Thursday, June 23, 2005

My Prediction for the Fuel of the Future: Ethanol

Yes some commentators predicted I would pick ethanol, no doubt helped by my hint dropping. Ethanol is wildly inferior to gasoline, I will admit that. However, many may not realize that we are already using. Fuel blends with ethanol are available at gas stations everywhere. In California, you HAVE to have ethanol mixed fuel. Society has already started to change over whether you like it or not.

In fact the majority of Ford Explorers made today can run on Ethanol according to this article. Right now the automakers see it as a way to cheat and raise their fleet mileage. But they are indirectly helping society. If fuel prices rise considerably, and a mostly ethanol blend becomes the standard fuel, consumers won't have a problem. Let me try to address the problems ethanol faces, and dispell some of the myths of ethanol.

Ethanol requires more to make it, then it produces: As of now this is true. It takes trucks running on gasoline to move fuel, run the tractors, etc. That amount of fuel could be reduced considerably if every vehicle that is used in the process to make ethanol runs on ethanol. When that becomes the case, expect the amount of energy put in to decrease noticeably.

Making engines run on ethanol is a complex process: No. Small changes to standard ICU engines will enable them to run on ethanol. Many can run on both right now. The changeover is already much less expensive than hybridizing everyone's vehicles.

Ethanol is dangerous: As is gasoline. Hybrids are no safer than ethanol, and are an electrocution danger.

Ethanol is less efficient than gasoline, producing less power per amount burned. However, the amount of R and D put into making a regular gasoline ICU engine more fuel efficient is much greater than the amount put into ethanol research. I know I've criticized people for stating that technology will eventually make hybrids work even better, but the fact remains that the amount of money companies have put into engine development is in the tens of billions at least. The science behind ethanol is much simpler, and not so much different from gasoline.

Won't crude oil in the form of fertilizer be needed to grow ethanol? Initially yes. But GM grown ethanol might not need fertilizer. This is probably the biggest deficiency for ethanol usage. To bet on technology solving this issue is dangerous, however, if the only petroleum usage in growing crops to be turned into ethanol is in the fertilizer and pesticides, rather than in the harvesting and transport, then this issue is greatly minimized.

The government can mandate that cars use ethanol, and the engineering costs to auto companies are minimal. A gradual transfer from an oil economy to an ethanol economy is probably the likeliest route for humanity. Fuel blends of ever greater percentages of ethanol versus gasoline will buy society the time it needs to make greater, more efficient output from crops through experimentation. Engines will gradually become more efficient burners as well, just as they did with gasoline engines through the decades. Any great economic change in society is funded by the government, and the government will clearly fund the cheaper way to do things, especially since the automakers will lobby them to do so, rather than mandating hybrid usage. Since ethanol is less polluting than hybrid usage, from an environmental standpoint it's a no brainer.

I look at Brazil as a sort of model. There cars regularly run on ethanol/gasoline blends, as well as natural gas, and even kerosene. The future of fuel usage in society will be complex and diverse. One fuel will not cover all the bases, as it has for the past several decades. The successful automaker will recognize this, and plan accordingly.

Rick -- just because you use less gasoline doesn't mean you're net energy positive. I still mean to go through the Pimentel numbers ...
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