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Just one word - Plastics
May 26, 2009 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Even if cars soon start running entirely on electricity or hydrogen, they'll still need 100 gallons or more of oil to make their plastic parts...
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist (69 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Well yeah, of course.
posted by Mister_A at 9:29 AM on May 26, 2009


Why do cars need plastic at all? Should we make them entirely out of plastic?
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 9:31 AM on May 26, 2009


Huh?
posted by Mister_A at 9:33 AM on May 26, 2009


I'm not sure I understand your point...
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:33 AM on May 26, 2009


Hey but we'll just make the plastic out of corn. Except the corn needs fertilizer, which is made using fossil fuel. There's no escape.
posted by mullingitover at 9:34 AM on May 26, 2009


Make the cars out of Adobe, just like GM designers do.
posted by Mister_A at 9:35 AM on May 26, 2009 [6 favorites]


mullingitover is right: We're in so far that all solutions invariably use fossil fuels at some point. What we need is for JJ Abrams to reboot human society.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:36 AM on May 26, 2009


Some companies are making more of their seat cushions out of some eco-friendly soy foam, which is pretty cool.

Maybe we could drive the cost of carbon fiber down, too.

Make the cars out of Adobe spit and chewing gum, just like GM designers do.
posted by Jon-o at 9:38 AM on May 26, 2009


Turning bacteria into plastic factories
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:38 AM on May 26, 2009


My car will be built from disappointment, supplied entirely by the executive branch of the United States government.

wait, isn't this the snark thread?
posted by blue_beetle at 9:39 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


How many gallons of oil does it take to fuel a car for its entire service life?

We need to drastically reduce oil use, not necessarily eliminate it all at once.
posted by pracowity at 9:40 AM on May 26, 2009 [8 favorites]


100 gallons of oil makes about 40 gallons of gasoline. A conventional car will consume 5,000-20,000 gallons of gasoline over its lifetime, depending on various factors, so I'm gonna go ahead and call this is a pretty clear win.
posted by jedicus at 9:41 AM on May 26, 2009 [18 favorites]


It's not "the" snark thread, though I do believe it is "a" snark thread. Like the others, you know.
posted by Mister_A at 9:41 AM on May 26, 2009


Perfect is the enemy of the good.
posted by rocket88 at 9:42 AM on May 26, 2009 [6 favorites]


You have to keep this away from some parts of our society. Some people look at things like this and see it as "proof" of how stupid fuel-efficiency is. The same people who look at the problems with recycling as proof that recycling is a waste of time.

That said, we need to get over cars, dude. I'd much rather see a major infrastructural investment in public transportation than any number of reforms to the auto industry.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:42 AM on May 26, 2009 [11 favorites]


they'll still need 100 gallons or more of oil to make their plastic parts...

Well, yeah. ONCE.
posted by rokusan at 9:42 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Antidisestablishmentarianist: Why do cars need plastic at all? Should we make them entirely out of plastic?

Uh… exactly how do you mean?
posted by koeselitz at 9:43 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I understand your point...

At a guess: The fossil fuel economy is all-pervasive, and the transition to an oil-scarce system will involve much, much more than an electric battery under the hood.

In a similar vein, it requires 170 tonnes of coking coal to forge the structural steel for a single two-megawatt wind turbine.

All of which lends credence to the point made by (among others) Thom Hartmann in The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, which is that fossil fuels should be deemed critical resources and used only for the construction of the essential tools of the post-carbon economy. Likewise, it should be flat-out illegal to deposit invaluable plastics in landfills. We are treating some of the most truly irreplaceable parts of our social order as garbage.

Something like that, I think, is the point.
posted by gompa at 9:45 AM on May 26, 2009 [19 favorites]


This might be a good conversation-starter, but the linked article isn't really that great. I don't think it's much of a post…sorry, but I'm flagging it.
posted by koeselitz at 9:46 AM on May 26, 2009


100 gallons of oil is really not all that much. It's a drop in a bucket compared to the oil required to produce the gasoline that a conventional automobile will use over its lifetime.

If we can get cars down to 100 gallons of oil per vehicle, that will be spectacular. Plus, there are lots of replacements for the fossil fuels in plastics; that's not nearly as bad a problem as trying to replace fuel oils is. Every replacement for oil as a fuel runs into issues of scale; it's a giant problem — you're talking about millions of gallons of the stuff a day, terawatts of power you need to replace.

Finding a replacement feedstock for plastic is still a hard problem, but it's not even in the same order of magnitude in terms of scale. (A barrel of oil produces ~20 gallons of gasoline but only a fraction of a gallon of plastic feedstocks.) Alternatives exist; we can go back to making more things out of metal, we can use ceramics, we can use polymers made from cellulose, we can recycle the millions of tons of plastic currently in landfills, we could even work on that giant island floating out in the Pacific.

The amount of plastic in cars should in no way be taken as an indictment of alternative fuels; the fact that we'll be pumping some oil well into the distant future (there will, I'm sure, always be specialty products for which oil is the best feedstock) doesn't mean that alternatives to mainstream products shouldn't be aggressively pursued.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:48 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


No, you guys, don't you see? This changes everything! All our calculations were based on future cars not using any oil whatsoever, and now it turns out they will!

Fuck. We might as well scrap all the ideas we have now for non-gas-guzzlers and start again.
posted by graventy at 9:49 AM on May 26, 2009


It would have been great if the linked article said stuff like that, gompa.
posted by Mister_A at 9:49 AM on May 26, 2009


My car will be built from disappointment, supplied entirely by the executive branch of the United States government.

My experimental automobile is called the "Cimmerian." It's fueled by the blood of my enemies and lubricated by the tears of their women.
posted by total warfare frown at 9:49 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


koeselitz wins the prize!

also:

In fact, if we look at what happened to per capita oil consumption during phases of industrialization in the US between 1900 and 1970, we see that per capita consumption rose from one barrel per year to around 28 barrels.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 9:50 AM on May 26, 2009


I guess he's saying oil is too valuable to burn so we need pure electrics? yeah, okay, I guess I'm sold.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:55 AM on May 26, 2009


So, are you suggesting that the emergence, in the 20th century, of the automobile as the dominant mode of transportation in the USA has something to do with the spike in per capita and gross oil consumption? Because that's blitheringly obvious, isn't it? And not really the putative point of the post...
posted by Mister_A at 9:58 AM on May 26, 2009


Wait, this supposed glorious future will still be using 1/100000000th of the oil we use now? I declare your vision THE ENEMY OF THE PERFECT.
posted by DU at 10:00 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mister_A: It was asked how much a car uses in its lifetime, and, as a related item, I though an article on oil consumption might be an interesting link. It isn't the obvious increase, but the current number I was interested in. We use 28 barrels per capita today. China uses 1.7, india .7 etc.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 10:02 AM on May 26, 2009


pssst! DU! The aphorism you are looking for is:

"The perfect is the enemy of my enemy–won't get fooled again."
posted by Mister_A at 10:03 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


shakespeherian: "mullingitover is right: We're in so far that all solutions invariably use fossil fuels at some point. What we need is for JJ Abrams to reboot human society."

We can't make cars out of lens flare.
posted by boo_radley at 10:07 AM on May 26, 2009 [11 favorites]


Wait, wait... there were prizes?!
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:09 AM on May 26, 2009



posted by koeselitz at 10:10 AM on May 26, 2009


Well said, koeselitz.
posted by Mister_A at 10:16 AM on May 26, 2009


jeffburdges: "I guess he's saying oil is too valuable to burn so we need pure electrics? yeah, okay, I guess I'm sold."

The advantage of electric cars is that you could power them from a variety of sources, and they're easier to switch away from petroleum-derived sources than an internal-combustion one would be.

If you get an electric car and then power it with electricity that's generated by burning fossil fuels, it's entirely possible that you've actually ended up worse off than just burning the fossil fuel directly in an ICE. The electric power grid loses something like 50% of all the energy that's put into it, just in transmission losses. Power generation is much more efficient than a car engine, but it's still only between 45 (coal) to 65 (natural gas) percent, thermal; then there are losses in the actual generators, and losses to the battery charging systems and the batteries themselves. It's probably a disaster from an efficiency standpoint if the fuel doesn't change.

So electric cars are just one half of the solution; the other half is getting electrical sources that don't use fossil fuels.

Personally I see the generation side as being more important and more worthy of public investment, because the projects are more capital intensive and risky. Once a significant chunk of the electrical generating capacity has been moved away from fossil sources, just ratchet up the tax on gasoline by a few thousand percent, or institute a rigorous carbon tax, and the electric cars will practically build themselves.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:19 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the link:

Ironically, then, the plastic in electric cars and fuel cell vehicles might one day be recycled into oil that could be burned in gasoline-powered cars.

Yes, they do that in the thatch covered building right behind the Thunderdome.
posted by quin at 10:19 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Idiot time: why can't we make the plastic bits out of wood anyway? Seriously though, if all we ever did with oil is make stuff like chemicals and plastics, peak oil would be a problem for Buck Rogers and Captain Kirk, not our sorry selves. Learning to walk or use the [public transport of your choice] would be a good start.



We use 28 barrels per capita today. China uses 1.7, india .7 etc.

Wrong comparison, as who wants to live like an average Chinese or Indian? There are clear gains from consuming oil, and selling a drop in living standards - even to save civilization as we know it - is difficult. But though USians consume 28 barrels per capita, many other developed countries consume less than half that. There's not a big enough gap in living standards between, say, France and the United States to justify the difference.
posted by Sova at 10:21 AM on May 26, 2009


ummm ... why don't we just not base our cities (in particular) on everybody needing their own motorized vehicle, regardless of what it burns and/or is made of? That's so f$#king 20th century.

Take the bus. Hitchhike. Live close to where you work. Except for the filthy rich, of course. They'll always do whatever they want anyway. We can always eat them, I guess.
posted by philip-random at 10:24 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Actually, Kadin2048, electrical transmission is highly efficient - the wires only "lose" about 10% of the power transmitted through them. However, a lot of energy escapes during the initial process of burning the fossil fuels to generate thermal energy to get the turbines moving.
posted by Mister_A at 10:27 AM on May 26, 2009


We can't make cars out of lens flare.

But perhaps we can harness the energy of shaky-cam.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:34 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sorry if I'm missing something, but isn't the fact that we're not burning this oil, but only turning it into plastic solve the problem (burning of fossil fuels)?

Obviously we'll be burning the fuel to actually forge the plastic, but even if it takes a 100 gallons of oil to produce a light weight car, that's still much better for the environment than burning those 100 gallons in an engine.

Right?
posted by Alex404 at 10:36 AM on May 26, 2009


I wonder where the breakpoints are for comparing net oil use in making car bits out of petrochemicals vs making 'em out of other stuff and burning petrochemicals. It seems likely that we are already saving some oil by making so many automotive components out of plastic. All other things (horsepower, etc) being equal, of course.
posted by Mister_A at 10:40 AM on May 26, 2009


Maybe we could drive the cost of carbon fiber down, too.

Where do ya think the carbon comes from? Oil, of course.
posted by zsazsa at 10:49 AM on May 26, 2009


One step at a time?
posted by Never teh Bride at 10:56 AM on May 26, 2009


100 gallons = 1000 Hummer miles!
posted by Artw at 11:01 AM on May 26, 2009


There's already a lot of plastic around. I'm sure recycling a few old shampoo bottles into parts for electric cars is a minor hurdle compared with, say, replacing our entire energy infrastructure.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:06 AM on May 26, 2009


Jon-o: Maybe we could drive the cost of carbon fiber down, too.
Sadly, I believe the carbon fiber most of us are familiar with is the stuff technically described as carbon fiber reinforced polymer, i.e., plastic, but better.
posted by Western Infidels at 11:06 AM on May 26, 2009


WE SHOULD HARNESS THE NEAR-INFINITE POWER OF ALLCAPS.
posted by Mister_A at 11:11 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is along the lines of argument that James Kunstler makes. Alternative energy sources are not going to be able to provide us with the cheap calories that are needed for manufacturing processes, ultimately leading to the collapse of society as we know it. So what if that nuclear power plant can save us, we don't have enough oil left to build that plant.
posted by daHIFI at 11:20 AM on May 26, 2009


It takes a significant amount of energy to build solar cells. There is a large energy investment in the steel, concrete, fiberglass, and other materials in a wind turbine. Build a dam for clean hydroelectric power, and spend a huge amount of power on making the cement, transporting it, and making and depositing the concrete. The energy cost of growing, brewing, distilling, and transporting ethanol is an important factor in the questionable net environmental benefit.

Have we eaten that free lunch, yet?
posted by Midnight Skulker at 11:27 AM on May 26, 2009


Hell, I'd drive a bamboo car. No problem at all.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:33 AM on May 26, 2009


As Jefferson said, people get the type of atmosphere they deserve.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:47 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


There are plenty of ways, I'm guessing, to make plastic out of biological products like vegetable oil.

That said, things like this are why we need cap 'n' trade. or a carbon tax. Once we price in the cost of the externality, people will automatically use alternatives if they truly present an advantage. The amount of coal needed to make a wind turbine blade, for example. They might burn corn husk pellets or farmed firewood wood instead of coal if the costs, including the costs of emitting fresh CO2 were factored directly into the equation.
posted by delmoi at 11:53 AM on May 26, 2009


The energy cost of growing, brewing, distilling, and transporting ethanol is an important factor in the questionable net environmental benefit.

There is a huge difference between Ethanol from corn and ethanol from sugar cane. Brazil has had enormous success in using sugar cane based ethanol
posted by delmoi at 11:55 AM on May 26, 2009


Hell, I'd drive a bamboo car. No problem at all.

Road Trip!
posted by CynicalKnight at 12:06 PM on May 26, 2009


"Alternative energy sources are not going to be able to provide us with the cheap calories that are needed for manufacturing processes, ultimately leading to the collapse of society as we know it."

Yeah, but you'd collapse into a slower pace. Not altogether a bad thing. Oh, plenty bad, sure. But one of the upsides you'd have longer, perhaps generation spanning projects with carefully metered energy budgets instead of just laying it off as an indefinite resource the way we do with oil. Cost based on how hard it is to find, not on the aggregate, that is, not on there being no possible way to replenish the source. That'd be nice to have now.

Right now seems we haven't even addressed the impact on the commons - temporally speaking.
If folks way back when budgeted whale oil as being finite in the 4th dimension - as in - we slaughter all the whales they're all gone = infinitely diminishing returns, rather than 'x' amount of trouble to get whale oil = 'y' cost, we'd probably have some of the species of whale we don't have now.

I mean, we're not going to lose any technical know how. I'd suspect we'd seriously reprioritize that kind of knowledge. So you'd have rockstar-type engineers and researchers getting commensurate resource control (money).
(Seriously - name a famous modern engineer, scientist, etc. who's famous for their work rather than having a book, etc. - vs. name a rockstar, movie star, etc).
So in the long run, given we don't have a perfect storm of catastrophic events, we'd adapt. It's just change, really. I hate traffic. We'd be better off without it. And I'd be happy to shitcan about 3/4 of my 'standard of living' b.s.
Drives me nuts every time I crap or pee into potable water, cut the plastic off of every damned thing they sell (why put an orange in a plastic bag, then set it in the cloth bag I bring to the store? Defeats the whole purpose), have to drive my jeep on-road or really, drive at all (why are discreet individuals given autonomous control over the transportation infrastructure? Drove past an accident today - put 3 lanes out of commission, slowed all kinds of work down, etc. etc - why do *I* have to deal with that when you could have trains, shuttles, etc. etc. not as mathematically subject to human error?), etc. etc. the way we do things now is just stupid, mostly because it's geared towards profit, not sustainability.

Profit is illusory without factoring in generational continuity (another reason I'm conservative and completely befuddled why conservatives abandoned, y'know, conservation). I mean, I don't support repealing the "death tax" on those grounds (it's one of the arguments) one has to recognize that no matter how much damned money you make, you're going to die and someone else is going to have to live with what you've created or destroyed or changed, etc. and that continuity doesn't (and can't) live in private hands but in community institutions.

So if people in the future are crazy enough to resist change to such a degree they're still laying asphalt and recycle plastic from electric cars to drive around in their hummers, they'll have pretty much doomed the human race. You don't see a lot of overspecialized species doing well in the world.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:25 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mitsubishi develops a bamboo-fiber reinforced plant-based resin for use in automobile interiors.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:25 PM on May 26, 2009


So if we can reduce the amount of petroleum used by cars over their lifetime to 1% of the current level, that means we can all have 100 cars right?

I propose renaming Thursday to "Demolition Derby Day".
posted by blue_beetle at 12:32 PM on May 26, 2009


Likewise, it should be flat-out illegal to deposit invaluable plastics in landfills.

It's not like they have been vanished forever. Some day, when it becomes worth it, people will mine these valuable resource locations, all the while thanking the people of the past for gathering all of these plastics so conveniently for them.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:34 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Didn't Henry Ford fix that problem some time ago?
SoyBean Car
posted by tke248 at 12:58 PM on May 26, 2009


And maybe the people mining the plastics out of the landfills will be CHUDs, but who are we to judge?
posted by Mister_A at 1:48 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Some biotech companies seem to have a plan to make bacteria that can make plastic feedstock. Gotta say I'm more worried about global weather changes than running out of plastic.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:10 PM on May 26, 2009


Except the corn needs fertilizer, which is made using fossil fuel.

Can't we use manure?
posted by kirkaracha at 3:02 PM on May 26, 2009


I want a car made out of force fields, with an optional tinted hologram for when I don't want people looking in, or when I want to actually see where the wheels, gas pedals, and car "body" are. It doesn't have to fly, so that should make it just five years off instead of 10 years off.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:46 PM on May 26, 2009


Mister_A: "Actually, Kadin2048, electrical transmission is highly efficient - the wires only "lose" about 10% of the power transmitted through them. However, a lot of energy escapes during the initial process of burning the fossil fuels to generate thermal energy to get the turbines moving."

I stand corrected. I was getting the 50% number from a vague recollection of a DOE graph* that I can't seem to find anymore on their website.

However, even the 10% loss is pretty significant, and I suspect that if you look at the end-to-end (from pumping the oil out of the ground to the kinetic energy of the car's motion), an electric vehicle powered by electricity generated by burning oil is probably less efficient than a car that burns that same fuel directly in a modern ICE. The advantage — and I'm not slagging electric vehicles, I'm a big fan — is in the "abstraction layer" (as an IT person might think of it) that the electrical step provides; it lets you replace the fuel source with anything that you can generate electricity with. That flexibility is a huge advantage.

* If anyone knows of the graph I'm remembering, it was a chart with two Y axes, with electricity generation/sources on the left vertical axis, and then electricity consumption/use on the right vertical axis. The gist of the chart was that it let you see how much power came from each source, and to what use most power was put. I might have been misreading the chart but "transmission losses" struck me as a huge component on the right side.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:15 PM on May 26, 2009


I suspect that if you look at the end-to-end (from pumping the oil out of the ground to the kinetic energy of the car's motion), an electric vehicle powered by electricity generated by burning oil is probably less efficient than a car that burns that same fuel directly in a modern ICE.

Why comment about what you suspect, and make an assertion conditioned on "probably"? These are not mysteries that you have to guess at. Fossil fueled generating plants typically use turbine-based technology which in principle is on the order of twice as efficient as an ICE engine but in practice is much more, because of load balancing and smart switching systems which keep the optimum number of units in operation at peak efficiency based on demand. Transmission losses are actually more like 5% from what I'm able to determine but let's keep the 10% number. Finally add in regenerative braking and zero idling costs at the point of use, but subtract the coulombic inefficiency of batteries and the net result is that the electric car is around twice as efficient as the ICE car. This is nothing to sneeze at.

One thing I'm not taking into account is the embodied energy represented by battery manufacture; this isn't trivial. But once you try to compare that to an ICE engine you have to factor its own embodied energy investments that are distinctive to it: a fairly massive and complex reciprocating engine block with lots of material, machining and assembly costs, plus and cooling and fuel systems not found in electric vehicles at all. These things are harder to directly compare, and certainly economies of scale and the maturing of the newer battery technologies will change this picture.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:43 AM on May 27, 2009


I just took a public utilities class that had the percentage lost above 50%.

Not wanting to go through my notes, I won't really argue about it, but I find it hard to believe that power lines are that efficient. Then again looking through wikipedia it seems that you are correct.

Well, at least I got an A in that class.
posted by Allan Gordon at 1:15 AM on May 27, 2009


Smed - Drives me nuts every time I crap or pee into potable water

+

kirkaracha -"Except the corn needs fertilizer, which is made using fossil fuel."

Can't we use manure?


How about using human manure, like grown-up members of the biosphere?

Drives me nuts when the huge amount of natural/animal/human endeavor involved in growing, cropping, transporting, storing, exchanging, preparing and digesting food results in a nice sensation and a bit of nutrition for me and not a right lot else. What a waste of energy!

Localising just about everything as much as possible should help, including energy generation, food production, water collection and waste recycling. This certainly appeals to me.
posted by asok at 5:17 AM on May 27, 2009


If we could get the Gummint to focus on reality, we could make car plastic out of hemp - like they did in 1941.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 5:25 AM on May 27, 2009


Scientists Discover How to Grow Plastic on Trees
posted by homunculus at 3:14 PM on May 27, 2009


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