Alternative fuel sources

Maybe I am missing something but wouldn’t it be a good thing if we were to look into alternative fuel sources? The gasoline prices are like a roller coaster up and down constantly. What about solar or electric? Too costly? What is it about todays cars that they can only process one or two specific fuel types? I am sort of naive anyway and was always curious about this issue.

The main issue is that gasoline is still incredibly cheap to produce. Even in terms of a liquid commodity-- can you think of much else that costs less per gallon? There has been a huge effort as of late to look into alternative fuels like biodiesel and ethanol and none of them can come close to competing with fossil fuels in terms of cost per unit of energy. Since fossil fuels are a finite resource, eventually the math will work out that alternative fuels make more sense, but that day is much further in the future than many would have you think.

As for electric and solar, both have technological limitations, mostly poor range, and electric is only as environmentally friendly as the power-grid it’s hooked up to, which in today’s USA is not very.

As noted gas and diesel is still cheaper than other products. Remember than electricity is not a source, but just a different form, it has to come from somewhere and much of it comes from oil.

We are playing with different ideas, including electric, alcohol, natural gas, hydrogen etc. Each of them has their advantages and disadvantages. In time it will shake out and we may be running on something we have not thought of yet. Time will tell.

Today with available supplies and theology available, gas diesel and to a far lesser extent alcohol are the only viable fuels.

Well, this isn’t real easy to explain… I know I will seem like an anti-governemnt kook but I’m not (Just a Reagan Conservative. Yes, there is a difference) when I mention this: alternative fuels is nothing new. The military has used “Multi-fuel” trucks since the 60s, and GM (A big military vehicle provider) is just recently comeing forward with alternative-fuel vehicles??? Hmmmmm, makes you wonder!
Pump prices have deffinetly drawn attention to the so-called evil petroleum industry. BUT, if you do your research, staying away from media influenced resources, you will find out as I did that most of the pump prices are going to taxation. I’m not saying that is entirely bad. I’m saying that the petroleum industry is not the evil one in this situation. The “evil ones” are the politicians and the modern media who work in unison to keep attention off of them. Proof??? have you ever recognized that pump prices have skyrocketed during holidays and summers since the Carter years? Hillary promises to do an investigation and regulate the petroleum industry and giving back to the people. Which translated means, I don’t want the blame for pump prices that people like my husband taxed like King George. But I’ll re-distribute income even though re-distribution only benefitted socialist politicians…Sorry, I got political, but it does have a lot to do with politics.
Most of the taxed portion of pump prices goes to research into alternative fuels, and needs to go more into getting us more self reliant on domestic resources. Have you recognized that most offshore oil wells are foreign owned? that is because of environmental strangulation that is screwing us in the long run. Don’t be fooled, alternative fuels can be taxed and exploited just like petroleum has, and what are we going to do with all those spent batteries from peddle cars?
The key issue here is research and development towards self reliance, not alternative fuels which can be exploited just like petroleum. And think about it, the petroleum industry employs thousands. Do we want to make those thousands unemployed and see families living in cars again? Sure, I believe we need to preserve our God-given environment, but the world was made for man’s benefit (Which is different from gluttonous exploitation)so I don’t think we need to go into an Al Gore-sky is falling panic which will screw us in the long run as we have learned from the Carter years.
And no, I am not Rush Limbaugh. I just refuse to be a victim of Clinton politics, our modern semi-free press (CNN=Clinton’s news network), and I’m not going to feel guilty simply because I exsist. I’m just an old Soldier who watched some simple citizens and fellow soldiers get blown up by land mines, and got screwed during the Clinton years. Now that is a real inconvenient truth, Huh?
Any clearer???

Norm, there are some very tasty decaffeinated coffees available these days.

To answer the OPs question, petro fuels (gasoline and diesel) are relatively cheap and have a high energy density (BTUs/pound). The primary problems with the current alternatives (electric, H2, etc.) are cost and lack of energy content. In other words, about 20 gallons of gasoline (less than 150 pounds) will get the average car over 400 miles; 150 pounds of fully charged batteries will get you a shorter distance (maybe 50 miles, I’m guessing) and the vehicle will probably cost more. Also, it will take hours to charge the batteries, as opposed to minutes to fill your tank with gasoline. As the cost of petro fuels increases, alternatives will become more cost effective and will become more common.

Norm–I hope that you are aware that one of the first acts of the Reagan Administration was to shut down the Synthetic Fuels Corporation that was set up during the Carter years. While it is truly an unanswerable question, you really have to wonder what breakthroughs might have been made by that laboratory if it had been allowed to operate as originally intended. And, of course, you also have to wonder about the Reagan Administration’s motivation for shutting down an enterprise like that.

And, while you might want to automatically doubt the ability of the scientists who worked in that government enterprise, I can guarantee you that they knew that nitrogen is a non-explosive gas, unlike some people whom I will not mention.

Electricity and hydrogen are not sources of energy, they are just ways to transport energy and store it. What’s holding up solar power? Well, let me put it this way, you invest $50,000 into making your entire roof a huge photovoltaic solar power collector and I’ll put $50,000 into a CD and just use the interest to buy electric power from the grid and let’s see who comes out ahead in the long run. Hopefully, there will be a breakthrough in the future and when that happens, you will start to see photovoltaic solar cells everywhere.

I don’t believe there are any “conspiracies” holding back alternative energy. I also believe that if a breakthrough occurs that dramatically makes alternative energy cheaper, the resulting lower demand for oil will make the price of oil collapse untill the alternative energy is once again only marginally competative.

Speaking as a physicist, I would say that:

Hybrid cars are a good way to go for in town or hilly driving, if they can be made overall efficient, that is that you really do save energy when you count the resources that go into making the battery deal. This is only short term of course, since they use gas, and the writing is on the wall there.

In the long run, it’s got to be fusion energy, and it’s scandalous the tiny amount of money that is put into research on this, and even worse that the government cut off research funding for one of the two main
ways to go at this problem in January. Both parties are to blame on that. They committed for increases in basic research funding, then gutted it whilst in a gunfight with one another.

Disclosure: I am not involved in either hybrid vehicles or fusion research.

I agree that fusion is probably the most promising mid-term solution, but the U.S. has never been serious about it’s funding, it’s been 40 years away for the last 40 years (and will be for the next 40 if we don’t throw some real money at it). It is not close enough to commercialization to attract private R&D money yet.

I work on commercial nuclear (fission), which is probably the best near-term solution but has obvious disadvantages.

"The military has used “Multi-fuel” trucks since the 60s, and GM (A big military vehicle provider) is just recently comeing forward with alternative-fuel vehicles??? Hmmmmm, makes you wonder! "

That is true, but remember they have a price is no object budget to buy these things and when in combat the ability to switch fuels based on availability is a serious military advantage.

I also understand that when burning other than the fuel native to the specific engine, the life of the engine and performance can take a serious hit.

Actually, 50% of the electricity in the US is generated from coal, a fossil fuel, and a very dirty one. Power companies have spent tons of money to get it as clean as economically feasible, and continue to spend buckets to get it cleaner. Another 25% is nuclear, and the last 25% includes all the other methods, including solar, wind, & geothermal. The problem with a lot of green alternative methods is locational problems with most of them. Solar needs lots of acreage, as does wind farms. Geothermal needs the right ground conditions. Coal is still cheap.

Also, the push for alcohol is starting to force food prices higher. The reason is there are great incentives to grow corn for ethanol and bio-diesel, and farmers are going to that instead of wheat and beans. It has already been forecast that wheat prices will double this year. Corn is optimal, because it is much easier to pull ethanol from corn sugars than any other crop.

“Actually, 50% of the electricity in the US is generated from coal, a fossil fuel, and a very dirty one. Power companies have spent tons of money to get it as clean as economically feasible, and continue to spend buckets to get it cleaner. Another 25% is nuclear, and the last 25% includes all the other methods, including solar, wind, & geothermal.”

Just to be clear, nuclear is closer to 20% at the moment, and that last 30% includes gas (almost 20%) and oil (less than 3%). Hydro is less than 10% and other renewables are only about 2% total.

Okay, firstly, in the mid-90’s when gas was flirting with a buck a gallon, taxes did make up a significant percentage of the pump price, but the vast majority of states have a fixed cents-per-gallon gas tax that, as prices have shot up, has become less and less a part of the price. For example, in my state it’s about 45 cents. So it used to be close to half the price, but now it’s about 15%. And also practically none of it goes to alternative fuel research-- the purpose of the gas tax is to maintain public roads. That’s why you can also buy non-taxed fuel for off-road and farm use. And I don’t really understand your claim that seasonal price fluctuation is due to taxation-- in most states the tax doesn’t change over many years, let alone from month to month.

The petroleum industry does employ thousands, but in a country of hundreds of millions. Shifting to alternative energy sources will create many jobs as well-- there’s no reason to believe this will be less than a zero-sum tradeoff. And the impact on the overall US economy that energy companies have is a matter that affects millions of peoples’ economic well-being.

Those are the only two specific and relevant points I can pick out of your post.

I was a little curious about that-- are there any real geothermal operations in the US?

  • Ethanol is a dead end. It is expensive to produce, and doesn’t have a high enough energy density. If we were serious about biofuels, we’d use biodiesel and/or butanol (butanol has an energy density close to gasoline, and is hydrophobic so it is removed off the top of the fermenter, not distilled out like ethanol, so it’s cheaper/easier to make)… and we’d make it from cellulose, not food!
  • Did you know that 30% of the US corn crop is being used to make ethanol to meet 7% of our fuel needs… yup, if we used ALL of our corn we’d still be short by more than 75% (and starve)!
  • Did you know that for what we are spending EACH DAY in Iraq we could remove 1 million homes from the ‘fossil fuel grid’ and provide them with energy from 100% renewable sources (wind, solar, etc.)? That’s right, for what we spend during 6 months in Iraq, we could take ALL the homes in the US off the fossil fuel grid. NOW that’s homeland security!
  • If we were to take one year’s worth of Iraq money and put it into development of renewable electricity, there would be such a surplus of electricity that it’d be SO cheap that we’d be nuts not to be driving plug-in hybrids!
  • Did you know that the US gov’t funds the “National Renewable Energy Laboratory” (NREL)… and that Bush has drastically cut their funding?! (Do I need to point out that he comes from oil money?)
  • Did you know that wind turbines are so quiet that most people who oppose them have never actually been close to one. Those people who live near turbines will tell you that when it’s windy you hear the wind, NOT the turbines!
  • Did you know that research has shown that each wind turbine is responsible for killing ~1 bird/year… yes ONLY ONE! Thousands of times more are are killed by the pollution generated by fossil fuel electric plants, pet cats, glass windows, and cars.
  • Did you know that there are school districts and communities that are erecting wind turbines and selling the electricity… and it drives their taxes WAY DOWN!
  • I want wind and solar electricity!

Bring our soldiers home, let the Middle East fight amongst themselves and keep their darn oil.

PS Last year I switched my electrical supply to ‘Community Wind’. My rates went up slightly, but by installing CFL my usage dropped so much that my bill went way down (so much so that the electric company sent someone to check my meter because they thought it was broken!).

“Corn is optimal, because it is much easier to pull ethanol from corn sugars than any other crop.”

I think that sugarcane is optimal, but it can’t be grown in much of the USA. Corn has very low crop density and only the kernels are useful for ethanol production. Sugarcane has a much higher crop density and more of the plant can be used to extract sugar for distillation. That’s why Brazil has successfully converted to ethanol. Corn is actually a really lousy crop for ethanol production.

“I was a little curious about that-- are there any real geothermal operations in the US?”

There are a few, not to many. Here’s a paper from a few years ago that lists them:

There are break throughs happening all the time-you just aren’t hearing about them much. Just a couple weeks ago, there was a break through development at Augsburg College in Minneapolis concerning the production of biodiesel. Cut the water use down to next to nothing, etc. Not familiar with the technical details, but about $4 mil has been found to build an initial plant to produce it using the new process. The same will happen with ethanol regardless of the nay sayers. Same thing will happen with the fuel cell and battery technologies, but it will take some time to find the right combinations of a practical, cost effective solution, with an infra structure nation-wide. Incidentally, the percentage of food cost that the farmer gets is about 2% of what you pay at the store. Fuel and distribution costs throughout are what are drivbing many of the costs up, not corn costs.

Also, it will take hours to charge the batteries, as opposed to minutes to fill your tank with gasoline…

On hybrid cars the batteries are charged by applying the brakes.

Settle down slick…go breath into a paper bag