April 26, 2006

Those Alterante Fuels We Hear So Much About
— Ace

Popular Mechanics examines each possibility. No solar or that silly shit-- stuff you can actually put in your tank.

While it seems, superficially, to be a sober analysis, it doesn't mention the costs associated with creating each type of fuel, or compare the energy-cost of creating the fuel to the cost of producing petroleum feul. I mean, if it takes 200 BTU's of electricity to produce 100 BTU's worth of ethanol, umm, we still have to produce that electricity in the first place, right?

It mentions the energy investment for some "fuels," like electricity, which is a fuel but not a source of energy; it's just a form of energy created by consuming some other source. But it doesn't detail the energy investment associated with all of them. At least not in a detailed or rigorous way.

Still, it is interesting. I'm not sure if I buy the great potential of ethanol -- politicians usually hailed as "truth-tellers" (like McCain) have called ethanol a boondoggle, at least before running for president and needing Iowa voters. But this article suggests it's actually a real possibility for easing our reliance on petroleum.

Posted by: Ace at 06:46 AM | Comments (34)
Post contains 206 words, total size 1 kb.

1 The problem with alcohols is they have lower energy density than ordinary gas...you gotta carry more of it to do the same amount of work.

Posted by: Purple Avenger at April 26, 2006 06:50 AM (XbJeu)

2 I'm excited about fuels synthesized from bio-mass, like giblets and dead stuff. I hope there's a no-questions-asked policy, or at least late-night drop-off.

Posted by: spongeworthy at April 26, 2006 06:57 AM (uSomN)

3 Mike can be easily turned into gas. Most of the work is done already.

Posted by: Tushar D at April 26, 2006 07:01 AM (h76y6)

4 I asked a chemical engineer why synthetic oils are more expensive. He said "it takes more energy to make them".

Posted by: Dave in Texas at April 26, 2006 07:26 AM (a6Ffc)

5 "Mike can be easily turned into gas. "

Aiiiyee. Speak his name and he will appear, in a puff of sulfurous smoke. Beware.


Posted by: Toby928 at April 26, 2006 07:48 AM (ATbKm)

6 Stephen Den Beste, aka, "the smartest mofo on the planet," has already done the analysis, that there is noway we can practically scale up other sources of enrgy to replace petrolium..

Posted by: Radical Centrist at April 26, 2006 07:49 AM (iWRYt)

7 This kind of misses the point a little. If ethanol can provide a means of reducing the need for foreign liquids than why not do it- even if it means subsidizing it.
How efficient it is as a fuel depends on the analysis. One analysis (Pimentel) assumes fermentation as the only method, assumes only fossil fuels for harvest (as opposed to biodiesel) and includes the energy needed to make tractors.
There are other methods.

Posted by: drjohn at April 26, 2006 07:51 AM (wZLWV)

8 Ethanol, like hydrogen, is just an energy storage and transport mechanism. Even if it took more energy to make alcohol than it delivers, it could still be a good bet IF the energy used to make it was cheap enough, or at least, cheaper than oil or gas. Nukes anyone?


Posted by: Toby928 at April 26, 2006 08:00 AM (ATbKm)

9 Ace, not to be "that guy", but you should change the reference to Popular Mechanics.

I got my issue a couple of weeks ago, and read this article first. Fascinating stuff. If you look back at their recent "Facts & Myths about Katrina", I think you'll find that PM is one of the few institutions doing "real journalism" nowadays.

Posted by: Russ from Winterset at April 26, 2006 08:04 AM (Ffvoi)

10 "...if it takes 100 BTU's of electricity to produce 100 BTU's worth of ethanol, umm, we still have to produce that electricity in the first place, right?"

Per the second law of thermodynamics, no conversion of energy from one form to another can be perfect. You cannot take 100 BTUs of electricity and create 100 BTUs worth of ethanol. You might be able to create 60 or 70 BTUs, but never the same amount (much less more energy than you put it).

Posted by: petronius at April 26, 2006 08:06 AM (KzgwT)

11 "Per the second law of thermodynamics, no conversion of energy from one form to another can be perfect. You cannot take 100 BTUs of electricity and create 100 BTUs worth of ethanol. "

True, but your forgetting about the free solar energy inherent in the corn or whatnot, so you actually start with an energy surplus that could pay off the conversion cost.


Posted by: Toby928 at April 26, 2006 08:09 AM (ATbKm)

12 Petronius, or Pedanticus, that's not very smart. Of course the matter being converted carries energy in it's cells. We're talking about the energy used to convert the matter in the new substance into a usable form.

Ace said it right. I can't see how you could think your criticism would apply here.

Posted by: spongeworthy at April 26, 2006 08:11 AM (uSomN)

13 For that matter, you could just burn extra corn or stalks to ferment and distill the mash. The trick is still to use lower cost energy to make the alcohol.


Posted by: Toby928 at April 26, 2006 08:13 AM (ATbKm)

14 It's true that solar energy would contribute to the energy input for creating ethanol, but (as mentioned by someone else earlier) there are other energy sinks in the process as well: The energy cost for watering, fertilizing, hoeing, reaping, sowing -- all that farmer stuff that adds into the cost as well. It probably offsets the gain you get from adding in sunlight.

Posted by: petronius at April 26, 2006 08:16 AM (KzgwT)

15 "It probably offsets the gain you get from adding in sunlight."

Its possible or maybe not, the point is to use less shekels from my pocket. Effiencies don't matter if the final cost is lower and the supply more even and dependable. I can't get a nuclear power plant to fit under my hood but I could run my car on ethanol produced with nuclear power. Storage and transport mechanism, thats all.

Just sayin'

Posted by: Toby928 at April 26, 2006 08:22 AM (ATbKm)

16 The big magic trick is cellulastic ethanol, which is just now coming on line in a number of research plants here and in Canada.

Essentially, we now have genetically-tinkered-with yeasts that produce a series of enzymes that can break cellulose down into glucose. From Glucose, the familiar fermentation process can make ethanol.

We have butttloads of cellulose available to us, in the form of cornstalks, cotton, grasses, hay; you name it. Being able to turn _that_ into fuel (rather than the parts of the plant we might otherwise eat or feed to livestock) changes the ethanol playing field considerably.

Posted by: leoncaruthers at April 26, 2006 08:24 AM (7iTO9)

17 Another positive: not much chance of embargos from Iowa corn farmers, unless blatantly homer officiating helps Rutgers beat ISU in the NIT semifinals again or something like that. Not that we're still bitter or anything.

Posted by: Russ from Winterset at April 26, 2006 08:27 AM (Ffvoi)

18 At the risk of threadjacking, what I really need is a lowcost hybrid truck that runs on alternate fuels, produced by nuclear energy, and electricity, produced by nuclear energy.

That and a real filthy gutter-trollop to brew my alternative fuel.


Posted by: Toby928 at April 26, 2006 08:28 AM (ATbKm)

19 I didn't mean to imply there may be other reasons for using ethanol, just that any method will use more energy than you get out of the ethanol. What I should have added is that one of my assumptions is that all of the human-provided input energy is from fossil fuels. In that case I don't think you reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil producers. If you change the equation (by using nuclear energy rather than oil, or by new processes like the one leoncaruthers describes) then the economics might look better.

That said, there are certainly reasons other than pure production economics to advocate use of ethanol.

Posted by: petronius at April 26, 2006 08:39 AM (KzgwT)

20 Hey wheres the dilithium crystals we are suppost to be using?

Posted by: spurwing plover at April 26, 2006 09:07 AM (K3hNB)

21 I haven't heard anymore about those "hydrogen pills" that fixed the energy density problem. Nor the pebble bed reactor that China is working with. Supposed to be safe, un-meltdown-able, and scalable to the automobile level.

I would imagine that not only are the gas companies holding advances away from oil back, but energy companies as a whole. If they would create rolling blackouts on purpose, they would do this.

Posted by: MegaTroopX at April 26, 2006 09:11 AM (nRC/5)

22 I, for one, welcome our new ethanol over...

Oh, wait -- ethanol's already my overlord. Carry on.

Posted by: Ted Kennedy at April 26, 2006 09:17 AM (z4es9)

23 Ethanol, shaken not stirred.

Posted by: Dennis at April 26, 2006 09:40 AM (MkC0g)

24 Don't leave Biiodiesel out of the discussion alltogether. I know that ethanol has been getting a lot of the headlines for a few decades now, but biodiesel is so easy to make that you can make it yourself in a blender out of used (or fresh) vegtable oil and draino, and put it straight into your diesel car with no mods.

The major drawback from folks who do this regularly is that it is more temperature sensitive than diesel (which is very tem sensitive compared to gasoline), and needs heated lines and tanks in some climates. Vegtable oil is cheap to grow and cheap to extract. We currently throw away millions of gallons of it per year into land fills, and even more oil-producing plants go un-converted in the first place.

The process is about 80% efficient, and the byproduct (the 20% that doesn't convert) is glycerine laced with methane, which many of us know as Serno. It makes a great fuel for heating or for cooking your bio-diesel in the first place.

One other caveat, diesel engines started on either diesel or biodiesel can be switched over to run on straight vegtable oil without any conversion (but still need the heated hose and tank). This would remove the most expensive step out of the process. And don't think of the comodity cost based on the 32 oz packaging you see at the store either. Indistrial quantities of veggie oil can be had a LOT cheaper. There are farms in Germany and England where biodiesel was pioneered where they dedicate a percentage of land to oil production to run their equipment. Rape seed is reportedly the most prolific producer per acre, but corn and other crops make oil too.

Posted by: Scot at April 26, 2006 09:54 AM (qlZ26)

25 Lots of good wisdom on Ethanol here. I would add that if we expect new ethanol production technologies to provide enough ethanol to reduce imported oil, we should start making the infrastructure and creating the mindshare in consumers.

Make sure your next car is a FFV.

Posted by: Sinner at April 26, 2006 10:06 AM (h2VSX)

26 What about the flux capacitor? Are we close on that one yet?

Posted by: Dave in Texas at April 26, 2006 10:06 AM (pzen5)

27 Good point on biodiesel Scot. A mix of high performance and efficient fuels will go a long way toward acceptance. I'm for any resource that will allow us to be self sufficient in energy and as a plus, the pleasing aroma of popped corn is a major improvement over normal bus fumes.


Posted by: Toby928 at April 26, 2006 10:19 AM (ATbKm)

28 I'd jump on the biodiesel bandwagon if it ever comes my way.

Posted by: petronius at April 26, 2006 11:05 AM (ZBVpb)

29 I like Ethanol just because it's a very renewable and local (as in US) way of running cars. And local farmers could use a boost.

Plus its just cool to think of running your car on corn.

Posted by: Christopher Taylor at April 26, 2006 01:16 PM (1Vbso)

30 "pebble bed reactors"? Scalable down to vehicle-sized units?

Oh yeah, THAT'S just what we need. There's plenty of slackjawed drooling 'tards out there who think air conditioning is run by magical gnomes under their hood. By God, let's give them nuclear reactors.

I can hear the discussion at the local Jiffy Lube right now. "Well, the manual DOES say you should change the fuel rods every 15,000 miles, but I figure, hey, it's not a glowing heap of melted slag yet, so why not try to stretch them out to 50,000?"

Posted by: Russ from Winterset at April 26, 2006 02:40 PM (Ffvoi)

31 Another quick thought about cellulostic ethanol: Many of the sources of this potential fuel are currently being used to minimize soil erosion on farmland. Cornstalks are left on the surface of the harvested field to help keep fall & spring rains from washing more soil into the Gulf of Mexico. If we harvest all these materials, we degrade our future ability to produce crops on that land.

Some people think that this material's just laying around waiting to be harvested. If you're talking about things like switchgrass grown specifically for power generation, then it may be true, but no-cost byproducts of farming are not as available as you might think.

Besides, from what I've heard, the technology for producing cellulostic ethanol is more promised than proven at this point. It's not quite cold fusion in a jar, but it's not anything that will be available soon, even if everything goes perfectly in the research.

Posted by: Russ from Winterset at April 26, 2006 02:51 PM (Ffvoi)

32 I think Popular Mechanics should have considered the option of generating electricity from the body heat of millions of people, all of whom are plugged into some sort of VR world.

Posted by: Evil Mechanical Overlord at April 27, 2006 12:37 PM (VgW/O)

33 Popular Mechanics is rapidly becoming the most valuable source for information on the net today. They cut through the crap and the hype and do information-packed articles on current issues. A waluable resource they have become, and a smart way to move from magazine to the new millenium.

Posted by: Christopher Taylor at April 27, 2006 01:29 PM (1Vbso)

34 I was thinking about this yesterday. What if the President announced a sort of open Manhattan Project on fuel efficient vehicles that people would actually want?

What if the challenge was- "build a V8 that puts out 250 hp, runs on multiple fuels, and gets 40mpg?

"Build it, and we'll buy the patent for $10 Billion."

Posted by: Barry at April 27, 2006 02:00 PM (kKjaJ)

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