What’s On Tap


Four essays, plus this one, finished off today:

The Problem With Biobutanol

This Week in Petroleum 6-13-07

Letter to CNN on Inaccuracies in “We Were Warned”

The Problem with CAFE

With that, I am on hiatus. I may come back and update TWIP on Thursday. Cheers, Robert

Taking a Break

I received a welcome surprise yesterday, and found out that I get to fly home this Friday to see my family. I have been away from them for 5 months (so the kids could finish out school) but on Friday I go home to retrieve them for their move to Scotland. Thus ends the most difficult 5-month period of my life. At that time, two things will happen.

First, I plan to take a break from writing. I have 5 months of time that I have lost, and I am going to try to get some of it back by sacrificing on the writing. If I wake up early and find that I have a few minutes, I may post a short essay. But it will be a while before I post another long one, or engage in any sort of extensive debate.

Second, I am going to take my e-mail address offline. Presently, it is a rare day that I don’t have over 100 e-mails in my inbox. Of those, typically 30-50 require responses of some sort. I have been able to manage this while living alone, but this isn’t going to be feasible once I am reunited with my family. If you already have my e-mail address, feel free to contact me. If you do not, but would like some information, feel free to post a query following a post. There is a good chance that someone will address it. And I do get an e-mail every time someone posts in a thread (no, that’s not part of the 100 e-mails) so if something really needs to be addressed I will do so. I may also put together a FAQ to cover some of the common themes in the e-mails I receive. Things like “What do you think about bio-butanol?”

In the Pipeline: Butanol, TWIP, CNN, and CAFE

I have 4 essays that I intend to finish prior to going on hiatus. First, as some of you know, I started to write an update on butanol a while back. I basically have all of the information pulled together, I just need to finish it. Second, I will write one more review of This Week in Petroleum. I think this week’s numbers will really give us an indication of the likelihood of more supply crunches. Third, I will post a letter I am writing to CNN challenging some of the errors contained in their “Out of Gas” series. Finally, I had started an essay on CAFE standards. I think I will publish that as a very short – maybe 2 or 3 paragraph – essay on just what I think is wrong with our approach there.

Additional Projects

I have been asked to contribute a chapter to a book on renewable energy that is being edited by a professor most people would immediately know. My chapter was to be on biodiesel, but I also requested and received approval to expand that to cover all renewable diesel. I will cover biodiesel, “green” diesel produced via hydtrotreating, and “green” diesel produced via biomass gasification and subsequent Fischer-Tropsch. I have sketched out an outline, but I need to fill in about 7,000 words of detail in the next 30 days.

Finally, I have recently been engaged with a group that has a very promising cellulosic ethanol technology. If it is what it appears to be (there are still some things I don’t know) then it would be the biggest leap in cellulosic ethanol technology since well before I was in graduate school. Bigger than Nancy Ho’s dual fermentation yeast. Big enough to demolish the economics of all the cellulosic ethanol plants currently being built. And I am not one given to hyperbole. I have placed an official inquiry with the corporate ethics department inside my company requesting clearance to assist on this project. I think it has incredible potential to make a contribution toward our energy needs. And I know that I have been very, very critical of ethanol here in the past, but that was because of the unsustainable nature of current ethanol practices, as well as loads of misinformation that was being pushed out there. My hope was to always see ethanol succeed, albeit it in a sustainable fashion. And I have always been willing to assist – and have done so many times over the years – in helping push promising projects forward.

18 thoughts on “What’s On Tap”

  1. Holy Smokes! RR’s new cellulosic process will crush everybody else! And, it is top-secret! I can’t stand the suspense! The Aggie is a world-beater! Doomsters, take that!

    I can’t resist a little snipe. In the PO world, everybody habitually downplays man’s creativity and innovation. But we have never had such a world of technical innovation, with literally millions of educated people all over the world, connected by phone, mass media, and e-mail. Knowledge travels in minutes, not decades.

    Look for endless rounds of innovation, if oil stays above $60 a barrel. In every field. The future is bright, and we can get to a cleaner and more prosperous world.

    Sniveling and praying don’t work; but application of science, engineering and hard work do.

  2. Does anybody know what happens to mpg when 100 percent ethanol is burned at higher compression ratios? Can higher compression ratios, say in the range of 20-1, offset lower energy content? Ethanol has higher octane.

  3. Robert, for your book chapter, how about diesel from biomass via methanol, using Lurgi’s MtSynfuel process, which is said to give higher yields than FTS? Might be worth mentioning in there somewhere.

  4. Robert, for your book chapter, how about diesel from biomass via methanol, using Lurgi’s MtSynfuel process, which is said to give higher yields than FTS?

    Do you have a reference? That’s a new one for me.

    Thanks, RR

  5. Nothing Google can’t solve, although the amount of information is quite underwelming. Is it my imagination, or did the excitement peak ~2003? As stated, Lurgi gives the energy efficiency of the process chain of 67% as an advantage over the FT path (< 63%)[WHOOpeee...]. The overall efficiency, including all operating materials, is however about the same for both paths [Make that whoops]. The gasoline product from the MtSynfuels® process has a significantly better quality than the gasoline-like by-product of an FT systhesis [MMMmm].

  6. Does anybody know what happens to mpg when 100 percent ethanol is burned at higher compression ratios?

    The engine operates more efficiently and mpg improves. Of course if you had a car that burned 100% alcohol, you’d have trouble finding fuel. 100% ethyl alcohol is a chemical compound that is very hard to attain — it takes a lot of energy to reach 100% purity because of ethanol’s affinity for attracting water. Commercial ethanol plants have a lot of trouble getting their alcohol above 94% alcohol and 6% water. In fact, about half the energy they expend in distillation is spent trying to get rid of that last 6% water.

    Can higher compression ratios, say in the range of 20-1, offset lower energy content?

    Yes, that would be possible. The racing engines that burn pure methanol or ethanol have compression ratios in the 16:1 range. Of course, their goal is power, not economy. They get lousy fuel mileage.

    The other reason they use alcohol is that the fuel is a single chemical compound and more predictable. Gasoline can contain many different chemical compounds depending on the source petroleum and how it was refined.

  7. Benjamin, as Nigel noted 100% ethanol is pretty rare. So called E100 actually contains 4% (or more??) water. In Brazil the two main fuels are gasoline type C (E20-25) and hydrated ethanol. Hydrated ethanol is the azeotrope obtained by straight distillation. This avoids the expense of coaxing those last few percent of water out.

    Ethanuts claim high compression ethanol engines could deliver the same MPG as gasoline, but this makes no sense. The VW Golf TDI is about 8% more fuel efficient on a mass basis than the gasoline Golf Twincharger. TDI vs. Twincharger is the best available back-to-back comparison of gas and diesel, since both engines are in the same vehicle, both put out 170 hp, both use boost and the mass basis comparison eliminates diesel’s density advantage. The 8% is almost entirely due to diesel’s higher compression ratio.

    Ethanol works best at 15:1 compression, higher than gasoline but lower than diesel. The expected gain in thermodynamic efficiency would thus be less than 8%, probably around 5%. There might be a some additional gain from engine downsizing, but there’s no way it’d be enough to close ethanol’s 34% energy density gap.


  8. Have a good trip back to the US and enjoy the days off from the blog.



  9. Thanks for the replies on pure (94 percent) ethanol.
    I still see a great future for PHEV-ethanol cars. If RR’s magic ethanol process bears fruit among other advances, we should have gobs of the stuff. A PHEV ethanol car could get 100 effective mpg. That is, daily commutes are by battery, and you only use the ethanol on longer drives.
    This would lead to widespread demand destruction for fossil oil. And at $60 a barrel, such an approach makes sense.
    The problem is, PHEV cars would almost certainly help a huge tumble in crude prices come about.

  10. Ben,
    It seems the real world is moving the opposite way: Lilliputian Systems is building mini-fuel cells to replace batteries in laptop computers! If they achieve that (which they claim to have done), electric cars are toast. They will eventually replace your car’s battery with this unit. Would improve the overall system efficiency by eliminating storage of electricity and providing on-demand power.

    Lilliputian Systems plans to offer generators the same size as today’s cell phone and laptop batteries, but with an increase in performance of at least ten-fold, and possibly as much as fifty-fold.

    Unlike the (m)ethanol driven fuel cells we heard about a while ago, these are solid oxide and use butane (gotta love hydrocarbons for their great energy density) as a fuel.

    Recharging would be instant — just pop in a new butane cartridge. And performance wouldn’t degrade over the generator’s lifetime.

    There’s an article on this in Forbes, but you have to pay for the priviledge.

    Seems like battery technology (like some well-built, over-paid athlete) never got out of the starting blocks.

  11. Robert,

    I’ve been reading your blog for the last 6 months or so and have thoroughly enjoyed your candid and informed perspectives on such critical issues. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Enjoy your hiatus; you’ll be missed.


  12. optimist, I see you did notice that the fuel cells the propose for small electronics run on butane.

    Is there enough butane for the auto fleet? At what cost per mile? Etc.

  13. Odograph,
    Here’s Wikipedia’s description: Due to the high operating temperature of SOFC’s, they have no need for expensive catalyst, which is the case of proton-exchange fuel cells (platinum). This means that SOFC’s do not get poisoned by carbon monoxide and this makes them highly fuel-flexible. Solid oxide fuel cells have so far been operated on methane, propane, butane, fermentation gas, gasified biomass and paint fumes. However, sulfur components present in the fuel must be removed before entering the cell, but this can easily be done by an activated carbon bed or a zinc absorbent.

    More specific to your comment: Research is also going on in reducing start-up time to be able to implement SOFC’s in mobile applications. Due to their fuel flexibility they may run on partially reformed diesel, and this makes SOFC’s interesting as auxiliary power units (APU) in refrigerated trucks.

    Specifically, Delphi Automotive Systems and BMW are developing an SOFC that will power auxiliary units in automobiles. A high-temperature SOFC will generate all of the needed electricity to allow the engine to be smaller and more efficient. The SOFC would run on the same gasoline or diesel as the engine and would keep the air conditioning unit and other necessary electrical systems running while the engine shuts off when not needed (e.g., at a stop light).
    Sounds like BMW is ahead of the ballgame.

  14. RR
    Enjoy your time off. I hope the new EtOH project works out, if it does, you can thank the corn ethanol lobby for pushing the EtOH infrastructure and paving the way for the next generation of EtOH producers.

    good luck and good science

  15. Hi Robert,

    Just came across your blog today, and wanted to say fantastic work. I’ve been doing some background research into ethanol over the last few days, and your blog has brought me back to reality after a lot of hype.

    Have a good break and look forward to reading more.

  16. Just ran across your blog, please keep up the good work! YoYou have my interest on a new cellulosic process could it be related to aqueous phase reforming?

  17. What do you think about alternatives in refining oil from less current sources like shale, tar sands etc?

    I don’t think shale is going to work, but tar sands is scaling up. There are problems there with natural gas and water availability. But, lots of companies are betting big that it will work.

    Have you heard of DMF? Can it stand where biobutanol fell?

    I have read a bit about it, but don’t know much about the energy return and any negative externalities that may be involved. So, I can’t really comment on it technically.

    Cheers, Robert

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