Monday, May 11, 2009

Alternatives, and the growing energy demand...

Alternatives, and the growing energy demand…

Agricultural lobbyists have been working overtime giving away yellow t-shirts. They want to take a part of the action from the oil and gas industry, with guarantees to make us more independent of imports. In their corner is a product called Ethanol, made from good old USA corn. Sure enough, Ethanol is a promising contender to other alternative energy sources, including Methanol, Compressed Natural Gas, Biodiesel, and Hydrogen fuel cells. Ethanol was probably in the mind of President Bush when he spoke of alternative fuels in his address last February, and though it looks to be at the head of the class, there is still a lot to consider, especially over the long term.

One amazing statistic is that one acre of corn can produce about 300 US gallons of ethanol annually. America uses 200 billion gallons of a wide assortment of petroleum products every year, a staggering amount. To compensate, American farmers would have to dedicate 71 percent of our nation’s farm land for the growing of corn. This makes it clear that corn-ethanol will not kick fossil fuels out of the ball park any time soon, but it’s a start. To make a real dent, all alternative fuels will have to be considered.

Ethanol is grain alcohol, or ethyl alcohol. Just like hooch, almost all ethanol is made from grain. Corn is just one alternative, as anything of a cellulous base could be used including rice that is utilized to make Sake, or sugar cane for the making of rum. We have a grand supply of both here in Louisiana. We should be going after a bit of that action, and here’s why. According to this month’s Popular Mechanics, The Renewable Fuels Association is stating that the 95 existing ethanol refineries have produced more than 4.3 billion gallons of ethanol in 2005, and there is proposed an additional 40 more refineries stepping up to the plate. In the next 18 months it is projected that they will produce 6.3 billion gallons, a mere three percent of our total US consumption. Room for growth? You bet, but let’s take a bit of a look at the contenders.

Methanol is methyl alcohol, or wood alcohol. At this time almost all Methanol is a byproduct of Natural Gas, but it can be produced from a wide variety of sources from coal or biogas that is fermented organic matter. Even sewage and various manures can be used. It is an expensive distillation process at this time, and using methanol from Natural Gas still increases CO2, the main component to the greenhouse effect, and global warming. Interestingly, there may be use yet for the plants here in the south that are causing havoc on indigenous ecosystems, like the various South American water plants choking our waterways, and that Chinese vine strangling our Mississippi forests. Perhaps this would be a good potential for them.

Natural Gas can be used in some forms of internal combustion engines, as compressed natural gas, or CNG. Natural gas is a petroleum product extracted underground by drilling. The methane part is the majority of the distillate pie, with butane and propane taking up the rest. Distillation is necessary to rid the gas of contaminates. The Honda Civic GX is the only car in America that can use CNG. Honda states the exhaust is cleaner than air from some heavily polluted areas. Makes you think.

As close as I am to the oil industry, I can’t tell if the price of oil is based on supply and demand, or coercion. There is no doubt that growing world needs like China moving from a bicycle society to a moped society, taps into this finite resource. Demand for natural gas is growing primarily from its use in generating electricity. Oilmen agree that domestic natural gas will not keep up with demand, and the US needs to have access to the worlds abundant supplies, imported in the form of LNG, or Liquefied Natural Gas. Converted to a liquid state by cooling, natural gas is greatly reduced in volume, making it very economical to ship.

When I first got in the business 27 years ago, we flared nearly all natural gas, and saw Mexico light up the gulf from the first pictures taken in space. That’s all about to change. A new terminal in Cheniere, Louisiana, will be on line soon called Liquefied Natural Gas, LNG is the ticker symbol. They will be able to accept natural gas that has been chilled to a liquid and bring it back to its natural state for transport in pipelines.

Biodiesel is actually diesel made from oils other than petroleum. Extraction comes mostly from sources like vegetable oil, or even chicken fat. This would be an excellent way to recycle our old fry oils which costs a lot to dispose of. The first display of what diesel could do was at the 1900 Paris World Exposition where Rudolf Diesel ran an engine on refined peanut oil. Processing is called transesterification where contaminants such as glycerin are extracted.

Diesel engines don’t use a spark plug for ignition. High compression in the cylinder raises the temperature high enough for ignition, which makes it more efficient and tolerant of various sources of fuel. Biodiesel and Petrodiesel have virtually the same BTU burn, between 120,000 and 130,000. Unfortuanately, at this time the process to make Biodiesel is about a dollar more than Petro. Give it some time. Either the cost of gas will rise, or Biodiesel will fall. The future will someday merge.

A most exciting alternative is Hydrogen. When finally we develop hydrogen fuel cells and an internal combustion engine to go with it, we will at last be able to make a dent in fossil fuel dependence. Skies will turn blue, our cheeks rosy, and our 120 years of lead poisoning will be a bad dream explained in history books.
Extracting hydrogen is as easy as running a current through water, but not yet cost effective. Oxygen is a byproduct too, and we can always find a use for that! But let’s not put the cart before the horse, as experts say it may be 15 or more years before an efficient hydrogen fuel cell will be completed, and car companies are working on an engine. Note* I remember reading about oil companies, or the government, buying newly invented fuel cells forty years ago, and though I wouldn’t doubt it a bit, it has never been proven. Fact is, hydrogen would be the ultimate fuel source where one could use his garden hose, or even his old cup of coffee to fill his tank, and it would last for months. Emissions would be oxygen and water. Wow!

These alternatives have a long road ahead going toe to toe with Petroleum. As demand goes up and sources go down, new varieties will have to be found. It is exciting times, and we will soon see some wonderful breakthroughs that hold the promise for changing our lives, and the world, in a positive way. One thing is certain; it will be a complicated state of affairs with failure and success at every turn. Alternative fuels will chip away at Petroleum for a hundred or more years, and probably never completely replace it, but the quality of our children’s lives will improve in ways we can’t yet fathom, at least that is the game plan. It has always been this way; our imagination is the only thing holding us back.

High Crude Oil Prices: quick reference summation
1) Restricted and competitive world supplies.
a) Political instability in oil rich nations like Nigeria and Venezuela.
b) OPEC’s valve is wide open. Saudi now producing 50/50 oil/saltwater. No longer has control over world supply.
c) Low European inventories and escalating prices.
2) Strong global demand like China and India.
3) High transportation rates across the board, both internationally and domestically.
4) Record refinery production but constrained capacity growth by both government restrictions and hurricane damage.
5) Political, like “Not in my backyard,” attitudes from states like Florida and California.
6) Low reported rate of return for refineries.
7) Strong demand growth. (Supply not keeping up with demand.)
a) Growing US economy.
b) Large car growth.
8) Environmental: New government mandated specifications.
9) Government specifications on fuel.

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