August 4, 2005

Overdue for a Paradigm Shift

Our dependence on foreign fossil fuel resources is not going to be reduced any appreciable amount in the near future until a clean, renewable liquid fuel alternative is adopted. Ethanol is the obvious choice because: 1) it is already being used as a gasoline volume extender and a high percentage blend alternative, 2) cars that run on both ethanol and gasoline and any blend inbetween are already being manufactured by the major auto companies, 3) ethanol emissions are generally less harmful than gasoline, and 4) new feedstock for the fermentation process include agricultural, forestry, and urban waste - thus reducing environmental plagues while diversifying the range of siting options.

Not many people realize that Henry Ford built the Model T to run on ethanol - but at that time a strong case was made for refining abundant oil into gasoline because it was cheaper than ethanol to produce. So the oil liquid fuel paradigm took root and begat the gasoline refinery and distribution network - and cars were modified to run only on gasoline.

Sixty years later the world experiences a severe "oil crisis". Part of the world (Brazil) responded by adding ethanol back into play as a competitive alternative to oil - reducing dependence on oil and bringing a supportive infrastructure for distillation, distribution, and flex-fuel vehicle manufacture for blends of ethanol and gasoline. Today, Brazil exports ethanol, is not dependent on oil availability, has cleaner auto emissions, and robust demand for its sugar cane crops. A model for a liquid, non-fossil fuel paradigm shift and its positive cultural impact has been amply demonstrated.

Much as been made of the "peak oil" conundrum that bodes catastrophic consequences over the next few decades. Since 1976 there has not been one new gasoline refinery built in the U.S. - so it would seem that we are destined to experience a collapse of the gasoline paradigm. This will be exascerbated by the emerging demand for fossil fuel by China and India. At the same time, there have been over 85 ethanol plants built in the U.S. - based on the standard sugar fermentation process using corn kernels as feedstock. Equally important, distribution networks, ethanol flex-fuel and biodiesel vehicles, and a pro-ethanol enterprise culture has been developed - primarily in the farm states.

The time has come to spread the ethanol paradigm into urban areas using new technology based on gasification of plentiful sources of unrecycled biomass - urban, sewage, MSW, forestry, and agricultural waste. The technology exists and it is far cleaner, safer, and efficient than sugar fermentation. It will also help reduce the need for landfill sites (by about 80%), reduce field spreading of sewage, co-generate green power, and provide a smooth transition away from fossil fuels.

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