Saturday, August 18, 2007

Are 'Alternative Fuels' the Answer?

From the president to news pundits to congress to ‘some’ of the public, concern rages about what is seen as an energy crisis. In particular, those raging are certain that the world faces an oil shortage in the not-to-distant future. Not only does the world face oil calamity, but such oil as there is comes from areas of the world dominated by enemies of western civilization. Americans are treated to the mixed message that we must become oil sufficient ourselves and we must develop alternatives to oil for our energy requirements, in particular, to replace gasoline for our cars and other vehicles.

The answers to the ‘energy crisis’ political energy ‘experts’ have for our future are hydrogen-fueled vehicles, something called ‘fuel cells’ for cars, and replacing gasoline with ethanol (no not ‘moon shine’). Are these proposals realistic and are there better answers, ‘NO’ and ‘YES’!

Although better and more current numbers are readily available by simply adding up the number of registered vehicles in all states, ‘The Physics Factbook’, edited by Glen Elert, reports that as of 2003 there were 204,000,000 vehicles in the United States (how many more by 2007?). Other estimates have been as high as 240,000,000 vehicles. It is also estimated that as of 1997 there were 600,000,000 vehicles in the world and by 2030 there would be 1,200,000,000 vehicles in the world. Virtually all of these vehicles operate with internal combustion engines using gasoline or diesel fuel. If overnight the world would be supplied with available hydrogen or ethanol-fueled vehicles, there still would be millions of vehicles needing gasoline or diesel fuel to operate.

Is it realistic to expect that commercial hydrogen-fueled vehicles or vehicles with fuel cells will be available anytime soon when at present they are at best scientific experiments? Well, what do you think? The millions of dollars being proposed for fuel cells and hydrogen vehicle research could much better be spent elsewhere on real-world technology already proven to be able to replace oil we import from undependable countries; namely, processes that produce oil from coal.

The United States has among the largest proven reserves of coal in the world. Oil production from coal is successfully performed on a commercial basis from tar sands in Alberta, Canada (China, Japan and others are already investing in Canada). There is a pilot plant in Pennsylvania producing oil from coal. A company in South Africa has been commercially producing oil from coal for decades. The Nazi Germany war machine was fueled by oil produced from coal which enabled them to extend World War II several years. The technology to produce oil from coal exists now and could be made even more efficient and successful if the millions of dollars proposed for hydrogen-as-fuel research and fuel cells were diverted to programs that will really help our country in the comparatively near future. Huge coal reserves exist in Montana and other western states as well as in Pennsylvania. Imagine the additional employment of Americans developing these resources would also provide.

Ethanol is also seen by many as a panacea for our ‘oil crises, but is this realistic?

Presently several ethanol-based fuels are potentially available with a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline the most common. There are recognized drawbacks to ethanol fuel. It has lower fuel economy and costs of ethanol are escalating. A serious issue is that one mega company Archer Daniel Midland is the single main supplier; one company paralleling the success of many major competitive oil companies. Ethanol is a less efficient fuel so motorists would have to spend more for ethanol fuel than for gasoline, even at the present high prices of gasoline at the pumps. Speaking of ‘pumps’, fewer than 1,000 of the 176,000 filling stations in the country sell ethanol fuel (most are in farm states), not a comforting thought to those of us that drive daily. Today there are only 93 plants making ethanol in the United States, 24 more are said to be under construction. When all ethanol plants become available, their production will be 5 billion gallons a year. Current annual consumption of gasoline is 140 billion gallons a year.

Frequently cited to support the idea of ethanol fuel are countries like Brazil and Sweden that make significant use of ethanol fuel. The less publicized fact is that using ethanol in vehicles with engines not adapted or modified to use ethanol in place of gasoline will cause significant damage to the engines. Ethanol has a higher flash point than gasoline; structural engine components and materials from which they are made are not selected for ethanol combustion environments. Therefore, owners of the millions of vehicles on the road in this country and around the world that use ethanol fuels can expect to experience unexpected repair costs and possible engine failures. Why doesn’t this happen in Brazil; because in anticipation of using ethanol fuel, car engines were modified along the way to minimize these problems. Furthermore, Brazil has considerably fewer vehicles than we do and oil consumption in Brazil is miniscule compared to America.

Transportation in our country accounts for about 67% of the oil consumed. It is reported 46% of our needed oil is produced in this country, and is likely to become a lower percentage in the future. According to the Energy Information Agency, in 1994 residential vehicles traveled 1,793 billion miles; they say this is equivalent to a distance of 70 million trips around the world. Everyone can make their own guess at how many more miles per year are traveled in this and last year.

What does this mean? Well for one thing, even if all oil used for transportation were converted to ‘alternate fuels’, we still would need a great deal of oil (33%). Secondly, with billions of miles traveled each year by Americans, alternative fuel supplies along the miles traveled would have to be hugely increased to service traveling motorists. Thirdly, our entire infra structure for manufacturing vehicles, producing fuel and delivering fuel to consumers would have to be changed or constructed at a cost of billions of dollars and many, many years.

Now let’s consider the oil-from-coal alternative.

The oil produced from coal is fully analogous to oil from wells, perhaps better in terms of oil properties and quantities of impurities. Therefore this oil and products made there from, such as gasoline and diesel can be processed in present-day conventional refineries and distributed in present-day distribution channels. It is economical to produce, especially at present and likely future costs of oil on the world market. Produced in sufficient quantities to supplement current US oil production, oil from coal can enable America to become fully self sufficient without need to obtain oil from societies that threaten our very existence. We would be able to not only satisfy our current and future transportation requirements; we will also have enough oil to meet our non-transportation needs. Moreover, this could all be done in much less time if we make a national effort. Does the ‘Manhattan Project’ come to mind?

Years ago steel made coal ‘king’, today oil can do the same thing; and we have plenty of it.

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