Joseph Miglietta has sent me a new essay, this time getting into some of the advantages and disadvantages of methanol. I do believe that long-term we are likely to see more methanol come online to meet our energy needs, because the route from coal is pretty straightforward, and we have vast coal reserves. I believe the economics of coal-based methanol are better than for coal-to-liquids, so we may see more plants converting coal to methanol, like Sasol’s in South Africa.
First, a quick bit of trivia. Joseph mentions Robert Zubrin in his essay. For those who haven’t heard of Dr. Zubrin, here is a brief biography: Robert Zubrin at Wikipedia
Dr. Zubrin is president of the Mars Society, and a strong advocate for the exploration of Mars. This also happens to be one of my interests, and Dr. Zubrin and I have corresponded regarding some technical issues that would need to be resolved in order to ensure a successful Mars mission. Specifically, we discussed the types of fuels that could be synthesized from native Martian materials, because this an area that I know a bit about. Dr. Zubrin advocates producing the fuel for the return flight after landing on Mars, as this would enormously reduce the cost of the mission. I won’t digress any further into that topic, but just thought I would mention that bit of trivia about Dr. Zubrin.
Now, on to Joseph’s essay.
E85, M85, or Gasoline?
Recently, I came across with the article written by Robert Zubrin:
This article reflects many of my thoughts. I share the author’s opinion that energy conservation per se is a strategy for enduring economic oppression from petroleum monopoly. The political fact remains: the more oil we consume, the more money terrorists receive to finance all their activities, including the development of nuclear weapons directed against us. In the financing scenario, the higher the price of gasoline at the pump, the more reduced becomes our national economy and our personal finance. In the environmental situation, the more fossil fuels we consume, the higher the global warming with all the tragic consequences that accompany this phenomenon. These three interrelated factors should place all of us in a state of urgency, demanding a quick action from our representatives. We cannot find a better moment than this election year to induce the politicians to take action. Also the private sector should redouble their efforts in finding solutions. This may seem an alarmist statement, but if we closely examine the situation we may find sufficient supporting facts to reach this conclusion.
We are making some progress, and taking some measures towards reducing the oil consumption. However, our present efforts are totally inadequate; they cannot even meet the increasing yearly energy demand we require for transportation. As Zubrin points out in his article, the share that hybrid cars contribute to the 17 million cars sold in the U.S. every year is less than 1%, conservation through gasoline efficiency is a losing strategy, hydrogen is not a direct source of energy because it must be made by another source of energy and any process consumes more energy than the hydrogen it produces.
Liquid fuels have been with us since the advent of the automobile, because of their practical advantage over their counterparts used in transportation in far more limited amounts, such as propane gas. Gasoline and diesel have been and still are, the cheapest available energy source for transportation. This situation, however, is rapidly changing. In our country, oil availability has peaked out several years ago. Most of the remaining oil reserves in the world, although they have not peaked out yet, are concentrated in unstable countries where hate against us is most notorious.
We are now totally dependent from this source of energy. Therefore, we are reluctant to attack a country like Iran, for fear to destabilize even more that region, causing the price of oil to go sky high. They know this, and they’re taking full advantage of the situation. Their aim is at fully destroy Western Civilization or bring us at their mercy. They think they can achieve their objective by gradually impoverishing us while they get richer. I am not saying that they can achieve their objective, but we can reverse this situation and reduce them to their original state without the use of force by becoming independent from their oil and reduce pollution at the same time.
This is not a simple task, but the more we procrastinate, the more difficult our situation becomes. We must face the politicians with the stark facts: grain ethanol has been the starting point to promote this alternative fuel in our country, but it is not the solution. Aside from the fact that it requires a great deal of oil to produce ethanol from corn, not enough corn can ever be grown to serve as a feedstock for our fuel needs. Regardless how much we can increase corn /acre, how many additional acres we put on corn, and how much we reduce the amount of oil to produce ethanol from corn through technical advances, the amount of ethanol we can produce from corn would still represent a small fraction of the total energy consumed in transportation.
The amount of ethanol produced last year represented 2% of our total oil consumption. Even if this year we increased by 50% the total ethanol production, this will still represent a mere 3% of our consumption. And if we were to increase production by 50% increments every two years (a physical impossibility), it would take fourteen years to reach an ethanol production equivalent to 50% our consumption.
This is without taking into consideration population expansion with its corresponding increase in consumption. I suspect that many politicians already know this, but it would be for them a political suicide if they were to propose to suspend the taxpayers’ subsidy to the farmers and to the ethanol producers who have joined the profitable bandwagon.
The Interest in developing new technologies for the better and more abundant cellulosic feedstock has increased significantly in the last two years, and even more so in the last few months; it is possible, therefore, that commercial applications may be achieved in the near future. Politicians may be counting on this development. But one cannot count on possibilities, as Robert Rapier has aptly manifested. Even if a feasible process is achieved tomorrow, it may take a few years before it reaches a vast, commercial stage. The energy crisis, however, requires a solution for the immediate future, and neither corn nor a cellulosic material will solve the problem hovering over our heads fast enough.
It is evident, therefore, that we must find other ways to tackle this energy crisis. While in the next three years from corn may trickle down a few more billion gallons of ethanol to add on what is currently produced, and while we continue to look for a commercial way to produce ethanol from cellulosic materials, we must look for other viable sources now available to us.
We are taking Brazil as a model for our own energy drive. Brazil, indeed, is helpful not only to show us that with a vision and determination it is possible to achieve energy’s economical independence, but also serves to us to point out our limitations. Brazil has the most efficient source for producing ethanol by fermentation, and in sufficient quantities for their internal needs and with a surplus for export. We are depending for now on corn, which is both less efficient for producing ethanol and inadequate to supply our internal needs. But we have other resources that we can use to attain our economical independence from oil. In other words, we can’t copycat Brazil, but we can equally achieve our energy independence using other means.
In the first place, let’s import all the ethanol we can to supplement the small amount we produce. Farmers should have no cause for complaining, as they can sell all the corn they produce for ethanol and still receive a subsidy. Imported ethanol may still be insufficient for our energy needs, but it would constitute an important boost. To compensate for the lost 54¢/gallon import tariff, we could apply a surcharge on the imported oil. In Brazil, ethanol costs $2 at the pump compared to $4 for gasoline. Gasoline is still blended with 20% or 25% ethanol and used mostly by non-flex vehicles.
Methanol is the other liquid fuel that we can use in internal combustion engines. Like ethanol, it can be blended with 15% gasoline and distributed at the pump as M85. Flex fuel vehicles can be manufactured to use this blend. Flex fuel vehicles intended for E85 cannot use, however, M85 and vice versa. Car manufacturers, perhaps, may develop some small modifications to accommodate either fuel types or a mixture of ethanol/methanol blends with gasoline. Still another solution would be to have pumps at the gas station dedicated to M85 and others to E85. If E85 were limited only to the Corn Belt region as now is the case, then pumps for M85 would be for the rest of the nation. Although this may seem a little confusing, nevertheless is a practical solution.
Methanol’s greatest advantage over ethanol is that it can be produced in sufficient quantity to meet our consumption for centuries to come. Just as ethanol, it could be produced from biomass material of even larger varieties than those from which ethanol can be produced. It can be produced from natural gas, but that would be competing with the use that this natural resource is now employed.
Its most significant source and the cheapest is coal. We have the world’s largest reserves and most of the other reserves are in the Western World. There will undoubtedly be environmentalist protesting extensive mining of coal. It has been proven cheaper, however, for the time being to import coal from South Africa than mining our own. Such details can be left for another discussion. The important point is that we have now the capacity to power our entire economy on coal. Even Europe has large coal reserves. In Europe, most automobiles have diesel engines, more efficient than spark-ignition engines. They could dehydrate methanol to dimethyl ether and use this gas for a cleaner-burning diesel. We were the first in establishing a fossil fuel economy; we could now be the first to do the switch.
There are a few disadvantages of methanol over ethanol, such as it is a little more corrosive than ethanol, but the use of antioxidants may obviate this property just as it is done for ethanol. Another disadvantage over ethanol is its toxicity, but blended with gasoline this disadvantage is also eliminated. Its major disadvantage is that it carries even less energy per gallon than ethanol. In fact, while ethanol is 32.6% less efficient than gasoline, methanol is 48.5% less efficient. But with E85 and M85 these values are a little better. E85 has 72.3% the energy value of gasoline, while methanol has 58.8%. If ethanol and methanol could be mixed, once a flex-fuel engine will be developed that accepts both alcohols, more efficient fuels will be achieved. Again, as Robert Rapier pointed out, the important thing is that we have it in sufficient quantity.
The difficult part is distribution. We cannot pretend that the oil companies will accept to establish fuel pumps dedicated to M85 in their gas stations nationwide, directly competing with their product: gasoline. Grudgingly, they are gradually accepting to incorporate10% ethanol; they even accepted to establish some 600+ fuel pumps for E85, because they know corn ethanol will never increase to a magnitude that will compete with their interests. Companies must be formed to take up this challenge, just as the companies that pioneered the discovery of oil with the advent of the automobile. But there is enough incentive, enough profit margins without the need of government subsidies to warrant this business venture.