Alternative Fuels – What We Can Do

Posted by: admin on Sunday, August 24th, 2008

I think that one of the most daunting tasks facing this nation is finding an alternative to foreign oil.  Nothing makes more sense – we are sending the wealth of this nation to other countries, and they in turn hold us hostage at their whim.  This hostage situation not only drains our internal resources, but is not self sustaining and gives us no assurance that it will last.  Yet we keep on this same destructive path, and are reaching a point of desperation.

I have read a great deal about our nation’s efforts to become self sustaining.  It leaves me feeling frustrated, because I see alternatives that are not being explored, or are at least not noteworthy enough to get good press.  Yesterday, while researching today’s post, I ran across an article at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change website.  The article, which focuses on Brazil, and its use of gasohol, intrigued me.  Brazil imports no foreign oil, instead relying on sugar cane production to produce Anhydrous, which is blended with automotive gasoline, and Hydrous, which is used as a neat fuel in vehicles or blended with gasoline. 

Cars capable of running on alcohol are nothing new.  We need only look to the Ford Model T to realize that the capability is there.  The Model T was designed so that carburetor settings could be changed to allow the engine to run on either alcohol or gasoline, thus creating the first “flex fuel” vehicle in the United States.  The Model T with this capability was produced from 1908 to 1927, proving that it was not just another flash in the pan.  Henry Ford was a big advocate of ethanol, especially during Prohibition.  The reason that it was not carried on through the ages of the automobile?  Gas and oil were a cheaper alternative.  Now, we reach a point where this is not true any longer.

The study of Brazil’s ethanol plan is a must read for anyone interested in figures.  It is mandatory in Brazil that 20% ethanol must be blended with gasoline.  Fifty percent of sugar cane production is used in the making of ethanol.  This sounds like a lot – it isn’t.  Brazil only uses 10% of arable land for this sugar cane production.  The detritus from the production of ethanol, called bagesse, which is also of great value to the industry.  Bagesse is used as a fuel in co-generation systems, which produces electricity and thermal energy.  The excess from the industry is sold to the public grid, some 600 MW at the time of the writing of the report.

I can hear the arguments.  We do not produce a lot of sugar cane in this country.  For one thing, it must not be subjected to freezing temperatures.  It can only be grown once in a season here, while in Brazil it can be almost continually grown.  The focus here in the US has been on corn as an alternative fuel.  The figures show us that the energy output/energy input level for corn is a mere 1.8 at its highest level.  Sugar cane, on the other hand, has a ratio of 8.3.   The argument will then go that if sugar cane cannot be grown several times in a year, and can only be grown in states like Louisiana and Texas, then it is not a viable source. 

That is a valid concern.  There is an answer to this for the US, but I don’t see a lot of research on it, at least compared to corn as the fuel of choice.  I’m talking about switchgrass.   Many years ago, switchgrass was abundant on the Plains before man decided that it needed to be plowed under, paved over, and built upon.  It is a perennial that is hardy, and produces about 5 times more energy than is required to grow it, making it about 20 times better a fuel resource than corn.

I believe that using corn as an alternative fuel is a poor choice.  For one thing, it takes away from the family dinner table in more ways than one.  The price of corn has been driven up to a high price per bushel, and it is a food source – something that in a planet that has people who are malnourished and dying of starvation need.  We can’t eat switchgrass, but we can surely make a ton of fuel out of it.  If Brazil can make do with sugar cane, then why are we not making an effort to use switchgrass for a fuel alternative?  Enquiring minds want to know…

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