Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ethanol 2.0

Remember my largely despised rant against corn based ethanol and how a study concluded that if all vehicles in the country ran on this type of fuel we would have just as many - but different - pollution problems and air quality issues? If not and you want to catch up, read this and pay attention to the comments where I get slammed by Bob Moffitt from ALAUM Clean Fuels Association. That was fun.

The reason I bring this up is because Georgia has just given permission to a company called Range Fuels to open a massive ethanol production plant. Range plans on building a plant capable of creating 20 million gallons of ethanol per year, with hopes of increasing that to 100 million by 2011. The cost of this plant is estimated at $150 million, which doesn't seem that bad when you consider the goal. For the record, $76 million of that is coming from a Department of Energy Grant. Wonder if the CEO of Range Fuels used to work for Halliburton?

I'm sure you think I'm about to get all angry and go on another rant about how much money we're pumping into ethanol before we have a real clear idea on how this will effect our environment, but you'd be wrong. I will admit there is a LOT of money being thrown around the ethanol kingdom, which in turn can distort rational thought, but the reason I'm in favor of this particular factory is because it's going to be producing cellulosic ethanol.

Anyone still left reading probably just asked 'what's dat?' Cellulosic ethanol uses plant waste such as wood chips, corn stalks, rice straw, grass or anything that would normally need to be disposed of to make fuel. If you just thought 'Shit, now it's going to be much more expensive to mulch my garden!' you weren't alone. But I did some research and found out that this report concluded the land resources in the U.S. alone could sustain producing 1.3 billion tons of biomass per year. That's billion with a B.

Besides, we could always sell our lawn clippings to make up the difference. I smell easy money all over this. I'm already considering putting my compost pile up for bid on Ebay.

If you're wondering (and I know you are!), that biomass will be sufficient to create enough cellulosic ethanol to replace more than 30% of the petroleum we use. Better yet, it will produce jobs and industry opportunities we never even thought of before. Right here in the United States of America. Considering how many jobs have gone to India lately, this is good news.

Want more good news? Try this article from Technology Review which claims researchers at MIT and Batelle Pacific Northwest National Labs have discovered a way to create ethanol out of trash. No shit!

Get it? No shit? We're talking about trash?

Anyway, the process 'doesn't produce the pollutants that have historically plagued efforts to convert waste into energy'. There is some lengthy explanation about the process which involves synthesizing waste and gases, but it's all over my head. I'll just take the brainiacs at their word that it works and pat them on the back. Let's just think about this for a second. Imagine all the crap we place in landfills and dump in the ocean being converted cleanly to a usuable fuel that will reduce emissions.

This isn't to say everyone is all warm and fuzzy inside about this new ethanol. Some researchers have already given up on both forms of ethanol (corn and cellulosic), claiming there is no way we could produce the massive amounts needed to make it cost effective. There is a group that is looking into using algea, which makes oil naturally, as another possible option. I just hope our cars don't smell like low tide when we get below a quarter of a tank.

There are still hurdles (always with the hurdles). Financing more ethanol producing plants being a major one. But so is, according to John Howe, VP of public affairs at Celunol (based in Cambridge, MA no less!) the goal of 15 billion gallons produced per year our government wants them to reach. Mr. Howe? 'That's well beyond what any one company or a large number of companies [can do]. It will take a massive national effort to get close to that goal.' Thank you, sir.

Plus there is always the chance this process will be too expensive to be able to compete with, not only standard petroleum based fuels, but the corn ethanol already being produced.

It's all baby steps, though. Who knows, in another year someone may have figured out how to utilize my own natural tendencies to power the entire world. What? Get enough Stella in me and anything's possible.

Except karaoke.

Today's distraction: Since it costs $150 bucks to fill my tank these days, I figured we could all use some cheap vacations. Here is a list of various cities and what it costs to stay in each area. You'll notice the main eastern cities are waaaaayy at the bottom. And, why it's nice India is cheap, there is no way in hell I'm staying in a cramped, hostel room with 33 other people. Thanks, anyway.

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