Carl’s new blog, “Ethanol Fuel”

During the past 24 hours, I heard, I swear!, 6 commentators blame biofuels for one of the world’s pains or another. What bothers me about this is that the complaints are, by and large, misguided in one way or another. So I’m starting a blog on the subject, “Ethanol Fuel”, or “Moses Lake”. It’s gotten to the point where the people in the industry joke with each other by pointing out yet another news article blaming biofuels for one thing or another.

So I’m starting another blog. I’m going to provide informed commentary on the energy situation, the food supply, land use, regulation, the economics of biofuels and fuels in general, the engineering, the politics of the subject, etc. And perhaps posting will leave me feeling that I’ve made a little effort towards stopping our country from being led by ignorance into policies that will take years to retract. I don’t think these belong on Mass which is devoted more to physics.

Producing fuel and electricity are engineering problems, the best decisions will be made by engineers who specialize in those areas, not by the general public. Nevertheless, the general public has the ultimate political power and their decisions, rational or otherwise, could effect the future of this country and this planet. And so I will write on the issues with the objective of education.

And it’s not like the US (or any other country) is immune to engineering decisions made on the basis of emotion. As a youth, I saw the nuclear power industry in the US destroyed by ignorance and fear masquerading as wisdom. Now, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, and another wave of ignorance and fear (this time related to global warming rather than radiation) support for nuclear power is increasing.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Carl’s new blog, “Ethanol Fuel”

  1. Kea

    Good luck with the new blog. I’m a starving greenie myself, but I can see that biofuels are a part of the solution to the energy problem, and not to be blamed for problems caused by overpopulation and western decadent lifestyles.

  2. I am certainly interested in a physicists perspective of the said situation. I’m tired of sifting through rumors and mainstream media.

  3. carlbrannen

    Hudson, a physicist’s perspective on ethanol would be just as totally worthless as an engineer’s perspective on physics.

    What I will give is a chemical engineer’s perspective on ethanol.

  4. carlbrannen

    The case for ethanol / methanol: Robert Zubrin debates his flex fuel vehicle proposal on CSpan, (2007).

  5. Doug

    Hi Carl,

    I need to respectfully disagree with you.

    I do not share your absolute “totally worthless” outlook as from my perspective [MD] an engineer applies physics principles with machines, springs in ME and solenoids in EE.

    I am less familiar with CE, but in the most liberal use of the term engineer, one may allege that Newton was a CE since he performed experiments in alchemy.

    As a native Iowan, I am concerned. On one hand ethanol is good for farmer income. On the other hand, I do worry about exchanging a relatively cheap food crop for the more expensive fuel crop.

    I suspect the mathematical dynamics will eventually find an equilibrium [NASH?], but know not how or when.

    I do have experience as a US Navy gunnery officer. I even recall basic ballistics with the ME of guns and the EE of fire control radar. This may be why I am so obsessed with HELICES: rifling in guns, EM waves in radar, planetary motion relative to stars [GR], Zitterbewegung [equivalents] in QM and the structure of proteins and nucleic acids.

  6. Paul Neilson

    Carl

    As a ChE myself, I see ethanol from corn as a first step only. Biofuel from cellulose or alge is even better using less land per gallon and will be even more cost effective.

    Nuclear power, plug in hybrids, and biofuel can eliminate the need for coal and oil. And the technology for this is already available.

    Ignorance and politics are all that stand in the way to a CO2 free future.

    Good luck with the new blog.

  7. Erik

    It is very easy for you, with an income 10 times that of people in the third world, to dismiss the current increase in food prices. There is no doubt that if there is an increase in demand, there will be an increase in price. And an increase in food prices will hurt the people who have to struggle, just to feed their family. This is self evident.

    And for what use? Production of ethanol crops takes up enormous areas, and are not easy on the environment. Why build up an infrastructure of ethanol production, when there are already superior alternatives?

    Good powered electric vehicles, with acceptable range, exists already today. The only thing holding them back are battery prices. But these prices will fall as production increase, just like the prices for flat-screen tvs did.

    You are a skilled physicist; How large area of ethanol crops would it take to produce the same energy as a single nuclear power plant?

  8. carlbrannen

    “Production of ethanol crops takes up enormous areas, and are not easy on the environment.”

    It’s really a shame, but the alternative you’re pushing is to burn coal. Some would argue that converting our 1000-year supply of coal into CO2 would be worse for the environment.

    “Why build up an infrastructure of ethanol production, when there are already superior alternatives?”

    There are no superior alternatives.

    “Good powered electric vehicles, with acceptable range, exists already today.”

    This is simply untrue. And in any case, simply providing fuel for the vehicles that are on the road now will require an ethanol industry.

    “The only thing holding them back are battery prices. But these prices will fall as production increase, just like the prices for flat-screen tvs did.”

    The reason batteries are expensive is because of the raw materials consumed in them. The reason early flat screen TVs were expensive was because of the technology involved. The two situations are not at all comparable.

    An huge increase in the production of batteries will require a huge increase in the mining and smelting of lead. This will raise the price of lead and raise the price of batteries. Furthermore, this has to be done worldwide. I don’t think this is a reasonable “solution.”

    If it is a solution, let the market work it out, just as it is doing with ethanol. (I’m not in favor of subsidies for ethanol or batteries, but I am in favor of money for research in these things, in addition to what private enterprise is doing.)

  9. Hi, Carl

    I’ve been recently driving on ethanol for more then 2 months in a flex fuel car. (My wive is Brazilian) . All gas stations have ethanol. >85% of new cars is a flex-fuel car.

    This overview might be of interest for you:
    http://www.energybulletin.net/21064.html
    It seems that ethanol from corn won’t do the trick. You’ll need something as efficient or more efficient as suger cane which is twice as efficient as corn in terms of gallons/acre/year.

    Regards, Hans

  10. carlbrannen

    Hans,

    Milton Maciel is a Brazilian organic farmer, hardly the person you would expect to be an expert or to provide you with an unbiased opinion on the US factory farming of corn or on the efficiency of industrial processes. Here is a specific critique of his rather thin analysis:

    First, sugar cane is not twice as efficient as corn; the byproduct of corn is as valuable as corn and is fed to cattle (distiller’s grains), while the byproduct of sugarcane can only be burnt (look around, you’ll find countervailing studies). Second, sugar cane can now be grown in the US and it’s not unlikely the US ethanol industry will convert to it. Third, ethanol is not intended to supply all the US gasoline needs. Fourth, regardless of “efficiency”, it is quite profitable to convert corn to fuel even in the absence of any subsidies. To know this last fact (which depends on the prices of ethanol, corn, and various other things like natural gas), you have to know more than I can teach you, but if you want to play around with a complete spreadsheet for a US corn ethanol plant (and change subsidy levels and ethanol price, etc.), then you can go to our website.

    A more likely biofuel supply is oil algae which can be made into biodiesel. The process of converting vegetable (or animal) oils to biodiesel requires 10% ethanol or methanol. Over the long term, filling this need is the purpose of the US ethanol industry, along with those vehicles that cannot be replaced with diesel.

  11. Ah, I wasn’t aware that you are involved with ethanol, nice…

    Regards, Hans

  12. Good luck with the new blog. My perspective is that I’ve not paid for utilities, energy or gasoline in years. Water falls down from the sky. Energy falls from the sky too, and is all around us. Why pay anyone for it, and why be dependent on shaky suppliers of oil?

  13. Jimbo TK

    “There are no superior alternatives.”

    False, with conditions:

    Yes, there is at least one. It’s almost as “powerful” as gasoline, doesn’t hold H2O next to your steel parts like Ethanol, and can be made from a lot of more interesting source materials than squirrel snacks (you DID know the corn being used for E85 would never be fed to us nor our livestock, yes?)…

    Can you say “Butanol”? Seriously, how do you pronounce it? Oh. Just like it’s spelled. Okay. So why do “We The People” have to pitch a conniption fit over “corn squeezins” when a “superior alternative” really does exist? I think some “Temperance Movement” is behind the conspiracy, but I’ve been wrong before. I’ve also been told the production of Butanol “smells bad”, but that’s a matter of opinion if you’ve ever stood downwind of a hog farm.

    Perhaps you could don your Chemical Engineer hat and hold forth on Butanol?

    I really, REALLY LOVE the way my evile old ICE smells under the influence of Gasahol!!! If I could just fool … uh, “recalibrate” the O2 sensor… For my next trick, the wife’s ancient Chevrolet gets a major timing advance (10:1 compression and it’s already “too rich” for its own good), and goes on a full-time E85 diet. It smells lovely too!

    Nice blog! I’ll be sharing it widely.

    Thank you!

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