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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.
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Wow, a commet!!! How the fuck do I delete it? Much more, htf do I ram a baseball bat up "Tandy Williams'" ass?
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A blog dedicated to the personal musings of Kevin L. Connors - a pragmatic libertarian, engineer, businessman, and journalist.

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