Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Problem With Ethanol

Many people have proposed that we use ethanol in our cars to replace a major product of oil use in this country. This solution has an emotional appeal on the surface but has some serious problems when one looks deeper into the issue. First of all there is this notion that the US Government can just waive a wand and people will suddenly be able to purchase ethanol based cars. Well, we have a market driven economy, not a centrally dictated economy. When and if it becomes cheaper to run cars on ethanol, we will. Car makers will produce the cars and other enterprising folks will produce the fuel.

Next comes the basic energy/cost issue. It would be currently more expensive to run cars on ethanol than it is on gasoline even with gas at $3.00 per gallon. A gallon of ethanol has less energy than a gallon of gas. In order to get the same energy production as 10 gallons of gas, you need 15 gallons of ethanol (alcohol). So a car burning ethanol will burn about 1.5 times as much fuel per mile driven as one burning gasoline. To go as far as $30 of gas would take you, you will need to spend over $40 for ethanol. Now there may come a time when gas is over $4.00 per gallon and ethanol will be cost effective. At that point there will be market incentive to produce ethanol vehicles and they will be produced.

Another problem is distribution. Gasoline can be transported via piplelines over long distances, ethanol can't, at least not without replacing our entire pipeline infrastructure. You see, ethanol absorbs water. This means that pipelines transporting ethanol are subject to corrosion. We would have to transport this ethanol by road or rail rather than by pipelines. This adds another inefficency in the distribution network.

Then there is the whole notion of having a fuel resource that is dependent on the weather. Have a major drought and your fuel supply goes away. If the fuel is produced from corn, in a drought year we will have to choose between food or fuel. If we are using sugar to produce our fuel, a hurricane can again demolish our production.

So what the ethanol supporters would want us to do is force auto makers to produce vehicles that use a more expensive fuel that might go away if we have bad weather. I have a better idea.

Lets go on a major nuclear electric program, convert our rail system completely to electric, drive electricity prices down to the point where commuter electric vehicles are much cheaper than gasoline vehicles, and go on a major high-speed electric passenger rail program of the scale of the Interstate Highway project. Even if OPEC shut the oil off to the US we would still be able to get to work, move freight, and visit grandma; even in a drought year.

Modern nuclear technology is much advanced from the 1950's and 1960's designs of currently operating plants. There is also technology that allows for the reprocessing of waste into new fuel and the transmutation of waste products into materials that decay in 300 years rather than tens of thousands of years. These technologies would allow us to convert depleted and natural uranium unto fuel without enrichment. We would not need to mine any uranium for over 100 years nor would we need to enrich any. These technologies are there, ready for us to use. Bill Clinton killed the Integral Fast Reactor project after a campaign waged by one John Kerry. This project would have allowed a fuel cycle whereby fuel would be recycled on site. The eventual waste being less than 10% of that created by current reactors and that waste needing to be impounded for only 300 years. Thanks Bill, thanks John.

There are better ways right at our fingertips. All we need is the will to put them into play.


Blogger Smart_AJ said...

Become less dependent on gasoline but not fully dependent on E85. ZAP ZP (NYSE). A California based company is planning on bringing a Brazilian made car to the US, the Obvio! 828, that is a hybrid that can run on ANY combination of ethanol and gas. That means it will run on E85, E100, solely gasoline, ANY combination of gasoline and ethanol. Zap is also the only car company who is selling a Chinese manufactured car in the US the 100% electric Xebra city car.

1:49 PM PDT  

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