By on June 19, 2006

ethanol22.jpgThe United States has pledged to kick the oil habit before. But this time we mean it. Better yet, we have a solution that doesn’t require any of that furrin’ hybrid and diesel technology: E85. Produced from corn and other products grown in good old American soil, this 85 percent ethanol blend enables American-as-apple-pie small block V8s to burn less gasoline than a Prius. If every car, truck, and SUV were E85 now, why we could tell the Arabs to shove it! So all good Americans should buy an E85-capable full-sized SUV TODAY! Actually, on second thought, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to “go yellow.” 

Brazil, poster child of the E85 movement, has farmed its way to energy independence. But the same solution won’t work so easily for the US. For one thing, Brazil produces ethanol from sugar cane, a much cheaper foodstuff than corn or anything else we can grow in the decidedly non-tropical Midwest.  Perhaps global warming will lend a hand?  In the meantime, every ethanol booster not wedded to corn interests cannot stop talking about switchgrass.  Research indicates that an acre of panicum virgatum might yield three times as much ethanol as an acre of zea mays.  But even if switchgrass proves a fruitful source of ethanol, its potential impact on US energy policy is minimal. 

Americans are gas hogs. While 186 million Brazilians burn the equivalent of about 10 billion gallons of gasoline each year (40 percent of it ethanol), 296 million Americans burn 150 billion gallons of gasoline each year (3 percent of it ethanol). In other words, if America really wants to be like Brazil, we should cut gas consumption use by 90 percent.  (Hint: not many Brazilians drive full-size SUVs.)  Otherwise, we’ll need ten times as much ethanol as Brazil to match the Brazilian fuel mix.  

Converting the entire U.S. vehicle fleet to E85 would require about twenty times as much ethanol as Brazil currently produces for domestic consumption. Guess what?  America is already producing as much ethanol as Brazil, and will soon pass them to become the world’s largest ethanol producer.  

To achieve full gasoline self-sufficiency, we could convert 140 million acres of farmland to switchgrass. That’s about twice the acreage currently devoted to corn and a landmass nearly the size of Texas.  Once we use American coal to produce the electricity needed to convert the result to ethanol, we’re there!  Or not.  Devoting so much American soil to ethanol would send farmland and food prices soaring. This will make American farmers very happy, and anyone who has to buy food unhappy.  We might have to starve millions to do it, but we’ll be able to feed our SUVs without foreign oil! 

Alternatively, we could import ethanol. If Corn Belt congressmen would agree to cut the protective tariff, Brazil would gladly increase sugarcane production to help meet our needs. Brazil has plenty of space for more cane fields. What good does so much rain forest do anyone, anyway?  No matter which route is chosen, this huge ethanol production expansion won’t– can’t– happen overnight.  As part of his energy less dependence policy, President Bush has decreed that American ethanol production must double by 2012.  If US gasoline consumption stops growing, by that date all US gas could contain five percent ethanol. Maintain this torrid growth rate, and by 2018, all American gas could contain ten percent ethanol. 

Guess what? Virtually all vehicles on the road today can already burn ten percent ethanol, commonly known as “gasohol.” In other words, existing cars can probably use all of the ethanol we can produce through at least 2018. So why do we need new, E85-capable vehicles and new E85 pipelines and pumps in 2006? Well, they do seem to make Corn Belt congressmen and their constituents happy. They help GM deflect criticism. And, perhaps best of all, an E85 Tahoe gets a CAFE rating of 33.3 miles per gallon. You see, this rating is calculated based on the very shaky assumption that E85 (only 15 percent of which is gasoline) will be used half the time. As a result, GM can sell more V8-powered vehicles without incurring fines. Without this loophole, it would have to actually sell more fuel efficient vehicles if it didn’t want to pay up.  

Of course, GM didn’t create this incentive. It’s just intelligently reacting to it. Congress, pressured by Corn Belt people and industries, created the incentive. But why does E85 make the Corn Belt so happy? Why not simply mandate more gasohol, which can be sold everywhere and used by everyone today? I have no idea. For some reason, no one seems to be talking about this possibility. Clearly, we should.

Michael Karesh operates, a vehicle reliability and price comparison website.

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34 Comments on “Alternative Fools: E85...”

  • avatar

    What’s more, unless the technology drastically improves, it takes more energy to make the ethanol than there is in it. It’s a net loss for everyone except the corn farmers. (Thank the Iowa primary being so important for that.)

    Ethanol, like hybrids, are band-aids applied to gaping wounds.

  • avatar

    For the sake of argument, I’d buy an E85 vehicle, but there are no stations that sell it where I live.

    So, I’m supposed to spend a bit more on a car that will give me some purported benefit in what 10 years? Thanks, I’ll pass.

  • avatar

    I’m currently looking into the many different potential sources of ethanol. For example:

    Sugarcane requires far less energy to convert to ethanol, because you don’t need to convert the starches into sugars first. So one unit of energy input yields 8 units of output, vs. about 1.3 (at best) for corn.

    With sugarbeets, which can be grown in colder climates, the ratio is about 1:2 in France. Still better than corn.

    I’ve found one site pushing “sorganal,” the use of sweet sorghum: Looks too good to be true. One obvious weakness: unlike sugarcane, sorghum cannot be grown continuously; to maintain the soil it most be rotated with soybeans.

    One thing seems clear: using corn to produce ethanol doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

    The basic thesis of the article also holds: ethanol production won’t be high enough to justify E85 for twelve or more years. At which point many of the E85 vehicles currently being sold will no longer be on the road.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Caffiend, I don’t think E85 vehicles are much more expensive, if at all. Defintely not Hybrid-like. The main difference is fuel lines and the in-tank fuel pump.

    Plus, if I lived in an E85 friendly state, getting a 1998-ish to present Ford Taurus (base “Vulcan” engine) for a few grand is a simple and super cost effective way to “go yellow.”

  • avatar

    Ethanol plants’ water consumption is in the news today:

    “2 million gallons of water a day”. Just from that alone, I don’t think we have the capacity to greatly increase Ethanol production. Growing crops to create energy is not a solution just due to the conservation of energy principal. Fuel is found energy, it was created by the pressure of the Earth’s gravity. If we grow something, we’re using more fuel to create it than we get back. It’s only good to use surplus crops that would just go to waste for that purpose.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    How about switchgrass with atomic power?


  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    You mean like the Mr. Fusion on the back of my DeLorean?

  • avatar


    With crops, most of the energy is supplied by the sun.

    But, yes, the problem of competing with crude is that the latter requires so much less labor and work to turn into gasoline.

    With sugar, it takes about ten pounds to produce a gallon of ethanol. Currently the U.S. supports prices to the 18 cents / pound level. Only if these supports were eliminated would it make sense of cane growers to convert their crop to ethanol rather than sucrose. Currently they can get about 10 cents/pound when selling it for conversion to ethanol. And Brazil supposedly produces ethanol for 60 cents/gallon, implying that they pay cane growers very little. U.S. growers would simply not grow it at such prices. Apparently, growing and harvesting sugarcane is difficult, nasty work.

  • avatar

    “Labor and work” is a bit redundant and repetitive.

    Another bit of info: apparently much of the energy used to convert corn to ethanol comes from natural gas. Another fossil fuel.

    With cane, they just burn the leftovers, so it requires very little external energy.

    One possibility is to import the ethanol from cane-growing countries in the Carribean. Many of these economies sorely need the boost, and are operating well below their potential. We’d still be importing our fuel, but from countries that are nearby. Making them wealthier would be to our benefit in a number of ways.

  • avatar

    I’d like to see no more than 0% ethanol in gasoline.

    Here’s why.

    Every vehicle I’ve ever driven with gasohol (AKA E10), or 10% ethanol, obtained some 5% to 20% less mileage than when run on pure gasoline (for which, naturally enough, gasoline engines are actually designed).

    Plus, ethanol truly plays havoc with older antique cars.

    Plus, the idiot politicians (such as Minnesota) have passed a law mandating 20% ethanol by about 2010 – this means politicians are mandating the mis-fuelling of 99% of the cars on the road (read your own owners manual – unless you have a flex-fuel vehicle, it states “use no fuels with more than 10% ethanol”). A whole state filled with brand new cars, but no new car warrantees after the first fill-up? See how dumb that idea is?

    Oh yes, there is an error in the article. Gasohol (E10) can NOT be sent in gasoline pipelines, ethanol can NOT be sent in pipelines at all. It is trucked or trained in tankers and mixed just before sale, with gasoline. Ethanol also has some 72% of the energy of gasoline (85,000 BTU per gallon, vs. 117,000 BTU) and therefore provides less mileage. Always. Obvously, putting 10% ethanol into a tank then using 10-20% more fuel is simply wasting the ethanol, anyway.

    Instead of ethanol, let’s use the switch grass, beets, corn – whatever – and make Butanol. Butanol is a 4-carbon alcohol, and a scientist in Ohio has come up with an affordable means of making it. Butanol MAY be sent via pipeline. It has 115,000 BTU per gallon, and (at least for cars of 1984 and newer) probably can be considered a drop-in replacement for gasoline. It also helps to reduce pollution (which is why so many areas are required to use ethanol now, in order to add an oxygenate to gasoline).

    See for yourself.


  • avatar

    Thanks for the info. I’ve asked to have the error corrected.

    Since it uses one company’s new, patented process, we’re probably not going to see butanol in quantity any time soon. But based on this one company’s claims, it does look promising.

  • avatar

    This would be comical if it wasn’t as serious. There is a world of difference between PRIMARY FUELS and CARRIER FUELS. Primary fuels are the basic starting materials for the energy business. Crude oil, coal and natural gas are examples of PRIMARY FUELS. Carrier fuels are just ways of delivering the energy to the consumer. Electricity is an important CARRIER FUEL. For the sake of this discussion it would be meaningful to differentiate between oil (primary fuel) and gasoline (carrier fuel).

    Right now, it seems like all the discussion is about the CARRIER FUELS: Ethanol and gasoline, diesel and biodiesel, hydrogen, butanol, etc. In reality the CARRIER FUEL does not really matter. For example, many people seem convinced that eventually we will make the shift to renewable hydrogen – living happily ever after in the land of perpetual motion and no pollution. The fact of the matter is that 90% of totay’s hydrogen comes from non-renewable sources.

    Likewise, in most people’s minds, gasoline is just another word for refined crude oil. But it is possible to convert renewable feedstocks into gasoline, using biomass-to-liquid (BTL) technology. The German company Choren ( is a good example of that.

    The debate about the best CARRIER FUEL is of some importance, but to break the addiction to crude, you need an alternative PRIMARY FUEL, regardless of what CARRIER FUEL you end up using. It should be obvious that neither ethanol nor hydrogen is a replacement for crude, since you cannot replace a PRIMARY FUEL with a CARRIER FUEL. The bottom line is this: what is the best PRIMARY FUEL to replace crude?

    It should be obvious that FOOD is a terrible PRIMARY FUEL. Would you burn popcorn to keep your house warm? Of course not. There are cheaper and better fuels for warming the house than popcorn, in spite of the fact that popcorn is renewable, locally produced, etc. etc.

    The ideal PRIMARY FUEL would be cheap, plentiful and locally available. Call me unimaginative, but I can think of no better PRIMARY FUEL than waste: widely available, cheap (sometimes you can get paid for accepting it) and, in large part, renewable (40% of US landfill waste is PAPER).

    How much waste do we have? According to DOE and USDA, we have enough to replace a third of our petroleum use ( So here we are, getting excited about the “promise” of replacing 1% of our oil use with food (corn ethanol) when we could be doing 33% with a feedstock that is essentially FREE.

    What about the other two-thirds? If it depends on the market, we are stuck with fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Beyond that we need an energy crop. Now, the ideal energy crop would be something that grows fast, requires little maintenance/labor and can be harvested mechanically. It should also not require more land than there is available.

    The answer, I believe, is ALGAE. Research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (part of DOE) showed that one could produce about 625 barrels per day of biodiesel on one square mile of pond in the southwestern US. Since biodiesel has roughly the same energy content per gallon as crude oil, 32,000 square miles (about the size of the state of South Carolina) of ponds could produce all the crude oil the US currently consumes. While that is a lot of land, it is less than 5% than the total US cropland. Difficult, but possible.

    Now, again, that research was geared towards a specific CARRIER FUEL (biodiesel). The result from the research does not have to be limited to biodiesel, though. Using BTL technology, the algae can be converted to pretty much the exact same gasoline (and diesel) we are using today. The benefits of doing that is obvious: no need to replace the entire fleet of existing vehicles. No need to replace/supplement the fuel supply system. Just a quiet conversion than nobody would even notice.

    Lastly, I want to point out that I am not saying that gasoline (and diesel) will remain the CARRIER FUEL of choice forever. But the challenger should be able to beat the reigning champion without outside help, in the ring known as the marketplace. The internal combustion engine did not need government help to replace the horse: it replaced the horse because it was a better technology. In much the same way the CARRIER FUEL of the future should be able to prove itself superior, without being forced down anyone’s throat.

  • avatar

    Just a little correction to Glenn’s post.

    Getting 5 to 20% less mileage from E10 fuel would be quite an achievement, seeing as the practical mileage drop is around 3%.

    Only 10% of the gasoline is replaced with ethanol. Out of that 10% content by volume the energy output is 30% lower than gasoline. Therefore E10 has 97% of the energy of gasoline per litre.

    I do use E10 where I live and keep accurate records in my 2 year old car (which is E10 approved, but not E85). There is a slight difference in fuel consumption over time (a couple of percent). Just driving a bit more in peak hour traffic has a much greater effect on fuel consumption than E10 can ever have. Maybe Glenn’s car is just not efficient at burning E10. Upto 20% reduced efficiency would be an enormous difference.

  • avatar

    I have to disagree with the statement about the rainforests. We, uh, kinda need them to make oxygen for our planet. Yeah, growing more sugar can will provide oxygen for the atmosphere, but rain forests produce the most amount of oxygen per something.

    And what about using agricultural wastes to produce ethanol? I think a lot of people overlook this fact. We grow corn to harvest the corn cobs, but what about the stalks. Any agricultural wastes can be fermented and thus made into perfectly suitable ethanol. And we make a lot of agricultural wastes in this country? So whats the big deal?

  • avatar

    My comment on the rain forest was facetious. Also, converting cane into ethanol can yield some nasty byproducts.

    One study suggests that turning agricultural wastes into ethanol might replace up to 33% of the gasoline we use. However, this process isn’t easy, and isn’t going to yield a substantial amount of ethanol before most 2006 vehicles are in the junk yard.

    One company is suggesting that butanol makes more sense than ethanol:

    What would happen, though, if oil prices dropped again to, say, $30 a barrel? Would all of these alterntive fuel programs stay on course? Or would people decide, once again, that they’re not worth the money. If and when these programs have an impact on the demand for oil, oil prices will drop, and we’ll find out.

  • avatar

    If oil prices dropped, all these alternative energy sources would loose their focus. Almost immediately methinks. Nobody would care about them and hence they would loose all funding.

    As for the butanol, it seems like an exellent idea. Its wide variety of uses is promising. I still do feel that our best route right now to stop our foreign addiction is ethanol. Even if we ramp up to 20 or 30%, it would still do more than the current 10%.

  • avatar

    Kentucky (!!) has a nice litte market niche going, online, and word-to-mouth selling stills complete with a starter kit and instructions to customers as far away as (of course) California for corn alcohol, aka. MOONSHINE strictly for the distilling combustible for automotive use.

    This kit is bound to out sell home brewery setups in no time. The government makes sure that the crafty home distiller ad some poisoneous and obnoxious ingredients that “sour’ the mash (lol) for everyone risking getting blind on the 120+ proof end product.

    An interviewed californian “Uncle Jesse”, operator of a small fleet of a dozen commercial delivery vehicles swears that he saves his company $ 600.00 a week in petrol fuel cost by way of alcohol distilling with no trade off in reliability/performance from his fleet!!

    Great, now law enforcment officers have to be on the lookout not only for meth labs but also for rum runners (Swear to G_D, officer, its for my car’s consumption!!) Good times!!!

  • avatar

    Most automobiles are not designed for more than 10% ethanol. Higher concentrations will corrode the fuel system. This corrosion takes a while to occur, so people will initially believe there is no reliability tradeoff.

    Nationwide, we’re currently at about 3% overall. As stated in the editorial, it’ll be about 2018 before all gas can average 10% ethanol.

    Who knows, maybe we’ll all be using butanol or even hydrogen by then.

  • avatar

    All I can say is – I’ve driven multiple cars on E10 and measured the mileage as precisely as I could and just consider it a waste. The ONLY car which I obtained 2-3% loss in mileage with E10 was a 2002 Daewoo Nubira (my wife’s one time commuter car). EVERY other car I’ve ever had – up to and including my 2005 Toyota Prius – generally has obtained significantly less mileage with E10. The Prius mileage reduction was in the range of 8-12%, again, effectively nullifying the ethanol content (i.e. totally wasting it). I know that the ethanol industry insists the difference is 2-3%.

    I’ve tried E10 in a 1967 Chrysler Newport 383, mileage diff. was about 5% worse (no closed loop oxygen sensor or fuel injection – see below. This was leaded gasohol purchased in 1980). I’ve tried it in a 1984 Pontiac 1000, 1987 Audi 5000, 1987 Buick Skylark OHC four, 1990 Ford Taurus V6, 1990 Dodge Spirit four (mileage was 10-20% worse), 1991 Lincoln Town Car, 1997 Chevrolet Cavalier OHV four 4 speed automatic, 1999 Dodge Neon, 2002 Daewoo Nubira and 2002 Hyundai Sonata V6. Except as noted, the mileage difference (reduction) for E10 ranged between 5% and 15%. So, it’s not like I’ve only tested it in one or two cars.

    What is my theory as to why it is so bad? Ethanol is an oxygenate. Additional oxygen may “fool” the oxygen sensor in the exhaust manifold, which strives to keep a stociometric air-fuel ratio due to the 3-way catalysts requirements in order to work properly. The oxygen sensor senses added oxygen, so enriches the mixture in the fuel injection. Hey presto, the car is running too rich, essentially throwing away the (lower BTU) ethanol. Plus, since the engine is not running as designed (for pure gasoline) it is not on peak efficiency. Plus, because there is less energy in ethanol (and also possibly because the mixture is too rich), there may be a very slight power reduction which subconsciously causes drivers to push the go pedal harder to make the performance as it normally would be. All of these theories could correspond to a large reduction in mileage.

    Thus, I still maintain that ethanol should be ditched for Butanol.

    Not forgetting too that we could essentiallly cease all oil imports, and make oil from garbage (we have plenty of that in our country, right?), offal and sewage, even.

    See for details, and be prepared to be amazed. It’s not just a theory, either. There is a pilot plant AND a fully operational plant running in the United States right now.

    I think we need some true leadership in Washington to say we’re going to go on a war footing (aren’t we already at war? – yes) and “just do it” with Butanol and the Changing World Technology fuels from garbage technology.

    Not forgetting that if push came to shove, we also have the option of making gasoline from coal (but I prefer the fuels from garbage for the obvious reason that we don’t have as many landfills and the carbons are recycled instead of pulled from the ground).

  • avatar

    A curious thing happened after the gas shortages of the ’70s. Alternative fuels were being looked at, and looked at hard. With more focus than today (it wasn’t just the high cost of fuels, it was the shortages, the lines, not only in your town but the lead-line on the national news).

    When other options became financially viable, the cost of crude dropped. Just as suddenly as ethanol, natural gas, and shale oil production came into view, they faded as they were no longer economically feasible (i.e. gas was cheap again, distribution was in place, no new technology needed, etc.). The sellers of the crude clearly did not want to lose marketshare.

    If the US wants to wean from foriegn oil, plans must be in place to counteract the possibility of crude price drops. Otherwise research in the alternative fuel arena will screech to a halt.

    Dropping our consumption is the best, long-term solution. It will, however, be extremely difficult. Not only must personal habits change, but many facets of our culture, from the small (better planned errands, carpooling) to the enormous (urban planning, viable mass transit) must be rethought – in some cases drastically. Plus, a clear majority of citizens would have to buy into the plan(s). A daunting task, no doubt.

    If I were a betting man I’d lay heavily on “It ain’t gonna happen”, but $5+/gal gasoline could prove me wrong.


  • avatar

    McAllister, you’re quite right about what happened 35-30 years ago. The oil companies were buying up coalfields in anticipation of making gasoline from coal, etc. etc.

    How about this for an idea? Much as I hate taxes…. sometimes they can just be used as a tool. This idea is even constitutional in the view of the Founding Fathers, a bonus.

    Put a gradually increasing US Tariff on imported crude oil.

    By the way, I’d love to see conservation – but we cannot “conserve” our way out of this situation without some really major changes in the average person’s mind-set. To be honest, that will take decades or longer. We humans like to be stuck in our ruts of daily lives and accepted thinking.

    Again, much as I hate new laws, we could collectively decide to ask our representative government to pass laws gradually mandating savings. Like, requiring a certain level of overall vehicle efficiency (this would open the floodgates to other fuels) and having such laws gradually tighten. Thus, eventually, most pickup trucks (for work) would be diesel and perhaps even diesel hybrid, while most automobiles might be, say, electric, electric-hybrid, hydraulic-hybrid, diesel-hydraulic hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell, methanol reformulator fuel cell, Butanol reformulator fuel cell, etc. etc. Toyota indicates on their web site, by the way, that as of current technology, the Prius is more efficient well-to-wheels than a hydrogen fuel cell car (which Toyota are obviously also working on).

    Most homes and buildings might have natural gas powered reciprocating engine heat pumps (apparently in use in Seoul, South Korea and some 30% more efficient than electric motor operation heat pumps), instant hot water heaters in all homes and buildings, better insulation, etc.

    (A hot water tank sitting at home heating water all day, all night is analagous to having your car idling in the garage while you sleep, and outside your work all day, “in case you might want to drive it.”)

    Finally, buying the size of car one actually NEEDS for 90-95% of one’s potential daily requirements makes a lot more sense than buying an outsized vehicle to cover 98% of one’s WANTS. For example, I don’t have an SUV or pickup truck. I have a trailer that I put behind our Hyundai Sonata about 3-4 times per year. The Sonata now gets about 6000 miles per year (because my wife and I carpool using our 2005 Toyota Prius). We’re using about 1/3 the fuel before we carpooled, and before we bought the Prius. The Prius sees 20,000 miles per year, about average in the US.

    I know this. There is not going to be ONE “magic fuel” to replace gasoline. In the future, we will have to rely upon more than ONE simple internal combustion engine fuelled by gasoline technology to provide most of our transportation needs.

  • avatar

    I totally agree with Glenn. All of these ideas sound great, but there is one limitation. Government, the government will never accept or pass these laws and acts becuase they are as stubborn as the people they represent. I think we would need a radical president to at least get the ball rolling on these ideas.

  • avatar

    A tariff on imported oil would probably be ruled out by GATT.

    But a tax on all gasoline would not. This has been proposed many, many times. But in the end no one has the guts to do it.

    A gas tax does make much more sense than legislating fuel economy standards, as this then puts the onus on manufacturers to sell people something they don’t want.

  • avatar

    Hi Michael. Nice to see you here. On autoblog, I sign in as Glenn A. Perhaps we’d have to choose between actually obeying the intent of the United States Constitution (Tariffs on imported goods being one of the two primary means of taxation for the nation – the other being Federal Excise Tax on selected goods at retail purchase) and GATT.

    Being a Constitutionalist ( I’d opt for the former, wheras the globalists in charge of more or less everything at this time, would select higher gas taxes. As a constitutionalist, I’d love to see the Untied States (whoops, was that a subliminal slip?) tell the UN to leave the US and the US leave the UN, and have us tear up all of these globalist treaties (none of which could pass true muster if put in front of a founding father).

    The end results of the two choices we’re looking at re: oil and gas pricing or Tariffs would NOT be the same, however, because higher gas taxes would simply flow across all or selected motor fuels, whereas a Tariff on imported oil would inherently encourage US production of energy locally by other means, such as not burying garbage, but making it into oil (hence, recycling the carbon, not importing newly uncovered carbon from crude oil).

  • avatar

    yayjaya29, you’re right, we’d need leadership with minds of their own, not owned by special interests.

    Please note before you (or anyone reading this) go vote Republican or Democrat in any elections – that Albert Einstein once said “one definition of insanity, is to keep doing the same things over and over, and expecting a different result.”

  • avatar

    Mr. Karesh, if you’re going to use scientific names, please format them properly. They are to be either underlined or italicized, with the genus name capitalized. After the first usage, you may abbreviate the genus name as a single letter and period.

    For example, Panicum virgatum would be P. virgatum. These conventions may seem trivial, but they are important.

    Now, for the rest of the article, the thing that catches my eye is GM actually reacting intelligently for a change. They need to put whoever spearheaded the initiative inside of GM in charge of much, much more than just E85 vehicles.

  • avatar

    There’s a story in Wired now about biobutanol. Evidently BP and Dupont are preparing it for the UK soon. I’ll need more time to digest the information given, but it seems like a better solution than E85.

  • avatar

    Bob, that’s a great link and it’s great to see Butanol is going to get the go-ahead. Now, we need to play catch-up here in the states. Hopefully, all of these ethanol facilities going up can be converted once the process is proved out.

  • avatar

    Glenn, Changing World Technologies (CWT) does have a neat process in Thermal Depolymerization (TDP) or as it has been called more recently the Thermal Conversion Process (TCP).

    However, CWT is also guilty of some outrageous claims. Specifically their claim that the US can replace all oil imports by converting waste to oil is dishonest. Let us look at the claim :
    “Energy Potential of Agricultural Market U.S.
    All Agricultural Waste
    6 billion tons 10% solids
    600 million tons per year
    @ 2,000 lbs.
    1,200,000,000,000 total lbs.
    @ 7.7 lbs. in gallon
    155,844,155,844 total
    @ 42 gallons in barrel
    3,710,575,139 total barrel of oil/equivalent”

    The real numbers are as follows:
    All Agricultural Waste
    3.8 billion tons 3% solids (How much industrial waste is generated? According to an old survey, the Agency estimates that 7.6 billion tons of industrial wastes from 60,000 businesses are generated. Most of these wastes are in the form of waste waters (97%) – see ) Let’s assume CWT is right about 50% of industrial waste being agricultural.

    114 million dry tons per year
    @ 2,000 lbs.
    228,000,000,000 total lbs. of waste
    Assuming the 85% energy conversion efficiency can be achieved, that translates to a mass conversion of 68%, see Figure 5, page 8
    Dry mass conversion = Oil out/Dry mass input
    = 69.8/(210 – 108)
    = 68.4%
    This is a best case estimate for at least two reasons:
    1. A significant part of the waste from the turkey guts are fats/oils. Converting protein and carbohydrate would produce much less oil, as the chemistry will indicate:
    Fat/oil: CH3-(CH2)14-COOH -> CH3-(CH2)13-CH3 + CO2 (product oil = 82.8% of feedstock)
    Carbohydrate: 4C6H12O6 -> CH3-(CH2)13-CH3 + 8H2O + 7CO2 + 2CO (29.4% of feedstock)
    2. The 85% conversion efficiency is outrageous and based on some fuzzy math.

    228,000,000,000 total lbs. of waste x 68.4% = 158,000,000,000 total lbs. of oil
    @ 7.7 lbs. in gallon
    20,300,000,000 gal/year total
    @ 42 gallons in barrel
    482,000,000 total barrel of oil/equivalent per year or
    13% of what CWT claims.

    Factor in the actual conversion efficiency (probably ~50% of what is claimed) and the true number is more like 240,000,000 total barrel of oil/equivalent per year, or ~3% of US demand.

    So, TDP is no silver bullet. Still, as a waste=>oil technology it is a step in the right direction.

    BTW, a good source of information about TDP/TCP is

  • avatar

    Thanks, Engineer. I did wonder if what the people at Changing World Tech could be right, since it seemed “too good to be true” and you know that old saw… if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

    However, I stick to my guns in saying that there will not be “one” magical drop-in replacement fuel to take the place of gasoline. Assuming humanity can get through the usual and persistent crises, future historians will more than likely look back on the 20th century as an odd time when virtually all transportation was fuelled by petrochemicals in two forms – gasoline, and diesel oil.

    Went to Canada on vacation a few years back, to go take my wife to see My Fair Lady in Stratford, Ontario and while there, had to fuel up the car. The “gas” station was exactly that.

    It had gasoline in 3 grades, diesel, compressed natural gas and propane gas (aka LPG).

    Our future “gas stations” may have 3 grades of gasoline (with and without ethanol content, probably and unfortunately with), or 3 grades of gasoline with some Butanol content, some of the gasoline may be made from TDP/TCP, there will probably be CNG and LPG, hydrogen, probably (and stupidly IMHO) E85, bio-diesel mixtures (the bio-portion sourced from many various crops, possibly), diesel, bio-diesel/diesel mixes, diesel from TDP/TCP, gasoline and diesel sourced from coal, and quick-charge electric power outlets for electric cars and plug-in hybrids. We may even see pure Butanol, some of which could be from switch grass, beets, corn…

    In short, we’ll have multiple islands at all of our “fillin’ stations” as we used to call them, and will have to pay close attention when filling up and will want to have pay particular attention as to what the rental vehicles we hire, are fuelled with!

    One of the biggest things we can do, though, is to not waste what we do use for fuels – hence, I’m a strong advocate of hybrids – whether they be the current gas-electric hybrids, or gas-hydraulic hybrids (capturing kinetic energy in the pressurization of oil for use later to help the conventional powertrain).

    My Prius captures 30% of the kinetic energy when slowing or stopping. This seems poor to the untrained mind, but the results speak for themselves, and most people don’t have any idea how terribly inefficient conventional cars are (whereas the Prius is almost exactly twice as efficient as the currently “normal” car).

  • avatar

    Yes, the multiple fuel scenario may happen, but it would be terribly expensive IMHO. There is a better way: Convert various PRIMARY FUELS (for example biomass, waste, algae, etc.) into the CARRIER FUELS we are all familiar and comfortable with. No change at the gas station or the vehicle, but a ton of changes at the refinery.

    For example: Why convert biomass to ethanol (or even butanol) if you can convert it to diesel and gasoline? Ditto for hydrogen, LPG and biodiesel.

    Whatever the solution to breaking the addition to oil, it is not another CARRIER FUEL, it is another PRIMARY FUEL.

  • avatar

    What is simply needed is nuclear power.

    WITH a good energy source (EG, a few gigawats of nuclear power), you can use Fischer-Troph synthesis to take effectively any carbon source (e.g. agricultural waste, trash, what-have-you) and turn it into any hydrocarbon (gasoline, diesel) that you want.

    But this needs energy, a lot of energy. But the same energy needed for hydrogen, and works with our existing infrastructure.

  • avatar

    Excuse me, nweaver, but WHAT are you talking about?

    I believe you have confused two very different processes. Electrolytic production of hydrogen requires a lot of electricity. That is due to the fact that you are taking one of the lowest energy products known to man (water) and converting it to a fuel. It should be obvious that any process based on water as a major feedstock is unlikely make sense in terms of thermodynamics, but I digress.

    When you convert various carbon sources to liquid fuels, you are basically converting one fuel (carbon) to a more convenient one (liquid). You need very little external energy for that. If you needed to, you could run it completely without electricity from a grid. The energy that ends up in the product comes from the feedstock, not the electricity.

    Nuclear, great, until you consider what to do with the radio-active waste. Also, I don’t think nuclear is a great source of liquid fuel for transportation – there are better sources around.

  • avatar

    Like the Biomass to Liquids process. As an alternative to biomass, not sure if gas-to-liquids process using natural gas would be as efficient? Recently read an article in The Economist regarding electric cars. Tesla motors claims 1 cent per mile on its electrical car. Pricing for a Tesla is steep but it be a matter of time before the technology would flow through for mass production. Check out Nuclear power has currently become economically and enironmentally feasible. Commodities are expensive and fossil fuels polute the environment; Co2, mercury, sulphur etc… Not sure what exactly happens with the nuclear waste but does anyone have any thought on solar power and why it hasn’t been implemented to reduce our current/future dependence on Nuclear power. With regards to Primary Fuels believe Biomass and Solar Power are our best alternative.

    Also GM and Ford etc… Have been screwing the American consumer for years with shitty fuel efficient vehicles. Its time they go under for their inefficiencies and Toyota and Honda take over.

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