Biofuels are all the rage these days, as illustrated by a particularly silly article that appeared in the New York Times recently. It claimed that homebrew biodiesel could significantly reduce the U.S. demand for imported oil.
There is no way that ethanol from sugar, corn, or biomass is going to make a significant reduction in the U.S. demand for crude oil. Do the numbers:
The U.S. currently consumes 9.286 million barrels per day of gasoline (388.6 million gallons/day). According to the Times article cited above, between 10 and 14 pounds of sugar will be required to make a gallon of ethanol. This means that to replace the current U.S. consumption of gasoline with ethanol, which we will assume for simplicity has the same energy content per gallon as gasoline (actually a gallon of ethanol has about 80 percent the energy content of a gallon of gasoline), then we would need about two million tons of sugar per day, assuming the low end of 10 pounds of sugar per gallon.
The total sugar production of the U.S. is currently about 8 million tons per year; Mexico’s production is slightly less. So we are about a factor of 100 too low in our sugar production. This is an enormous shortfall. Just to meet the 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol per year mandated in the 2005 law has required one-third of the entire U.S. corn crop. In other words, to supply twenty days gasoline consumption, we had to use a third of all our yearly corn production.
Biomass of any type just uses surface area that could be used for other production, like trees for wood. In Brazil, they are now razing the rain forests to supply the biomass. I think the rain forests are far more valuable to humanity as rain forests. Beside the nice trees, there are also the animals that live therein.
The bottom line: solar energy, which is the source of biomass/grain/sugar, is just too diffuse to provide the energy we need for transportation.
The only solution is nuclear energy.
A recent study by Los Alamos National Laboratories shows how to manufacture gasoline from water and CO2 from the air: a nuclear reactor’s energy is used to split the hydrogen and carbon off from the oxygen in water and carbon dioxide, and to combine the two elements to create gasoline.
Los Alamos estimates that with off-the-shelf technology, the price at the pump for nuclear-generated gasoline is $4.60 per gallon, and a $5 billion off-the-shelf reactor/synthetic gasoline complex could supply 18,400 barrels per day. So to provide for current U.S. gasoline needs, we would need 500 reactors and associated complexes — a total cost of 2.5 trillion dollars, slightly more than this year’s federal budget deficit. Los Alamos also argues that modest technological improvements would be expected to halve the capital cost of the reactors and to reduce the gasoline price at the pump to $3.40 per gallon, a bit less than last summer’s U.S. average price for regular. In Europe today, the pump price is between $5.00 to $6.50 per gallon, due to high European gasoline taxes.
We’ve got the capital. Since September 2008, we have spent — completely wasted! — some $4 trillion dollars trying to get out of the financial crisis, twice the capital required.
If we assume that capital is free, apparently the assumption of the Obama administration, then the cost of synthetic gasoline would be $2.20 a gallon — less than today’s pump price.
Furthermore, creating gasoline by using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would just endlessly recycle the CO2 between our cars and the atmosphere. There would be no net addition of CO2 to the atmosphere. If one believes in anthropogenic global warming — I don’t — the problem is solved!