Sunday, May 21, 2006

Fuel Farming and ethanol

Harvesting fuel
Ethanol fuel has been getting quite a bit of attention lately due to the recent price jumps in gasoline. It is actually a technology basically abandoned almost 100 years ago due to a cheap and plentiful resource called oil. Henry Fords Model T was built to burn ethanol so that farmers could make their own fuel from corn. Ethanol is grain alcohol, and almost all gasoline sold today is comprised of 10 percent ethanol (E15).
The United States imports a little over 60 percent of its oil which translates into one-third of the U.S. trade deficit. Canada is the largest supplier at 20 percent, the Middle East provides slightly less than that, Nigeria, Venezuela and Mexico round out the rest of suppliers producing over 10 percent each. There are several other countries contributing less than 5 percent each of the total demand.
Converting to a home grown fuel alternative has a positive economic effect. A trade deficit reduction will strengthen the dollar and the economy, farmers have a crop in high demand, ethanol production is a domestic industry producing jobs, and fuel prices become less dependent on the price of crude.
Ethanol is produced by fermenting sugars, Enzymes convert starch into sugar, and then yeast converts these sugars into ethanol. I am more than curious about how governments will deal with people who decide to build a still to make "fuel".
Ethanol producers have also found ways to convert other cellulose materials into ethanol. Wood chips and grass clippings for example. E85 is 85 percent ethanol and 15% gasoline. This is being produced now, but there are a few roadblocks to overcome. For one, our fuel distribution system is all about gasoline, and we all know what that means. However, I am hopeful that governments have a better understanding of what the people want, and that legislation will prevent unwanted interference. Although it may seem surprising, there are quite a few states that have E85 gas stations. Minnesota is by far the leader with over 200 stations, whereas Texas has 4 and Washington D.C. has none.
E85 can't be used in just any automobile. You either need a Model T, or something built quite recently. Almost all vehicles built after 1990 can use 20 percent ethanol without ill-effects.
E85 has corrosive properties that damage rubber fuel lines, and untreated metal engine parts. New FFV or Flexi Fuel Vehicles incorporate special nitrate coatings on the engine parts to prevent engine failures. E85 is about 40 percent cheaper to buy, but nothing comes free. If you get 30 mpg on gas right now, that equates to 20 mpg on ethanol. It's high octane rating of about 110 doesn't have the same kick as regular gasoline.
Is ethanol the future fuel? I don't think so, but I think it will become a competitive alternative for the next 20 years or so. It is quite an exciting time for inventors. There appears to be a stream of energy innovation going on. Hydrogen, solar/battery, ethanol, what's next? Energy technology is no longer under the control of large corporations. The world is open to new energy sources, and each of these solutions require new ideas to make them work. Now that's something to think about.

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