Everyone from private consumers and business to industrial producers on to top policy makers are circling around an issue that shouldn’t be an issue, the matter of storing energy with fuels or push for electricity in batteries and capacitors. The problem is primarily for providing the power sources that are mobile and portable. A major update is coming in vehicles in particular, leading to the question of how and which path to take.

Before one seizes on the demanding a single choice a review of the attributes of the choices shows one thing clearly, choosing one over the other at this date would be a huge strategic economic error.

Both batteries and liquid fuels exist. There is speculation and projections on battery materials and much progress is underway for better designs. The limits might again be in the price of raw materials. Capacitors loom large, without hard irrefutable products that might make major strides, and could well give electrical storage a big advantage, someday.

Liquid fuels are intensely dense sources of energy. Supplies from oil and gas are more than adequate in the current moment but could come up short in a matter of just weeks. Manufactured fuels from methanol up to butanol, synthetics and raw vegetable oils may soon be much more practically priced. Algae production is possible; it’s just not economical yet.

Capacity or scale of both storage methods is very low compared to potential demand except for the existing oil and gas industry. The oil and gas industry for its part continues to invest in capacity and discovery of resources yet remain a political target from every idea that can be politicized from onerous taxes to permission to even discover and produce resources. It’s a wonder shortages aren’t constant fact of life. Most everyone realizes that drawing on the planet’s saved hydrocarbon reserve will get more expensive and actual production simply will trend down due to the price. So:

Can battery and capacitor storage fill the gap? Not in an instant of course. The battery business thinks its making something over 750 million lithium batteries per year. A million vehicles with say 600 cells each would require about doubling the total world’s production. That count per car could be way low, too. That level of demand would drive prices higher in a the very expensive situation of today.

Liquid fuels have the sugar cane and corn ethanol industries for an industrial history. In the U.S. ethanol boomed and soared to excess capacity in just a few years making up just over 10% of the U.S. gasoline sales, only to be distressed as demand collapsed. Growth is measured in years, but the technology for feed stocks not already sugar or starch as in cellulose forms isn’t ready for such scale. Algae oil is even further out, but offers comparably stunning yields relative to the land requirements. The scale issue once technology settles in will be infrastructure and capital. Yet without some intense effort by vehicle manufactures to offer and consumers to buy vehicles able to use a variety of ethanol mixes, growth will be restrained.

Bringing raw materials to scale in another area of concern. On the battery front lithium isn’t a rare element, but concentrated sources are, at least so far. It’s already being subjected to political efforts to over run the market’s ability to find a price with the concentrated source leader Bolivia, working for extreme pricing. But that opens the market to alternatives like zinc in the “zinc air” form. Zinc is more abundant, widely available and the technology has good prospects. The hearing aid market is pretty much filled with the zinc air solution due to cost.

Just what raw materials the capacitor industry will need isn’t set in stone or fully researched out with breakthroughs possible at any time. It may be very cheap common materials with intense refining or perhaps something more costly. The super and ultra capacitor industry just isn’t ready to expose their potential, but the great hopes may be answered someday soon.

Electrical storage begins with someone digging in the ground and mining out the raw materials and that’s the easy low cost part. The availability and prices, then the refining and manufacturing will decide just how the market will be able to include this path for storage.

The liquid biofuel industry has a very different issue. Instead of small areas of mining, large tracts of land would be needed. On the good side is that many more people could share in the economy of a large cash flow leading to increased incomes, investment in equipment and infrastructure. Those economic growth points apply to methanol, ethanol and butanol. Algae on the other hand would of necessity be a more concentrated effort with dense capital investment that means much less land but much higher investment per area unit. One path leads to widely disbursed capitalization and incomes the other leads to a capital and income concentration. Keep in mind that algae could catch a disease; concentration may not be the strategically secure answer.

But both the alcohol industry and the vegetable oil industry need continued research into uprating the yield per area of land. Projections range up to 2700 gallons per acre from wood crops to 10,000 gallons from algae. In a scenario where 50 billion gallons of annual diesel and jet fuel use came from algae some 7,800 square miles would be needed, good-sized dot on a southwestern U.S. state. The question then becomes the matter of the risks of intense concentration vs. the repeated infrastructure investment to disburse the industry. There is also the matter of coming up with enough concentrated CO2 – an unconsidered problem.

Alcohol faces a much larger market – about 150 billion gallons. At 2700 gallons per tree-cropped acre, 55.5 million acres would be needed or nearly 87,000 square miles of productive land. That’s about 2.5 times the land used for the two major crops of corn and soybeans in the U.S.

Now for the paradox. Coming up with liquid fuels includes the energy itself, which is gone when you use it. Making electrical storage devices that arrive empty and still need the energy loaded to be used, can be repeated over and over again.

That’s why I said at the beginning the issue isn’t an issue at all. Rather the intelligent choice is to combine these two mediums of energy storage in the most economically and energy efficient way to do the chosen work.

For most people across the planet the freedom to move about with personal transportation is a necessity on through to a dream. Choosing one storage over another as a matter of policy would only yield a regulated path that closes the doors to innovation, creativity and lower costs for everyone as well as seriously dampening the economy both in investment but for the rewards of what markets will discover.

Millions of jobs today and in the future depend on the journey being across the largest possible range. Energy harvesting, storage and use should be a basis for an economic renaissance, but the developing of arguments of one field being more deserving than another, inserting resistance to change for specialized interests and competing for special treatment are in the long and broad view the most difficult impediments to a energy rich future.


3 Comments so far

  1. Answering the Energy Storage Question | New Energy and Fuel | Cost Fuel on February 13, 2009 2:12 AM

    […] is the original post:  Answering the Energy Storage Question | New Energy and Fuel Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and […]

  2. Brian Westenhaus on February 14, 2009 7:16 PM

    Great First Paragraph Al.

  3. Al Fin on February 13, 2009 9:13 AM

    We have a big, meddling government that isn’t afraid to make huge sweeping decisions on allocating resources. The free market makes decisions on smaller scales, and tries a large number of competing technologies in different locations, until the most efficient method of allocating resources is determined.

    The government allocates resources based upon carbon hysteria and social justice, as well as political considerations. These are not efficient, but they help keep incumbents in power.

    With government taking over larger parts of the former private sector, and driving still other parts of the economy into the ground by favoring parasitic trial lawyers, environmental lobbies, and labour unions, it is the government itself that represents most of the economy.

    This trend of government uber alles may seem to be temporary and based upon the political party in power, but once laws are passed and institutions are grown, there is no going back.

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