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!
But of course, the global warming crowd doesn’t believe in carbon dioxide-caused global warming anymore than I do. The Kyoto treaty gives no credit for replacing any carbon dioxide generating energy source with nuclear energy. The Los Alamos proposal, which would reduce America’s CO2 net output from transportation to zero, would not count as reducing carbon dioxide at all.
It would be even cheaper to get the carbon for synthetic gasoline from our abundant coal reserves, using the nuclear reactor to supply the energy for the synthesis, but I’ve described only the ultimate carbon neutral synthesis.
The problems associated with conventional reactors — namely nuclear waste — were all solved in the 1980s. And there is the promising thorium reactor, which has the added advantage of being incapable of producing bomb material — the laws of physics prohibit it, so we need not depend on signing treaties to keep nukes out of the hands of terrorists with thorium reactors — and whose radioactive waste is very quickly no more radioactive than natural uranium ore. There is no real problem with radioactive waste even with current uranium reactors, provided the plutonium in the waste is removed and used to fuel reactors. Many of our reactors now are “burning” plutonium from bombs that we had to decommission as required by a treaty with the Russian Federation. Either we burn the plutonium, or it will be around for thousands of years just waiting for terrorists to recycle into bombs. If the plutonium is removed, the remaining waste becomes no more radioactive than naturally occurring pitchblende (a uranium ore) after about a century.
For decades, nuclear engineers have proposed that the waste be stored permanently in the mountains of Nevada, where it will be forever kept away from the biosphere. The politicians — in particular Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and President Obama — won’t allow this. Instead, they prefer that the radioactive waste be kept in steel drums, where it is currently leaking into the environment in Washington State.
Biomass is, once again, dependent on solar power, which is itself too diffuse to supply the high intensity energy required for transportation. Only nuclear energy is sufficiently concentrated to supply the necessary energy in the amounts we need.
Non-physicists don’t think about energy correctly. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, in one of his popular books, emphasized the correct way to think about energy: it is something that can be transformed from one form to another. Thus all current energy is ultimately nuclear energy, either nuclear fusion energy from the Sun or fission energy from nuclear reactors. Fission energy in turn is really stored gravitational collapse energy from supernovae, and solar hydrogen fusion is just the release of energy stored in protons created in the very early universe.
With synthetic gasoline we are just transferring the energy stored in uranium or thorium into the chemical bonds of hydrocarbons. The carbon and hydrogen are never used, just endlessly recycled through the atmosphere. In effect, using synthetic gasoline, we would run our cars on nuclear energy. But we are really doing that now.
With synthetic gasoline we need not incur the capital cost needed to switch to ethanol or hydrogen fuel cells or whatever. Ultimately these alternative stores of transportation energy would require a non-diffuse energy source, and the only such source is nuclear energy. So we will have to build the reactors anyway. Why not use a store of transportation energy that uses the current transportation infrastructure?
The free market would build the nuclear reactors, if it were allowed to do so. Only regulation and lawsuit threat keeps the CO2 and foreign oil problems unsolved. Instead of the free market, we have ridiculous government mandates for ethanol from grains. Even libertarians and conservatives like Newt Gingrich have bought into the anti-free market idea of mandating automobiles that run on multiple sources of energy. The free market knows that gasoline is the most efficient form of energy storage for transportation, given foreseeable technology, and won’t go along with Gingrich, T. Boone Pickens, and others without the application of government coercion.
Think of the alternative energy storage proposals as alternative scientific theories. Only false theories have to be imposed by force. People can always be persuaded to accept true theories.