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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Why Ethanol/Methanol Just Might Be The Answer For Energy Independence (And Why Hydrogen Most Definitely Isn't!)

Did you know hydrogen is not a source of energy? Or that hydrogen must be made in a process that requires more energy than is created? Dr. Robert Zubrin explains in the latest issue of The American Enterprise, published by AEI:

"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."

So if hyrdrogen is so clearly not the answer to the energy crisis, what is? Zubrin makes a convincing case that ethanol holds both the way out of our current dependance upon foreign oil but also frees up important foreign policy, political and economic options that must be ruled out under the existing situation:

"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."

Zubrin further explains how converting to an ethanol/methanol-based energy economy would have tremendously positive environmental consequences, as well stimulating the creation of vast new sources of wealth that simultaneously devalue the resources of our petroleum-based masters.

Ethanol and methanol are not without downsides, most notably the fact each produces less energy per gallon than does gasoline. But the economics of the energy market - to say nothing of the political equation beyond - are rapidly changing in favor of the new fuels.

This is a very significant article that deserves the widest possible distribution and discussion. Go here for the full story.

UPDATE: USA Today's Healey Looks at Ethanol

Jim Healey has been covering the auto industry for USA Today for several decades, so he's heard extraordinary claims for all sorts of new technologies and products over the years. Here's his take on ethanol.

UPDATE II: Not Everybody is so Enthusiastic on Ethanol

Coyote Blog has a much more skeptical take on ethanol, noting among other things that "every gallon of ethanol used actually INCREASES total petroleum use." He has some excellent links to other critical pieces as well.

UPDATE III: But Lou Ann Hammond is at Carlist.com

There are already 5 million FFVs on the road, so why aren't people like Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, focusing on getting E85 in the corner gas station? Good question, Lou Ann!

Cross-posted at Tapscott Behind the Wheel.