Monday, April 10, 2006

Alternative Fuels, Bitches!

I just filled the tank of my Honda Accord, and the price at the pump was $3.049. The oil companies explain away this $.20 hike in the last two weeks as a combination of speculation in the crude market and the switch over to summer fuel from the winter variant. Whatever. At least some countries are confronting the oil barons with an alternative. Today's NY Times article on Brazil's response gave me some hope that the lock on energy held by the big three oil companies is about to be picked.

At the dawn of the automobile age, Henry Ford predicted that "ethyl alcohol is the fuel of the future." With petroleum about $65 a barrel, President Bush has now embraced that view, too. But Brazil is already there.

This country expects to become energy self-sufficient this year, meeting its growing demand for fuel by increasing production from petroleum and ethanol. Already the use of ethanol, derived in Brazil from sugar cane, is so widespread that some gas stations have two sets of pumps, marked A for alcohol and G for gas.

...Brazilian officials and scientists say that, in their country at least, the main barriers to the broader use of ethanol today come from outside. Brazil's ethanol yields nearly eight times as much energy as corn-based options, according to scientific data. Yet heavy import duties on the Brazilian product have limited its entry into the United States and Europe.

... The use of ethanol in Brazil was greatly accelerated in the last three years with the introduction of "flex fuel" engines, designed to run on ethanol, gasoline or any mixture of the two. (The gasoline sold in Brazil contains about 25 percent alcohol, a practice that has accelerated Brazil's shift from imported oil.)

But Brazilian officials and business executives say the ethanol industry would develop even faster if the United States did not levy a tax of 54 cents a gallon on all imports of Brazilian cane-based ethanol.

...But when sugar prices rose sharply in 1989, mill owners stopped making cane available for processing into alcohol, preferring to profit from the hard currency that premium international markets were paying.

Brazilian motorists were left in the lurch, as were the automakers who had retooled their production lines to make alcohol-powered cars. Ethanol fell into discredit, for economic rather than technical reasons.

Consumers' suspicions remained high through the 1990's and were overcome only in 2003, when automakers, beginning with Volkswagen, introduced the "flex fuel" motor in Brazil. Those engines gave consumers the autonomy to buy the cheapest fuel, freeing them from any potential shortages in ethanol's supply. Also, ethanol-only engines can be slower to start when cold, a problem the flex fuel owners can bypass.

... Ethanol can be made through the fermentation of many natural substances, but sugar cane offers advantages over others, like corn. For each unit of energy expended to turn cane into ethanol, 8.3 times as much energy is created, compared with a maximum of 1.3 times for corn, according to scientists at the Center for Sugarcane Technology here and other Brazilian research institutes.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to improve that ratio to 10 to 1," said Suani Teixeira Coelho, director of the National Center for Biomass at the University of São Paulo. "It's no miracle. Our energy balance is so favorable not just because we have high yields, but also because we don't use any fossil fuels to process the cane, which is not the case with corn."
[Emphasis added]

Brazil has worked on this issue for thirty years, in fits and starts, but has managed to overcome the main technical obstacles. There are still a few more obstacles to overcome, like the effect of increasing use of pastures for the growing of cane, causing cattle ranchers to search for new land in forest areas, and the problems with increasing demands on labor (both problems are discussed in the article), but Brazil has stuck with the program.

What is especially intriguing is the fact that cane ethanol can be made more efficiently than the corn-based version and has much higher energy yields. The promise of this renewable energy form has even been recognized by Archer-Daniel-Midlands, who apparently wants in on this new technology.

Brazil has made it clear that it is willing to share the technology in exchange for the lifting of high import duties in the US and Europe. Leaders of both areas would be wise to take Brazil up on its offer.

1 Comments:

Blogger chicago dyke said...

hey grrl, i'm going to steal this. thanks for the positve news.

6:21 AM  

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