Contributing Monkie G Living Staff Monkies
Published on May 19, 2008
Getting tired of hearing that petroleum is finite? No big secret that there were a limited amount of dinosaurs, and therefore a limited amount of petroleum reserves — not to mention the emission problem. I’ve said it many times on this site and elsewhere that internal combustion is a dead-end technology. No matter how much we play with new fuels and cleaner emissions, there’s not enough energy in the earth to sustain internal combustion indefinitely.
But it’s unwise and impractical to think that we can simply stop using the internal combustion engine as a tool because of its ability to rapidly convert gas into energy. There must be a period of transition as the world redefines the word “engine.” Part of this transition will involve developing and deploying new fuels that are compatible with the IC engine and are more sustainable and cleaner burning.
I found a handful of the solutions that are available right now, as well as some that are still in the design phase. GreenCar.com recently ran a feature on these fuel alternatives –but let’s remember: these fuels rely on internal combustion, the dead-end technology.
It seems there are three places to get the building blocks for these fuels: fossils, trash or biomass.
The fossil sources focus on liquefying carbon-based fuels that are mined either as solids (namely coal) or gases (namely natural gas). I’m not wild about either of these because they’re simply not sustainable — they will run out, they produce lots of CO2 and they take lots of energy to make energy — from mining through production.
The most popular form is coal liquefaction, often called clean coal. Basically coal is subjected to hit heat and pressure, impurities are extracted, and then the clean gas is liquefied using the Fischer-Tropsch process. The result is a clean-burning, low-sulphur diesel fuel. The other form of coal liquefaction involves pulverizing the coal and mixing it with oil at high pressures to make a synthetic crude oil that is then refined.
These same processes can be used to turn natural gas into a liquid, a technology the US Air Force is already using to fuel some of its aircraft. Audi has also used an alternative diesel in its Le Mans race cars the past two seasons.
If you’re not into the fossil option, there’s a new and growing technology that relies on rotting trash to create fuels. If you’ve ever heard the story that cow flatulence is raising world temperatures, then you’ve heard of biogas. This is an intriguing option because it recycles trash and waste — and there’s plenty of trash in the consumer world — that would otherwise rot in a landfill or attract flies in a field.
The gist is that microorganisms break down biodegradable material and produce methane and CO2. This gas can be harvested and used as fuel for lots of stuff, including engines if processed correctly. The European Commission is already working to promote biogas as a vehicle fuel, but only one U.S. national laboratory is seriously involved.
There’s also a movement in New Mexico to recycle the carbon in CO2 to produce fuels, thereby solving two problems at once. Either way, all of these fuels are in their infancy and will not be ready for production any time soon.
Fuels that are ready to go and require minor (if any) engine modifications include ethanol and biodiesel. These are the most appealing interim options because they’re already widely used and they come from renewable sources — plant material. They don’t come without problems of their own, however; monocropping, fertilizer, and pesticides all carry significant environmental impacts.
Deriving both biodiesel oil and ethanol from corn is the path America is taking towards a renewable future. In fact, corn ethanol has been used as a fuel for most of the 20th century. The problem is that corn requires copious amounts of petroleum-based fertilizer and provides only the kernels for fuel. The net energy gain is only about 26%. Oh, and did I mention that corn is also used as food? (Although #2 corn, the variety for biofuel, is only fed to cattle) And also that switching to corn for bio-fuel is partly to blame for the rise in food prices.
A more intriguing option is to produce ethanol from the cellulose found in all plant matter. Switchgrass is the plant of choice here because it contains high levels of cellulose, it grows just about anywhere with little fertilizer, and it can produce at least twice as much ethanol per acre compared to corn. Deriving ethanol from cellulose provides a net 80% gain in energy. Cellulosic ethanol can also be derived from the millions of tons of organic material that is either thrown away or burned each year as byproducts of forestry and agriculture.
Unfortunately, the cellulose-to-fuel technology is behind in the race for new fuels, primarily because it is new. Of all the new fuels available, cellulose seems to be the most promising in transitioning to a new-energy future because it requires the least amount of short-term change and reuses what has been viewed traditionally as waste.
As you wait for the biofuel takeover, here are some tips to make your dino-gas go further:
1. Slow down on the highway. Dropping from 70 to 60 mph will save you about $.40 per gallon.
2. Don’t drive aggressively. Speeding up and slowing down is a major drain on fuel economy.
3. Check the tires. For every 1 psi your tires are underinflated, you could be losing 1% on your fuel efficiency.
4. Tune up your car regularly. If your car isn’t firing exactly right, you’re wasting fuel.
5. Change the oil regularly. (every 3,000 miles for city driving and 5,000 miles for highway driving). Old oil makes the engine work harder to turn the pistons.
What can we learn from all of this? Namely, that energy is everywhere — we simply need to look through a different lens.