"Energy Victory" by Robert Zubrin: methanol economy as a solution?

I recently read the book “Energy Victory” by Robert Zubrin. It starts out explaining our problems with oil dependency, about the Saudi support of terrorism and their undue influence in our government, nothing new. The main thesis of the book is that we could achieve energy independence by largely switching over to a methanol economy for our transportation needs. He wants to achieve this by having the federal government mandate that all new cars be able to run on any mix of gasoline, ethanol or methanol.

He doesn’t discuss hybrids very much, but his main argument for flex-fuel vehicles over hybrids is that it’s much cheaper to make an existing vehicle compatible with these fuels than it is to make a hybrid. He argues for methanol over ethanol because methanol can be made more easily from coal, natural gas, and cellulose.

He favors methanol, but wants vehicles to also be able to burn ethanol since we’re already producing it, and it would add to our total supplies and flexibility. One thing he addresses is the notion that corn ethanol doesn’t produce a net gain of energy, which has been getting a lot of press lately. He says that isn’t true, that corn ethanol isn’t the best but that it does produce more energy than it takes to make. He says that the idea that corn ethanol is useless came from one study by someone named Pimental (I think) and that the study was flawed; he goes as far as calling it a hoax.

He dismisses hydrogen as completely impractical, basically a scam and a distraction, which seems right to me.

What do you folks think? I’ve been thinking that plug-in hybrids will take over, especially since a combination of those and nuclear power would let us reduce CO2 emissions greatly. I don’t know which would be more economical, but that probably will depend on whether we have any advances in battery technology and production, and maybe also if there are advances in alcohol production. I don’t know that it would be wise to try to mandate one particular solution. One problem I’ve heard people discuss with plug-ins is that the electric grid wouldn’t be able to handle everyone using them. So, upgrading the the grid would be an additional cost to consider.

I don’t think that’s as big a consideration as it seems. We’ve neglected our infrastructure for ages, including the electrical; at some point we are going to have to rebuild it anyway. We might as well build it for higher capacity in the process.

Every acre planted with corn to produce ethanol is food not grown. The world is already short of food, partially due to the ethanol madness, which here, in the US and the EU is just yet another boondoggle subsidy for farmers. The energy equation for corn is so close to net balance that the exact outcome doesn’t matter; the gain (if any) is not worth the pain.

Brazil at least grow sugar cane to make their ethanol from, which is hugely more efficient and requires much less fertilizer and general energy expenditure to grow. But they have to cut down more and more of Amazonia to do that, which is not such a good idea in and of itself, seeing as how that releases more CO2 than they save by not burning petrol. It’s really done for economic, import-replacement reasons there rather than environmental.

There is no substitute for simply using less petrol.

The book isn’t about corn ethanol. It just briefly mentions it. He says corn ethanol isn’t a very good source, but that it does give us some energy. He prefers methanol made from coal, natural gas, cellulose or other organic material.

At least one Nobel Laureate has proposed using methanol powered cars equipped with fuel cells. There are a number of positives to doing such a thing, but there’s also a really big downside to the matter, that no one’s talking about.

Our bigget problem is that, so far as transportation goes, we’re a monofuel society. If it ain’t oil based, we’re probably not using it. We swap over to another monofuel technology, and we’re going to wind up in the same boat at some point, if for no other reason, than there’s liable to be a cartel of some kind springing up around it. Lets not forget what Enron did to California a few years back, where they basically decided to screw the entire state. Standard Oil did the same thing with gasoline in the last century.

There’s only two ways to prevent this from happening again. One is to ensure that laws are written by honest politicians who have only the best interests of the American people at heart (and if you think this going to happen, I’ve got a lovely bridge I’d like to sell you). The other, is to design our transportation system so that it is “energy source agnostic” (i.e. you can run it off of gasoline one day, hydrogen another, methanol the day after, etc.). Without that, we run the risk of being held hostage by a large corporate interest, if not people openly hostile to American ideals.

The third way: Multiple sources of the monofuel. Plastic to oil. Turkey guts to oil. Algae farms to oil. Say what you want, oil is really energy dense.

convert corpses to grease? every dead body could yield 4-5 gallons of diesel. plus, you don’t waste enegry cremating them, or land burials

Insert joke about how Mother In Law got to screw you one last time, even when dead: “She left me stranded in Death Valley. Bitch. Full of hot air, and not much else.”

It is, however, in order to bring those operations to on line at the capacity levels needed to get us off foreign oil, you’re going to need a lot of money. Given that certain folks are going to be opposed to the government paying for this stuff, the money to do this is probably going to come from corporations investing in start ups. Which companies have the most money and are most likely to want to invest in something like this? (I’ll give you a hint: There’s probably only one tech company, and that’s Google.)

The good thing about it, though, is that it requires no infrastructure changes, and can be rolled out piecemeal. Every gallon made here is one gallon not dug up.

And if the ‘$2/gal’ quote is accurate… the money will come.

That’s a “maybe.” Certain vehicles can’t run biodiesel without modifications because the fuel is so clean. In most cases, the modifications are relatively minor (change a few fuel lines), in other cases a bit more extensive (lines, pumps, filters, seals, and injectors). I think, that occassionally the hoses at filling stations have to be redone as well. Given that the synthetic fuels will probably be cleaner than the petroleum based ones, people who own gasoline powered cars might have to do some reworking of their stuff as well (some late model BMWs can’t handle 10% ethanol for some reason). So, assuming that big oil doesn’t do its best to squeeze out the synth fuels from the existing distribution networks (possible, though probably unlikely), then there won’t be a need for a massive infrastructure build up, like there would be if we decided to switch to hydrogen, or similar.

That depends upon the economy, I’d say. I’ve not heard of any of the big oil companies jumping in tp help fund any of the various pilot projects. One would think that they’d be all over it like flies on shit, but then again, many large corporations have a tendancy to do really stupid things.

So add dirty-making additives! Seriously, what I’ve noticed is a bunch of people announcing they can make bio-gasoline, then going real darn quiet. That’s usually a signal that someone’s invested in them, and I can’t find out who. I’m expecting more noise in two to three years after they pass the test stage.

But you see my point as to a third way, yah? There’s even a fourth way. Still requiring new cars. Instead of a fuel cell in the car, do a hypercapacitor charging system. Each gas station gets the fuel in an approximation of a traditional way, by truck, then burns it, stores the energy in the hypercapacitor, car comes in, charges off the ‘pump’.

We’re looking at infrastructure changes, but not behavior changes, there.

Anyone else got some?

I guess you don’t remember Rudolf Gunnerman. Maybe he was a con-artist, maybe his idea was impractical in a mass production vehicle, maybe the oil companies “got him.” I don’t know, I do know that despite the promises of his “wonder fuel” transforming the world, it ain’t happened yet, and it doesn’t look like its gonna.

We’re also looking at someone coming up with practical hypercapacitors, lots of environmental issues (someone from the EPA is going to have to inspect all those places), how to safely push up to 88kWh/min into a car in a short period of time (that’s about a 4 inch diameter wire, which will have to be cooled, lest it melt), and be able to do all of this rapidly at peak demand times. Not exactly easy, IMHO.

I do remember him. I’m talking about university departments saying things, then going quiet. I don’t see ‘oil companies’ getting anyone. I see advertising for funding, then funding is gotten, at which point people want to be quiet because they don’t want any distractions or competition. I’ve seen this happen at least three times. I want to say Germany and Arizona for two, but I may be mistaken.

There are two companies promising workable hypercapacitors, one with a sizable investment by Lockheed and a car coming out shortly.

Far as the ‘safely’ bit, I’m talking an object in the shape of the modern gas pump. Yep. Four inch wire, cooled, with a sheath that retracts once it hits the ‘tank’ receptacle.

Pons and Fleischmann worked at a university, made a big splash, and then disappeared. (Not that I think cold fusion worked, mind you.)

Fusion power has been “just around the corner” for about fifty years now. MDI has been promising to have a workable air powered car out “next year” for nearly a decade now.

You realize that the cooling will quite possibly have to cryogenic, for this to work. That’s expensive and dangerous (not that gasoline isn’t, or that it can’t be made “reasonably” safe, but it ain’t gonna be cheap).

P&F? They didn’t disappear. Oh, no, they kept hyping things. But, hey, there’s four groups doing it now, not two. And… all that has to happen is one gets it working.

I’m not tied to any one great solution. I’m saying that there’s plenty of interesting options here between starve and binge, and most of them involve things other than methanol.

And yes, it would require cooling. Painful and expensive. But hey, that’s an engineering issue, it can be dealt with somehow. Engineering problems exist to be solved.

is taken seriously by anybody:
-he is an economist
-he has no scientific training

-he hasn’t a clue about the economics of energy
-he has a record of recommending useless solutions (retraining)
Converting hundreds of millions of vehicles to methanol isn’t quick or easy.