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June 18, 2005 11:54 PM   Subscribe

40% of the automotive sold fuel in brazil is ethanol, and brazil should be totally energy independent in five years. If they can do it, why not the US?
posted by delmoi (45 comments total)

 
Ethanol is good stuff, but my next car will be running of biodiesel.

Goes into unmodified diesel engine (and can readily mix in any proportion), drastically reduced emissions, and the exhaust smells like french fries.

And in answer to your question: I don't know.
posted by dreamsign at 12:10 AM on June 19, 2005


of = off
posted by dreamsign at 12:11 AM on June 19, 2005


Ethanol is not a replacement for gasoline. It is a cleaner fuel, and it provides price supports for farmers, but its social benefits beyond that are limited.

> ... to produce an average of 120 bushels of corn per acre using conventional production technology requires more than 140 gallons of gasoline equivalents ...

I don't know if sugar cane has the same petroleum-equivalent deficit when used as biofuel (this comment says "doesn't even come close"). Regardless, any crop-based fuel still requires petroleum-based fertilizers, under current agricultural approaches, and would not significantly reduce or change non-domestic petroleum needs, for either Europe or North America. (That comment continues: "To fuel the current US private auto fleet [alone] would need half of all arable land on the continental United States, year round, in sugar cane ... assuming you’ve got the natural-gas fertiliser required".)

Meanwhile any cropland devoted to ethanol is removed from food production, which could necessitate a social cost in the form of delivery of foodstuffs from external sources.

This works in Brazil because they can devote the farmland to biofuel production. Where does that farmland come from?

Yup.
posted by dhartung at 12:11 AM on June 19, 2005


But what about canola, rapeseed, and soy?
posted by dreamsign at 12:30 AM on June 19, 2005


So...we can't afford the imported oil, and we can't produce our own biofuels because of limited space / farming techniques.

Could this be more evidence that we're overpopulated and just plain old over-consuming?
posted by metaldark at 12:37 AM on June 19, 2005


I think the perfect car would be a biodiesel/battery hybrid which can be plugged in (like some recently modded Prius's) which would get 80+ mpg.
posted by pandaharma at 12:44 AM on June 19, 2005


If they can do it, why not the US?

We don't have enough rainforest to cut down to grow the sugarcane to make the ethanol.

er, whatdhartungsaid.
posted by freebird at 12:56 AM on June 19, 2005


USA-filter
posted by Lord Chancellor at 12:56 AM on June 19, 2005


Last week, I attended a seminar in my Uni, where this guy claimed that he's found a way to get yeast to grow on plant parts that they don't normally grow on. More specifically, he says that the yeast that he has sorta kinda bio-engineered can manufacture ethanol from Xylose, which is pretty much abundant in the structural part of plants. So theoretically, one could use even corn crop waste to produce ethanol. The data looked good, but whether it can be done on an industrial level is still in doubt. But still, ethanol based fuel is only half the problem, the world is still dependent on petroleum for plastics, fertilizers etc (as Dhartung said).
posted by dhruva at 1:33 AM on June 19, 2005


Another viable alternative is the Honda Civic GX which runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). The only caveat is whether there are refuelling stations near you (you can also lease a home fueling station, but installation can cost one or two thousand even after the $2000 rebate).

Some highlights: Honda Civic GX Emissions as compared to similar gas vehicles:
posted by Davenhill at 1:49 AM on June 19, 2005


Fark-filter.
posted by Plinko at 2:48 AM on June 19, 2005


As has been pointed out, bio-fuels might be a good stopgap measure to ease the transition from fossil fuels, but ultimately we have to do something more radically different. We simply can't produce enough biofuel to meet our needs.

The answer is easy, but not especially attractive: we must stop using fossil fuels. I say this isn't especially attractive because at the moment the only viable alternative to fossil fuels is fission power. Both ground based solar power and wind power are great and we should make the most of them, but they're also variable which means we can't use them for all of our power needs. Since we're also talking about supplying cars with power, that means we'd be devoting a large amount of power to cracking hydrogen which could help stabalize the power output of wind and solar, but not enough really. Additionally there's the problem that both wind and solar require large amounts of land to work, so every megawatt we produce by those means is one less acre of wild space. Finally, solar power requires a massive initial power investment, a solar panel must produce electricity for three to five years to produce energy equal to how much it took to make.

Fission power has two main problems. Its waste is dangerous and remains dangerous for a couple of million years, there's also the side issue that corporate owned fission power should make you nervious becuase corporations see safety as just another cost to be cut... The other problem with fission power is that ultimately it too is a fossil fuel. Uranium exists on Earth in limited supply, its a large limited supply, but ultimately its still limited.

Fusion power, if we can make it work, would be nice. The waste product of fusion is helium, which is nice in children's balloons and for cooling supercomputers. The downside is that tritium is also a substance which exists only in limited supply....

I think that atomic power of various sorts (fission initially and fusion when we can get it) will cover us until we can set up orbital solar. Ultimately all power comes from the sun: wind, organic fuel, even fusion would be powered by tritium which comes from solar wind. So the only viable long term answer I see is to directly tap that power. Orbital solar power is the only way to produce solar power that makes much sense: no night/day cycle, no clouds, no atmosphere blocking the most energetic of solar radiation. The only drawback is how much it'll cost to implement in the first place.

If I were in charge, I'd put 10% of the money that has been spent on Iraq into fusion research, and another couple of billion into hydrogen (both cracking efficiency and fuel cells). Its going to be a few decades before we can even seriously start considering orbital solar and we need something to carry us until then, I really don't see much choice but to use atomic power. I just don't want to see corporate owned fission, other than that I say let's build fission plants starting today.
posted by sotonohito at 4:02 AM on June 19, 2005


The downside is that tritium is also a substance which exists only in limited supply.

One out of every 4000 or 5000 hydrogen atoms is deuterium or tritium. So while it's technically limited, it's practically inexhaustable. There's also Helium-3, which is an even better fusion power source. Unfortunately, it takes about 3 times as much heat to generate a reaction, and most of our source for it would be on the moon's surface. Kind of impractical to extract and cart back right now when we haven't even got a heavy hydrogen solution.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:29 AM on June 19, 2005


Even if the US, by devoting its crops to making fuel instead of food, had to import food instead of oil, the money that would have gone to the Middle East would instead go to any of a much wider selection of food-growing nations, including places in Africa that desperately need the money. Then the Middle East would no longer be of "strategic" interest to the US, which would be a very good thing.

Unfortunately, "Brazil showed it can be done, but it takes commitment and leadership," which are two resources the US also would have to import.
posted by pracowity at 4:43 AM on June 19, 2005


Talking about alternate power sources, I came across this site on delicious, apparently Running a Gasoline Engine on Hydrogen Using Water. Any opinions?
posted by dhruva at 5:18 AM on June 19, 2005


Davenhill, you may have fallen for the lithium lick there: the air coming out of the GX’s exhaust pipe can actually be cleaner than the air you are breathing? C'mon, it might be clean of particulates, but it's gonna be chock full of carbon dioxide and surprisingly lacking in oxygen, so it's not going to be anything we could usefully call air. You might get a wicked headrush breathing it for a bit, but it'll kill ya pretty quick.

sotonohito, fusion has been 40 years away for the last 40 years, and that 4 decades doesn't look like it's getting any shorter sooner. Personally, I think it's more than a coincidence that the biblical 40 years meant a waaaaay long time, possibly (n)ever.

And I'm not that bothered that renewable energy sources are intermittent. Since we've had always-on electricity for less than 1% of human civilization, it might not be what we really need.
posted by scruss at 5:32 AM on June 19, 2005


dhruva, thanks for finding that, but my bogometer is pegging. Water, salt, and an extremely inexpensive metal alloy; hmm, could they be talking about reacting aluminium to liberate hydrogen? This reaction is pretty exothermic, so there's a lot of waste heat that can't go into the hydrogen stream. Aluminium is also extremely expensive, and takes a lot of energy to make.

It's interesting to note that the only reference on the web about Rothman Technologies is the one dhruva linked to. All other references are just backlinks. Doesn't inspire confidence.
posted by scruss at 5:46 AM on June 19, 2005


> Unfortunately, "Brazil showed it can be done, but it takes commitment and leadership,"
> which are two resources the US also would have to import.

...and there's nobody that has any excess of this for export, that I'm aware of. Take Brazil: the screaming need in that part of the world is to stop slashing and burning the rainforest, not ethanol production for cars. When it comes to the screaming need that confronts them, where's the commitment and leadership? Heh, heh, heh.

When the oil runs out, that will put a stop to the slashing and burning--and to the biofuel farming.
posted by jfuller at 5:53 AM on June 19, 2005


Sotonohito: allow me to bring the following to your attention:

Additionally there's the problem that both wind and solar require large amounts of land to work, so every megawatt we produce by those means is one less acre of wild space.

The solar power station I've bought shares in (see www.enviromission.com.au) will run day and night to provide reliable baseload power, will be built on what is currently farmland and, being essentially a massive greenhouse, should actually improve crop yields under most of its canopy.

Finally, solar power requires a massive initial power investment, a solar panel must produce electricity for three to five years to produce energy equal to how much it took to make.

Given that solar PV cells have a design life in excess of 20 years, and given that they are small items in continuous production rather than huge chunky things that have to be manufactured all in one go, this doesn't actually matter at all.

The more serious objection to PV cells is that silicon foundries (and hi-tech electronics manufacture generally) are highly polluting.

IMO, and in the opinion of others who have spent most of their lives crunching the numbers, fission power is an economic dead end. For what it costs you to generate a watt by fission, you can buy at least three watts worth of energy efficiency.

Inefficiency is the energy resource which it makes the most sense to tap, because not only are mind-buggering amounts of watts available there for the asking, but every efficiency improvement we make lessens the total amount of energy we need to generate by whatever sustainable means we end up relying on in future.

dhruva: The gasoline engine on water thing is pretty much a scam. The "salt" involved is caustic soda, and the "metallic alloy" is aluminium. Put aluminium in caustic soda, and you do indeed end up with hydrogen - but you use up all the aluminium in the process. You might as well run your motor on non-rechargeable dry cells.

Aluminium costs vast amounts of energy to refine.
posted by flabdablet at 5:59 AM on June 19, 2005


> 40% of the automotive sold fuel in brazil is ethanol, and brazil should be
> totally energy independent in five years.

Let's note that the energy independence is not because of the ethanol use.

Here's how Brazil is achieving energy independence. Cranking up domestic oil production is not an option in North America, we don't have any known big untapped oil fields.
posted by jfuller at 6:32 AM on June 19, 2005


Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, had this to say about it in the OP-ED section a couple of days ago. "As Toyota goes..."

(Note: I will guess that NYtimes registration is required in there someplace.)
posted by fluffycreature at 7:11 AM on June 19, 2005


I can't find anything in a quick Google search, but isn't CNG extermely volatile? I seem to recall hearing something on NPR a couple of weeks back about the tendency (perhaps the possibility) of CNG refineries, trucks, etc. to explode...
posted by kaseijin at 7:13 AM on June 19, 2005


*extremely


Spell check is my friend.
posted by kaseijin at 7:14 AM on June 19, 2005


Ethanol from biomass

Using corn to produce ethanol is pretty wasteful, but it doesn't mean that ethanol is energy negative like some of the naysayers claim. It only means that ethanol from corn is.
posted by inthe80s at 7:24 AM on June 19, 2005


inthe80s beat me to the punch, but here's a Straight Dope article on corn-based ethanol and subsidies.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:27 AM on June 19, 2005


In Canada's Mantioba, they've been using ethanol in their fuel for a while now with much success, so much so that 10% of gasoline mixtures will be ethanol by the end of 2005 and nation wide they hope that 35% of all gasoline contains 10% ethanol by 2010. Not incredible numbers, but definitely a start, and will help put us in a position for exponential increases after that.
posted by furtive at 7:39 AM on June 19, 2005


News flash: not everyone is against the petroleum industry. For example, Exxon Mobil, Texaco, BP, the list goes on. Many of those companies are in Texas.

Well I guess there is something alluring about the fact that you just pump it out of the ground. What could be so easy.

Not surprisingly you see these 10% EtOH pumps in NE, corn central.

And as for Brazil, where the hell are they growing all that corn? Hmm, or maybe they're brewing ethanol out of rain forest detritus, hey anything's possible.
posted by nervousfritz at 7:46 AM on June 19, 2005


jfuller writes "Take Brazil: the screaming need in that part of the world is to stop slashing and burning the rainforest, not ethanol production for cars."

Well, the world keeps telling Brazil to stop slashing and burning the rain forest, but because Brazil finds that this is contrary to its national interests it keeps on doing it. Likewise, the world keeps telling the US it shouldn't use so much gas, but the US finds that this is contrary to its national interests -- or at least the interests of its national leaders -- so it keeps on buying Hummers and Excursions and gutting public transport. What, does this generation of snot-nosed brats thinks it can just walk the five blocks to school? No siree!
posted by clevershark at 8:31 AM on June 19, 2005


Yay! I get to be the lone (sad) kook pointing out that another long-term solution is to create excellent public transportation combined with city planning that promotes the integration of self-propelled transportation (walk, bike, skate etc) with public transportation.


Who Framed Roger Rabit? pretty much sums it up:

DOOM
Right here where we're standing, will
be the cornerstone of my idea... the
cloverleaf -- an elegant cement
structure that intertwines freeways.

VALIANT
What the hell's a freeway?

DOOM
A freeway, Mr. Valiant, is eight lanes
of asphalt running uninterrupted from
L.A. to Pasadena. Pasadena to
Hollywood. Hollywood to Santa Monica.
Someday everyone will be in cars
driving happily, non-stop from one end
of the L.A. Basin to another.

VALIANT
That's what this is all about? Tell
me, who's gonna use your lousy freeway?
We got the Red Cars, the best public
transportation in the country.

DOOM
Not for long. We're retiring the Red
Cars. People will drive, Mr. Valiant,
because they'll have to. And when they
drive, they'll have to buy our cars,
our tires, our gasoline.

JESSICA RABBIT
Why'd you bother to call it a freeway?


(on preview, clevershark leaves me not so lone, but probably just as kooky)
posted by carmen at 8:37 AM on June 19, 2005


dhruva: My opinion is that they're snake-oil salesmen.

"The amount of energy in the water molecule is thus vast, and has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of energy it takes to break down that molecule." This is absolutely not true. When we talk about using hydrogen as a fuel source, the energy we are extracting is the energy that is released by forming water. Which is the reverse process of "breaking down" that molecule.

"The gas that results from this process is pure hydrogen..." No mention of what's being formed in the solution. Probably some hideously basic solution that will cause all kinds of disposal headaches.

"...a fuel that burns without the need for external oxygen..." What?!? The only thing I can figure they're referring to here is the "burning" inside the core of a star, where hydrogen acts as a fuel source with no oxygen. But I'm guessing that this engine of theirs doesn't use fusion, so oxygen's still a requirement.

Finally, and this is the one that convinced me that they're being intentionally dishonest, and this isn't just a case of poor fundamental understanding:

"In fact, when hydrogen burns perfectly, nothing at all comes out of the tail pipe." The only way this is possible is if they're claiming that the entire mass of the hydrogen is being converted into energy. So now we've replaced our fusion engine with an antimatter engine. I need warp speed!

nervousfritz: The article says they're fermenting sugar cane, not corn.
posted by solotoro at 8:43 AM on June 19, 2005


It seems like there's no way to solve the car problem without addressing urban sprawl. Call me a skeptic, but I don't think that we're going to find a "wonderfuel" that will solve our problems. More people need to ride bikes and public transportation. Unfortunately, the scale and geography of most suburbs make effective public transportation impractical or impossible.
posted by afroblanca at 8:51 AM on June 19, 2005


If they can do it, why not the US? From the post-

"the Brazilian government, then a military dictatorship, launched efforts in the mid-1970s to wean the nation off imports."

Granted, the generals were technically out by the eighties, but their influence did not die altogether, and once a project like this gets going, it tends to have a life of its own.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:59 AM on June 19, 2005


flabdablet: IMO, and in the opinion of others who have spent most of their lives crunching the numbers, fission power is an economic dead end. For what it costs you to generate a watt by fission, you can buy at least three watts worth of energy efficiency.
Leaving the qualifications of the Rocky Mountain Institute out of it for the moment, the problem with relying on energy efficiency to reduce oil dependancy comes down to the growth dilemma*, which goes as follows:

If, through government incentives, I replace a machine with a more efficient model, the energy costs I save will go right into my company's pocket. As a diligent capitalist, the most responsible thing I could do with that extra cash is to invest in ways to grow the business, and very shortly our extra output would cancel any energy reduction from the original incentive.

The problem isn't simply that we are wasteful in our energy consumption, it's that our economic system neither accounts for pollution, nor values 'sustainability' over growth. A far more effective strategy would be to double fuel prices, and/or tax emissions. Unfortunately you will never see these methods used (this side of the Atlantic) because they will necessarily harm our central value: our economic competitiveness.

*This isn't the real name for it. Can anyone help me out?
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:00 AM on June 19, 2005


In Utah the folks at Smith Food have built a biodigester that converts swine waste into methane gas,that is used as a component of bio diesel. John Fry was a pioneer ,ran a pig farm in South Africa in the early 1960's on pig manure.
posted by hortense at 9:38 AM on June 19, 2005


The Canadian solution is not to grow ethanol from food or oil crops (canola, corn or wheat), which is a losing proposition, but to use otherwise waste biomass (straw, mostly) and convert it to ethanol using a bioengineered bacteria and proprietary enzyme treatment. The company that developed this is the Ottawa-based Iogen.

Whether is will be economic or not is another question, but the numbers look ok. From an emissions perspective, ethanol isn't that different from gasoline. Ethanol cars still mean smog and lots of CO2 production. Ethanol has a rather lower efficiency than gas does too, so cars will need more frequent refueling, so things aren't all rosy.

Also, you NG proponents out there, if you think an oil tanker going down is nasty, you should look into the models of an LNG supertanker sinking. Nothing ever comes without risks.

And biodiesel will not be affordable on commercial scales for the foreseeable future. I've been sitting on the Canadian alternate fuels committee for five years now, and no one has a biodiesel that even 150% of commercial diesel prices. We're now talking about B2.5 rather than B5 because even 5% mixes cost too much.
posted by bonehead at 9:47 AM on June 19, 2005


Brazil produces 16 billion liters of biofuel a year. That's 0.28% of the annual US consumption. That's why the US can't convert... there's just not enough rain forest to chop down.
posted by glider at 9:55 AM on June 19, 2005


bonehead re biodiesel: really? Even when the feedstock is free (waste restaurant oil?). I know a co-op which can make B100 for $0.50 Canadian/litre (not including labour.) Or is this a mass-produced quantity issue?
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:04 AM on June 19, 2005


If your inputs are free, sure it's cheap to make. There simply aren't enough free inputs to make up even a fraction of a percent of the market though. Commercial scale usage, in quantities big enough to make a significant difference to say greenhouse gas or particulate matter emissions, is not economical at the present.
posted by bonehead at 10:16 AM on June 19, 2005


Since we subsidize farms in the US and even pay for the mass destruction of corn (and other sugar/starch crops) why not actually use this for fuel (or famine relief). There has to be a Dept. of Ag report on the tonnage of surplus destroyed crops somewhere.
posted by TetrisKid at 11:02 AM on June 19, 2005


US: "Quit cutting down your forests. Like we did. When we ran out."
posted by iamck at 11:20 AM on June 19, 2005


Commercial scale usage, in quantities big enough to make a significant difference to say greenhouse gas or particulate matter emissions, is not economical at the present.
That settles it. We need to triple the tax on fossil fuels now.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:06 PM on June 19, 2005


> US: "Quit cutting down your forests. Like we did. When we ran out."

We aren't impressed with your Google-fu.

Global Distribution of Original and Remaining Forests. It's actually only Europe and south and east Asia that have eaten themselves down to the grass level. The New World is still relatively new.
posted by jfuller at 2:12 PM on June 19, 2005


If they can do it, why not the US?

Maybe the same reason Brazil can roll out a transparent open source electronic voting system running on commodity hardware that leaves a reasonable audit trail, while the US seems unable to.
posted by arjuna at 3:22 PM on June 19, 2005


Re: costs of biodiesel in Canada. Looks to be about a 200% cost for biodiesel at the moment, but Toronto's second station has just opened and apparently has drastically reduced costs. Will let you know soon...
posted by dreamsign at 9:06 PM on June 19, 2005


OK, here's why this thread is silly:

A) Brazil is an petroleum exporter. If they can export oil they obviously aren't dependent on foreign oil.

B) Ethanol is a farm subsidy in disguise. First, it costs more energy to make than just burning the oil. Second, The American sugar lobby exerts so much pressure on the markets (fixing prices, queering international sugar deals) the Brazilians are probably finding a way to use surplus stocks.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:24 AM on June 20, 2005


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