Posts Tagged ‘Oil’

The Ethanol Myth

Many sources indicate ethanol production is now becoming very efficient, achieving an energy balance of about 1.67. For every 100 BTU of energy put into ethanol production, the ethanol equivalent to 167 BTUs is created. Is this really true? Is ethanol really the future?

Ethanol in the United Sates is produced from corn. Who is behind this energy balance figure? Why it is the National Corn Growers Association. Yeah, they might have an agenda. An agenda of maintaining their $5.7 Billion dollar tax credit over the next 5 years! They are not going to simply admit ethanol is a marginal idea and volunteer to forgo these credits. They are going to fight, kicking and screaming to convince the government and public that ethanol is the wave of the future offering reduced emissions and sustainability. I have seen more believable numbers indicating an energy balance of about 1.20. I have also seen a U.C. Berkeley study that indicates ethanol actually requires more BTUs of fossil fuel to make than it contains. When you factor in the energy to run irrigation systems, diesel fuel to run tractors and other farm equipment, diesel fuel to truck the corn to an ethanol factory, and the energy the factory needs to produce the ethanol, the lower or even negative energy balance starts to look a lot more believable.

In addition to the questionable energy balance, corn production is the most polluting crop grown in the U.S. While ethanol may reduce the emissions coming out of your tail pipe, the pollution from fertilizer and pesticides used on the corn fields is causing animals drinking runoff from the field to have reproductive problems. (Makes you wonder about eating veggies soaking up the fertilizer and pesticide contaminated water) The ethanol plants themselves use large amounts of water (3.5-6 gallons per gallon of ethanol) and most of it is expelled as contaminated waste water.

Is it cheaper? A quick check of your local gas station might make it seem so, but the per gallon cost is deceiving. Ethanol is very high octane, so it is great for boy-racers who want high horsepower and don’t mind dumping huge quantities of ethanol into their cylinders. If you have a turbocharged vehicle, you could run very high boost with ethanol. The problem is that getting 5 mpg on ethanol pretty much eliminates the cost benefits even though you may make a lot of power. It is a simple fact that burning more of something produces more polluting. Sure ethanol is clean, but you need to (buy and) burn more to travel the same distance. An ethanol powered Chevy Tahoe gets 10 mpg vs the 14 mpg running gasoline. That mean if you pay more than about 1/2 to 2/3 the cost of gas for your ethanol, your being ripped off.

Maybe it isn’t great now, but is on its way to being sustainable? Not even remotely. If every acre in the U.S. used to grow corn (70 million) grew corn for ethanol, we would only be able to replace 12% of the countries gasoline usage. Sounds like a pretty poor improvement considering it would mean the end of tacos, corn on the cob, corn bread, and popcorn! Several countries in Central and South America with abundant sugar cane produce ethanol for significantly less cost and energy than the United Sates, forcing ethanol tariffs to ‘level the playing field.’ Ethanol might work for them but it is a total joke for America.

So what SHOULD we do about pollution and petroleum problems? The gasoline engine is actually remarkable efficient when operated properly. Just look at your highway fuel economy. If fuel economy of U.S. vehicle doubled, we could reduce our petroleum consumption (and emissions) by 1/3. The car companies aren’t going to volunteer to spend money developing cleaner more efficient engines. It takes regulation from the government(Take action). These mileage improvements would be very quick to implement. Hybrid technology, although pretty marginal, is already here. As fuel prices rose, it took car companies only months to develop engines that shut down cylinders to improve mileage. In 5-10 years, the roads of America could be filled with radically more efficient vehicles.

If better fuels economy is a simple, short term step to reduce oil dependence and pollution, better hybrid technology is the solution. The rather marginal hybrid Prius can easily achieve 100 mpg if owners plug it in every night (Don’t get me started on electricity generating. We haven’t built a nuclear power plant in this country in 20 years! Sure spent fuel is nasty, but it is easier to store than CO2. If every roof had solar panels on it(Stanford Ovshinsky might single handedly save the world), imagine the reduction in transmission inefficiencies, increase in panel efficiency and reduction in cost. Germany is already leading the world in solar power, yet our government spends $5 billion on corn subsidies!).

How about electric cars, no gas required? The technology is here. It was here 10 years ago and has only gotten better. Rent this: Who Killed The Electric Car


Say Goodbye to Oil

Peak Oil, the point at which world oil production peaks, is maybe 20 years away. Maybe 2050 we hit it, plenty of time to enjoy my Hummer. All the major oil producing nation’s productions have been in decline since 2002.

Don’t buy it? Read this:

No new large oil fields have been discovered since about 1970.

Peak oil is here.

Marion King Hubbert, a 1950s era geophysicist, predicted that global oil production would peak around turn of the century. The 1970s oil embargo and a recession puts his prediction to right about now. The second half of the oil era is not going to be pretty. Most take for granted how cheap and energetic fossil fuels are. Until recently gasoline was pretty much the cheapest fluid you can buy in the U.S. A barrel of oil, which will cost you about $93 as of Nov. 2007, is equivalent to about 15,000-25,000 hours of human manual labor! Oil’s amazing energy/cost ratio has fueled global economic growth for over a century. Could we switch to nuclear power? We would burn through the worlds Uranium in 1-2 decades. A Bridge at best. Wind won’t match oil. Solar? The Earth is constantly bathed in 20 times the Earths total oil energy. Cover 1/3 of California and the US might be there, but that is an enormous technical challenge.

Kicking the oil habit as easy as car pooling and putting solar panels on your roof. During your daily routine, you obviously use electricity, maybe drive to work or ride a bus. You probably use a plastic tooth brush, shower with soap, and if your a woman (or a strange man) you wear makeup. You probably eat cereal made from grain harvested with a tractor. Your 400 Calorie breakfast required up to 2,800 Calories of fossil fuels to produce and transport. Your computer required 10 times its weight in fossil fuels to manufacture. (More, pardon the partisanship) Imagine transportation, and all the other items made cheap and abundant by oil were suddenly scarce and expensive. Imagine air travel unaffordable to 99.99% of the population.

Some economists say that a world without fossil fuels could support maybe 1.5-2 billion people, no where near what global population is predictions to be in the next few decades.

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Commentary from an Aerospace Engineer, Environmentalist, Capitalist, Conspiracy Theorist

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