Last month the Wall Street Journal alleged Vinod Khosla was advocating subsidies for food-based ethanol. The WSJ story opined that Mr. Khosla should “take a vow of embarrassed silence,” in that Mr. Khosla has a position of claiming that ethanol is “overblown” in its role to the food price and rice and wheat shortages.

Vinod Khosla

Mr. Khosla is a renowned fuel and energy production investor at the early development level. While not noted for research, his money is measured in millions for bringing research to production across a wide set of fields. To say he has his money where is mouth is would be more accurate than can be said of anyone save the hard oil cases like ExxonMobil. Mr. Khosla is definitely a man to watch and listen to as he has the resources and vision to press on and seems to handle the “didn’t work out” investments with grace and a “lessons learned approach.” He knows better than anyone in the fields where his attention and money are focused.

So when the WSJ opened up on him there had to be a response. Both the WSJ and Mr. Khosla’s responses are in the ethanol field. Before we jump in lets just remember that corn fed ethanol is because it can be, right now, no new tech, displaces gasoline at almost 1:1 when engine compressions are high enough. There is no debate about methanol, or butanol or other biomass based fuel production. Nor are the views considering alternative ways of using the fuels, just internal combustion engines. But, there are some interesting views offered by Mr. Khosla that are due some thought.

By the fourth paragraph Mr. Khosla is stating that consumption alternatives like hybrids and electric drives are unlikely to reduce carbon emissions. That is an assumption based in the view that the manufacturers won’t be offering those and other choices. Mr. Khosla may be right, but count me in the ‘buy an electric drive column,’ and many more will be, too. To just assume the auto market will be the same can’t be right – as production of gas guzzlers has already plummeted. The paragraph ends with cost effective responses to carbon emissions, based in consumer’s choices driven by emissions per mile as a main factor in choosing the next car. In truth for me, and likely for you, it would more likely be the cost per mile traveled, emissions assumed to be better as the fuel use would be dramatically cut. Right now in my mind and everyone thinking about their families, businesses and country is to “get out from under the oil dictator” and get to an alternative that works by getting the job done cheaper.

Next Mr. Khosla highlights the paid campaign by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the seeming concern by the American Petroleum Institute about food prices. There are those special interests that believe in the face of all evidence to the contrary that field corn is food for people. I challenge them to cook some and eat it. Barf. U.S. produced field corn is primarily a feedstock for animal feed and those critters who like it straight have four stomachs to break it down. Other animals need the corn processed to make it useful in their digestive tracts. Corn is a great plant for making raw starch that can be converted into sugars that can be made into lots of things from meat to sweeteners and plastics. It grows in the temperate zone, unlike sugarcane, and is the American crop that answers the starch to sugar need on the cheap. Two years ago the tax payers were subsidizing corn at about $.050 per bushel. So to say that corn ethanol production is the cause for damnation is a bold attempt to shift blame from the facts. Sure other methods will be better, but they aren’t at industrial scale – yet.

By paragraph six the debate leaves reality behind from both the WSJ and Mr. Khosla. The Congressional mandate of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels production in ethanol alone is folly for now. It only takes about 15 billion gallons to fully displace 10% of gasoline to oxygenate gasoline to make E-10. The rest would need to be used in vehicles that can use more than 10% ethanol mixtures or be other fuels than ethanol. Algae oil and others come to mind. But to assume that service stations will dig new holes and set new 85% ethanol (E-85) tanks and pumps is merely wishful thinking without punitive mandates. That might explain why ExxonMobil is bailing out of retail service station ownership forthwith.

Mr. Khosla’s last paragraphs make the most sense. Here he describes with some persuasion that biomass can be beneficial for more than just buyers of fuels. The benefits range out to farmers not just in the developed world but in the developing world as well.

Somehow both the WSJ writer and Mr. Khosla are debating something that is essentially a way to buy time for technology to get ahead of fossil hydrocarbon fuel sources. Likely both gentlemen are overlooking the facts from Chem 110 or maybe it was Chem 220, in which we learned that hydrocarbon molecules beginning with methane or methanol each with one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms are the easiest to form. They are handily the cleanest from the environmental point of view; they are liquid or mildly pressured for handling. Going up to two carbon atoms such as ethane and ethanol, you begin to lose the advantages in the 4 hydrogen to 1 carbon molecule. By the time you get to four carbon atoms such as butane or butanol, the advantages are about muted out.

The important thing to keep in mind is the more carbon per molecule the harder it is to make them. Methanol is easier to make than ethanol and butanol more difficult than ethanol. In petroleum refining its much easier to break apart molecules than to put them together so fracturing them down in size will be better than trying to build up molecules. Plants and existing human ingenuity can reform carbon and hydrogen into a range of fuels from methanol up to butanol and beyond to diesel equivalents in huge volumes with each offering advantages and disadvantageous.

The catch is that the devices we will need for work are not on the market to optimally use most of the fuels proposed. We’re waiting for the “mutated egg” in the “what comes first, the chicken or the egg” problem. Something has to break out that solves the efficiency in fuel use issue whatever fuel is used. Chances are it will be a form of fuel cell that strips hydrogen and makes electricity.

I admit to being a little humored by the back and forth between the WSJ and Mr. Khosla. Mr. Khosla wins by pointing out the ecological solutions with biomass is the reasonable path. I just wish he’d broaden his thinking, but I don’t have millions of dollars riding on ethanol. The first thing to fix is getting a fuel to energy to work converter that’s much more efficient than the internal combustion engine. When those devices are engineered to practical low cost applications, the fuel product question might solve itself.


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