You Put That in Your Car?

Is it just me?

Like your average working parent, I can’t look at the media’s alarmist take on the world food crisis (re: increasing prices of basic foodstuff ) and stay unfazed.

Like many upper middle class North American, I probably don’t spend more than 10-15% of our household earnings on food.

That’s why I can afford to spend time on a second virtual job and churn out somewhat entertaining posts on games. :)

I know that there are many reasons for the increase in basic foodstuff price, oil price and speculation on futures being key drivers beneath it all. I’m not an economist but I know the basics.

I’m also fairly to the right in terms of Canadian economics policies (which is actually to left of America Centre, but this isn’t a comparative political blog). I strongly believe in a free economy with minimal obstacles to trade and ideas.

But for the love of all that is merciful in the universe, be it God or social Darwinism, why the hell are we allowing to create fuel for cars out of fucking FOOD?

Making ethanol out of corn, the food that Latin America depends on to survive and using it for cars is quite possibly the stupidest things humans have done in the last few years. It should be criminal!

That freaks me out way more than climate change (for the moment).

I’m a microbiologist, I (somewhat) know how Ethanol is produced. It’s basically what microorganisms excrete as waste when ‘eating’ plant sugars in the absence of oxygen.

I totally get how important it is to find an alternative fuel source. The developing world, China and India’s at its head, can’t be denied the growth the occidental powers were allowed just because we did it first and now there’s not enough resources to go around.

I’m all for using ethanol as an alternative fuel (I prefer electricity, coming from a fully Hydro-powered region of the world), but come on people! Ethanol can be created from anything that has a sufficient amount of complex sugars, as long as we use the proper tools to unlock them.

Anyone that says that other ethanol producing technology aren’t worth it yet should take a good look at rising Maize price (and everything else getting hit because of oil). Also, look at the food riots that have flared in Haiti and Africa. After all that, one should think about supporting the funding of some serious R&D.

Use cornstalk, Grass, Sawdust… We’ve found bacteria and yeast that thrive on the quasi-useless byproducts of agriculture.

Heck use Maple Syrup, it’s not like the world needs it to survive!

If I’ve discovered a bacteria that can degrade Chrysene into Carbon Monoxide during my Master’s research (which is as ‘unedible’ as rock) there’s a bug out there that will eat up our worst waste and shit fuel.

I can afford to pay 100% more for food in the short term… but a lot of people in North America and Europe can’t, let alone the rest of the world. That alone is good enough to stop using corn ethanol for fuel now.

Do you agree or am I full of it?

(We’ll return to our regular programming soon… that shit really freaks me out and I feel I can’t do anything about it)


  1. There’s a bit of a mitigating factor, though, in that corn is wildly, wildly overutilized and overproduced in America. Go into any super market. In the front, you’ve got the registers. On one wall, you’ve got produce. On one wall, you’ve got meat. On one wall, you’ve got dairy.

    Pretty much everything between those four walls, though, is made out of corn, processed in every way imaginable and many not. As a country, we’re (the US) overfed yet malnourished because pretty much everything is derived from corn.

    Asmors last blog post..UET-01: Introducing Unified Encounter Theory

  2. Sandrinnad says:

    completely agree.

    food is for eating and there are lots of other things they could use.

    not just rising corn prices – flour is going up too because corn is being planted instead of wheat….

    I did hear about a Canadian company I think? that was doing work on using agricultural waste (mostly corn stalks I believe) so I’m hoping that attracts some attention.

  3. @Asmor: I understand why it is done.. but doing this in the US drives global corn prices up as producers worldwide want a piece of the very lucrative Ethanol fuel market… this is just completely unacceptable and almost criminally short-sighted.

    As Sandrinnad says, make fuel of of the freaking stalks and keep using the rest for corn chips and Corn Pops!

  4. I’m down here in America’s heartland, the state of Iowa to be exact. Our key products are corn and soybeans, and we’ve been pushing to use corn for Ethanol for years, in fact, it’s the only thing that I put in my car.

    Corn is a fast product to grow, and it produces high yields, not even to mention the fact that it is cheap. Most of the corn that we produce isn’t of the breed that is good to eat, it’s used for cattle feed, but it is this stuff that can be turned to Ethanol as well. It gives us more money!!!!! Which our state quickly misspends as soon as it comes in.

    Alternative fuels and Fritoes are made out of two separate products, and to say other wise is just cashing in on the global fear that seems to be present all over the place. PLEASE DON’T GET ME STARTED!!!!

    Political crap is not something that I find very fun, outside of gaming anyway. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to sit down and wait for the next show to start.

    Ripper Xs last blog post..Building a Fantasy Calander

  5. Rip: All I’m saying is feed the cows and the American people (and those who buy it abroad) with the corn America produces… Then Mexico doesn’t have food riots because their corn price rise because greedy mexican producers go for the ethanol market…

    Make ethanol with the cornstalks and husks… Then the Heartlands makes more money per stalk than ever before. A win/win in my book.

    Anyway it’s a mater of years before it happens.

  6. I’m with you 100% on the content there man – but I confess that this is the first time I can recall you swearing on your blog.

    We’ll make an Aussie of you yet. :)

  7. Most of the corn that we produce isn’t of the breed that is good to eat

    True. But it takes up land that could be used for food. And with world hunger as it is, there’s little justification for not doing so. So when we say we’re making it out of food, it’s both literal and figurative, since every ethanol crop we grow is one food crop we don’t.

    Aside from that, ethanol is not a solution to fuel problems in any way. It’s cleaner than gas, but still not clean. Additionally, it’s not sustainable. If we were to convert all north american cars to ethanol, we’d need pretty much all of the available growing land to grow ethanol crops, instead of food. (And I think we still wouldn’t get enough.) In any case, we’d either starve or not have enough ethanol.

    If we want alternative fuel sources, ethanol can not cover it. Yet so much emphasis is being placed on ethanol and biodiesel, that should be placed on hydrogen, electric, and nuclear power.

  8. I’ve not seen the numbers, but my gut feeling is that you are right. I want to see an environmental impact assessment for using corn as a fuel stock. It is more water efficient than most C3 crops, but I wonder if, after making it a fuel stock, the rotation cycles will be long enough to keep fertilizer loads down. If we end up having to greatly increase our petroleum usage to keep the crops growing, we are defeating the purpose of moving away from petroleum. On the other hand, I would love to see our combustion processes run on materials that are part of the active biosphere. If we could switch our entire petroleum economy to biofuels, we could hit a steady state for carbon emissions.

    I’d be interested in a bacteria/fungal suite that converts cellulose and lignin into ethanol. Run your fermentation tanks, pull off the EtOH, plow the microbial biomass back into the fields where the feed stock came from, you should be able to minimize the leeching of minerals from the soil.

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..Avoidance memes

  9. @Gazza: I’m a firm believer that swearing when used sparingly can be effective.

    @Rip through Graham’s comment: I confess that I do not know why so much ‘unedible’ corn is grown… probably because it’s easier to grow on poorer land. Many of my rants allow me to learn more about stuff like that.

    I’m not one to say that America should feed the world for free, I don’t believe in that. I’m against screwing global economics by fostering deviant practices in more fragile economies … which is easy to do given the size of America’s markets.

    @Michael: With China and India getting acquainted with the joys of the middle class, I strongly believe that inventive alternative fuels that have limited impact on established economic patterns are needed.

  10. And I’m a firm believer that swearing can be used effectively, and is also fun.

    Hell Damn Fart!

  11. One major reason the US produces so much feed corn is that we produce a lot of meat. A cow fed only on grain uses about 16 kg of grain per kg of beef. At 12.7 billion kg of beef consumed in the US in a year, that means that to feed them corn, we’d need about 200 million metric tons of it. The US production of corn is about 250 mmts, though obviously we don’t feed our cattle solely on grain. Add in the rest of the livestock grown and consumed here, and you have a significant internal market for feed corn.

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..Avoidance memes

  12. Last week I had the opportunity to go out to dinner with Dr. Stephen Chu, a Nobel laureate and the director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories in California. He took the position only for one reason: to help solve the energy crisis.

    Here’s his PowerPoint. The first part is explaining climate change is real and its future effects. The second section focuses on different ways to produce energy, including many different ways of capturing bio-energy. It might help you to understand both the real limitations that are still facing researchers, and that some extremely bright and driven scientists are devoting the energies of entire national laboratories to these problems:

    And yes, corn-ethanol is not a solution to anything, I agree.

    His bio:

    Phased Weasels last blog post..Using Consumables

  13. The amount of food produced is not a major issue, the way it is distributed is. At least a few years back there was enough food for everyone, if it only was distributed evenly, which it is not.

    Using corn for fuel isn’t helping. Eating a lot of meat isn’t helping.

    Tommis last blog post..Summer

  14. Just to note, Stephen Colbert is putting his usual satirical twist on ethanol as I type this. (Including saying that you need to burn 129 barrels of fossil fuel to get 100 barrels of ethanol, which I’m not sure of the validity of, but is damning if true.)

    In any case, a recent report from britain shows that if would take a year’s production on land the size of 3 soccer pitches (I think, maybe more) for one flight from london to new york.

    I’ll post the video as soon as I wake up tomorrow, unless someone beats me to it.

    For now, how about a popular mechanics article to scare you a bit:

    (The frightening stats, if we keep going down this path, are on page 2.)

  15. Personally, I think the unreasoning fear of nuclear power is a large part of the problem – and being from Australia, that’s particularly damning (more uranium than anywhere else, and we have only ONE power plant). Chernobyl (and to a much lesser extent Three Mile Island) have scared a lot of people far beyond any reason.

    But I am comforted by the fact that people far smarter than me are working on the problem.

  16. Agreed, GAZZA. In fact, that’s one of the things I was talking to Chatty about earlier.

    Of course, Canada is a big producer of (very safe) nuclear reactors, so we’re a bit biased. :)

    Doesn’t really help with automotive fuel, though. At least not until we get the “Mr. Fusion” from Back to the Future 2.

  17. Personally, I laugh in delight as this latest episode of FUADmongering by the monosource media unexpectedly results in greater acceptance of superior genetically modified crops.

    Relax, chill, mellow out. There’s plenty of food now and still will be in the future. It’s not really a matter of shortages or supply; the real problems are the idiot restrictions on international trade — shortsighted nationalistically neurotic tariffs, and ignorantly bigoted paranoia about genetically modified crops — and the profiteering corruption in totalitarian states that prevent its delivery to the genuinely needy.

    That, and the monosource media creating a false atmosphere of crisis because targeting the psychological link between fear and excitement in women, who control approximately 80% of consumer spending in the western world, continues to work for them so well.

    Now, that being said, and as a usa pro-business libertarian who’s sick to death of uniformed knee-jerk criticism of his country done by supposed grown adults who are in fact just mainly trying to show off to each other their capacity for faux-cynical condescension as though they were still insecure high school adolescents desperately seeking peer approval (and that’s not directed at anyone here BTW), nevertheless, the production of non-feed corn stocks for ethanol is pretty damn stupid, and far too much a result of porkly kickback subsidies to large megacorporation farming divisions such as ADM.

    And which are another story entirely from support subsidies to smaller corporation farmers who operate at some of the highest levels of industrial planning on the narrowest margins in the world.

    Yes, there’s big political money in corn subsidies and production, and not much can be done about that. But I wouldn’t worry about it too much, because there’s just so much amazing competitive stuff in the new tech pipeline that’s too likely to render it irrelevant in the soon-enough.

    As a counterweight to the dystopian doom-criers, I recommend the Al Fin and Next Big Future blogs for daily headlines, and The Futurist for biweekly to monthly in-depth examinations and projections.

  18. That, and the monosource media creating a false atmosphere of crisis because targeting the psychological link between fear and excitement in women, who control approximately 80% of consumer spending in the western world, continues to work for them so well.

    What is this psychological link between fear and excitement in women? Is it exclusive to women?

    Tommis last blog post..Summer

  19. “I’m not one to say that America should feed the world for free,” why not? I’m not a socialist by any means of the word, but if the surplus exists it is better to distribute or use it rather than to make it waste. They already have the practice of subsidies to farmers to grow and dispose of surplus crops so that prices remain stable. Subsidies aren’t bad ideas, but when they are for that reason they are. Grow and use. Turn that stuff into ethanol, or use the processes already in place to turn it into organic building materials or plastic like materials. Le sigh. Why did you have to get started on environmental stuff! :)

    The environmental issue that I would like to see tackled is better waste disposal services. Using things like your bacteria, or more chemical means of breaking down waste into materials that can be processed, to get rid of the massive amounts of waste that we are producing. I saw a mop that was put into degradable organic packaging. That made me incredibly happy. I don’t care about the box after I’ve purchased the product, and it gets burned or tossed anyways. See what you’ve started . . .

  20. This is really two issues. A scientific one and a political one. The big fat problem here is the how different the two landscapes are.


    In the US this is mostly about corporations doing what they want. Anything to make a buck. I’ve not dealt personally with any but I’ve never heard anything good about big farm corporations or some seed suppliers. The basic gist of what I keep hearing from all sides is that they do whatever they want and all they want to do is make money. Small farmers, those who are left, would probably leap at anything by this point to pay the bills from what I’ve heard. I haven’t asked in a few years but the prices on a lot of produce used to be fixed per bushel here and the price hadn’t changed since the 70′s.

    I’m far from an expert but at a guess I think the farming community would go for it. So that’s one side of it. Another point here is that corn is used to promote ethanol. I live in Illinois and went to school for a bit in Saskatchewan. Most of the midwest US and Canada that I’ve seen have large tracts of farmland. The University of Saskatchewan had two main disciplines, agriculture and engineering. So it’s kind of hard to overstate how people view this and I think a lot of them view it as supporting their farmers. Most of whom have heard about how hard it is to be a farmer anymore. Unfortunately I don’t know that the news about most farmers having been forced to sell their land for financial reasons and give way to huge corporate affairs is as widespread.


    There are other ways and other research going on in this idea space. Basically there appears to be considerable effort going into producing ethanol from non-food sources. Here are a few links because I’m not a scientist. Well, I can fake being a CompSci but that doesn’t help me much here. :) I think some of the links were mentioned by others already, sorry. This is just all I know about it which isn’t much.

    General overview of fuel issues with some humor – choose the “Car of the Future” video

    Work with cyanobacteria producing cellulose (and also sucrose and glucose) – basically another source to convert into ethanol without corn

    Special link for Chatty – Start taming your ogres now!

  21. Granger44 says:

    I personally don’t have any problem with transforming corn into fuel, especially since that fuel might be used to spread the rest of the surplus food that the US and Canada have to areas that need it or reduce the part of the price that is from fuel costs and allow a poor family to have more nutritional options.

  22. Have I ever mentioned how many cool things and points of views I learn when I rant like this?

    Don’t worry it won’t become an habit… as I said before I have but one blog and when I feel strongly about something I will talk about it.

    @Micheal re feed corn: Makes sense, you gotta feed meat and we all know how disastrous feeding them with animal byproduct meal could become.

    @Phased: Thnaks man, I’ll have a look at it and it makes me hopeful again.

    @Gazza and Graham: Nuclear power makes sense… as long as it’s done by properly run companies/organizations. I like Hydro myself, but a lot of countries don’t have the hydrographic bassin to pull it off on the scale that eastern Canada and Finland do.

    I’m also rooting for Mr Fusion!

    @Acksiom: Welcome on the blog and thanks for the links. I’ll look at them as additional sources of info.

    @John: The issue of giving out food (and paying for it’s transport) is exceedingly complex because of subsidies and planned overproduction. I don’t want to go there. I’m market driven (and naive) enough to hope for better commercial rules and less barriers… for the rest I’ll stick to RPGs.

    @Lanir: John, see what Lanir says! :)

    Also thanks for the links, I’m writing a service proposal for my Microwave Ogres right after this! :)

    @Granger44: If only it had no effect on the price of corn elsewhere… but I really don,t know how much corn-ethanol drives up prices… I just can’t believe in it as a long term solution.

    Once again thanks one and all. Let’s return to our scheduled programming before I get delivered a few bushels of pig corn.

  23. Shortsightedness is the main problem. Using corn to make fuel is a dumb idea. I’m no economist, nor am I a botanist, but I’m pretty sure that when you combine the world’s fuel consumption with the world’s food consumption, corn prices will go up. I saw this one coming about 2 years ago. Not to mention that crop rotation will be almost nonexistent to keep up with the demand.
    Oh and nuclear power won’t stop rising fuel prices. I saw a graph somewhere that broke out US energy sources (for homes, businesses, etc) and less than 20% came from oil refineries. Most of it came from nuclear, hydro, and coal plants. Granted, an extra nuclear plant here and there might alleviate some of the brownouts that parts of the country have, but that is another problem.

  24. -Jason-
    The long range goal of using nuclear power is to wean us off of oil and coal as fuel sources. (Dropping Hydro would be nice too, but it is much less objectionable on small scales than coal.) I’m not convinced that fission is the way to go as a power source either, since in the US at least, “Well Run Power Plant” is usually an oxymoron, and even if the regulations were present and enforced when the plants were built, there is no guarantee that one of our congresses with a more libertarian bent wouldn’t cut back on regulation and enforcement over the lifetime of the plants. (Notice that we have a political cycle of deregulation, disaster, and cleanup, and we have to hope that the cleanup phase happens during a time when the deregulaters aren’t currently in power.)

    Now, if the Canadians manage to complete the prototype fusion reactor that they are working on, we have some serious hope for a reasonable stopgap solution to our energy needs.

    Back before the news became all terrorism all the time, I was hearing some hopeful things on the new feasibility assessments on an orbital beanstalk, something that could make solar power a reasonable global power source in the next 30-40 years.

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..The identifiers are longer than the post… again.

  25. Yeah, but oil and coal as a fuel source for our energy needs is pretty insignificant anyways. One of the things the French have done really well is Nuclear power. I do agree with you on the the “well run power plant” bit. Power plants are national security concerns and as such should have the most stringent regulations on them. But that doesn’t mean we should quit building more. Same with oil refineries.
    Edit: found that graph. 2% of all energy production in 2006 came from oil. More than 50% came from coal. 20% came from nuclear power. If we could switch nuclear and coal, I would be thrilled.

  26. Jason, as of 2000, Coal, Natural Gas, and Crude Oil provided about 80% of the US total energy production. I know we haven’t built any new nuclear plants, I’m pretty sure there haven’t been any large scale hydro plants built since then.

    Sadly I don’t have great numbers on France, and I’ve forgotten almost as much French as I learned a decade ago, so I can’t go looking at their governmental reports, but while Nuclear power represents about 78% of their electricity production, I haven’t found what percent of their total energy usage that makes up. One important issue is that France is a lot smaller than the US, meaning that they need a lot fewer plants to make electricty production sufficiently local to keep transmission efficiencies acceptable. Less spread out also means that transport of hazardous materials to and from the plants is less of a problem.

    This is a poor assumption, but assuming similar power usage per capita, then the US, with 19% of our electricity coming from nuclear plants and approximately 300 million people actually produces, by a narrow margin, more electricity by nuclear power than France with 78.1% and 64.5 million people. (Essentially, 57 million people in the US get the electricity they use to live and work from fission, while 50 million people in France do the same.
    To further muddy the waters, the above comparison uses numbers from Wikipedia.

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..The identifiers are longer than the post… again.

  27. Hooray for science! I think we’re both arguing that something must be done, but we’re disagreeing on what. Like I said, if we can swap the numbers for nuclear and coal, that would go a long long way toward making the US, hell, the entire North American continent more efficient. I just did some reading. If 70% of US drivers were to buy hybrids, we would still have an energy surplus. That’s pretty darn significant and is something we need to work towards.
    Oh and about France, I was referring to the quality of their plants, not the energy output. Since France has not stopped producing nuclear plants, they have continuously improved their standards. That’s what I want for the US and Canada.

  28. Land use isn’t an issue in the US. Remember, we pay farmers to not grow stuff. Why? Because there isn’t a market for our corn. We grow corn for cows because we already grow too much corn for people.

    So how can there be food riots when we grow too much corn?

    Because countries try to inhibit food imports in order to support *their* indigenous farmers. If the markets allowed it, the US could be sea-to-shining-sea in corn and soybeans and we could feed the world. But not everybody wants to buy our corn.

    So we end up paying farmers to leave their fields fallow in order to keep the price of corn from dropping into the tank, while parts of the world starve.

    - Brian

  29. I’m just curious what people’s opinion of making bio-diesel out of recycled bio-waste (unused animal parts from processed food waste, used cooking oil & grease, etc.) might be. Bio-diesel is not cleaner than fuel cells or the like, but diesel engines from what I’ve seen get better mileage than gasoline engines, meaning that what they might lose in cleanliness they make up for in efficiency. I doubt if we could shift to it wholesale, but for a lot of municipal services (school buses, garbage trucks, etc.) or trucking lines, it might be a viable alternative since you don’t have to do anything to the vehicles to get them to burn bio-diesel.

    Badelaires last blog post..Korgoth, We Hardly Knew Ye!

  30. It’s a tough call, Badelaire. If we can reuse our waste products, I am all for it, but what I don’t want to see is rising costs because of it. It will defeat the purpose of moving to biofuels if it costs more to produce than gasoline.

  31. I would agree with you Badeleraire (Welcome on the blog!), if it’s cheaper than oil and before we perfect a cleaner more efficient fuel systems like Hydrogen-powered cars.

  32. I’m in the Coal Power industry for all intents and purposes. Before you break out the torches and pitchforks, specificaly I work in Air Pollution Control. Systems that clean the pollution before it exits the smokestacks. So I see a lot of input on both sides of the issue.

    Nuclear is the way to go, it has no airborne pollutants, but a solution needs to be found for disposing of the waste. Safety, etc is not a problem anymore, as advancements in France and Japan have really worked that out. But becasue the US has an irrational fear of nuclear, the plants aren’t being built. And because the plants aren’t being built, research isn’t being done on safe waste disposal. In my opinion, if you start building the plants (which is beginning to happen, new contracts in the US, specifically South Carolina I think, have been signed), research can be done to figure out a solution to disposing the waste. it’s not like the waste can’t be temporarily stored. The storage time is over 100 years in many cases. Look at the advancements we’ve made in the last 5. I believe if the money and effort is put into it a safe disposal solution can be found within 20 years or sooner.

    However, it is very hard to discount coal. Coal is the most abundant form of fuel in the US, and as such is the cheapest. But as more and more APC regulations sink in, coal power becomes more and more expensive, not to the power companies, but to the consumer, whom they pass the cost on to. Power cost doesn’t just affect your own pocketbook directly, it also affects any industry that has to use it (so, pretty much everything goes up in price). The CO2 issue is a major problem for the coal industry, not becasue they are unwilling to do it, but because they have no idea how to do it, or even what regulations are going to be. Therefore thay cannot put a price to it. The uncertainty is worse for the Power Industry than anything else, and is really paralyzing the industry. The sequestration technology is not there yet, and the government can’t make up it’s mind how it is going to be regulated. In the meantime, every time they propose a new plant to feed the power-hungry nation, they get sued by environmental groups who want to see Carbon Control (which doesn’t exist yet). But nuclear is feared, and has a much longer lead time to get constructed. Natural gas is expensive, and in some ways dangerous (especially Liquified Natural Gas). So they continue to operate the old plants longer and longer, past the life they were designed for, and they are not required to add new pollution controls onto those.

    Solar and Wind are not nearly efficient enoguh to be economical, and have an issue with consistancy. If we can fix those problems, it becomes more feasable. But you are still restricted to areas with consistant sun or wind. And some of the best places for winfd simply don’t want to see a wind farm in their back yard.

    I kind of like hydro, specificly the off-seas turbines that run off of currents. But that tech isn’t ready yet, I wish they would look into it more. Geo and Dams are good, but site specific, and there are enviromental issues there too.

    Oh, and the power grid infrastructure in the US needs a major overhaul, but I don’t see that happening soon.

    Hmm, sorry about the rant. Completely off-topic now that I think about it.

    A few points on ethanol. The US subsidizes farmers who make corn for ethanol, so the farmers see it as extremely profitable, and since farming is a very hot or cold business, they are going to jump on something that is a sure thing, damn the consequences. And since corn for foodstock is not around, beef and other grain fed animal prices go up. Maybe milk too. And since the land is not being used for food corn, wheat, etc, prices of those are going up. This isn’t a US phenonmenon, I believe corn is being grown for ethanol in South America too. A study was released a few months ago (heard on NPR) that confirmed the thing that when all factors are taken into account, ethonol when produced from foodstock is not as carbon efficient as gas. It kind of got buried though. Also I understand that ethanol does not burn as effieciently as gas, so gas milage is better than ethanol milage.

    Existing technology will let us increase vehicle fuel efficiency. Even without looking at hybrids and such. The US can’t reduce it’s fuel consumption by driving less, because the nation’s infrastructure has been built around big cities and long commutes, and in many places a poor mass transit system. We may start driving fewer SUV’s, but as a van owner I can definitely relate to the need for the carrying capacity for a family. Our best bet is to start by increasing fuel economies to reduce the demand on oil, reducing the price. Ethanol from sources such as feed waste and switchgrass may also be a possibility to help reduce foreign consumption.

    Man, I’m chatty today. Oh, and if my company finds out I blogged anti-coal, I may not have a job tomorrow. I’ll post if that happens! :)

    shadow145s last blog post..4E mechanic of the moment: Warlord Powers

  33. Chatty
    So long as the total fuel output is lower than the total fuel input (minus sunlight) required to produce it, assorted bio-fuels can cost a bit more than fossil fuels and still be worth it. There are a lot of different economies to consider, and the money economy is only one of them.

    I’ve got some concerns about Hydrogen. It burns reasonably cleanly (though there is a possibility that water exhaust could be worse than burnt hydrocarbons in several situations. The increase in humidity in basin cities could be problematic.) and is a fairly good battery molecule, but I’m not convinced that it is viable until we have solved the energy problem itself. To produce hydrogen, you need a great deal of ready energy, even for enzymatic processes, and if we are talking electrolysis, better to store the energy in actual batteries. (If your feed stock isn’t water, than you run into the problem that it is either something you have to grow (adding additional trophic levels to your production scheme) or it is hydrocarbons, which means we are taking a fuel source and turning it into another fuel source, which is going to be less efficient than using the first fuel source as fuel.
    (And in the case of hydrogen producing bacteria, one suspects, though it has been a lot of years since microbial ecology) that the energy margins are thin, since the associated bacteria that will be necessary to maintain production mostly consume H2.)

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..The identifiers are longer than the post… again.

  34. -shadow-
    For nuclear, we need storage or containment more than disposal. That is one of those areas that France is outstripping the US. They have active research programs on ways to use radioactive wastes. We have active research in ways to make sure that if any new use for a component of our radioactive waste gets found, it is a huge hassle actually getting to it to use it.

    An additional problem with EtOH is smog. Burning gasoline adds to the particulate load in the local atmosphere, but to turn that into smog, it has to find some water to get friendly with. Burning EtOH adds water to the air, and since cars aren’t the only place to find the other pollutants that make up smog, the increase in humidity is likely to raise smog levels in places where smog is already a problem.
    Even without the smog issue, the extra water vapor is going to play hell with asthmatics. We are seeing this happen in Las Vegas due to the massive amount of water the casinos and developers spray into the air. Their summer time humidities have been hitting 12+ percent, which is causing problems for people who moved there specifically so they could breathe.

  35. Biodiesel is an interesting situation. If it can be produced efficiently, so that it actually results in less or equal emissions and less consumption of crude oil along the entire process (including creation), then I think it’s a good thing to introduce to the trucking industry while we’re working on a bigger solution.

    It should not be legislated into being, however, for the same reasons that the ethanol legislation is problematic.

    And exhaust fumes will smell like french… I’m sorry, freedom fries. (I still find the fact that the US tried that hilarious. It’s like watching an elementary school playground.)

    Anyways, the increase in hydroelectric power consumption in the states? It’s not from you building more hydro plants.

    It’s from all the hydro up here in Canada selling you more and more of our excess power.

  36. One other consideration with any fuel alternatives (ethanol, hydrogen, whatever) is that the infrastructure isn’t there yet, and will be an expensive undertaking. Where exactly do you fill up a hydrogen fueled car? This leads to a chicken/egg scenario, which is solvable, but expensive, and just one more thing to consider.

    shadow145s last blog post..4E mechanic of the moment: Warlord Powers

  37. Tommi: I was referring to the well-established human response to danger with sexual arousal. Certainly there’s a link between fear and excitement in males also; it’s just not as suitable for advertising exploitation because it more tends to trigger the flight-fight response in males, and making your customers angry and combative, or driving them away, doesn’t work so well. Men respond better to visual displays of healthy reproductive characteristics.

  38. The “car of the future” Nova video I gave a link to above mentions a lot of the issues brought up. The idea that ethanol might not really be better in terms of overall resources used and waste products generated, what’s happening with fuel economy in modern cars (and why), and the fuel infrastructure problems. I could summarize but I’d feel silly when I might drop a detail wrong and spread misinformation by accident after they went through the effort of getting a lot of real scientists in front of the camera to ‘splain things in plain English. The video was posted in the last couple weeks so the facts should be recent.

  39. I’ll have to check it out, Lanir. One of the things that everybody can agree on, regardless of their nationality and political leanings, is the idea of energy independence. Everybody wants renewable power, cheap fuel, and economic transportation.

  40. They just need to quit putting corn syrup in EVERYTHING!!! And they wonder why people in the U.S. are fat…

  41. Sandrinnad says:

    @Tala – especially the high fructose corn syrup!! that stuff is _so_ bad for you and I swear it just kills flavour.

  42. But it’s cheaper than sugar. That’s why they use it.

  43. @Tala: Yeah, why not use it for fuel instead…

    Oh wait…

    BTW Tala, any reason why you use Ripper X’s blog as your URL? He wasn’t all that keen on the subject…

  44. Tangent128 says:

    I’ve always been a fan of nuclear power, as well. Storing the waste may be an issue, but if we built enough, we’d have the energy to just launch it into space. ;) (Or reprocess it and build Project Orion…)

    Also interesting- there’s some sort of generator design that uses the temperature difference between the ocean surface and (deep) floor to generate power.
    Not much use here by the Chesapeake, but Hawaii and the West Coast might get some use out of that.

  45. Tangent
    The space idea is remarkably bad for a couple of reasons. 1, rockets blow up. This is bad when they carry relatively small amounts of radioactive material in the form of the power supply for a satellite. When it becomes tons of waste material, often more dangerous that fresh nuclear fuel, you have huge problems. We are probably further from acceptably reliable rockets for this sort of thing than we are from commercial fusion. Hell, we can’t keep airplanes from hitting the ground when we don’t want them to.

    2. Our descendants would curse our names if we did that. Nuclear waste contains all sorts of novel isotopes, things that are a pain in the ass so generate in the lab. As new applications are found for them, future generations will be able to use our radioactive junk for other purposes.

    Biggest problem with thermal differential power generation is that you end up moving heat . You cool off the water at the top of the system and you heat up the water at the bottom. Doing this on the scale of a test plant is probably not a problem, but if you start producing a significant portion of the world’s power this way, and you have the potential to seriously screw with the heat flow of the oceans. Biggest fun part? Until you screw around with it, you don’t know what changes you’ll make, how big they’ll be , and how long they’ll last. These aren’t fragile systems, but they are chaotic ones. That said, for small scale power generation, it is a wonderful idea.

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..More book lists.

  46. Tangent128 says:

    Nuclear power wouldn’t help rockets much (beyond the Orion, but that’s deep space) anyway. I was thinking more railgun. Of course, you still need a projectile that won’t disintegrate.

    Hey, okay, compromise. We railgun the waste into space, but aim for it to impact the moon. Make our lazy descendents do the work to fetch it back.

  47. Active Earthbound storage is the way to go.

    If we are going pie in the sky,

    If you really want to cut back on pollution without decreasing standard of living, move as much industry as possible up into the vast and airless.

    For transit to orbit, either a catapult (the numbers work, not sure the materials science does) or a beanstalk (we are darned close to the material science for an elevator, and if someone would lift and deploy a proper solar sail, we could use one of the three nearly in earth’s orbit asteroids for an anchor point and do away with the need for a tail that goes way out into space.) Both of which have the immense benefit of not carrying their fuel supply on board. Coming back is easy, the 11kps well essentially begs for your return. There’s a lot of junk up there that could be processed, both CHON and NiFe rocks, energy is cheap and abundant, structures up there can be huge and fragile, making solar collectors easy to make. Lots of materials, lots of energy, a bunch of production processes that are impossible on earth due to air pressure or gravity. Huge initial investment. If other than one for an elevator anchor, the asteroids are too ambitious, there is always Lunar industries, most of the same benefits, though with a considerable gravity well (<3kps) cutting out some of the efficiency. Possibly a good way to bootstrap other orbital and interplanetary resource operation.

    Pulling back to a smaller investment, bootstrapping an orbital factory that turns the local asteroids into solar collection satellites wouldn’t cost much more than a regular launch schedule to void our nuclear wastes, is scalable, and at relatively low investments buys you a scaling power supply. (Though one that can probably be weaponized.)

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..More book lists.

  48. @ Chatty: Eh, he’ll get over it. Actually, I forgot to delete it. Didn’t realize it until it was too late. Oh well, he knows I’m screwy. I suppose that’s what happens when you share a computer with the ol’ man.

    As far as the whole gas thing, I’m not too overly impressed with the price of it overall. I work 20 miles from home, and the cost of it is killing me. Personally, I think it would almost be cheaper to go buy a horse and ride it to work. From what I’ve heard, I’m not the only person that has thought of that. When I stopped into a local gas station the other night, the gas attendant told me that a regular that comes in every morning showed up one day last week on a horse. He tied it up outside, and came in like he always does. When the gas attendant asked him about the horse, he said that it was cheaper than driving his truck to work everyday. I think the guy’s got the right idea…

  49. @Tala: Ahh I see!

    If it wasn’t for the climate, I’d push real hard for the adoption of using bikes for intra city transport. If gas hits 2$ a liter (it sits at 1,37 this morning, nearly double what it was 2 years ago), I guarantee that Drastic Changes will occur in our habits.

    I bought a Honda Fit last year, thinking I’d go smaller for the second car, boy am I glad we did.

    I predict that American car builders will whip out insanely fuel efficient cars by 2010 and THAT might save them and jump start the economy as people chuck all those intra-city SUVs to the junk heap.

    Naive? Check, Hopefull? Check!

  50. -Chatty-
    American Car Builders? 2 years? I think you may be overestimating our current technical and economic competence. It is going to take more than two years for the NorAm car manufacturers to get back to where they make a decent car, especially in the face of their current fiscal problems. Maybe the Germans or the Japanese will have North American models that can do that in 2 years, but Ford or GM? Especially with the massive consolidation and minimal internal competition, low quality car production has too much historical momentum in the NorAm companies to turn around that quickly.

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..4th edition stumbling

  51. @ Chatty and Michael:

    Even if the United States manufacturers, and I mean a big IF, were to be able to come up with extremely fuel efficient vehicles or ones that used alternate modes of fuel, it would still be another 6-10 years after that before you would see a significant change in what Americans drive. Not everybody has a ton of credit cards or buys everything on credit. Some of us prefer to just save for it and buy it when we can afford it. I didn’t come from a family with a bunch of money. Most of the cars that my folks ever bought were within that 6-10 year range. Especially in the area that we live in, most folks out here don’t make a ton of money. A lot of them live simply hand to mouth. You might see quite a few newer cars, but you see even more older ones. Some as old as 20-30 years old. I know I sure can’t afford $400 a month car payments with $200 on top going out for insurance. So to think that within a couple of years that you would see a huge difference in what Americans drive, is quite naive. That’s just based solely on what normal people can afford, and with the way our economy going, you’re REALLY not going to see it anytime soon.

  52. Fair enough… Thanks for the Reality check.

  53. Colbert Report clip

    (Skip to 4:55 for the bit.)

    Oh, and it was 30 soccer fields growing for a year that was needed for one transatlantic flight, not 3.