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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Fuel's gold


Most people would agree that the United States needs a new source of fuel: something renewable and nonpolluting with which to replace gasoline ... something that could be produced right here at home. Deep in America's heartland, a lot of people think they know the answer: ethanol, a fuel made from fermented corn. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, you can get about 21/2 gallons of it from a bushel of corn. And an increasing number of states are working to make an 85 percent ethanol fuel called E85 available at gas stations at prices significantly below that of regular gasoline ... even when you account for the fact that ethanol provides only 62 percent of the mileage of gasoline. It sounds like a perfect, win-win solution for both the nation's farm economy and its energy needs. According to the National Corn Growers Association, ethanol production could make 1.4 billion bushels of corn 'disappear' in 2004 ... enough to replace more than 2 billion gallons of gasoline and provide a much-needed market for farmers stricken with chronically low corn prices. There's just one catch: According to scientists in New York and California, it takes more energy to make ethanol than you get back in fuel savings. More precisely, says David Pimentel of Cornell University, it takes the equivalent of 1.29 gallons of gasoline to produce enough ethanol to replace one gallon of gasoline at the pump. Instead of making the nation more energy self-sufficient, ethanol production actually increases our need for oil and gas imports, Pimentel says.
The article also mentions TANSTAAFL, which if you are not familiar with will cost you some major geek points. Fascinating stuff. Basically, what it boils down to is if there was an efficient way to produce energy someone would be doing it and we wouldn't need government subsidies. I believe we will find better ways of producing energy. Technological advances in solar power show promise, and biological and nano-manufacture may dramatically change our enegry efficiencies altering the entire equation. As oil becomes scarcer, economic incentives for developing this sort of technology will dwarf anything that governments could offer. That doesn't mean we should ignore signs of increasing oil scarcity entirely. Increased education, particularly in science and engineering would be a great investment toward developing alternate energy sources. Certainly an x-prize type contest to stimulate imaginations and encourage exploration of the bounds of the possible would also not be out of place. However, pumping tax dollars into inefficient energy sources to allow them to compete economically will never help us achieve energy independence. (via Dead Parrot Society)


Blogger Brian said...

It's tempting to scoff at ethanol because it's a net energy loser. But the story is slightly more complicated than that.

The crucial difference is one of phase. With a lot of money and a little political will, America's static power generation could be turned over to domestic resources (read: coal) almost immediately. But coal isn't an option for mobile power generation, because the technology we use for that (the internal combustion engine) requires its fuel in the liquid phase. Hence our continuing dependence on the only liquid fossil fuel: (mostly foreign) oil.

This is where ethanol may play a role. Yes, EtOH production is a net consumer of energy. But if this consumption can be brought down low enough, making EtOH may be just the ticket for turning energy stored as solid coal into a usable liquid fuel. So while EtOH isn't a source of energy, it has some promise as a useful storage medium for domestic energy.

Of course there are various competing technologies. Is it cheaper to make EtOH and run an IC or to make electricity, store it in batteries, and use an electric motor? What about using hydrogen in fuel-cell powered vehicle? And of course there are massive domestic deposits of natural gas and gas hydrate; ICs are readily converted to using CNG.

Ulltimately, I think each of these technologies will find a home. The future will probably see a much less homogenous energy picture than the current all-IC situation. Whether EtOH will have a place in that picture remains to be seen, but I don't think it can be dismissed simply because it's a net consumer of energy.

8/10/2005 08:06:00 AM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

Those are pretty good points Brian. I neglected to mention both Coal and Nuclear power in my analysis, and they are both proven and pletiful sources of energy.

And admittedly EtOH may end up being a useful storage mechanism (although honestly I doubt that.)

However, those who are promoting this product are selling it as 'clean green energy production' which it is most assuredly not.

8/10/2005 08:34:00 AM  

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