Jun

8

As to the hydrogen production issue, doesn't it shift our reliance to coal, instead of oil? Yes, its domestically sourced, but also beset with similar (worse?) carbon emission issues as petroleum…

Michael Ott replies:

Mike OttHydrogen can be produced from coal, but it's very nasty to the environment and will eventually run out. Biomass is a much better source because it's renewable and available in massive amounts (1.3 billion tons per year, according to the USDA). Biomass can be converted into both liquid and gaseous fuels and will be the bridge to the hydrogen economy. This is why funding ethanol research is important. First you make it from something easy, like starch found in corn or sugar cane. Then you make it from something available in much larger amounts like wood, corn stover, or other ag residues.

One of the main advantages of making ethanol from corn is that the logistics for storage and transport are well established. Plus there is a lot of sugar which can be easily accessed by existing enzymes. The logistics of moving around large amounts of biomass are not well known and will require large amounts of infrastructure. It will be built because infrastructure is always built to support a better and cheaper fuel source. Cellulosic enzymes are also getting better, improving 30X in the last 5 years. The same infrastructure will be used for gasification of biomass, which will produce the massive amounts of hydrogen needed to drive an economy.

This is why I'm optimistic about biomass. Currently, you can make about 80 gallons of ethanol/ton, so the potential productivity is 104 billion gallons. The US consumed 142 billion gallons of gasoline last year, so there is potential to replace a significant chunk of gasoline. Assume that efficiencies will increase to 100 gallons/ton and that dedicated energy crops provide 1.5-2 billion tons/yr, and theoretically all gasoline could be replaced. Obviously not all will be converted, but the potential is there.

Addressing Stefan's points about energy efficiency — Assuming that the sun's energy is free (which it is because it will shine the same on a parking lot as a cornfield), the efficiency of ethanol is 1.4 : 1. Gasoline is 0.88 : 1. The economic efficiencies are much more important. Right now ethanol is much cheaper to produce than gasoline and will be competitive down to $40-50/bbl oil. Both ethanol and gasoline are heavily subsidized, so economic arguments are tough to make. If all subsidies and credits were removed, ethanol and oil would be roughly equally priced at $30/bbl (maybe a little higher due to recently raised corn and nat. gas prices).


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7 Comments so far

  1. George Parkanyi on June 9, 2008 7:03 pm

    I’m boycotting ethanol gasoline at the moment and encouraging others to do the same - since in North America it’s all corn-based. And bio-diesel comes from soymeal. Pressuring agriculture to support our energy needs as well as food needs - really bad idea. There’s deforestation, soil and water depletion to consider as well as all the other economic factors - never mind the impact on food prices and availability. This whole debate has got me thinking of Rapa-Nui (Easter Island), and how they deforested themselves into oblivion, ironically by building lasting monuments (the stone heads) to their stupidity.

    Cellulosic ethanol? fine if it’s based on food-crop waste or more easily renewable “crops” like sawgrass.

    We’re on the right track with wind and solar, and eventually transitioning to electric vehicles via hybrids. Save the petroleum and bio-fuels for aircraft.

    Hydrogen economy? Maybe, but where are you going to get all the hydrogen from? Water may become very expensive, and if you take it from the ocean do you change the salination balance?
    When you convert water to H2 and O, where does all the extra oxygen go, and what does THAT do to the atmosphere and balance of the ecosystem? Note that certain forms of ozone are a nasty GHG. I don’t know that these examples will be problems, but the questions are worth asking. Corn-based ethanol is the poster-child for good intentions gone awry in unintended consequences.

    Cheers,
    George

  2. George Parkanyi on June 9, 2008 8:10 pm

    Pursuant to my previous post, here’s a sobering article I just found …

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1725975,00.html

    Cheers,
    George

  3. Edwin Hoyle on June 9, 2008 9:24 pm

    Maybe not THE most confusing paragraph ever, but close:

    “Assuming that the sun’s energy is free (which it is because it will shine the same on a parking lot as a cornfield), the efficiency of ethanol is 1.4 : 1. Gasoline is 0.88 : 1…”

  4. John Jaffray on June 10, 2008 3:17 pm

    Those are interesting points, and clearly why Kholsa is all over ethanol.

    But how do you address the massive water needs of the ethanol process? There are high, but so are the water costs of coal produced electric power, I suppose. (Coal is huge!)

  5. Jeff Watson on June 11, 2008 9:50 am

    One cannot ignore the second law of thermodynamics in all of this.

    Jeff

  6. Gary Rogan on June 12, 2008 4:40 pm

    Jeff, and how does it apply other than “in a few billions years there won’t be any energy coming from the Sun and we won’t be able to use it in the Solar system”?

  7. Jeff Watson on June 13, 2008 8:06 am

    Gary, I was speaking allegorically regarding the Second Law. However, the laws of thermodynamics can be used to describe other phenomena, especially markets, in a philosophical sense. Sometimes metaphor and allegory are better paths for describing the truth than the linear thought process.

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