mm499: Blast from the Past! No. 53 – Fuel without oil, or corn

September 19, 2008
© Carbouval | Dreamstime.com

© Carbouval | Dreamstime.com

So it’s been pretty tough this week, as Faithful Reader might imagine, and we’re dipping our toes gingerly back into the blogging sea tonight.

Nevertheless, we’re all about doing the right thing here at Left-Handed Complement, and in that spirit we’re recycling some of yr (justifiably) humble svt‘s favorite electrons. And, with nearly 470 fresh daily posts in the past 16+ months, the recycling process has an exceptionally rich vein to mine.

I hereby stop apologizing for resuming our observance of the prime directive of blogging: Thou Shalt Blog Daily!

And, I’m guessing that most of you weren’t here nine months ago. As one of my favorite paper publications used to say as they flogged unsold back issues: “If you haven’t read it yet, it’s new for you!”

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Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

From last fall, originally posted November 13, 2007, and with a woman vice presidential candidate, more germane than ever, titled “mm193: Fuel without oil, or corn.”

MUDGE’S Musings

It’s been an ongoing theme (here, here and here) at Left-Handed Complement: the pandering, wrong-headed concentration on corn derived ethanol as the U.S. main alternative to Saudi (and Nigerian, Gulf of Mexico and North Slope) petroleum to fuel our transportation system.

This past weekend, the NYTimes featured a fascinating look at non-corn alternatives to powering our SUVs.

biomassethanol

For years, scientists have known that the building blocks in plant matter — not just corn kernels, but also corn stalks, wood chips, straw and even some household garbage — constituted an immense potential resource that could, in theory, help fill the gasoline tanks of America’s cars and trucks.

Mostly, they have focused on biology as a way to do it, tinkering with bacteria or fungi that could digest the plant material, known as biomass, and extract sugar that could be fermented into ethanol. But now, nipping at the heels of various companies using biological methods, is a new group of entrepreneurs, including Mr. Mandich, who favor chemistry.

The conceptual problem with ethanol from corn has always rested in the strong suspicion that the energy required to process corn to burn in one’s automobile exceeds the yield of energy so created.

Ethanol from corn is a political hot button, especially for all of the presidential campaigners prostrating themselves before Iowa’s farmers — isn’t it high time to divest this country from its inappropriate emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire in the primary process?

You don’t see Georgia influencing election trends, and yet:

In Georgia alone, enough waste wood is available to make two billion gallons of ethanol a year, Mr. Mandich said. If all that material could be captured and converted to fuel, it could replace about 1 percent of the nation’s gasoline consumption.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Fuel Without the Fossil – New York Times

Obviously, there are some very bright people working hard at solutions, made increasingly economically attractive as the baseline of comparison to petroleum-based fuels persists in climbing inexorably toward $4/gallon.

And, corn-based or not, it looks like ethanol is going to be the end result of all of this chemical creativity, since it’s ethanol that has the Congressionally mandated tax credit.

MUDGE used to believe that the fuel cell guys had the answer, but what with the way the real world works, I can’t see corner hydrogen pumps popping up in many neighborhoods in my lifetime. So chemically derived ethanol will have to do.

Good to see U.S. innovation persists. Like the current IBM advertisements proclaim, it’s easy to say, and so very much more difficult to actually do.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm429: World Bank: biofuels cause starvation

July 4, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

As food prices rise around the world, evidence that the biofuels initiatives are the cause keeps becoming clearer. As the entire issue of petroleum alternatives has become most pressing, the relationship between the diversion of food stocks to fuel stocks has been guessed at, but there have been few firm numbers of the impact.

Today The Guardian seems to have found the smoking gun.

First, a review. We have discussed this topic many times:

Fuel from Food: Just a bad idea all around

mm367: It’s not just a bad idea, it’s a crime
mm360: Global food price crisis: Genocide?
mm298: Nutty Richard Branson flies to Holland on biofuel
mm282: If it sounds too good to be true…
mm260: The other oil shock
mm233: Corn in the news – and not just in Iowa!
mm194: Friedman: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
mm193: Fuel without oil, or corn
mm084: Food versus fools – Salon.com
mm053: The case for turning crops into fuel – Saletan

guardian

Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis

Internal World Bank study delivers blow to plant energy drive

Aditya Chakrabortty | The Guardian, Friday July 4, 2008

Biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75% – far more than previously estimated – according to a confidential World Bank report obtained by the Guardian.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm385: Scientific victories are often ephemeral

May 19, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

Here in the replete West, such as at the home of yr (justifiably) humble svt, rice is an occasional side dish, a refreshing change from a potato, or pasta, usually accompanying a steaming chunk of animal protein.

In the hungry not-West, rice is entirely it.

Rice has been distressingly newsworthy lately, as prices have been climbing.

Even before this month’s very bad news (the story below, as well as the Burma cyclone of a couple of weeks ago that hit Southeast Asia’s rice bowl (Burma’s Irrawaddy delta) the hardest), there were shortages and unrest, sometimes violent, due to skyrocketing rice prices.

But the NYTimes makes clear, the latest threat to rice, and thus to the staple food of billions, is the lack of momentum in agricultural research.

Today’s villain is called the brown plant hopper. And it could have been stopped in its tracks, had the research establishment kept its eye on the ball.

nytimes

The Food Chain

World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut

By KEITH BRADSHER and ANDREW MARTIN | Published: May 18, 2008

LOS BAÑOS, Philippines — The brown plant hopper, an insect no bigger than a gnat, is multiplying by the billions and chewing through rice paddies in East Asia, threatening the diets of many poor people.

Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, the world’s main repository of information about rice, are trying to deal with problems like the rice hopper, which destroys plants, by developing stronger varieties of rice.

The damage to rice crops, occurring at a time of scarcity and high prices, could have been prevented. Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute here say that they know how to create rice varieties resistant to the insects but that budget cuts have prevented them from doing so.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm360: Global food price crisis: genocide?

April 26, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

Fellow WordPress.com blogger Dandelion Salad (and I call him my fellow blogger, which is a disservice to him, or gives me way too much credit) has a thoughtful essay on the increasingly dire global food price calamity.

You’re aware that food prices are skyrocketing, aren’t you? Here’s what The Economist (best magazine on the planet) had to say about it recently:

“This is a silent tsunami,” says Josette Sheeran of the World Food Programme, a United Nations agency. A wave of food-price inflation is moving through the world, leaving riots and shaken governments in its wake. For the first time in 30 years, food protests are erupting in many places at once. Bangladesh is in turmoil (see article); even China is worried (see article). Elsewhere, the food crisis of 2008 will test the assertion of Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, that famines do not happen in democracies.

That got my attention.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm298: Nutty Richard Branson flies to Holland on biofuel

February 26, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

Well, I’m sure that the august Mr. Branson was not present on the Virgin Atlantic test flight from London to Amsterdam the other day. Partially powered by biofuel processed from babassu nuts and coconut oil.

Doesn’t babassu nut sound like the latest dance craze? Well, it’s nut. Um, not.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm282: If it sounds too good to be true…

February 11, 2008

MUDGE’S Musings

Automotive breakthroughs – Truth, or Myth?

  • Carburetors that get you 100 miles to the gallon.
  • Gasoline engines that can be converted to run on water.

Myth, of course. Anyone trying to sell you stock in the latter, which seems to surface every few years, should be reported to the SEC.

Okay, those were easy ones. These next two are more difficult.

  • Hybrid vehicles are good for the environment.
  • Biofuels can cleanly end our dependence on petroleum.

Sorry, myths, both.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm269: Water – accept no substitutes!

January 29, 2008

MUDGE’S Musings

Water remains high up in U.S. consciousness. Ongoing shortages were a hot topic here two weeks ago.

The other day we pointed toward a picture story highlighting the opening of a new sewage to tap water facility in Southern California.

Turns out that this wasn’t this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©‘s first cut at the story. Two months ago we riffed extensively on this new facility.

Eileen Zimmerman has a detailed analysis that appeared at Slate.com recently; worth checking out.

Today, we look at water supplies for Southern California from a northern (California) perspective.

Read the rest of this entry »