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Looking Past the Biofuel Hype

Over at Futurepundit, Randall Parker references a pair of studies that cast many doubts on the efficacy of biofuels and comes to this conclusion:
The future development of more energy efficient means for converting biomass materials into liquid hydrocarbons combined with advances in agricultural technologies might eventually make crops net energy producers. But increased demand for crop land, water, and pesticides for energy producing crops will bring environmental costs. We'd be better off advancing technologies for nuclear, solar photovoltaics, and batteries so that we can reduce our use of liquid fuels for transportation.
To learn more about nuclear energy and hydrogen, click here.

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Matthew66 said…
My problem with describing biomass fuels as "green" or "environmentally friendly" is that when they are burned to release thermal energy, they also release CO2 and all the other chemicals in the plant. Coal and oil were once plants after all. Biomass fuels won't reduce the greenhouse effect, I would prefer we concentrate on producing hydrogen from water so that we burn that to release the thermal energy all we get is the water back. Nuclear reactors seem to be the best option for producing the hydrogen because they don't contribute to the greenhouse effect.
Several problems with hydrogen:
1. Joe Six-Pack doesn't know how to connect a high-pressure gas line. Gas stations as we know them wouldn't exist.
2. Hydrogen takes up a lot of volume. Roof-mounted cryo tanks (explosions, anyone?) or zero trunk space are the two realistic alternatives and nobody wants either.
3. Fuel cells are extremely expensive and don't necessarily work under the conditions Joe Six-Pack would use them in. Great for NASA, not great for the guy who goes 15,000 miles without an oil change and then puts ATF in his engine.
4. The global fuel infrastructure would have to be overhauled to allow transportation of high-pressure gas.
5. It has a bad public image, which can be worked on, but is still demonized.
6. Burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine is extremely difficult. It burns very rapidly at very high temperatures, causing cooling problems, crankshaft vibrations, knocking, oil burning, piston ring problems, head gasket failure, and fuel injection/carburetor problems just to name a few off the top of my head.
7. Producing hydrogen would take an enormous amount of energy and water. The energy could be put to use distilling the water for drinking--something that will soon be necessary--and charging Li-Poly batteries which (I believe) are space efficient enough to work in a car. We could also get energy to run electric cars from nuclear batteries containing high-level waste from power plants--a technique that has been used in spacecraft for 40 years and is certainly energy-dense and space-efficient enough to work in a car.
8. Hydrogen is extremely expensive for the reasons stated above.
9. There will be no demand for hydrogen cars without hydrogen pumps and there will be no hydrogen pumps without hydrogen cars. Thus, no mass conversion.

Unfortunately, ethanol can be burned very easily in conventional engines, transported in our current infrastructure, pumped by anyone, stored easily, and obtained easily (at least until demand skyrockets and we have to dump fertilizers on huge areas, dam rivers for irrigation, and forego feeding the poor so we can make it). If gasoline becomes uneconomical, ethanol is probably what's going to be used.
Of course it's not environmentally friendly. Just because it's available to anyone (libertarians like that), something new, and "renewable" doesn't mean it (a) works or (b) is good for the environment. The Hoover Dam is "renewable."
Engineer-Poet said…
I agree with everything Stewart said, until he mentioned "ethanol".

Ethanol is not going to be it either.  There is not enough biological productivity to capture the necessary carbon to replace petroleum with ethanol (or any kind of alcohol, for that matter).

Hydrogen fuel cells are definitely a boondoggle for the near future, but note:  hydrogen fuel cells.  Zinc-air fuel cells work great and yield zinc hydroxide as their effluent.  Zinc hydroxide can be regenerated to metal with electricity, which can be generated by most anything (including nuclear power).
Matthew66 said…
In Australia, the entire taxi fleet and a lot of private cars run on LPG, liquid petroleum gas. In New Zealand a lot of cars run on CNG, compressed natural gas. I don't believe that Joe/Jane Six-Pack in the USA is any less capable than his/her counterparts in Aus or NZ. The average person in Aus and NZ is more than capable of filling the tank of their LPG/CNG car with high pressure gas. These high pressure gases are sold at standard petrol stations in Australia and New Zealand. I defer to the engineers on technical matters related to internal combustion engines. Ethanol, like every other hydrocarbon, will contribute to the greenhouse effect if burned for fuel.
Engineer-Poet said…
Neither LPG nor CNG are ways out of our situation.

1.  LPG is Liquified Petroleum Gas, a byproduct of oil production and refining; as petroleum production goes down, so does LPG.
2.  CNG is natural gas, and conventional gas production in North America has already peaked.  There is no surplus to feed additional vehicular needs.

We can create temporary surpluses by making other uses more efficient, but that only works for so long.  We need to switch to energy supplies that are not going to run out.  That list is pretty much nuclear and renewables.
Alcohol is cheap now, though. There's obviously not enough alcohol of any type to fuel the number of cars we have now. However, people who are desperate for fuel aren't going to look long-term. Remember diesel in the '70s? When gasoline becomes uneconomical, people are going to look to alcohol (not THAT way) to solve the problem. Long-term, it won't work, and we'll have to find something else. I'd prefer to find it now, but I'm not the world fuel market.

I don't like ethanol. I'm just saying that's what's going to happen (if anything). We should be using nuclear power and electric cars. However, what's actually going to be used are coal and alcohol.
Rod Adams said…

Can you put any numbers on your comment that "alcohol is cheap right now?" In other words, what is the cost per BTU?

If you have the numbers, please share them with us.
Engineer-Poet said…
Any "alternative" fuel which requires substantial inputs of conventional fuels for its production is going to go up in price right along with oil.

Gasogenes are a possible alternative for some people, but trying to integrate a wood-gas or charcoal-gas system into a vehicle with a modern electronic control system is going to be a big hassle.

The best way off the rising-oil-price treadmill is the gas-optional hybrid.  Electricity is much cheaper than gasoline even at current prices, and it's already widely available (unlike hydrogen).  Replacing the first 20 miles-worth of gasoline each day with electricity would slash petroleum consumption, to zero for many people.  All you need is the electricity, and none of our prospects for additional electricity are fueled by petroleum.
The numbers on ethanol:
$1.23/gallon with about 27% reduction in efficiency.
A performance-equal amount of 85% ethanol in a conventional engine is about $1.69/gallon.
Obviously this is going to go up with the price of gasoline, so this number isn't perfect; however, there would have to be a severe shortage (gasoline at $15/gallon) for it to go up to $2.30.

I don't have per-BTU numbers; these are my best estimates.
Engineer-Poet said…
What fraction of motor-fuel consumption can be replaced by ethanol from the available biomass, Stewart?
What is "available biomass?"
-Surplus grain
-The difference between output and capacity
-The difference between output and the maximum amount of grain that can be squeezed out of what arable land we have, or more if artificial irrigation is used
-Something else?

Needless to say, this would have enormous environmental impact. However, it would have enough immediate near-term cost savings for there to be a conversion to ethanol since the impact of the lack of supply doesn't show up until its market share expands.
Matthew66 said…
My point re LPG and CNG was to illustrate that the technology to distribute and use high-pressure gas in automobiles currently exists and has acceptance from consumers in two countries (at least) that are similar in many ways to the USA. The engineers can tell us whether the distribution system and tanks can be adapted for hydrogen or whether we need to go back to the drawing board. The disadvantage of LPG and CNG is that they are hydrocarbons and contribute to the greenhouse effect. Hydrogen produced using nuclear fueled technology won't contribute to the greenhouse effect, and if current policies remain in place, the hydrogen users will have to contribute to decommissioning and used fuel management funds.
Engineer-Poet said…
Stewart:  I'd include crop stalks and straw, yard and forestry waste, and paper-making byproducts such as lignin.  Anything being harvested and then discarded in processing is prime material.

Matthew:  A cubic foot of hydrogen has about a third of the energy of a cubic foot of natural gas.  Hydrogen requires extremely high storage pressures to get the bulk to a manageable size, and the energy required for compression is significant (as is the expense of such tankage).
Matthew66 said…
Engineer-poet, thank you for the info. Perhaps we'd be better off focusing on replacing hydrocarbons with nuclear for electricity, running more trains on electricity, and using gasoline-electric hybrid cars for transport. That, plus more conservation, might get greenhouse gas emissions down to a manageable level. We could also think about using nuclear plants for marine propulsion for freight (I am not sure how cruise ship passengers would react to having to wear dosimeters).
DV8 2XL said…
(I am not sure how cruise ship passengers would react to having to wear dosimeters)

I know this is off-topic but I must take exception to statements like that. This is the sort of thinking that we all agree is making the job of selling nuclear energy to the public difficult. The fact is that any passenger that would spend, say fourteen days (the length of an average cruse), at altitude in a commercial jet would be exposed to several times the radiation than they would sailing on a nuclear powered ship.

In this place (at least) we should keep the hyperbole to a minimum.
Anonymous said…
Rod Adams seems to have no difficulty conceiving of nuclear-powered cruise ships.

In a world which is already buying 80 megawatt engines to push cargo ships, a 50-megawatt nuclear engine which needs no oil and has no emissions would appear to be a natural.
Rod Adams said…

Thanks for the information. It looks like the balance between supply and demand in the ethanol market currently favors the buyer.

Here is a quote from the Ohio Corn Growers Association (with a note that the information is current as of April 12, 2005):

- Wholesale ethanol prices dropped nearly 30 percent between January and April 2005, according to the Oil Price Information Service.
- Economists attribute the price drop to an oversupply of ethanol, caused by relatively flat domestic consumption and increased ethanol production.
- Ethanol prices have tumbled from a 2005 high of nearly $1.75 per gallon (rack) in January to $1.23 in early April. Ethanol splash/rack prices were as low as $1.14-$1.19 per gallon in high-volume markets like Des Moines, Iowa City, Sioux City and Omaha last week (week of April 4-8).[OPIS]

On the same site, I learned that the current production capacity of ethanol in the US is about 240,000 barrels per day and it is scheduled to increase to a little under 300,000 barrels per day based on project that are already in progress.

In a nation that consumes something like 20 Million barrels of oil per day, it would not take much of a shift from oil to ethanol to change the supply-demand balance back in favor of suppliers.
Matthew66 said…
Would cruise ship passengers be required to wear dosimeters? Do US Navy regulations require the entire crew of nuclear powered aircraft carriers to wear them? Would current NRC or Coast Guard regulations require it? I know that not everyone in a hospital wears one, even where there is a nuclear medecine department. I don't imagine everyone at a university that has a research reactor wears one.

I am well aware that the passengers would receive greater radiation exposure on their flight to the ship, and from sunbathing on the pooldeck during the cruise, but that won't stop the first generation of nuclear cruise ship passengers being alarmed if they have to wear dosimeters. Compare it to the introduction of car seat belts. Some still don't wear them despite their proven ability to save lives during a crash.
I have no clue how much agricultural waste is produced in the world every year or how much is available for use.

Not even nuclear submarine crews are required to wear dosimeters. Only reactor maintenance staff do AFAIK.
Engineer-Poet said…
I don't know either, but I found an intriguing figure:  160 million tons of urban wood waste per year.
...with 29.6 million tons available for recovery.
Engineer-Poet said…
Popular Mechanics quoted 2 billion tons of wood waste per year from the forestry industry, but looking at state by state figures I don't see how.

Maybe worldwide - they always were sloppy about specifics.
Matthew66 said…
It seems clear then, that using nuclear marine propulsion would only have a positive effect on cruise ship passengers, in the sense that they would no longer be exposed to soot from diesel stacks. If submarine crews don't need dosimeters, only the engineering crew on a passenger ship would need them.

The major hurdles I would perceive would be regulatory and econonomic. I don't know what sort of regulations would be developed for such ships - if it required US registry, that would be a deal killer because of the Jones Act which requires US registered ships to be built in the US and crewed by US citizens/permanent residents. Major cruise lines typically register their ships anywhere but the US. The major cruise ship builders are in Finland, Italy, France, Germany and South Korea. All of these countries have experience building civil reactors, and France has built marine reactors for its naval fleet. The major cruise lines have no experience in operating marine reactors, however, if nuclear propulsion were an economically attractive proposition, they would acquire the technical skills necessary, probably by hiring former naval engineers. Cruise lines typically use international crews.

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