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Friday, April 21, 2006
Alternate Vehicle fuels

I'm making this the first in a series on alternate vehicle fuels. For the next, look here.

Just over four years ago, I had emailed Patrick Bedard of Car and Driver, in response to this article, arguing that any large-scale conversion to hydrogen or electricity as a vehicle fuel would require a massive investment in both nuclear power, and the electrical grid. And that was back when nuclear power was still a "third rail" with the greenies.

Things have changed dramatically since then. Now, as Patrick Moore writes in WaPo, the global warming craze (albeit founded upon pseudo-science) has given nuclear energy a shimmering mantle. We seem to have finally outgrown the China Syndrome syndrome.

And, as I posted on a couple of weeks ago at TDB, there are promising new developments in hydrogen fuel technology, and it is the ultimate end-point. However, within our lifetimes, the "hydrogen economy" is nothing more than the musing of fools. Hydrogen is so inefficient as an energy transfer medium, that it is ridiculous to use it to fuel stationary consumption sites, which you could much more easily just run wires to, from your cheap and clean nuclear power plant. As a vehicle fuel, however, there is more promise. But, in the near term, there are still far better alternatives.

Personally, I think that, well before our natural hydrocarbons (fossil fuels) have run out, we will have advanced sufficiently to economically create synthetic hydrocarbon fuels from inorganic base stocks (say, sea water). This will, most likely, be far more expensive than simply creating hydrogen, but would sharply reduce all the downstream hassles, as the product would be a clean-burning, easily transportable, storable and vendible liquid fuel. Time will tell.

So, uncurling our bony fingers from our dream pipe for a moment, we have to look at more easily obtainable options - read: liquid hydrocarbons derived from natural hydrocarbon base stocks. This means, fossil fuels or biofuels. Our dear President Bush, a veritable font of stupid statements, really took the cake with his last State of the Union Address, with the line, "[h]ere we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil." What a load of bullcrap. And this drivel seems to have some currency. Austin Bay, a man whom, by my measure, one can attribute only a scant few flights of stupidity, actually agreed with him. As I have posted here, we have no addiction to oil; we have an addiction to energy. Or better stated, we are addicted to the product of the application of energy.

And this is a good thing. In my lifetime, I hope to see every person on the face of the Earth using at least ten times as much energy as they currently do.

But back to our "addiction." This is just a play on the Gaia-worshiping idiotarian's "fossil fuels ==> bad" mantra, coupled with the much better founded aversion to reliance upon unstable regimes, for the source of the energy which maintains our lifestyle. With the energy self-reliance folks being mute on the matter, the Gaia-worshipers will naturally, and without due consideration, latch on to the biofuels horsecart.

Well, this call to action is manifesting itself in several different ways. Surely, if you watch television at all (even PBS), you have seen General Motors' "go green by going yellow" commercials, touting their "flex-fuel" vehicles, which will run E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. And, if you watch the Sunday morning talking head shows, or anything like them, you have seen the commercials for Archer Daniels Midland, which have touted the virtue of ethanol for years. Well, ethanol certainly has one virtue: a big, fat subsidy check for ADM, and all the other big agra-businesses like it. Any close study of Archer Daniels Midland is drawn to one of political patronage and pork - the green kind.

I will have another, more detailed post, specifically on biofuels, in the near future. I hope to present lots of facts, as I know the greenies will try to rip into me. I will be sure to come to the fight locked and loaded, and with a full magazine. In short, while the neighborhood gearhead greenie may be able to run his Benz 240D off the deep fryer waste from five local fast-food joints, biofuels - on a macro scale - are an even bigger pipe dream than hydrogen.

That brings us to "unconventional" fossil fuels. And we've had a very good write-up on the subject this week from Marianne Lavelle, at US News and World Report, which covers the wealth of petroleum locked in bituminous sand, coal and shale here in North America. The petroleum reserves in north central Canada, and Wyoming, Utah and Colorado are comparable to those in the Persian Gulf. But one can't simply pump this oil out of the ground. First, the bituminous solids must be excavated, and then the oil must be extracted - at great expense of both energy and water.

Besides leaving mountains of (mostly sulfur) trailings, these processes require massive amounts of both electricity and water. Of course, for the electricity, nuclear power comes immediately to mind here, and that would certainly be the only option for capitalizing on America's bituminous oil stocks. But Canada has realized only about 40% of it's hydroelectric potential - that gives them another option. Likewise, Canada has massive water runoff. Although much of it flows into the Pacific, when the oil fields are on the Atlantic side. But such are just minor engineering problems.

The article says that the Canadian oil sand producers' cost is $10 - 20/bbl. This is a bit higher than that of those still pumping Light Sweet (or its equivalents) straight out of the ground, without tricks like EOR. But it still seems low to me. As I recall, I have spoken to a representative of Suncor, the pioneer in Canadian oil sands, several years ago. And he said they become profitable at "about $40/bbl". Light Sweet closed yesterday at $72.17/bbl.

All of this is dandy for Canada. Here in the United States, on the other hand, we are pretty much tapped-out for hydroelectric power. But, as I have previously stated, nuclear energy makes that a non-issue. But, more importantly, we are also tapped-out for water. Surely, much of the water used for a bituminous oil separation plant could be recovered, treated, and returned to irrigation (increasing, of course, the production cost). However, that further exacerbates the problem of natural topsoil renewal by siltification. This has become a huge problem in dammed-up America.

And here is the point where unconventional fossil fuels and biofuels shake hands: the strain they place upon the land. As I said before, I save discussion of the environmental impact of large-scale biofuel production for a later treatise. But one could hardly regard them as "green".

But, on to the USNaWR article: Marianne limits her discussion of unconventional fossil fuels to simply those derived from solids. This overlooks a totally different, and IMHO, far more promising field: GTL (Gas To Liquid). We are all familiar with Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG); city busses have been running on it for years. But we are talking cryogenics here. And the cost of producing/storing this stuff makes it impractical for all those not spending other people's (read: yours and mine) money. All this is part of the reason why the dollar or so you might pay for a city bus fare is matched by five or so from the transit district running the buses. (And where do you think they get that from?)

But there's also GTL diesel. This is typically created by the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process, pioneered by Nazi Germany in the closing phase of WWII. Marianne deals briefly with this, in her treatment of coal-based liquid fuels. But she fails to differentiate between the FT process and the very high-energy separation of gas from coal, which makes the overall process VERY uneconomical. But several companies, most notably Sasol-Chevron, are applying a modified FT process directly to natural gas (which is largely just burnt-off in most of the world). The primary result is a VERY clean-burning diesel fuel.

But the show's not over! Also of note is Synfuels' ECLAIRS process. Rather than diesel, this creates high-octane gasoline from natural gas. And, unlike an LNG or FT plant, their process is spare enough to be located close to the wellheads.

As well, there is also this new development:

Professor Alan Goldman and his Rutgers team in collaboration with researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have developed a way to convert carbon sources, such as coal to diesel fuel.


The researchers combined this process with the action of a second catalyst, one which promotes olefin metathesis, for which the 2005 Nobel Prize was awarded. Metathesis means "to change places" and, here, the double-bonding atom groups change places with one another. Through this reaction, the second catalyst rearranges the molecular weight distribution of the olefins. The first catalyst then replaces the hydrogen atoms onto the new rearranged olefins; this returns the olefins back to their original hydrocarbon form, but now with a new, more desirable weight distribution

The point of all this: You really don't have to sell your Hummer H1, because you think there won't be any gas. It will still be there, perhaps much more expensive, but it will be there.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
I've enabled comments on this blog. I'm somewhat concerned about spam. Blogger offers a content spam filter. We've used that for some time at The Daily Brief, and I've found it rather lacking. The greatest problem is that it's not sure-fire, and suspect comments have to go into a moderation queue. Legit commenters whose posts are flagged like this are left confused and anxious over why their comment isn't published right away.

I've been doing some research into more sophisticated spam filters lately. I have long advocated Turing code filters - images that can be resolved by humans, but not machines. Over at Samizdata, Dale Amon installed one of these back in 2004. And TTBOMK they've had very good luck with it, as have others who have used them.

Well, Dale has a long history at Carnegie-Mellon University, where they have been working on these for some time, under their CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) project. It seems that this presents an interesting AI problem, with assorted computer scientists trying to defeat ever more complex CAPTCHAs.

And there in itself is a very interesting situation: At Samizdata, they employ a relatively very simple CAPTCHA algorithm, with a plain text six digit code superimposed over a random pattern. It would likely be easy to defeat, but should be adequate for blog comments. Contrast this to what they use at Yahoo! (I doubt it's an actual CAPTCHA, as the code is likely not public), where the image is so distorted, that sometimes humans can't even read it correctly.

When will we meet that "Deep Blue" moment, when the machines can resolve Turing codes better than humans?

But, as far as blogs are concerned, that seems to be a moot point these days, as almost all the spammers have switched to trackbacks, to get around regular comment spam blockers.

Anyway, to deal with trackback spam, I found this WordPress plug-in from the Computer Security Lab at Rice University. It checks to assure the page in the trackback link actually contains a link to the targeted site. This seems to be a simple and effective block to me. But it works on the assumption that no spammer would produce a custom page, containing a link to the targeted site. It would seem that an automated defeat to this could be engineered as well.

With the spam war, as with every war, for any measure, there exists a countermeasure.

As well, I like the idea of allowing regular commenters to register, so their comments always bypass moderation. But unregistered readers should still be allowed to comment (Blogger doesn't appear to offer this). Orin Kerr (from The Volokh Conspiracy) is doing this on his new solo blog. Orin is only allowing registration by invitation. I'd rather allow open registration, so long as it can't be done by a bot.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
I was watching the 1937 classic Topper on TCM last night. And I wondered what became of the show's "fifth star" - that outragous customized 1936 Buick Roadmaster. Old timers might recall that the car had quite a long and storied career after Topper, becoming first a promotional car for Gilmore Oil, and then Mobilgas.

This from Carl Bomstead at Collector Car magazine, April 2002:

Of the epic movies that the Hal Roach Studio produced during the 1930s, Topper, starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, still remains a classic to this day. The comedy follows a plot that is zany at best, as the two stars play husband and wife, and are killed in a car crash. In order to ascend to the great beyond, they are required to perform a good deed on earth and decide to show their snooty banker, Cosmo Topper, the lighter side of life. If it weren’t for the car the studio had designed for the movie, the film would still be a favorite for late night movie buffs, but certainly would not have become a cult favorite for old car enthusiasts and gas and oil collectors. The Topper car (designed by popular Pasadena, California, custom coachbuilder Bohman and Schwartz) was based on a 193[6] Buick Roadmaster chassis and went through several transformations in its subsequent use as a promotional vehicle for the Gilmore Oil Company and as the Mobil Special. In the film, Cary and Constance meet their demise when they have an altercation with a roadside tree. Since this is before the days of high-tech graphic design, the studio simulated the effects of the wreck by painting on the dents and scratches. The plot then called for the two stars to become invisible as they went about the task of performing their good deed. The vehicle then took on a prominent role in the film by transporting its invisible passengers, disrupting traffic, and at one point even changing its own tire.

Well, it seem the car ended up as part of "The Brucker Collection", and will be sold by RM Auctions at the Petersen Automotive Museum on the 13th of May (preview starts on the 9th). Fans of the movie will hardly recognize the car though. Conspicuous in its absense is the Cord-style nose, which wasn't appropriate for the car's new duties. The windshield is now higher, and fully framed. In fact, even the complete chassis, engine (now a 331cid Hemi), and drivetrain has been changed-out for that of a 1954 Chrysler Imperial Newport.

Well, the Petersen Museum is worth a trip to Wilshire Blvd. all by itself. But also up for auction is the 1968 Howmet Turbine Car, the Von Dutch "Toad Car" (not to mention Von Dutch's personal paint kit and spray gun) and the legendary Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's 1970 Honda 600.

RM Poster (1 page PDP)
A blog dedicated to the personal musings of Kevin L. Connors - a pragmatic libertarian, engineer, businessman, and journalist.

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