October 9, 2005

A Manhattan Project for Conversion Technology

There is a riveting and extremely important non-fiction book that was published this year by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman called "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century."

His thesis is that developing countries (primarily India, China and other Asian countries) are apt to reach parity with the U.S. in the next generation or two because of the "flattening" of opportunity arising from changes in communication and their motivation to succeed in areas we have become complacent, namely science and engineering.

Here's an EXCERPT that relates directly to developing alternative fuels and reducing greenhouse gases (page 283)...

"...it is not easy to get people passionate about the flat world. It takes some imagination. President Kennedy understood that the competition with the Soviet Union was not a space race but a science race, which was really an education race. Yet the way he chose to get Americans excited about sacrificing and buckling down to do what it took to win the Cold War--which required a large-scale push in science and engineering--was by laying out the vision of putting a man on the moon, not a missile into Moscow.

"If President Bush is looking for a similar legacy project, there is one just crying out--a national science initiative that would be our generation's moon shot: a crash program for alternative energy and conservation to make America energy-independent in ten years. If President Bush made energy independence his moon shot, in one fell swoop he would dry up revenue for terrorism, force Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia onto the path of reform--which they will never do with $50-a-barrel oil (!)--strengthen the dollar, and improve his own standing in Europe by doing something huge to reduce global warming. He would also create a real magnet to inspire young people to contribute to both the war on terrorism and America's future by again becoming scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

"I have consistently been struck that my newspaper columns that have gotten far and away the most positive feedback over the years, especially from young people, have been those that urged the president to call the nation to this task. Summoning all our energies and skills to produce a 21st century fuel is George W. Bush's opportunity to be both Nixon to China and JFK to the moon in one move."

ISAF 2005: Alcohol Fuel Flexibility - Progress and Prospects

NOTE: The International Symposium on Alcohol Fuels held its 15th annual meeting Sept. 26-28, 2005 in San Diego, CA. There were many important and timely papers and presentations delivered at the event for which I will provide abstracts.

Thomas MacDonald of the California Energy Commission provided evidence that "alcohol flexible fuels vehicles" (a.k.a., Flex-Fuel Vehicles - FFV - that run on blends of gasoline and ethanol) "represent a mature, low-cost technology option for reducing reliance on petroleum transportation fuels." Should FFV development and infrastructure continue and expand, "alcohol fuel flexibility offers an achievable and inexpensive means of adding motor fuel supply diversity and of substituting alcohol fuels for gasoline."

The most obvious evidence of this is taking place in California. Pollution considerations in metropolitan areas of the state created substantial interest in additives that would oxygenate gasoline to combust more of each gallon while reducing harmful emissions. MTBE's were the initial additive backed and implemented by the petroleum refiners. However, MTBE's could not be stored without leakage, which fouled water resources - the cure being worse than the disease. At the end of 2003, California banned MTBE's in favor of more plentiful and benign ethanol. As a result 5.7% of all gasoline sold in California is actually ethanol as mandated by regulations, approaching one BILLION gallons per year. Currently 99% of this ethanol is imported into California from other states. This E6 (6% ethanol) gasoline runs without modification in all gasoline engines as would for any blend containing up to 10% ethanol (E10).

How costly would it be to modify current models of automobiles to make them FFVs? MacDonald states that "the incremental cost to the industry of producing full model lines of FFVs has been reduced to a very nominal amount, $100 per vehicle or less by some industry estimates." Because of FFV demand in Brazil and the Midwestern U.S., most major manufacturers of automobiles (including Ford, GM, Chrysler, and Volkswagen) offer FFV versions of their most popular automobiles.

He offers Brazil as an example of a society that has made a commitment to a fully ethanol/gasoline FFV fleet after 30 years of ethanol and infrastructure development. In Brazil, the average price of gasoline is 1.66 times the average price of ethanol. By 2007, all new automobiles sold in Brazil will be FFVs.

He concludes that "further national initiatives and investments aimed at expansion of FFV production and E85 fueling infrastructure need to be part of a clear overall national agenda for petroleum reduction and a specific straegy for the role of ethanol as a transportation fuel."

October 8, 2005

ISAF 2005: Greenhouse Gas Emission Results of Fuel Ethanol

NOTE: The International Symposium on Alcohol Fuels held its 15th annual meeting Sept. 26-28, 2005 in San Diego, CA. There were many important and timely papers and presentations delivered at the event for which I will provide abstracts.

Michael Wang of the Center for Transportation Research of the University of Chicago provided a paper and presentation on work sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The title of the paper is "Updated Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emission Results of Fuel Ethanol." He stated that their research revealed that corn-based ethanol achieves energy and GHG emission reduction benefits relative to gasoline primarily because of:

1 - Improved productivity of U.S. corn farming in the past 30 years. Ethanol yield has been increased from less than 2.5 gallons per bushel of corn in the 1980s to 2.7 gallons in 2005.

2 - Reduced energy use in ethanol plants over the past 20 years. During that time, per-gallon energy use has been reduced by more than 30% in wet milling plants and by more than 40% in dry milling plants.

3 - appropriate treatment of ethanol's co-products. Another key finding was that cellulosic ethanol, which can be produced from feedstocks such as woody or herbaceous biomass, offers much larger energy and GHG emission reduction benefits than corn-based ethanol.

The figure below was used to illustrate the energy inputs used to produce and deliver a million British Thermal Units (Btu) of ethanol (EtOH) and petroleum gasoline to a refueling station.

As you can see, the fossil energy input per unit of ethanol is lower—0.74 million Btu fossil energy consumed for each 1 million Btu of ethanol delivered, compared to 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each million Btu of gasoline delivered.

Another key finding he presented was that ethanol has a positive benefit in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction. On a per gallon basis, corn ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 18% to 29%, while cellulosic ethanol has an even greater benefit with an 85% reduction in GHG emissions.

Guide to abbreviations used:
BTU = British Thermal Units
Cell. = Cellulosic
DM = Dry Mill Process Ethanol
E10 = 10% Ethanol blend
E85 = 85% Ethanol Blend
EtOH = Ethanol
FFV = Flexible or Flex Fuel Vehicle
LPG = Liquified Petroleum Gas
NG = Natural Gas
RFG = Reformulated Gasoline
WM = Wet Mill Process Ethanol