05 May 2006
The Case for Flexible Fuel
Editor's Notes: Prof. Zubrin provides feasible and realistic, not quixotic, approaches to addressing the global energy needs.
An Energy Revolution
By Robert Zubrin
The world economy is currently running on a resource that is controlled by our enemies. This threatens to leave us prostrate. It must change-and the good news is that it can change, quickly.
Using portions of the hundreds of billions of petrodollars they are annually draining from our economy, Middle Easterners have established training centers for terrorists, paid bounties to the families of suicide bombers, and funded the purchase of weapons and explosives. Oil revenues underwrite new media outlets that propagandize hatefully against the United States and the West. They pay for more than 10,000 radical madrassahs set up around the world to indoctrinate young boys with the idea that the way to paradise is to murder Christians, Jews, and Hindus. It was men energized by oil-revenue resources who killed 3,000 American civilians on September 11, 2001, and who have continued to kill large numbers of Westerners in Iraq and elsewhere. We are thus subsidizing acts of war against ourselves.
And we have not yet reached the culmination of the process. Iran and other states are now using petroleum lucre to underwrite the development of nuclear weapons, and insulate themselves from the economic sanctions that could result. Once produced, these nuclear weapons could be used directly or made available to terrorists to attack U.S., European, or Israeli cities and military forces. This is one of the gravest threats to the next generation-and, again, we are paying for it ourselves with oil revenue.
Our responses to these provocations have been muted and hapless. Why? Because any forceful action on our part against nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia could result in the disruption of oil supplies that the world economy is completely dependent upon. We can't stand up to our enemies because we rely upon them for the fuel that is our own lifeblood.
And the situation is even worse below the surface. In addition to financing terror directly and indirectly, oil exporters are using their wealth to corrupt our political system. Important Washington, D.C. law firms and lobbying organizations have been put on the payroll of Arab nations to blunt any attempts at retaliation for their promotion of terrorism. Arab investors have made enormous buys in media organizations that could allow them to influence U.S. public opinion.
All this, however, is mere prologue. China and India are rapidly industrializing, and within a decade or two the number of cars in the world will double or triple. If the world remains on the oil standard, the income streams of many noxious oil exporters will soar. We will be impoverished to the same degree they are enriched. The vast sums transferred will not only finance global jihad and dangerous weapons development in the Middle East, but also increase potential for manipulation of the U.S. and Western economies. At currently projected rates of consumption, by the year 2020 over 90 percent of the world's remaining petroleum reserves will be in the Middle East, controlled by people whose religion obligates them to subjugate us.
In light of these realities, current U.S. energy policy is a scandal. There is no reason the United States should remain helpless, allowing itself to be looted by people who are using the proceeds to undermine us. A much higher degree of energy independence is possible, even apparent, yet victory is not being pursued. To see how insane our national energy policies have been, let's review recent failures. Then I'll describe a starkly better alternative.
CONSERVATION AND ALTERNATIVE-FUEL DAYDREAMS
Ritualistic calls by utopians, moralists, and environmental absolutists for energy conservation are utterly inadequate and doomed to failure. To see this, simply run the numbers. Every year, about 17 million cars are sold in the U.S.-roughly 10 percent of the worldwide total. Even if Americans were to buy only hybrid cars offering a 30 percent fuel saving over existing models, and none of them drove more, and there was no expansion in the U.S. vehicle fleet, this effort would result in only a 3 percent annual reduction in global gasoline use.
Conservation, however, offers no prospect of being even this effective. Most industry analysts predict a hybrid market share of less than 1 percent. At the same time, the total number of cars is increasing. Under any realistic conservation scenario, total gasoline consumption will continue to rise and the looting of our economy by oil producers will continue. Conservation through gasoline efficiency is, quite simply, a losing strategy. It is like trying to survive in a gas chamber by holding your breath. We need to break out of the gas chamber.
Today's favorite alternatives to oil are wind, solar, hydroelectric, and nuclear power. They each have strengths and weaknesses, but the bottom line is that these are all methods of generating electricity-and electricity is far from the central issue of energy independence. The United States has plenty of coal, and if necessary could easily generate all of its electric power that way.
The key to energy independence, rather, is liquid fuel to power cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes. These vehicles are not mere conveniences; they are the sinews of our economy and the fundamental instruments of our military strength. Our civilization cannot be sustained without efficient liquid fuels, and there is no foreseeable prospect whatsoever of cost effective, large-scale generation of liquid fuels from wind, solar, hydroelectric, or nuclear sources.
The energy panacea of the moment is a concept called the "hydrogen economy." Theorists propose to transition U.S. energy usage to hydrogen-a common element which, when combined with oxygen, releases energy with only water as a waste product. With hydrogen, it is claimed, we can achieve not only energy independence but also an end to pollution and global warming at the same time. The concept is entirely fraudulent.
Hydrogen is not a source of energy. In order to be obtained, it must be made-either through the electrolysis of water, or through the breakdown of petroleum, natural gas, or coal. Either process necessarily consumes more energy than the hydrogen it produces.
When hydrogen is made by electrolysis, the process yields 85 units of hydrogen energy for every 100 units of electrical energy used to break down the water. That is 85 percent efficiency. If the hydrogen is then used in a fuel cell in an electric car, only about 55 percent of its energy value will be used; the rest is wasted to heat and so forth. The net result of these two processes: the amount of useable energy yielded by the hydrogen will be only about 47 percent as much as went into producing it in the first place. And if the hydrogen is burned in an internal combustion engine to avoid the high production costs of fuel cells, the net efficiency of this vehicle will be closer to 25 percent.
Hydrogen produced from hydrocarbons instead of water also throws away 40 to 60 percent of the total energy in the feedstock. This method actually increases the nation's need for fossil fuels, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. While hydrogen could also be produced by nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, or wind power, the process would continue to be dragged down by the fundamental inefficiency of hydrogen production. Such power supplies could always do more to reduce fossil fuel requirements simply by sending their electric power directly to the grid.
The bottom line is that hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is a carrier of energy, and one of the least practical carriers we know of.
Consider: A standard molecular weight (or mole) of hydrogen gas, when reacted with oxygen, yields 66 watt-hours of energy. Meanwhile, a mole of methane (the primary component of natural gas) produces 218 watt-hours of energy. An equal number of moles of both can be stored in a tank of equal size and strength. Thus, a car that runs on compressed methane will be able to store more than three times the energy, and travel three times as far, as the same car running on hydrogen. In addition, the methane would be cheaper.
In short, from the point of view of production, distribution, environmental impact, and ease of use, the hydrogen economy makes no sense. Its fundamental premise is at variance with the most basic laws of physics. The charlatans who are promoting hydrogen as a solution to our energy woes are doing the nation an immense disservice.
THE ALCOHOL SOLUTION
To liberate ourselves from the threat of foreign economic domination, undercut the financiers of terror, and give ourselves the free hand necessary to deal with Middle Eastern extremists, we must devalue their resources and increase the value of our own. We can do this by taking the world off the petroleum standard and putting it on an alcohol standard.
This may sound like a huge and impossible task, but with gasoline prices well over $2 per gallon, the means to accomplish it are now at hand. Congress could make an enormous step toward American energy independence within a decade or so if it would simply pass a law stating that all new cars sold in the U.S.A. must be flexible-fuel vehicles capable of burning any combination of gasoline and alcohol. The alcohols so employed could be either methanol or ethanol.
The largest producers of both ethanol and methanol are all in the western hemisphere, with the United States having by far the greatest production potential for both. Ethanol is made from agricultural products. Methanol can also be made from biomass, as well as from natural gas or coal. American coal reserves alone are sufficient to power every car in the country on methanol for more than 500 years.
Ethanol can currently be produced for about $1.50 per gallon, and methanol is selling for $0.90 per gallon. With gasoline having roughly doubled in price recently, and with little likelihood of a substantial price retreat in the future, high alcohol-to-gasoline fuel mixtures are suddenly practical. Cars capable of burning such fuel are no futuristic dream. This year, Detroit will offer some two dozen models of standard cars with a flex-fuel option available for purchase. The engineering difference is in one sensor and a computer chip that controls the fuel-air mixture, and the employment of a corrosion-resistant fuel system. The difference in price from standard units ranges from $100 to $800.
Flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) offer consumers little advantage right now, because the high-alcohol fuels which they could employ are not generally available for purchase. This is because there are so few such vehicles that it doesn't pay gas station owners to dedicate a pump to cater to them. Were FFVs made the standard, however, the fuel they need would quickly be made available everywhere.
If all cars sold in the U.S. had to be flexible-fueled, foreign manufacturers would also mass-produce such units, creating a large market in Europe and Asia as well as the U.S. for methanol and ethanol-much of which would be produced in America. Instead of being the world's largest fuel importer, the United
States could become the world's largest fuel exporter. A large portion of the money now going to Arabs and Iranians would instead go to the U.S.A. and Canada, with much of the rest going to Brazil and other tropical agricultural nations. This would reverse our trade deficit, improve conditions in the Third World, and cause a global shift in world economic power in favor of the West.
By promoting agriculture, FFVs also act as global cooling agents. Plants draw CO2 out of the atmosphere. They increase water evaporation, and the water vapor thus produced transports heat from the Earth's surface to the upper atmosphere, where most of it is released to space.
The use of alcohol also reduces air pollution. In fact, environmental advantages were the motivation for the initial development of the first FFVs in California in the 1980s. During the era of $1.50 per gallon gasoline, gasohol pleased ecological activists, but it was economically disadvantageous. Recently, however, the comparative economics of alcohol fuels and gasoline have changed radically.
Methanol can also be used as the raw material to produce dimethyl ether, a completely clean-burning diesel fuel which could be used by trucks, locomotives, and ships. Many cars could also eventually use diesel. Diesel engines are substantially more efficient than traditional internal combustion engines, and equal to anything realistically possible from far more expensive, and as yet impractical, fuel cells.
THE ECONOMICS AND TECHNOLOGY HAVE ARRIVED-NOW FOR THE POLITICS
Two developments make a rapid transfer to high-alcohol fuels possible. One is the recent rise of gasoline prices, making methanol and ethanol economically attractive. The other is a technological innovation: the development by the Netherlands
Research Institute for Road Vehicles of a sensor capable of continuously measuring the alcohol content in mixed alcohol/gasoline fuel, and using this information to regulate the engine.
With this breakthrough, some 4.1 million vehicles were produced between 1998 and 2004 capable of handling various alcohol/ gasoline combinations. That is already five times the number of gasoline/electric hybrids on the road, and vastly increased use of such vehicles could happen overnight, for just a few hundred dollars extra per vehicle (compared to many thousands more for hybrids).
The only sticking point is the non-availability of high alcohol fuel mixes at the pump. Filling stations don't want to dedicate space to a fuel mix used only by 1 percent of all cars. And consumers are not interested in buying vehicles for which the preferred fuel mix is unavailable.
This chicken-and-egg problem can be readily resolved by legislation. One major country has already done so. In 2003, Brazilian lawmakers mandated a transition to FFVs, with some tax incentives included to move things along. As a result, the Brazilian divisions of Fiat, Volkswagen, Ford, Renault, and GM all came out with ethanol FFV models in 2004, which took 60 percent of the country's new vehicle sales that year. By 2007, 80 percent of all new vehicles sold in Brazil are expected to be FFVs, producing significant fuel savings to consumers, a boost to local agriculture, and a massive benefit to the country's foreign trade balance.
ETHANOL OR METHANOL?
To date, all FFVs have been either methanol/gasoline designs or ethanol/gasoline designs. Combined methanol/ethanol/gasoline FFVs have not yet been produced. Their development poses only modest challenges, however. The question is, which alcohol would be the best one upon which to base our future alcohol-fuel economy?
Methanol is cheaper than ethanol. It can also be made from a broader variety of biomass material, as well as from coal and natural gas. And methanol is the safest motor fuel, because it is much less flammable than gasoline (a fact that has led to its adoption by car racing leagues).
On the other hand, ethanol is less chemically toxic than methanol, and it carries more energy per gallon. Ethanol contains about 75 percent of the energy of gasoline per gallon, compared to 67 percent for methanol. Both thus achieve fewer miles per gallon than gasoline, but about as many miles per dollar at current prices, and probably many more miles per dollar at future prices.
Methanol is more corrosive than ethanol. This can be dealt with by using appropriate materials in the automobile fuel system. A fuel system made acceptable for methanol use will also be fine for ethanol or pure gasoline.
Both ethanol and methanol are water soluble and biodegradable in the environment. The consequences of a spill of either would be much less than that of petroleum products. If the
Exxon Valdez had been carrying either of these fuels instead of oil, the environmental impact caused by its demise would have been negligible.
Ethanol is actually edible, whereas methanol is toxic when drunk. This difference, though, should not be overdrawn, since in an FFV economy, both would be mixed with gasoline. The breakdown products of both ethanol and methanol are much less noxious than those from petroleum, and both emit far fewer particulates when burned. Methanol, ethanol, and gasoline are about equal in the levels of nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide produced when they are burned. Since it is made exclusively from agricultural products, ethanol acts as counter to global warming. Methanol can as well, but only if its source is agricultural. Methanol produced from coal or natural gas has about the same impact on global warming as gasoline.
In short, either methanol or ethanol could be used very effectively, with roughly equal countervailing advantages. This has not stopped proponents of either fuel from vociferously arguing their unique advantage and pushing for FFVs based exclusively on their favored product. To date, the more effective faction in this debate has been the ethanol group, backed as it is by the powerful farm lobby.
Given this political support, and no decisive technical argument in favor of methanol, the question might well be asked: why not just go with the stronger side and implement an exclusively ethanol/ gasoline FFV economy? The answer has to do with the total resource base. If we want FFVs not merely to benefit farmers, but to make America energy independent, we need a larger production base than ethanol alone can deliver.
The United States uses 380 million gallons of gasoline a day. If we were to replace that entirely with ethanol we would have to harvest approximately four times as much agricultural output as we currently grow for food production. Now it is true that we don't need to replace all of our gasoline, at least not in the short term. Replacing half would make us substantially energy independent. Furthermore, future processes might eventually wring out higher ethanol yields per acre. Surplus ethanol from Brazil or other tropical nations could also be imported. Nonetheless, relying on ethanol alone would require putting under fresh cultivation an amount of land greater than what we now use for food production. This would cause many strains.
So if we are to use alcohol fuels to achieve energy independence, a broader resource base is needed. This can be provided by methanol, which can come from both a broader array of biomass materials and also from coal and natural gas. Methanol production from coal is particularly important, since coal is America's, and the world's, cheapest and most prevalent energy resource. The United States could power its entire economy on coal for centuries, and large reserves also exist in allied countries. Current coal prices stand in the range of three cents a kilogram, much cheaper than agricultural products, so methanol can be made from coal at low cost. By mixing it at various rates with ethanol over time, we can increase supplies, reduce prices, maximize environmental benefits, and vastly increase the flexibility of our alcohol economy. Insisting that future vehicles have the capability to burn both alcohols is thus critical.
Even with methanol in the mix, the shifting of the world from a petroleum to an alcohol standard would remain a great boon to farmers. Third World farmers as much as American growers would enjoy the benefits-not only from a vastly increased market for their products, but also from the collapse of petroleum prices (which currently threaten crushing fertilizer and tractor fuel prices). This adds a strong humanitarian case for the transition to flexible fuels.
By providing Third World populations with an extensive source of income, the alcohol economy would also give them the wherewithal to buy manufactured products from developed nations. We would end up selling far more tractors, harvesters, and hybrid seeds to Africans, for instance. That would improve economic outcomes for all nations.
THE MEGA FIX FOR WHAT AILS US
Energy conservation offers only a strained strategy for enduring economic oppression with very slightly ameliorated pain. Today's petroleum monopolists would still ultimately have us over a barrel. The ballyhooed hydrogen economy, meanwhile, is a hoax.
If we are to win the critical energy battle, there is only one way to do it. We must take ourselves, and the rest of the world, off the petroleum standard. Only by doing this can we destroy the economic power of our enemies at the very foundations. Only in this way can we transfer control of the future from those who take their wealth, pre-made, from the ground (and therefore have no need for education or freedom), to those who make their wealth through hard work, skill, and creativity (who thus must build free societies which maximize the human potential
of every citizen).
Our nation's founders stipulated that the purpose of our government is to provide for our defense, promote our welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. In our current economic and military dilemma, decisive action for energy independence is one of the most dramatic steps we could take to achieve those ends. Congress should immediately require that all future vehicles sold in the U.S.A. be flexible-fueled, thereby launching us into an alcohol-energy future that holds promise like few other options within our grasp.
Dr. Robert Zubrin, president of the aerospace engineering and research firm Pioneer Astronautics, wrote The Case for Mars,and other books.