At the beginning of 2011 a look back is worthwhile.   This writer’s experience cancels the idea of future energy and fuel predictions, a sort of guessing game while appreciation and review of the recent improvements at this moment seems quite apt.  With oil closing in on $100 per barrel, and the U.S. government’s blinders about inflation, alternatives, efficiency and conservation, oil issues must be prime considerations for consumers.

In no particular order, some of the hits that squarely improve consumers’ choices deserve mention.

June saw Ford demonstrate a 305 horsepower V6 Mustang, which the EPA rated at 31 mpg get 48.5 mpg. The Ford demonstrator Mustang went around the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway 1,457 times on a single tank of gas.  This was done at a steady 43 miles per hour.  It took twelve and a half hours for the Mustang to run out of its 16 gallons of gas. That means the Mustang went 776 miles on just a tank of gas.  Granted, no stops, idling, air-conditioning or other loads.  It does show how far engineering has come and hints at what continuous output generator sets could offer.  The Ford V6 could be plenty powerful enough for most over the road trucks as a gen-set.

Mustang 1000 Lap Challenge Car. Click image for the largest view.

There are quite a few 40+ mpg cars for sale.  Ford’s Fiesta and Chevy’s Cruze on to the low cost leader Hyundai have good choices under $20K

For the watchers of transportation, and as topics about what to expect in the future, racing is the thing to keep an eye on.  Thirty-five years late, America’s NASCAR has finally embraced fuel injection.  It’s been a very long wait.  But just to poke a stick in the eye of the ethanol detractors, NASCAR will be using E-15. Other racing groups are embracing cleaner-burning alternative fuels like E85, clean-diesel, and bio butanol.   Racing fans could be a powerful interest group looking for the Blender’s Tax Credit to be expanded to other fuels than ethanol.  Once those tens of millions are awoken to the potential, political policy will have to change.

This writer saw, and has spent enough time today trying to relocate, an example on corn ethanol to counter the popular studies that mislead the ill informed and pseudo science types.  Here is a re-creation: The best ethanol to petroleum result from the ‘studies’ asserts that corn-based ethanol yields 1.4 gallons per gallon of petroleum products used.  The U.S. average acre yields something on the order of 155 bushels and the ethanol folks are getting better than 2.5 gallons out of each bushel, or 387.5 gallons per acre.  The 1.4 to 1 ratio has the petroleum input at 276.8 gallons of diesel equivalent per acre.  Keep in mind; the farmers aren’t doing anything different on petroleum inputs for ethanol-destined corn, food product corn or livestock feeding corn.

Now about 11 million acres are planted to corn at 276.8 gallons used equals more than 3 billion gallons or about 72.5 million barrels.  The whole U.S. economy used about 3.2 million barrels a day of diesel in 2009, or the farming, transporting and making ethanol and other products is alleged to have consumed the equivalent of 23 days of consumption, more than 6% of total U.S. diesel sales.

Shock of shocks – a real world application of the studies seems, well, beyond belief.  If that were not enough, 276.8 times $3 per gallon would be $830.40 spent on petroleum resources per acre – $5.36 per bushel.  Its like spilling a gallon in a 12.5 foot square room. Across medium and small towns and out into the fields of rural America the incredulous opinion, “that’s insane” is well founded.  Granted, this example is full of holes, mostly the methane or natural gas component for fertilizer and distillation isn’t dialed in correctly, but tens of millions of people, rural folks and racing fans, NASCAR and IndyCar all get what journalists, most bloggers and urban people can’t grasp – ethanol works really well – and the “academic” studies have nothing to do with reality.

Today’s ultimate use of fuels would be fuel cells. 2010 saw a methanol-powered fuel cell go on the market in Japan.  Lots of research over 2010 improved the outlook for lignin and cellulose processing to ethanol, but factually, methanol production from lignin and cellulose is already practical technology – its simply wood alcohol.  The resources for a methanol market, from crops to production and to fuel cell use, are practical steps today.  The economics aren’t worked out, the infrastructure is missing, and demand isn’t there.

Ethanol offers even more energy (about a third more by volume) than methanol for fuel cells.  The problem lies in getting the two carbon atoms apart and liberating the electrons. Good fuel cells exist, but are based on platinum and rhodium catalysts  – the two most expensive raw materials on earth.  Curiously, an ethanol system from crops to fuel cells exists, but the sole problem is the cost of building fuel cells – everything is in place but the fuel cell.  Fuel cell ideas are gaining ground, some with astounding results such as waste materials of high value.  A cheap to build ethanol fuel cell should be the prime candidate for an X-Prize competition.

2010 saw U.S. wind installations slow to abut half of 2009’s rate.  Photovoltaic and thermal solar also slowed down.  Most of the problem was government not doing its business.  Financing has also been a problem.

Nuclear is precisely in a government barrier problem.  Orders outside the U.S. stacked up by the dozens, with the U.S. builders notably and understandably, mostly left out.  Thorium fuel, an already researched fuel resource technology saw no market gain, government interest or progress of significance.  The mini uranium reactors might get things going in the years to come.

Oil and natural gas had a classic year.  Natural gas was found at prodigious rates, such that the price has gone down, but sales volumes are growing.  The oil side in the U.S, with a great find for the industry in the Gulf of Mexico has been overshadowed by the BP well explosion, fire and blow out taking weeks to stop, lives lost and some environmental damage to repair.  Lots of oil found, government again – in the way.  The big issue was the jobs and business lost and still business, jobs and tax revenue are being lost by the day.  It’s a horrible situation; government is at loggerheads with Big Oil in the U.S. and the world’s oil consumers are big losers.

2010’s hit is – golden corn.  This writer will agree, corn is a poor raw material choice, but today its what works – nearing 1 million barrels a day of production and exporting nearly a million barrels per month.  Someday someone responsible and respectable will come up with a petroleum to ethanol ratio that’s meaningful.  But, its already clear out in the field, the plants and for the economy the ratio matters not one bit.  What matters is ethanol is a great value add for petroleum products, boosts the U.S. economy and it will only get better.

The lignin and cellulose processes and feedstocks potential will improve. Aquaculture will get worked out. Direct ethanol fuel cells will get a breakthrough.  Yields from the grasses will change the ethanol outlook.  Aquaculture could increase yields by land area by 30 fold or more.  Fuel cells would increase the work done per fuel unit by 4 – maybe 5 times.  That big heavy personal transport vehicle so beloved by Americans might well be a fine idea in a few years.

In a way, 2010 was a ‘lost year’ for energy and fuel development.  Oil and gas gained reserves again, alternatives made some progress; research revealed lots of ways forward, but due to government and financing, development came up very short.  Regulatory action and inaction stalled much of the effort and investment of so many.  The opinions that much of government works against the economy make more sense than ever.


2 Comments so far

  1. jp straley on January 5, 2011 10:10 AM

    It’s true that government pump-priming could get a couple of these industries pushed out the door and to market. It’s certainly true that government help could allow the US to enable paradigm shifts such as going to thorium instead of uranium.

    These possibilities are the opportunity costs of spending a billion dollars a week on Afghanistan and Iraq, of maintaining a gargantuan military. One could name other large money drains, but a militaristic outlook is the clearest example of bizarre spending. At least half the military spending does not improve security, and actively harms our economic security.

  2. JPK on January 5, 2011 11:45 PM

    I found out in an article on the that “oil issues must be a prime consideration for consumers”, especially those in the U.S. Sounds too good to be true, isn’t it? Yet I’m very cautious to talk about this because it is very complex, in my opinion.

    As for the narratives about governmental spending in various countries, it could be fashionable to do math on how much would have spend on “government pump-priming” the economies of the countries mentioned, and that could get a couple of industries “pushed out the door” and towards markets.

    Mr. Straley claimed it is certainly true that “government help could allow the US to enable paradigm shifts such as going to thorium instead of uranium”. And he added that “these possibilities are the oppotunity costs of spending a billion dolars a week on Afghanistan and Iraq, of maintaining a garguntuan military”. Why is this part of a rather simplistic narrative about the current US-led war effort in Afghanistan a year after American forces left Iraq? I believe that the United States is going to face more uncertainty right now, in political, economic and social terms.

    It is obvious to speak (and to know) about other large so-called “money drains”, but why did Mr. Strassley declare US defense spending “a militaristic outlook” which seems to be the “clearest example of bizarre spending”? Not until both sides of the American political spectrum demand one big reassessment of current military priorities! And he argued so differently that “at least half the military spending does not improve security, and activiely harms our economic security”.

    One must caution in interpreting the events currently unfolding in world military and civilian history, because I suspect these and other narratives are subjected to ideological and philosopical manipulations. There has something to do with the mind boggling assessments that will hurt the heads of people around the world like me.

    Although this is relevant to the public eye, it’s very disturbing to people’s minds.

    I am not an economist, really, but I need to explain what is wrong with these narratives littered around here.

    Sadly, the true importance of economic fundamentals – as well as the importance of the real economy – has decended into excessive politicking and accompanied misanthrophy in today’s world. It’s going to be another day of sorrow for us, ordinary people – and the more complex the economics has ended up, the less relevance about the aspects of the real economy has become and worse situation has aggravated the crisis.

    Both the Left and the Right have failed to learn the lessons on how to face the reality of the current political and socio-economic situation around the globe.

    Instead, they are doing blame games on each other over what needs to be done to tackle the real issues that have yet unaddressed in developed and developing countries economically, politically, and socially.

    Therefore, the time is now to get things right – and there should not go the other way around because life is too short in doing so. I have to be cautious about concerns affecting the energy sector, too. There is also a need to make environmental conservation and protection a priority to ensure economic and social stability around the globe.

    BTW, I like to see the 2010 trends in the transportation sector regarding fuel efficiency, at least in the US. And what about other countries, too? Is it sensible to include these nations where there is a lot more developments in fuel efficiency technologies appropriate to various cultures, contexts and applications? Some people who are knowledgable about energy and transportation need to understand true insights on latest developments around the world, not only in the US, but in other countries as well.

    Remember, there is no turning back in taking action on the kind of “growth skepticism” that is pervading (and affecting) both energy and transportation sectors. And it is difficult to investigate this philosopical & ideological phenomenon more broadly, but it is worth understanding the different merits of it.

    It is time to think twice and take action on one big misanthropically philosopical & ideological phenomenon called “growth skepticism”.

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