary to be very competitive with other engineering jobs," says Wise.

But even if you're not making much to begin with, bear in mind these jobs are most likely going to stick around. After all, oil may run out but people's need to get from one place to another won't.

"When the oil is gone," says Foster, "people will still want to eat, and to get around."


Crunching the Numbers on Alternative Fuels
Interesting article from the Popular Mechanics website

The U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center
Lots of resources about alternative fuels here

Electric Auto Association
Promoting the use of electric cars

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