27 May 2008

A Brief Look at Alternative Fuels

About a week ago, I was driving from Athens to Atlanta down 316. I don't like driving. I don't like 316. I don't like Atlanta. I always feel guilty about the drive - it's well over 100 miles round-trip. And though my little Toyota Echo is very fuel efficient, rising gas prices make the trip pricey. Not to mention that the horizon around Atlanta has a very sickly brown color. It's just not a good experience.

This trip, though, was made better by NPR. I like NPR, even if they are viewed by some to be nothing more than a bunch of hippies/liberals/communists/feminists/etc. Even if they present a skewed view (which, to be honest, is not as true as other sources of media), they can at least be polite about the hole thing. I've been listening to NPR since I was a child, and not once have I heard the hosts get into shouting matches with their guests, which is more than can be said for cable news programs. But I digress. NPR was broadcasting The Commonwealth Club, a California organization that invites speakers to present their views on varying topics. This particular speech was given by the CEO of GM, G. Richard Wagoner. And what he had to say surprised me - he dedicated the better part of the speech to the development of more fuel efficient vehicles and alternative forms of energy.

It doesn't matter if you believe in global warming or not. It doesn't matter if you think recent high gas prices will go down or not. All that matters is that the current world economy is dependent on transportation, which is dependent on a finite resource. At some point in the near future, we will run out of fuel. Before that time, we need to find a new source and adapt the infrastructure to fit the source. And better sooner than later.

So, with this in mind, here's a quick view of the common alternatives.

Bio-Diesel and Griesel/Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO)
First, watch this interview with Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou. Great band, great guy, and interesting bus.

I have long supported the use of SVO. You can run a traditional diesel motor with it (at the cost of fuel efficiency). And in warmer climates, it works pretty well. But the problem is that the restaurants don't use oil to sustain a large economy. So instead, we end up using "virgin" SVO, which is slightly wasteful. The main advantage of SVO is that it recycles this oil that we don't need. And, as addressed in the video, cooler temperatures can cause problems for running a griesel engine. Bio-diesel runs into a similar problem. Diesel ignites at a higher temperature than gasoline*.

Of course, we should not be too hasty in ruling out bio-diesel and griesel entirely. UGA runs their bus system off of used grease from the dinning halls (I may be mistaken, but I believe we use a B20 mixture, meaning that it is 20% bio-diesel). Diesel has long been used to run heavier vehicles, namely farm equipment and eighteen wheelers. Diesel engines were developed so that farmers could dedicate crops to fuel production.

My friends and I joke about cars that run on Everclear and Golden Grain. Mostly because we're college students. But the use of ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is rather promising. Corn and soybeans produce large amounts of ethanol, which burns cooler, reducing the size of the cooling unit needed. So while ethanol is not as efficient as regular gasoline, the resulting reduction in vehicle weight makes up some ground.

Ethanol has some special sources, as well. Last April, I attended a symposium hosted by the UGA chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a national student think tank. One policy proposal was the development of cellulose-based ethanol. In short, with the development of a certain enzyme, pulp derived from recycled paper products can be converted into ethanol. The two flaws in this plan: 1. The enzyme has yet to be found. 2. Diverting paper products from regular recycling to fuel development requires more trees to be cut down. Careful attention would have to be used in deciding which paper products are used to make recycled paper and which are used to make fuels.

The other source is hemp. While certain types of cannabis plants are used as drugs, hemp does not contain sufficient amounts of THC to produce a "high". Hemp produces, among many things, to include durable fabrics and robes (the oldest piece of fabric ever found is made of hemp), paper (it contains longer strains and is lighter in shade, meaning it can be recycled more and does not need to be bleached), food (hemp is high in fiber and other proteins, and to consume enough hemp to get a moderate buzz is the equivalent of taking two or three high fiber laxatives), and ethanol. Because hemp can be grown closer together, it produces more ethanol per acre than soy or corn, and more paper per acre than any type of tree. Hemp is grown in nearly every part of the world, except for the US, where legal regulations on every variety of cannabis makes production cost-prohibitive.

The downside of ethanol is that while it may burn cleaner than fossil fuels, there is question on how clean.

The Problem of Food Prices
The largest argument against non-celluslosic based ethanol is that it is driving food prices up. Which might be true. But it doesn't have to be. Because corn and soy are so heavily subsidized sold at such a low cost, farmers do not meet their full potential for production. Crops are either left to rot, burned, or not planted - it's just not worth it. The problem isn't that we can't produce enough crops to feed the world and produce fuel, it's that we don't get the food to where it needs to go. To compound this, Americans are affluent. We throwout food that is only a day past the sell-by date. If we were to take only what we planned on eating, and not what "might be nice to have at some point next week", we wouldn't have as much of a problem. We buy in bulk, eat about half of it, and throw the rest out. I'm not saying that, by changing our shopping habits and subsidies, we can completely alleviate world hunger, but we can take steps in the right direction WITHOUT getting rid of biofuels.

Electric Engines
Electric engines are great. They have been in development for a while, so they are getting to the point where they can actually compete with traditional internal-combustion-based vehicles. The problem is that the electricity has to come from somewhere. Which means that fossil-fuels are indirectly used to power many electric cars. The advantage is that when the energy market as a whole changes formats (from coal or oil based to hydro, wind, or geothermal based), the electric car will still be able to operate. The other problem is battery power - the technology for the batteries has a long way to go.

The hydrogen fuel cell is an electric car that runs on hydrogen. I'm not smart enough to explain how it gets electricity from hydrogen, but it does. And it's exhaust? Water.

There are a few problems, though. Cost is a big part of it. Another part is compression - hydrogen has severe limitations in how much can be stored in a fuel cell. But the biggest problem is efficiency. It takes a lot of energy to produce the hydrogen to produce the electricity. Take a look at this chart.
It would be much more effective to use a traditional battery.

One of the great things that Mr. Wagoner said is that alternative fuels have to fit the area in which they are used. The alternative fuel for the US doesn't have to be the same as the alternative fuel for Europe. Which is why Brazil's FlexCar is such a great technology.


Rock on.

*Anecdote time! When I was in high school, my JROTC Ranger team trained in fire suppression. We trained using diesel fires contained in pans. In order to ignite, the diesel had to be mixed with gasoline. The gasoline was lit, and as it burned, it, in turn, ignited the diesel.

Update (22 June 2008) - About two weeks ago, GM announced that they would be reevaluating several of their lines, to include the Hummer and other SUVs. Granted, this doesn't mean that they will discontinue the Hummer, but even making it a few miles to the gallon more efficient is a step in the right direction.