Science 1101 Part 2: Oil as a Liquid Fuel and Expected Peak Oil Impacts

This is Part 2 of my post relating to curriculum for a science peak oil course. It incorporates changes based on many of the comments made below. Part 1 can be found here. A PDF version which contains both Part 1 and Part 2 can be found at this link.

One theme of Part 2 is energy, and why energy is important to our standard of living. I try to compare the energy in oil to the energy in food. To make the comparison more understandable, I convert energy to kilocalories, since most people are familiar with calories in food. I also point out the errors of economists, both in the text and in the discussion questions at the end.

Another theme is the special characteristics of oil, and why oil is valued as a liquid fuel. I think we are sometimes kind of fuzzy in our thinking about substitutes for liquid fuel. We don't think about our built infrastructure, and just assume electricity can be substituted for oil when it really is at best a very long-term alternative. I discuss various alternatives including battery-operated cars, hydrogen, and conservation. The two sections relating to corn ethanol could probably be a post of their own.

I also talk about the impact of oil on prices. I make the point that big increases in petroleum prices are likely, with only a small shortage of oil. I also point our that food prices are likely to increase, partly because of the use of petroleum for food production, and partly because corn for ethanol competes with food for land use.

Part 2 – Oil as a Liquid Fuel and Expected Peak Oil Impacts

1. Why is petroleum so highly valued?

The main reason that petroleum is highly valued is for its energy content. If petroleum is burned, it can do work that makes our lives easier. For example it can be used to power an automobile or an airplane. We eat food to give us energy that allows us to do work of various kinds. In many ways, petroleum is the equivalent of food for many types of mechanical objects. For example, petroleum allows us to drive a car, and to do the work of transporting our luggage and ourselves. If we didn’t have petroleum, we would have to do the work ourselves – walk and carry our own luggage.

Another reason petroleum is valued is for all the things that can be created from the petroleum itself, without burning it. Final products include fabrics, plastics, drugs, herbicides, insecticides, and much more. At some point, we may decide oil is too valuable to burn. These products are very valuable, and it would be difficult to find replacements.

2. What is the relationship between energy use and standard of living?

There is a close tie between energy use and standard of living. Energy use gives us mechanical slaves that can do much work that we could do ourselves, but would take much longer. For example, mechanical equipment is used to plant and harvest crops, and to wash and package the food. Trucks are used to transport food to market. We could do many of these steps ourselves, by digging in the ground, picking the crops ourselves, and walking to market with the produce, but it would take much more of our own physical work.

Many economists dismiss the close tie between energy and standard of living. They say that energy costs are only a small portion of total costs, so energy is not very important. This reasoning is not correct. If there is a shortage of petroleum, it is in some ways analogous to a shortage of food. The real problem is not that we have to pay more; it is that we have to get along with less. If our diet were reduced from 2,000 calories a day to 1,900, it would make a difference to our lives. If the economy suddenly experiences a shortfall in petroleum products, fewer goods can be transported to market, and someone will have to do without a product or service that they would otherwise have had.

Robert Ayers and Benjamin Warr showed the close relationship between energy use and standard of living, disproving the standard belief of economists. In particular, they showed that there is a very strong tie between energy use, including the more efficient use of energy, and economic growth.

3. Why is petroleum more highly valued than other forms of energy?

There are many reasons:

a. Its abundance. Petroleum is the largest energy source for the United States, comprising 40% of our energy use. Coal and natural gas are each a little over half as big (23%). The new alternatives are tiny in comparison.

b. The fact that it is a liquid. Liquids are easy to transport and store. Imagine filling your fuel tank with coal!

c. Its high level of concentration. Those of us who have done cooking or counted calories know that oils have a lot more calories for the same volume than other foods. It is the same way with fuel. Gasoline has 115,000 Btu per gallon, or in terms we are more familiar with, 29,000 calories (of the type you eat in food –- actually kilocalories) per gallon. Ethanol, which is equivalent to alcohol in alcoholic beverages, has only two-thirds as many calories (that is, energy) per gallon.

d. Its low price. The reason oil has historically been inexpensive is that it takes a relatively small amount of resources to extract oil. In the early days of production, it took roughly the energy of one barrel of oil, plus a few other inputs (human labor and iron ore) to extract 100 barrels of oil. Even recently, it has taken as little as the equivalent as 15 barrels of oil (plus human labor and a few other inputs) to produce 100 barrels of oil.

e. Very favorable energy balance. This is just the flip side of Item d, oil's low price. If it only takes one barrel of oil to produce 100 barrels of oil, a small investment can create a huge amount of energy. Even if it takes 15 barrels of oil to produce 100 barrels of oil, there is still a very favorable return. This extra energy benefits society in many ways. It gives us the extra energy we need to build roads and malls and better our lifestyle.

f. Built Infrastructure. Nearly all of the cars, trucks, airplanes, and farm equipment currently in use were designed to burn oil products. While theoretically they could be replaced, this is a huge sunk cost. It would require technical innovation, a large investment of fuel and other resources, plus a timeframe of thirty or more years to convert to a new base.

g. Non-intermittent supply. At least historically, the supply of oil has been there, so that we could depend on it. We didn’t have to worry whether the wind was blowing, or a cloud was covering the sun.

4. What are petroleum's disadvantages?

a. Not renewable. The supply is depleting. Decline may begin within a few years.

b. Not environmentally friendly. There are problems in three different areas:

Global warming gases. Oil is only 80% as bad as coal in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide formed per unit of energy, but 40% worse than natural gas. Because we use so much oil, total carbon dioxide is more from oil than from coal or natural gas.

Air pollution. Smog, airborne particulate matter, and some carcinogens are the indirect result of the burning of petroleum.

Local environmental damage. Spills. Pollution problems particularly for Canadian oil sands, where much water is required for extraction.

5. How are oil and gasoline priced?

Oil is priced based on supply and demand. If there is not sufficient oil for everyone who wants it, the price increases until some would-be buyers are priced out of the market or an alternative appears. Additionally, the price must be high enough to cover the cost of extraction of even recently discovered oil. If the price drops too low, or it the likelihood of profit is too low because of punitive taxation, oil companies will discontinue their attempts to produce more oil.

Prices tend to “shoot up” if there is a shortage oil or gasoline, because people are unwilling to go without, and substitutes are very limited. A rough estimate is that 1% shortfall in supply will result in a 17% increase in gasoline prices, and a 2% shortfall will result in a 33% increase in prices. (This is based on a shot-term price elasticity of demand of .06. See )

The price of gasoline is fairly closely related to the price of oil, plus the additional costs involved. One US Energy Information Administration government website shows this relationship:

Figure 9

6. How does corn-based ethanol compare to petroleum as a solution to our energy needs?

Corn-based ethanol is a very poor substitute for petroleum. Actually, it is only, at best, a substitute for gasoline. Other petroleum products, such as diesel, lubricating oil, and asphalt require different types of substitutes.

The major problems with ethanol from corn are

a. Not scalable. A very large amount of land is required to produce a small amount of fuel. In 2007, over 20% of America’s corn was devoted to ethanol, but this provided only the energy equivalent of 3% of our gasoline use (or 1.1% of our petroleum use). More than doubling this will be very difficult.

b. Causes food prices increases. Competition of corn for land raises food prices. We end up paying a second time for corn ethanol through higher food prices.

c. Causes fertilizer shortages. Corn uses a lot of fertilizer. Fertilizer is made from natural gas and mostly imported. Fertilizer prices are now double what they were a year ago. The situation may get worse in future years and lead to shortages of fertilizer for food crops.

d. Environmental impacts as bad as gasoline (or worse). There are problems in several areas. Ethanol produces more global warming gasses than gasoline, according to recent studies. Older studies say that ethanol might produce slightly less global warming gasses than gasoline, but even this is not much help.

A Stanford study says that air pollution is also worse than with gasoline. Ozone, which causes smog, is likely to be worse with ethanol than gasoline. Ethanol decreases some carcinogens, but increases others.

The planting of corn also has negative environmental impacts, including aquifer depletion, topsoil erosion, and fertilizer runoff. These are especially problems if expansion of corn acreage means that corn is planted in hilly or arid locations where it would not usually be planted.

e. Energy intensive. Nearly as much energy must be used to make ethanol as is gotten back in return, so we are mostly recycling scarce fuels. Ethanol is not like petroleum, which has a positive energy balance to benefit our standard of living. If corn ethanol replaces petroleum, the impact on standard of living is likely to be negative. (See Item 3e)

f. Poor fit with petroleum system. At most 10% ethanol can be used in gasoline, without causing corrosion, unless autos are especially modified. Ethanol cannot be transported by pipeline, so costly and complex special arrangements must be made.

g. Less energy per gallon than oil. Ethanol has only about two-thirds the energy (calories) of gasoline.

h. Summer gasoline price run-up. Adding ethanol to gasoline makes gasoline evaporate at lower temperatures. To counter this, the fraction of gasoline that evaporates most easily (molecules with 4 or 5 carbon atoms, rather than 6 to 10 carbon molecules) must be removed from the gasoline mixture. Removing this portion of the gasoline reduces supply in the summer, and increases prices.

i. Drought sensitive. Supply depends on good weather in growing regions.

j. Expensive. Requires subsidies to be cost-competitive. Subsidies raise tax levels. Even with subsidies, ethanol's cost is often higher than that of gasoline.

7. Why is ethanol so popular?

The primary reason ethanol is popular is because it makes legislators look like they are doing something about reducing imports of gasoline. People do not realize that the benefit is tiny at best, and offset by many other problems.

The use of corn ethanol was expanded before people had a chance to learn its real-world problems. Many continue to support it because they believe it will be a “bridge” to better second generation fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol.

Corn ethanol also provides income to investors in biofuel refineries and jobs in rural areas. The offsetting costs of subsidies and higher food prices are far enough removed that people are not aware of them.

Car manufacturers like ethanol also because of a loophole that allows them to get credit for cars with higher mileage than they really have. Because of this, car manufacturers can build more gas-guzzlers than they would otherwise and still meet mileage requirements.

Ethanol’s use was expanded in 2005 and 2006 because clean air laws required the use of an additive called an “oxygenate”. The previous oxygenate, MTBE, had been found to be unsatisfactory. A number of people have raised the question as to whether oxygenates are really needed any more. Engines manufactured since 1994 have substantially reduced tailpipe emissions, so that an oxygenate may not to be needed.,2933,104259,00.html

8. What other possibilities are there as a replacement for oil as a liquid fuel?

Some other biofuel possibilities include the following:

a. Biodiesel from rapeseed. This is equivalent to what we in the US would call “canola oil”. Use of farmland for nonfood items is likely to drive up food costs. Heavy user of fertilizer. Has somewhat better energy balance than corn-ethanol. Mostly produced in Europe.

b. Cellulosic ethanol. Can be made experimentally, but isn’t yet commercially viable. Would be made from non-food bio-products such as wood, switchgrass, and corn stalks. Likely to be more energy efficient than corn ethanol, and cause less pressure on land use. Most methods are not economic at this time, but one approach claims better success.

Larger potential volume than corn ethanol, but still would not replace more than 20% of petroleum use. Cellulosic ethanol will compete with electricity generation for the use of the same biomass. Some analyses indicate that cellulosic ethanol is not the best use for biomass. (Requires free registration)

c. Biodiesel from left-over oil. Can be made from leftover vegetable oil or from animal fat. Energy efficient, but total volume likely to be small.

d. Ethanol from sugar cane. Not cost efficient in US; Brazil makes low-cost product with much hand labor. Brazilian product is very energy efficient, but has human rights issues for laborers. Relatively small amount available for export. Would be another source of imported fuel.

e. Biodiesel from palm oil. Also made from other tree fruits. Often grown on forest land that has been cleared for this purpose, so has very adverse environmental impacts. Often competes with food use for oil. Would be another source of imported fuel.

f. Biodiesel from algae. Under investigation, but no one has found a way to do this in a commercially viable way yet. Requires little land use.

Besides biofuel approaches, there are also fossil fuel approaches:

a. Coal to liquid. Process to convert coal to a petroleum substitute was developed many years ago. Method is quite energy intensive. Has much worse carbon dioxide impact than petroleum. Probably less expensive than most biofuels. Several plants now being planned.

b. Natural gas to liquid. It is theoretically possible to convert natural gas to a liquid fuel, but it is very expensive and not much used. Cars can also be adapted to run on compressed natural gas. Natural gas solutions may work in some parts of the world, but supply is not adequate in North America, and imports are very limited.

9. How about solutions such as wind turbines, solar voltaic panels, battery operated cars, and hydrogen powered cars?

None of these are liquid fuels. They don’t directly solve our need for something to keep are current fleet of vehicles and other devices using petroleum products operating. It is possible that over the very long term they can be part of the solution, but they cannot keep our current fleet on the road and our airplanes in the air.

Wind turbines and solar voltaic panels really relate to our need for better sources of electricity. Electrical supply is likely also to be a problem in the future, but we have not attempted to address the electrical supply issue in this document.

Battery-powered cars are a worthwhile idea, but there are some obstacles that need to be overcome.

a. Common materials. Batteries that require rare minerals will not scale up to the volume needed for millions of cars. If we do not require too long a range, more options may be available. It is possible that ultra-capacitors may be part of the solution.

b. Long time frame. Even if technology were fully perfected today, it would still take 15 to 20 years to get factories built, and the current fleet of cars replaced. Peak oil may delay this further.

c. Electricity issues. We assume that adequate excess electricity will be available to charge the cars 20 or 30 years from now, but that may not be the case. It would be ideal if a way could be found to use solar power to charge the cars.

Hydrogen powered cars seem to be much farther in the future than battery powered cars. Hydrogen is not a fuel source; it is more like a battery. Somehow, we would have to produce the huge amount of energy that would be necessary to separate the hydrogen from the compounds in which it is found. Besides having to build new cars, we would have to build a new pipeline network, a new set of filling stations, and the infrastructure to make this work. The whole process would be extremely expensive and likely require over 30 years.

10. Will biofuels and the other alternatives be sufficient to compensate for the petroleum shortage?

No, not based on what we know today. If nothing else, there will be a time-gap before the transition to alternatives can be made. There are a lot of alternatives under consideration, but none, by itself, seems likely to solve our need for a liquid fuel substitute in the timeframe in which it is needed.

Conservation will need to be an important part of the solution to our liquid fuel shortage. Better use of what we have, like carpooling, is one possibility. Another is electrified rail transportation. Streetcars were used years ago in many places, and could be built again, without developing new technology. Existing rail systems could be enhanced to permit more freight to be transported by rail. In some cases, sails can be added to boats to reduce fuel needs. If need be, personal vehicles can be made much smaller than we drive today, perhaps akin to golf carts or electric bicycles.

11. Besides higher oil prices, what types of impacts can we expect from peak oil?

Increasing food prices. One reason is that oil is used in planting, harvesting, packaging, and transporting food. Another reason is that growing corn for ethanol will compete with other uses of land, and drive food prices up. Also, if there are fertilizer shortages, yields may be lower.

More defaults on loans can be expected, as food and petroleum prices increase. Families will have less money left over to pay mortgages and credit card debt.

Pre-peak impacts. Increases in oil and food prices are likely to begin even before peak hits, and seem to be happening already. All that is needed is a gap between oil supply and demand (see Part 1, Figure 5), not an actual decline. Ethanol-induced land shortages also contribute to the food price increases. Higher oil and food prices may be contributing to current US financial problems.

Reduced discretionary spending. People will spend less on things like restaurant food and out-of-town vacations.

Reduced economic growth or actual decline appears likely.

12. What are the implications of the likely shortfall in oil production on career opportunities?

Careers in fields that are very petroleum-dependent may not be good choices. For example, there will likely be fewer airline pilots in 2040 than there are today.

If there is less petroleum, people are likely to be interested in having stores nearby that they can walk to. Thus, there may be an opportunity for starting a small store in your own neighborhood, or developing a neighborhood clinic.

Recycled products, especially those using petroleum inputs, are also likely to become more important. There may be careers in buying and selling these products.

There is clearly a need for more scientist and engineers in many energy-related fields. We need to find better ways to extract the oil that is available, and we need to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles. We need to find more and better petroleum alternatives, and to find ways to scale up these alternatives to the quantities needed as replacements for petroleum products.

13. Are there any actions we should take?

These are several ideas:

a. When buying a car, purchase the smallest, most fuel-efficient model you can find.

b. Consider sharing rides with someone else who is commuting in the same general direction, or take public transportation.

c. Make greater use of work-at-home programs and distance learning programs. Or live in a dorm.

d. Move closer to work or school.

e. When distances are short, walk or ride a bicycle, rather than drive.

f. Use recycling, especially for petroleum-based products like plastic. Other recycling is also helpful from a general energy-saving perspective, but not necessarily from a petroleum-saving perspective.

g. Avoid fruits and vegetables that have been flown to the United States from around the world. These tend to be quite expensive.

h. Reduce trips taken to distant locations, whether by air or automobile.

One idea which looks at the shortfall in a different way is to reduce meat consumption by eating smaller portions of meat or by substituting beans for meat in some meals. We are currently using biofuels as a substitute for petroleum, and this puts huge pressure on the food supply. By eating less meat, a person can help reduce the pressure on the food supply.

Animals eat several times as many calories in grain products as they produce in meat calories. By eating less meat, fewer acres of grains need to be planted to meet our food needs. We also reduce the production of global warming gasses, because animals, particularly cows, are big contributors to these gasses.

Another idea is to get involved with campus groups or political groups to try to solve some of the problems in the years ahead. It is likely to be a difficult adjustment, but working together we are likely to be able to accomplish more than we can as individuals.

Part 2 – Discussion Questions

1. US oil consumption is about 25 barrels per year for each person in the United States. There are 42 gallons in a barrel, and each gallon contains on averages 34,800 (kilo) calories (gasoline has less, asphalt has more). How many (kilo) calories does this equate to? (Answer: 36,540,000)

If we had food equivalent to this many calories, how many people could be fed with this many calories, assuming people, on average, eat 2,000 (kilo) calories a day? (Answer: 50)

What does this relationship say about the likelihood that we will be able to grow enough crops to turn into biofuels to meet our current petroleum usage?

2. If oil rationing were imposed, and the amount of gasoline you could purchase were limited to half of what you are currently using today, how would that change your driving / commuting?

3. If you were the president of the United States, and needed to impose rationing, in what order would you rank the following in priority.

a. Military
b. Farmers
c. Chemical feedstock use
d. Transportation of food
e. Mining of coal and uranium
f. Transportation of non-food items
g. Railroad and bus fuel
h. Air travel
i. Emergency services (ambulance, police)
j. People with jobs
k. People without jobs (retired, students)

4. There have been numerous governmental studies about peak oil. It is clear from public comments that Alan Greenspan is a believer in peak oil, as is former President Clinton. President Bush and Dick Cheney worked in the oil industry before their election.

Do you think that President George W. Bush is aware of peak oil? If so, how do you think it has affected Bush’s presidency? How long do you think that they have been aware of peak oil? Do you think it has had any impact on their policies? Why haven’t they said anything about peak oil? (Greenspan)

5. One of the reasons that there has been little said about peak oil is that economists keep saying that peak should not be no problem; in a free market economy, substitutes will be found.

Name three substitutes for food.

How does your answer to the substitutes for food question suggest that economic theory may be incorrect in with respect to replacements for liquid fuels?

6. If biofuels, at least at this point, seem to have as many environmental problems as oil, would it make sense to concentrate our efforts on enhanced oil recovery? How about coal to liquid?

For further reading – Relates to both Part 1 and Part 2:

A number of links are given in the reading material. In addition, some websites that may be of interest are - Discussion about energy and our future, including peak oil. Many articles written for the site, plus news items related to energy, and discussion about the various items. I write as “Gail the Actuary” for this site. A list of my articles can be found at - Peak oil related news items. No discussion.

Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas - USA Has a good weekly newsletter, and an annual conference.

Educational website about oil and gas, how it is formed, and production ins and outs

“Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management” by Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek, and Robert Wendling. Analysis of peak oil and mitigation options, prepared for the US Department of Energy in early 2005.

Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover’s 1957 speech talking about the expected future decline in fossil fuel resources and the need to tell the younger generation.

Myths of Biofuels - Talk by David Fridley - Free video for download -

Peak Oil and the Fate of Humanity – Series of downloadable presentations – Canadian

Global Oil Supply: Barriers to Investment - Presentation by David Fyfe of International Energy Agency

ammonia is a renewable, carbon-free liquid fuel.

Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't that still just hypothetical? I have seen various schemes suggested, but to my knowledge nobody has actually demonstrated a continuous, scaled-up ammonia process based on renewable energy.

It seems like, too, if we actually could produce ammonia from renewable energy, our greatest need for it would be for fertilizer. You point our in your article Ammonia and Biofuels that it would take 77,600 wind turbines to produce the amount of ammonia that we currently use for fertilizer. We would need a huge multiple of that amount to produce the amount of ammonia we would need for any reasonable amount of replacement fuel.

if we are talking about sustainability then ammonia is better used as fuel rather than fertilizer while biomass is better used as (feedstock for) fertilizer rather than biofuel (unless it is a byproduct from a digester). it will be a huge undertaking to solve our energy problem no matter which way we pick.

We don't need to recover all the ammonia we just need to recover the loss plus demand growth. One other point, did anyone notice the article about the farmer redirecting exhaust from his tractor to fertilize his fields? He noted a 75% reduction in his need for chemical fertilizer.

I thought the idea was very interesting, if it could be made to work. I have read several times about people adding carbon to the soil, and increasing fertility, and this seems to follow the same principle.

Well, according to the article, the farmer modified his equipment and then noted the lessened need for fertilizer to produce comparable yields. So according to the article it worked. Doesn't seem to be difficult to scale -- slight modification to tractor exhaust -- and works with existing infrastructure.

Short term solution that adds efficiency and reduces demand to a depleting supply. Sounds like a win-win.

if that indeed works as claimed, wouldn't that also sequester CO2 from the exhaust?

"Carlisle said testing has shown the system collects approximately 95 per cent of his equipment's emissions, and has reduced his need to add nitrogen and other fertilizers."

This seems to imply that it does. But I don't honestly know. It's novel ideas like this that I really like. Hopefully, the process works as claimed and becomes more widely accepted practice.

I think it's the nitrogen oxides in the exhaust, of which there are plenty because of a diesel's high combustion temperature, that is doing the fertilizing, not the carbon. If this is so, this could be a huge breakthrough in reducing fertilizer need. NOx must be finding some way to bind to the soil particles and be converted to usable nitrogen through microbic activity. Somebody should find a grad student who's looking for a dissertation research topic. For small grains (wheat, barley, rye) nitrogen is the primary fertility need. Usually there's enough phosphate and potash in the soil that little of those need to be added. (This is not the case for corn.)

It would be limited to air-seeder seed delivery systems, which have become the standard for small grain farming on the plains. Air seeders are a combination of field cultivator and seed injector. Tillage, planting and fertilizing are done in one pass through the field. Seed is kept in a big hopper, towed behind the cultivator, and is injected through plastic hoses, exiting underground just behind each cultivator shovel. Air seeders are usually 40 to 60 feet wide. They can plant over 40 acres per hour.

Some more thoughts on what might be happening. NO2 and NO3 don't like to stay in the soil. Perhaps the relatively high 150 F cooled-down exhaust temperature plus the abundant water vapor in the exhaust are helping the NOx stay put. That, in addition with the low ground temperatures (on the Northern Plains small grains are seeded as early as possible after the frost comes out of the ground) and low rainfall (S/W Manitoba gets about 16 inches total moisture per year) could be keeping these gases in place long enough for the nitrogen to get fixed.

My goodness. That's a lot more technical knowledge on the subject than I could hope for. But reading your post does give me a more distinct idea of the problem. I wonder if saturating the seed with NOx is what's causing the fixing/fertilizing to take place? Do you think this is a technique that could be used in the US or other places around the world with certain crops and farm sizes?

It's not saturating the seed; it's going into the soil. The fact that this is being done while seeding the field is incidental. The same technique could be used with any ground preparation that is separate from seeding. I don't know if it would work with no-till row-crops since the injection points are so far apart. Small grain is seeded on 6" to 7" row spacing, and row crops are done on a 22" to 30" spacing. On a wide spacing, as the roots spread out underground beyond the row, they would become nitrogen starved. That's one reason corn is side-dressed with nitrogen fertilizer after it is well leafed out.

That's not a correction; it's a validation of what I wrote: "nobody has actually demonstrated a continuous, scaled-up ammonia process based on renewable energy."

Also, doesn't ammonia combustion produce NOx and nitric acid? What is the plan for dealing with them?

From the article:

"The potential, however, is far reaching. Collectively, all of the wind turbines that now generate electricity in Minnesota have a bit less than 1 gigawatt of capacity. According to Reese, it would take only double that capacity for wind power to produce all of the nitrogenous fertilizer used by every farm in the state."

Again, as I said: Has not been demonstrated. It is sort of like saying there is enough biomass to run all of our cars on. Then why aren't we doing it? Because there are many complicating factors in the details.

Like I said in my first response, I am aware of the ideas. But someone is going to have to demonstrate that it works at scale. Splitting water, separating the hydrogen, getting it to where you want it - those are the sorts of details one has to work through.

let me quote John Holbrook - one of the experts on the issue:

There is no question that ammonia can be produced on a large scale using
renewable energy. The best example was Norway, where the company Norsk
Hydro used hydroelectric power to produce NH3 for six decades in the 20th
century. At peak capacity, a single Hydro plant was operating 150 MW of
electrolzyer capacity, which generated 64 tons of H2 per day (equivalent to
64,000 gallons of gasoline) and 365 tons of NH3 per day.

The question is not really whether large amounts of NH3 can be made using
wind, solar, or hydroelectric power, it's whether it can be done cost
competitively. The Norsk Hydro plant was mothballed about twenty years ago
because the electrolyzer approach for producing NH3 just could not compete
with NH3 produced using cheap natural gas. The relatively low efficiency of
the electrolyzes and their high capital costs essentially put them out of
business. It simply is cheaper to get your hydrogen for ammonia by
reforming natural gas than by cracking water using electrolysis, or at least
it was at that time..

The landscape has changed a bit for electrolyzer technology since then with
new technologies such as PEM electrolyzers, and new companies such as ITM
Power (UK) and GE getting into the area. In both of those instances, the
market driver has been to supply H2 to the Hydrogen Economy, not to
manufacture NH3, but the technology improvements and lowered capital costs
would still apply to NH3 production.

Is the cost reduction enough to make it competitive or marginally competitive with FF?

it all depends on where the price point of NG is or if NG should be used for such purpose at all. with the advent of new technology such as solid state ammonia synthesis (SSAS), producing ammonia from RE will be cheaper than producing hydrogen via electrolysis.

Also, doesn't ammonia combustion produce NOx and nitric acid? What is the plan for dealing with them?

ammonia combustion produces less NOx than that of FF. if further reduction of NOx is desired, ammonia or urea can be used for that purpose. this is the way used in some of the high end cars made by Mercedes Benz.

do you have any referable source about nitric acid produced by ammonia combustion?

do you have any referable source about nitric acid produced by ammonia combustion?

Well, you can work out the stoichiometry. You are combusting a nitrogen compound with oxygen, you are going to end up with a nitrogen/oxygen compound in the product.

The combustion of ammonia produces nitric acid according to the following equation:

4 NH3(g) + 5 O2(g)--->4 NO(g) + 6H2O(g)

What do you think the combustion reaction looks like? I suppose if there is an excess of oxygen, the nitric acid may oxidize to nitrogen, but if the reaction isn't fast, that's going to be a very corrosive step.

Has anyone actually used ammonia in any kind of engine in an extended application?

gee, i have to admit that i must have been left behind since i didn't attend one of these k12 schools. all i know is that the dominant reaction in the combustion is:

4 NH3 + 3 O2 -> 2 N2 + 6 H2O

Has anyone actually used ammonia in any kind of engine in an extended application?

people used ammonia in trucks and buses in Europe during WWII and never heard of any report of engine corrosion. GM and UC berkeley conducted extensive ammonia ICE researches during 1960s and 70s for the army, reported specifically that no corrosion was observed in the engines. there is a pick-up truck fueled by ammonia in operation for years now in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Do you have some links to the applications? I would like to read more. I don't discount anything before investigating (unless there is a clear knockout factor, or it violates thermodynamics). I have run across some wacky ideas that turned out to be promising.

sure. here are some links as a starter:

talking about wackiness, NASA's X-15 rocket plane is ammonia fueled. for the publicly disclosed reports from the army funded ammonia fuel research, search

with key words of ammonia fuel or ammonia combustion.

You might be interested in the guest essay I posted on my blog a little over a year ago by Dave Bradley on this subject:

I thought it was an interesting and novel concept, but wasn't sure about viability.

Dave and i are in touch via direct channels. he has been following this thread. ;)

There was a small plant in Iceland (used 10 MW from memory) that made fertilizer from air for several decades, till aluminum smelters outbid them. and they needed major refurbishment.

Earlier plants in Norway (in the era when they had electric boilers, create steam with electrical resistance for industrial processes vs. creating steam to make electricity).

Also plans for the Grand Inga Hydroelectric Project (44 GW) include ammonia production on a seasonal basis (low capital cost when electricity is in surplus).


Gail, you continue to amaze me with your ability to write readable material. This is good. A minor correction, I believe when discussing disadvantages you meant to say natural gas rather than coal when saying it is 40% worse than.

Oops! I fixed it. Sometimes it is difficult to see the obvious.

I hate to rain on your parade but I find an awful lot of opinion crammed in to this college course and not a lot of facts.

I would revise your approach completely.

On Peak Oil you are 100% correct, we are peaking now. You're on terra firma here.

You should take some time to explain what Hubbert's Curve is (and that it is a purely mathematical construct--not necessarily a bad thing, all statistical curves are like that).

You should cover Peak Oil, Peak Gas, Peak Coal, Peak Copper, etc.

One thing you almost completely write off is unconventional oil-tar sands, oil shale and (super)heavy oil. EROEI analysis of these are flawed, IMHO. It does take energy to 'manufacture' these fuels(it does to make gasoline, etc. also) but that will not stop people from manufacturing fuel.

Economic analysis is more appropriate. Things look very dark indeed if you take unconventional oil off the table. In reality they are being developed. They need to be developed responsibly.

Ethanol, biofuels are similarly written off. Ethanol is certainly economic at present, but it is not capable of replacing ALL gasoline--what of it? Nothing can do that. Our cars are too inefficient PERIOD. Biofuels are cleaner than fossil fuels and because they are net energy positive we can use fossil fuels to make more fuel to compensate for fossil fuel depletion. It will never cover our current waste but it helps at the margins.

You should discuss battery powered cars
(largely ficitious) in terms of BOE, since almost all their energy comes for coal or nuclear power. For example, by burning coal, an electric car will burn more fossil fuel than all but the worse gas guzzlers; .3kwh/mi x 10000 mi /(2000kwh per ton x 31% efficiency) x 4.879 barrels per ton= 21.6 barrels of oil equivalent whereas
a 10000 mi/20 mpg car=500 gallons of gasoline (13 barrels of oil equivalent).

Kilocalories, is a horrible idea--use barrels of oil equivalent BOE, this is they way energy is usually discussed. Food is not energy; it makes it look like you are building a 'strawman' argument--linking energy directly with food. That argument is easily disproven.

Your lifestyle suggestions are also a bit too 'nicie-nice'(buying a hybrid though is an excellent idea-(almost)everyone NEEDS a car). People will do all those things as oil depletion takes hold. People really need to hunker down for the storm, they must resign themselves to big energy/carbon taxes(even know energy is dirt cheap and our utility rates are just a small percentage of our expenses) and they need to put political pressure on the GOVERNMENT TO PREPARE (better than Katrina, one would hope).

That's about as much negativity as I can cram into this post.

Good Luck with your course!

I think there is room for a variety of different approaches. If you want to write something with a different approach, that will work.

Regarding covering peak gas, peak coal, etc. I was explicitly told by the university that I am working for on this project that that is the way they want it. The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that we have two somewhat separate problems - peak oil, and what I would call a natural gas / electric problem. The peak oil folks tend to focus on the peak oil end of the problem, and assume there is little problem on the natural gas / electric side of things. I think that there are probably nearly as bad problems on the natural gas /electric side of things. The timing may be a bit later, but not as much later as most folks assume.

I hadn't looked into the amount of electricity a battery operated car would take. Only about half of our electricity comes from coal, so it would seem like your calculation would overstate the situation somewhat. The only way that a plug-in battery-operated car would really save CO2 is if the electricity source did not generate CO2 - say solar panels on the roof of the garage. I can add a comment about the CO2 issues.

There was a speaker (Bill Reinhart) from Toyota at the Houston ASPO conference who was very negative on plug-in hybrids. His speech isn't posted, so I couldn't go back and look at it. I wanted to check and see why Toyota thought it wasn't the way to go.

"I hadn't looked into the amount of electricity a battery operated car would take. Only about half of our electricity comes from coal, so it would seem like your calculation would overstate the situation somewhat. The only way that a plug-in battery-operated car would really save CO2 is if the electricity source did not generate CO2 - say solar panels on the roof of the garage. I can add a comment about the CO2 issues."

Electric engines are already more efficient and have less CO2 impact even when powered off the US grid. So use of electricity produced by even the dirtiest coal plant still result in less CO2 emission than gasoline.

For example, the all electric Tesla Roadster has a 135 mpg EPA equivalent efficiency when powered off the US grid. Compared to current production vehicles this is a huge gain both in energy efficiency and carbon impact.

If interested, read the bits about efficiency.

Of course, you could, like some who post here, just build your own electric vehicle, set out solar panels to recharge it, and have done with the grid.

In your "what use would I cut" suggestions.

Some I would like to see are:
1) Recreational
2) Helicopter and private aircraft
3) Construction of useless plastic trinkets.

The first thing I want to see go is discretionary fuel usage - when other less fuel-intensive usage alternatives are available.

Ownership and use of inefficient and unnecessary fuel-consuming "toys" should be discouraged. There are other ways of having fun that don't require the consumption of limited fuel resources.

We simply cannot afford status symbols that consume precious resources.

It pains me to see our neighborhood on trash day. It took a lot of petroleum to make the stuff in the cans, and a heckuva lot of it should have never been made, much less purchased.

There should be a very strong discouragement for planned obsolescence. We simply do not have the energy to keep replacing our infrastructure every time someones' business model calls for another round of sales.

Design and manufacture for maintainability should be encouraged.

I would suggest law stripping all legal protection from ANY product a manufacturer abandons by ceasing support of it - thereby placing abandoned products into the public domain where anyone can support it. Its a shame to throw perfectly good stuff out only because one can no longer purchase consumables or replacement parts for it.

Congress was willing to pass law with teeth to give companies the power to successfully litigate patent and copyright infringement. Congress needs to pass law chipping those teeth off once the company abandons a product, just as I no longer have any property rights to property I abandon.

I have a heckuva hard time justifying helicopters.

The last thing I want to see cut is the workman trying to get a modest amount of fuel to support his job and family.

I am not sure how rationing would work, but it would seem to have to give fuel to a person, not a use. If a person chose to use the fuel for a recreational vehicle that he already owned, that wouldn't be banned, unless there was a separate ban on recreational vehicles. Maybe everyone gets the same amount, but that leaves retirees and the like with far more than they really need.

We use helicopters for a lot of things - fighting forest fires, transporting injured people to hospitals, transporting workers to oil rigs, traffic surveillance. It would be hard to ban everything, but quotas could be handed out appropriately.

The problem with removing legal protection for manufacturers is now everything is made offshore. I'm not sure if today's real manufacturers would care.

It would be nice for everyone to get what they need, but if there is a big cut-back in imports, this could be hard to achieve.

I am not sure how rationing would work

Rationing has been tried a certain number of times, and is known to lead to general inefficiency, through extended queueing, civil unrest, etc. : it definitely is a thing of the past, unless production totally disappears, which is difficult to believe in an oil-producing country.
It is much easier to let prices rise, until people start saving gasoline. Talking about rationing makes the paragraph very dated.
You may keep in mind that the US can stand a doubling of gasoline price, which would still make it cheaper than in other parts of the OECD.

If the USA chose to lower the amount of oil it imported by just 10% each year it would make oil more affordable in poorer countries of the world. Rationing of oil supplies isn't favored by affluent people like you because you want to be able to burn as much fuel as you like in spite of the detrimental impact it has on the rest of the world. Seeing that the 10 fold increase in the price of oil over the past decade has resulted in an increase in oil use I don't see how even higher prices would change the habits of Americans. Higher prices have simply driven African farmers out of business and America's working poor into the unemployment line.

The only way that a plug-in battery-operated car would really save CO2 is if the electricity source did not generate CO2
This is coming up, it is called CCS for CO2 Capture and Sequestration. EIA/DOE is spending more budget on it, and you can expect all new coal power plants will be fitted as of 2015-2020, approximately the date when oil gets scarcer.
The evolution will be first the Hybrid Vehicle (HV), already on the market, then the Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle, coming soon, then the Electric Vehicle. You could also read the V2G articles. The Tesla is a fun example, because of its incredible performances, but the Electric Vehicle will be more ordinary, just everywhere.

You missed the news.

The GWB Administration pulled the plug on the first demo CCS plant, scheduled for Illinois, last week.

So scratch that possibility for a long time. Restarting a dead project is not simple or easy, even if it is economic & practical (GWB's Secty. of Energy thinks not).

OTOH, Urban Rail is so dramatically efficient that CO2 will surely fall, regardless of fuel source.


So scratch that possibility for a long time.

FutureGen was scrapped, but larger budgets have been attributed to CCS efforts in several parts of the country through EIA/DOE; please refer to your country's information :). Also, a number of CCS projects are being tested right now, mostly in OECD ; please read.

Maybe you should read about Weyburn, which has been in activity for the past 8 years.
CCS definitely is the solution to a carbon intensive world.
Edit :

DOE awards three carbon sequestration projects

Quote :
DOE plans to invest US$197 million over 10 years, subject to annual appropriations from Congress, for the projects, whose estimated value including partnership cost share is US$318 million. The projects are the first of several sequestration demonstration projects planned through DOE's Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships.

The formations to be tested during this third phase of the regional partnerships program are recognized as the most promising of the geologic basins in the U.S. Collectively, these formations have the potential to store more than one hundred years of CO2 emissions from all major point sources in North America.

Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell said, "Coal is vitally important to America's energy security and this technology will help enable our nation, and future generations, to use this abundant resource more efficiently and without emitting greenhouse gas emissions."

The projects include participation from 27 U.S. states and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The participants will demonstrate the entire CO2 injection process--pre-injection characterization, injection process monitoring, and post-injection monitoring--at large volumes to determine the ability of different geologic settings to permanently store CO2.


I found the food calorie approach interesting. That the average person uses 10-20 times the energy equivalent of the food they eat a good way to show the scale of the problem. It also shows the futility of using food for fuel as a way of powering our economy. Having said that I still believe biodiesel and surplus biomass can have a positive impact in certain parts of the world such as the Great Plains.

I did't hear/read the speech by the Toyota representative, but I have my own theory as to why he would think this way.

I would first say that I think there is a role for electric cars to play in the overall transportation system, as long as we're not requiring them to be as big as, or to travel as fast or as far as the cars we are currently using (eg GEM car). There are many situatons for which this might be true.

At some point, adding more batteries defeats the purpose because there is too much added weight to carry all the batteries around. The limit of marginal utility has been passed.

A definition: a plug-in hybrid adds batteries to increase the range of current hybrids.

Toyota has probably determined that adding batteries to an already fairly heavy vehicle (above the minimum required to maintain "hybrid" operation), would be adding weight to a vehicle beyond the point which the marginal utility provided by the battery is postitive.

IMO, one would be better off owning two inexpensive small vehicles. An electric one to be used for round trips at low speeds of 20 miles or less, and an ICE based car to be used when longer trips are required. KISS

Must say I agree with many of these conclusions. I think the course needs to include more on the alternatives including non-conventional fossil fuels which I failed to mention in my previous post.

But the other piece is that it takes such a negative view of the alternatives that I would argue it is slanted. Disappointing really. As mentioned somewhere else, electric vehicles and hybrids are a growing part of the solution now. So is wind and, to a lesser degree, solar.

California is a fantastic model for how the larger US economy might begin to weather the peak oil problem.

One final point I agree with. The course does suppose Peak Oil is inevitable. Maybe a little more on the evidence Peak Oil is happening vice the dissenters -- CERA et all.

In all, there does seem to be quite a bit of straw man stuff here.

As an aside, has anyone noticed the price of oil is up nearly $3 since last night? In the news I also noticed OPEC officially stating it would defend a per barrel price of $80.

Interesting times...

About the only thing I agree with Majorian on, is using Barrels of Oil Equivalent (BOE) as an expression of quantities of energies. Maybe it's because I became familiar with energy issues via The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, but to me, tons of coal, megajoules or megawatts of electricity, trillions of cubic feet of gas, etc., are essentially meaningless to me insofar as how much energy we are talking about. Maybe also it's because it's a lot easier to visualize a physical, 42-gallon barrel than a megajoule or a trillion cubic feet.

Antoinetta III

Very good round up, I liked the clear facts, plainly and economically stated. Lots of material, and good questions at the end.

I also had my doubts about how the the comparison to food, or the illustrations with food, are handled - Many women and *dieters* are familiar with calories, but to others this measure is meaningless (though I know they appear on food packages in the US. Generally *few* calories is considered good?). Also, the comparison to food, and relations to food, are used in different ways: energy is measured in calories, oil is used to produce food, food provides energy for humans to do work, etc. - all this is perhaps a bit complicated. My thought was that the various relationships would better be described and exemplified through the use of a standard measure of energy, as suggested here by majorian. That, of course, would be the scientific way to go: some yardstick measures the cream bun, a full gas tank in a car, a bag of fertilizer. For high school teaching, it would in a sense be mandatory to go that route, because the aim is eventual grasp of core concepts and ‘science’. I realize that college or general public ppl in the US, as well as efforts that are limited in scope, type, hoped impact, etc. are another matter, and one always wants to rely on intuitions, or known facts, or comprehensible matters, etc., but that approach can lead one astray, as well, because at a certain point, there are unresolved, unexplainable issues, questions. ..Or one is forced to enter long complicated explanations or revise the approach or say that this is just a sort of vague introduction - and the audience generally does not appreciate this at all.

I come from a different culture - and that counts. So what do I know. I guess the main point is to get ppl thinking.

Hello again,

#2/#11: GDP and Oil. Might be worth briefly noting that in the '73 and 80's oil crises/recessions the drop in oil mirrored the drop in GDP. As goeth the oil, so goeth the economy.


One point of note. On the tail end of the oil crises oil consumption fell while GDP grew. Added efficiency resulted in the gains.

After the emergency. Sure. Not at the time of or during. Greater efficiency would naturally lead to greater profit/economic return... in time. And assuming the downturn is only that, and not something far more wrenching.

The point stands.


I discuss various alternatives including battery-operated cars, hydrogen, and conservation.

I think that electrified rail is misplaced under conservation and vastly understated (and misstated) with a single line Another is electrified rail transportation, in areas where population density justifies the use of rail transportation

A few VERY real world examples.

In 1970, 4% of Washington DC commuters used the bus to get to work. Today, over 40% use public transit, with most of them using DC Metro (at an imputed 800 pax-mpg of electricity).

IMO, that is a clear substitution of electricity (not much) for (with TOD effects) 90,000 to 100,000 barrels/day. Add another 20 to 25,000 b/day if the Tysons Corner-Dulles extension is built.

Electrifying US freight railroads without ANY transfer from trucks (a heavy shift is already underway) and over 200,000 b/day are switched from oil to electricity. Transfer freight from heavy trucks to electrified railroads and over 2 million b/day at the ratio of 17 to 20 BTUs of diesel for 1 BTU of electricity !

Another 2 million b/day are well within reach with Urban Rail projects already "scoped out" when oil was cheap. Add additional possibilities as the world changes.

The USA, in just twenty years (1950-1970) managed to trash ALL the prime commercial property (downtowns) and devastate many well built established neighborhoods with a combination of gov't policies (VA loans, freeways, desegregation, etc.) We can do the same in less time in an emergency.

Miami has funded plans (25 years at current rates) where 90% of the population will be within 3 miles of an elevated "subway" station, half within 2 miles (before any TOD effects). If/when this is built, with increased bicycle facilities, and constrained oil, how much could Miami reduce their oil use ? In an oil emergency, how much oil would be required to keep Miami going ?

How much oil would be substituted with electricity if a 3 or 4 track subway underneath Wilshire Blvd, with a streetcar on top, going to UCLA and then to Santa Monica ? 100,000 barrels/day is within reason.

Electrified inter-city railroads plus Urban Rail plus TOD plus bicycles plus walking create a parallel Non-Oil Transportation SYSTEM. A system that has elasticity of supply (capacity can be expanded with relative ease) when the Oil Transportation System is stressed.

This is clearly the strategy of France. Only 5 towns of 100,000 population or more do not have tram or plans for one.

I have focused on Mulhouse France, Population 112,000 in a remote corner of France (where Switzerland, Germany & France meet). First tram line in 2006, two more planned by 2012. Overall 1,500 km of new tram lines planned in France (~1/6th USA population),

I take issue with your statement "electrified rail transportation, in areas where population density justifies the use of rail transportation".

Electrified rail typical creates it's own density. A perfect microcosm is when DC wanted to develop a semi-blighted area. They just added a station (New York Avenue) to the 25+ year old Red Line. A half dozen high rise structures immediately (within 2 years) broke ground within walking distance of the new station.

Was there density to justify a station on New York Avenue ? Absolutely NOT ! That is why one was not built there originally. But build Urban Rail, and TOD appears.

This is TOD with cheap oil. How much more will TOD expand with $100+ oil (say $250/barrel) ? Where, of course, T for TOD is available.

And the threshold of density to build trams in small French towns is really quite reasonable. Cows can be seen to be grazing and vineyards are visible from tram windows in some of the photos I have seen (single family houses in the foreground).

And both Denmark and The Netherlands average almost 1,000 km/yr/capita bicycling (data from cheap oil years). What would be the impact if US bicycling rose to 1/2 or 1/3rd those rates ? 200 to 300 miles average/person in the USA ? Changes in shopping and commuting and living arrangements ? And obesity (see actuarial tables) ?

In summary, you overlook and underestimate the potential of Non-Oil Transportation. I would be glad to work with you on a suitable addendum

Best Hopes for Getting People to Understand that there *IS* a Non-Oil (liquid fuels) alternative,


Fantastic! Can you tell me where to get sources for these figures? 2 mbpd would be staggering and I seriously hope we can bring this sort of thing online soon. Not with Bush in any case...

In this case I assumed only a 50% transfer from truck ton-miles to rail in a decade.

Also read the comments.

Best Hopes,


Thanks for this! I've seen some amazing stuff on the ASPO site so this is no surprise.

Best wishes!


Time frames

Assume "Maximum Commercial Urgency" (same level of effort as used today to expand tar sands production).

Electrify (90+% of ton-miles) and expand railroad capacity by roughly double 2005 - eight to nine years, roughly $350 billion (details on request).

Encourage transfer to rail from truck by tolling interstate and US highways (set tolls at 90% of all maintenance costs, fair share for 18 wheel trucks). With higher oil costs, and improved rail service (100 mph rail express on selected routes), 80% shift seems doable in 12 years.

Oil savings over 2 million b/day.

Build out "on-the-shelf" Urban Rail Projects

Only projects that could start physical construction in 12 to 36 months were included on list. Time to complete 1.5 to 5 years (some 6 & 7 year projects possible if not at maximum commercial urgency. $135 billion to $175 billion. Oil savings higher than 500,000 b/day (1 million b/day possible).

Phases II, III & IV (Phase IV being defined as equalivent to French plans for France in 2020) could save millions more b/day with associated TOD.

With "Maximum Commercial Urgency" Phase IV could be finished in twenty years (or less). See USA building subways in the largest cities and streetcar lines in 500 cities & towns in just twenty years (with *FAR* more limited resources) 1897-1916 and the trashing of established neighborhoods & downtowns via Suburbia in twenty years (1950-1970).

Best Hopes for not ignoring Historical Experience,


This is not "conservation" but the creation of a Non-Oil Transportation System (almost from scratch).

I agree that in the right situation, electrified trains can be a solution. I used to ride the "Elevated" train in Chicago a lot, when I lived there. I have a daughter in Boston who rides the light rail, which I believe is electrified.

I think intercity electrified rail may make sense, if we need to scale back on air traffic. It would not be any easy change, though. We would need a system of tracks somewhat similar to the interstate highway system, owned and maintained by the government. I don't think the current track system would work. The new track system would be a huge expense, by itself. I doubt that we could do it, plus the cost of all of the trains, in a lower-carbon world. The US government is not in a position where it could borrow the huge amount of money needed for a project of this type.

In a city like Atlanta, light rail to replace one of the lanes on the interstates might make sense, if it could be sold to the public. I understand that trains have quite different "grade" requirements than roads, and the roads may be too steep for trains, however. With all lanes currently jammed with traffic, this doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.

Trying to buy up property with houses on it, and run rail lines through built-up areas seems unlikely to be a solution in very many areas. Here in Atlanta, the business districts are so spread out that there is little central place for the trains to go to. You talk about areas getting more built up in the future, but I think we need to think about moving together into
currently-built infrastructure.

Electrifying current trains that are not electrified is a smaller part of the problem. It seems like this could be done. Someone sent me an e-mail saying

The major exception to the difficulty of electrifying transport is electrification of the main trunk rail lines. Here, a crash program would be using well-established technology ... and, indeed, the bulk of our locomotive fleet already uses electric traction, except generated on board by diesel generators rather than taken off overhead lines.

And the conversion process is a direct matter of constructing the infrastructure, since given the overhead lines, the rail operators will use it.

Multiple Points.

I agree that in the right situation, electrified trains can be a solution.

I would substitute "Most urban situations", perhaps supplemented with electric trolley buses as feeders. Yes, the reach is THAT broad. US villages of 25,000 once had streetcars. The French have installed trams in smaller and smaller towns, and 100,000 seems to be the cut-off now BUT I am trying to get better info on future plans. There are hints of a floor of 75,000 or 80,000 population.

I think intercity electrified rail may make sense, if we need to scale back on air traffic.

For once, I am on the other side. I assign zero growth in long distance inter-city passenger travel (just commuter (>100 miles) regional (100 to 250 miles) seems to be the market to expand passenger rail first into. Car not air is the mode used today for those city-pairs.

I do NOT disagree that this mode could grow post-Peak Oil, but superAmtrak is the highest fruit on the tree,

Inter-city freight is the low hanging fruit.

We would need a system of tracks somewhat similar to the interstate highway system, owned and maintained by the government. I don't think the current track system would work.

CSX Railroad does. They responded to a GWB RFP for plans to reduce congestion on long distance travel. 19 proposals for more interstates and CSX.

Their plan, 1,200 miles from Washington DC to Miami. Entirely grade separated. Two freight tracks (60 to 70 mph) for regular freight. One track (two tracks DC to Richmond) for passenger service and express freight (low & medium density) at 110 mph (100 mph in some built-up areas). 30' between tracks to allow maintenance on oen track not to affect the other tracks. Cost $20 to $25 billion. "Slivers" of new ROW required to make wider radius curves in spots. (Think 5' to 10' out of a farmer's field) but other wise existing ROW.

Official Report (pdf)

Brief Summary

In a city like Atlanta, light rail to replace one of the lanes on the interstates might make sense, if it could be sold to the public. I understand that trains have quite different "grade" requirements than roads, and the roads may be too steep for trains, however.

The grade depends upon the axles driven. An all axle driven streetcar can handle a 10% grade going up (record was 16.x% grade in Pittsburgh, video was INCREDIBLE, tough to walk up that grade) but only 6% grade going down is maximum safe grade for proper braking.

Freight trains only have locomotive axles driven, and get unhappy with much more than 1% grade.

I generally oppose putting Urban Rail in the middle of limited access highways because people are repelled by auto sewers and it hurts ridership (post-Peak Oil this may be less of an issue). Atlanta was a RR hub and has old ROWS around. I once3 saw a fantasy system using those, I will see if I can find it.

The French routinely take city streets (not freeways) and do one of three things.

1) Remove it from auto use and seed it in grass with tram rails (quite pretty. we do this in New Orleans as well).

2) Mixed use but put paving blocks or rough concrete in tram lane (cars can use if roads are packed but uncomfortable ride keeps them out except during rush hour).

3) Mixed use with smooth surface. In New Orleans we do this in the downtown, right next to 51 story One Shell Square. Streetcars mixing with rubber tire traffic.

A lane devoted to Urban Rail can carry ten+ times the people that an auto/SUV lane can carry. If there are not enough lanes, then devote the lanes to the highest volume (and non-oil) mode.

More later (phone call)


For Atlanta, Official MARTA planning (hi res pdf available at link)

And an Advocacy Group (hi res pdf also available)

I think intercity electrified rail may make sense, if we need to scale back on air traffic. It would not be any easy change, though.
You should go all the way with his idea : intercity rail is the solution up to 600 miles distance, where total travel time is shorter by train than by plane, example :
- Paris-London, city to city by train : 2h15
- Paris-London, city to city including commute from/to airports : 3h00

Modern trains are high speed now, allowing routinely 200 mph ; do not look to the US for rail system, it is where Europe was in the 60s. At least three manufacturers sell such trains :
- Alstom "AGV"
- Siemens
- Bombardier

Europe is much more population intensive than the US, meaning finding a way through inhabited lands is much more difficult ; even worse in Japan, which also boasts the "Shinkansen". It will be a breeze in the US.
The only reason why train is under-developed in the US is : it is deliberate.

I oppose High Speed Rail for the foreseeable future (20+ years).

Unlike semi-HSR (say 110 mph, 175 kph) the HSR tracks cannot be dual use for medium density express freight (fish, fruits and vegetables for example).

They cost significantly more/mile.

The lower density of the USA makes them less economic.

They use MUCH more electricity. (Late at night, but aerodynamic resistance is square of speed from tired memory). A 173 kph trains should use a third as much electricity as a 300 kph train. And since both the 173 kph & 300 kph train must accelerate from zero and slow to zero, and slow to reasonable speeds inside built up areas, the time saving is less than 300 kph vs. 173 kph might lead one to believe.

And today HSR gets only half of the modal share for city pairs 400 to 500 km apart in the EU & Japan.

How many Berliners take the train to Spain or Italy ? Very few.

So, for as long as I will likely live, HSR is an unnecessary luxury for the USA.

Electrify the freight RRs, build MASSIVE amounts of Urban Rail, make our cities and towns bicycle friendly. These more important goals will take ALL the resources that we can muster for decades !

Best Hopes for semi-HSR, electrified railroads, Urban Rail, and bicycles,


Most people underestimate the amount of people you can move with a simple train/subway.

The yamanote line in tokyo (28 stations) transports more people that the complete NY subway. (ca 400 stations)

All it takes is an incentive to use public transport. In Japan, it is the inability to park your car. There is no such thing as public parking: You cannot park your car (unless you want to pay). So people use public transport, very intensively. 3 US$ gets you 10+ miles. People do not drive to work: that's completely out of the question.

Alan: Since about 5 years sections of the city of Geneva have practically been closed off to cars, only been accessible on foot/bike/public transport because of building all the new tram lines. The plan is to have the whole city car free and only public transport, though every main/subsidiary artery will always be open for gas driven cars, police / ambulance/ service/ deliveries etc. One lane only.

The economic pain has been considerable.

Ppl need to believe in, or be coerced into, long term planning.

Right now a whole huge quarter is closed - ppl who work there get up at dawn and walk or pile into temporary buses that chug around alternate routes. That section has something like 50 K inhabitants, a world trade center, a main hospital, a huge mall, 50+ small bizs, 4 huge schools, etc. etc. It has also become impossible or very difficult to park at, or even get to, the airport, which has encouraged ppl to take the train (which arrives in the center), - if you arrive at GE airport you can get a free ticket for the public transport.

I’m looking forward to seeing the end result.

The public transport company, in conjunction with the state, arm-twisted state and private organisms to offer their employees (1) a ‘discount’ on season tickets, the cost was borne in part by the cos., in part by the tax payer (state), in part by public trans. co - it worked. A huge surge. I now have a year ticket for trolley bus, gas bus, mini bus, tram, boat, train, and some of the services in the link, as well as per year a free bike for a month (the idea there is to let ppl try it without the pain of a financial outlay of buying a bike) over the whole territory (small, for sure), for about 400 dollars a year. I walk, I’m free, any conveyance that shows up, I can take it, without paying.

(1) In Geneva, personal car trips are first of all - in kms per year - for shopping and leisure, second for going to work. The difference is small and moves up and down.

link, in french

Thanks !

I would like to see an article on TOD about the experiences of Geneva.

Best Hopes,


What is most disappointing is your conclusions lead to a greater, not lesser, dependence upon fossil fuel in the near term. In my opinion, we need to begin the crash program to move us away from fossil fuels now.

I have little doubt that the oil industry will have every means and incentive to continue to exploit oil, natural gas, and coal, but if one reads this deeply, you seem to suggest that there will never be a solution to oil, coal, and natural gas use.

What would make sense, to me, in a situation of crisis, would be to explore and support all available short and long term options until some leading viable solutions presented themselves. We don't know enough to know that one single energy source will be the solution to all our needs. When taken from the point of view that a single source of energy must provide the solution, then it becomes insurmountable. But when looking at a viable mix a little light begins to appear:

Liquid biofuels
Electric assist or all electric vehicles
Massive ramping up of solar and wind to power the grid
Increase nuclear where possible
Husbanding current fossil fuel reserves for use as raw materials
Multiple materials base for batteries (some batteries do use common elements despite what this article suggests)
Conservation and making the entire energy chain more efficient
Keeping research vital in break through alternatives and ensuring that solutions are rapidly plugged in to the existing infrastructure

In this kind of world, government intervention may become necessary to regulate trade to encourage development of alternatives, expend capital to support new infrastructure, possibly redistribute resources and wealth to ensure large numbers of people do not die while a very few become very wealthy and invest money in development to encourage solutions to the energy source that got us into this mess in the first place.

Laissez Fair is not the alternative to peak oil. It is a shame that we face this crisis from the perspective of the age of greed (the new gilded age) and not from the point of view of a more enlightened time. That said, we are here and the crisis has come. Let's hope we can work together toward the solutions. Otherwise, I'm afraid things might get very ugly.

In any case, does anyone else find it a little odd that so many oil guys or ex oil guys are telling us oil is about to run out and implying that there will never be any solution? Such talk, in my opinion, does more to destroy and less to create a viable future.

Fossil fuels are not the solution to an inevitable fossil fuel depletion problem.

I think this is an excellent report. Thanks for sharing it.

You are correct in identifying LIQUID as an important property of candidate fuels. If the worlds's power requirement (15TW) were all obtained from hydrogen, this would be 32,000 cubic kilometers of hydrogen per year. (a cube 2.5 times higher than mount Everest). Clearly, storage would be a challenge. I haven't worked out how much ammonia that would be, but you get the picture. Anything you have to pressurize is a non-starter.

As a suggestion, kids these days, even in the U.S., are taught the S.I. system, and you should express energy in Joules, rate of consumption in Watts, mass in tonnes etc... The BP Statistical Review of World Energy has a good table of conversion factors as an appendix.

'Gail the Actuary' says,

...Liquids are easy to transport and store. Imagine filling your fuel tank with coal!

'half full' says,

You are correct in identifying LIQUID as an important property of candidate fuels.

Both need to consider that coal is easier to store than liquid fuels: it can be, and is, heaped outdoors.

It is true that hydrogen is a less useful energy carrier than electricity. However, solid fuels can be generated in place of both, and heaped like coal, or blown into a car's fuel bin as small particles. Conceivably this could be done with coal also, but it could, on occasion, burn in the air jet that was conveying it. Some very practical fuels cannot.

How shall the car gain nuclear cachet

Back in part 1, I added a conversion factor from barrels of oil to liters of oil. That seems like a fairly easy change to make, and perhaps helpful for people more used to a metric system.

I haven't worked out how much ammonia that would be, but you get the picture. Anything you have to pressurize is a non-starter.

liquid ammonia is about 1/3 of energy density of gasoline. large volume liquid ammonia storage is never pressurized.

... large volume liquid ammonia storage is never pressurized.

Um, not above the roughly 14-bar vapour pressure of the liquid, at its top surface, when during a heat wave it reaches 310 K, body temperature. Does that not count as pressurization? Actually, it does.

How shall the car gain nuclear cachet?

any idea how large volume liquid ammonia storage (100t+) is done? ever heard something called self refrigeration?

It takes some pretty substantial compressors to achieve this. Uhm, energy intensive compressors at that. And backups are imperative to avoid vapor release. This vapor has the nasty habit of more or less dissolving the moist tissues in eyes, sinuses, lungs, etc...

all these can be eliminated if the large storage is built next to a thermal power station fueled by the vaporized ammonia.

Gail, this article is an excellent post and I agree with 99 percent of what is stated above. However on that last one percent.....

"3f. Built Infrastructure. Nearly all of the cars, trucks, airplanes, and farm equipment currently in use were designed to burn oil products. While theoretically they could be replaced, this is a huge sunk cost. It would require technical innovation, a large investment of fuel and other resources, plus a timeframe of thirty or more years to convert to a new base.

My Electric vehicle has been on the road for almost a year now and does not need much gasoline or oil to keep it running. On the motorcycle I do lube the chain with a few drops of oil about once a month.

My electric car has only been on the road a few weeks, but so far the results pretty good. It does not use much oil either and it did not take "thirty years" to build. Build time was more like 90 days in my spare time.

The cost of my EV is much less than my neighbors Hummer.

The solar panels on the roof supply the electricity for the motorcycle and this summer I will expand the PV system to "fuel" the car as well. When the sun is scarce, I buy wind power from the grid because I dislike pollution from coal power plants. You can view my EV projects at

Thanks again for the great post,

Congratulations on everything you have been able to do!

My problem is I don't think any solution we have now will scale up. With a moderate amount of (lot of) work, a person can build one, but we are not yet able to build millions, and it is not clear that this is an easy obstacle to overcome.

In a severe crisis, I wonder how many people might just build their own?

I'm assuming in a severe crisis you lose your job or income for example your equity portfolio has crashed too.

So you have no money and are at the solar panel store...

If you have a job then all the people out of work would likely push gas prices down and your sunk cost of ICE car is still viable and affordable.

Well losing a job doesn't necessarily mean you've lost all your money all at once and if building that electric motorcycle for $4500 helps you get a new one...

As for solar shops:

Or just try the Home Depot:

In any case, I think it's a little silly to think everyone will just all of a sudden lose their jobs. Even in the Depression most of the populace was still employed.

As for gas prices going lower -- there seem to be a lot of people who think they will trend upward even through very tough economic times. With the depletion rate so high, worldwide demand so high, and the cost of alternatives also quite high, I don't see any long periods of low price in a true Peak Oil scenario.

One other point -- people can be really resourceful in a crisis. Pooling resources is not out of the question.

I think a lot of people tend to think of these issues US/Euro-centric. Even then, what percentage of the US population can afford these solutions *now*? I'd be broke. Most Americans don't have any savings to speak of, do they? (Rhetorical question.)

The Earthship and Enertia homes are good examples. These supposedly eco-friendly homes cost as much - or more- as a regular home to build. Being the case, only people with good income or high savings can afford them. That leaves out the vast majority of Americans, let alone the populations of most other countries. So, if only people with money can have one, how environmentally friendly are they in the end?


A few things in the news that I feel relate to this discussion:

Hybrid cars sales are up 28% year on year as of January. The primary leader in the market continues to be Toyota:

The Bush administration, consistent with past trends, has proposed to cut funds for solar and efficient vehicles while increasing funds to coal, nuclear, and, to a lesser degree, biomass.

I would agree that the Bush administration's priorities seem strange in its budget. I think we need to be looking more at solar alternatives. I believe that some progress is being made. I also think that technological progress on unconventionals is what has kept natural gas production in the US from falling off a cliff. Natural gas is a lower CO2 product, and seems to exist in large quantities, if we could get it out. We should probably be spending more on natural gas technological progress.

With respect to hybrids, I would like to see numbers that take full CO2 emissions during the life of the vehicles compared to non-hybrids. My impression, given the high cost of hybrids, is that they really don't come out much ahead, when the embedded energy is included.

Well written presentation Gail. It makes sense to me.
It is a realistic explanation of the consequences of peak oil. Putting your work out for all to criticise. No one can accuse you of not having balls.

The dreamers scream could/can/should solutions and alternatives.
Let them write an article and have it subjected to the scrutiny of TOD readers.
I think they THINK they are offering solutions but of course we all know their solutions are mitigation.
How effective the mitigation attempts are, is dependent of the state of the economy and availability of energy and not least human will.

We have reached the current world situation mainly over the last sixty years on the back of cheap oil/energy. Exponential economic expansion, food production, suburbia and population explosion being the reward.
I wonder if the dreamers understand now, that there will be no more economic expansion to service the mitigation projects in any meaningful numbers. If one project gets more it only means another gets less, there will be no more, more for everyone.
Do they understand we are in the death throws of consumerism for its own sake and what the consequences are for business, employment, government, exploration and research?

I'm trying to think of a single introduction, of a technological innovation made without the direct or indirect input of fossil fuel. What alternative energy source is not directly or indirectly dependent on fossil fuel?

Like the current climate crisis, the economic situation is beginning to gather negative momentum, with feedback loops just waiting to kick in.

If I could be shown that the economy will continue to expand in the face of declining energy provisions, I will immediately join the ranks of the dreamers and optimists. The darkening cloud hovering overhead is not just peak oil, it is its economic effect.

When you think about the economy, and all the debt we have, and the need to pay back the debt with interest, the situation doesn't look good. It seems like there are a 100 different infrastructure things that might be helpful, but we can't do them all. We are going to have a hard enough time keeping up the grid, keeping up road repairs, and keeping the water and sewer systems going. Also, from what we have been reading lately, keeping the internet cables repaired. It is hard to see how we will be able to do a whole lot of mitigation.

keeping up road repairs

In the prioritization of things, I would let potholes develop in freeways and devote those resources to building more rail. (As well as 99.4% of the current road building budget). A MUCH better long term choice.

The subway I rode every day to ASPO-Boston was built in 1897 and about half of the original value was still in service a century later. The other components lasted 30 to 50 years.


Infrastructure, right now, is a problem of priorities. We'd rather spend trillions fighting wars overseas than fixing problems at home or building sustainable energy infrastructure.

It seems like there are a 100 different infrastructure things that might be helpful, but we can't do them all.
This is quite true, and probably the main point about energy in the next decades : which choices to make ? knowing you cannot do everything. Actually, many of these choices are already known, because energy is a capital-intensive, long term industry : a coal-fired plant will last 60 years, and there is no way you will scrap it before its standard life span - noone will foot that bill.

Same thing with housing : while US housing is at the base of the current non-optimized energy expense, it takes 30 years to replace/adjust 50% of a region : you already know how much it will cost you to energize the country for a few decades. Then choices are much more obvious.

Of all the "more obvious" decisions, the average MPG of new cars is the loudest problem, and the easiest to solve, hence the recent CAFE decisions, which will be made more and more stringent in the future : so far they only tend to make 2020 US cars as efficient as ROW cars are in... 2008.
Quote :
the current U.S. car standard of 27.5 miles per gallon has been “frozen” for 20 years, while Japan has gone to 45 mpg.

it takes 30 years to replace/adjust 50% of a region

I would be interested in your source for that datum.



BTW, DoE R&D seems focused on inserting CO2 underground. Nice, but I never saw that as a major issue (oil companies have done this for decades). But without FutureGen large scale plants to generate the CO2 seem to be lacking. I think that canceling this project (especially if canceled on valid technical grounds) is a major long term setback.

Bear in mind: we don't just need to reduce CO2 emissions, we need to reduce total atmospheric CO2 to levels lower than today.

Better hope those CAFE standards rise quickly.


Well, I like your presentation Gail. Gets the basics out there and gives you jumping off points for fleshing out details later.

I for one would have started with a brief history of energy use, starting with wood, peat coal, etc. just to give the students some perspective on how we have gotten to where we are. It is amazing to me that even most college graduates have no feel whatsoever for the situation. You flip the switch and the lights go on, lol.

A graph of world population with energy use type is quite illuminating.

It seems the Bush administration is going for a consumables only agenda. I'm really disappointed in his stance regarding solar energy and other renewables. His administration's action against California for attempting to increase efficiency in state makes it look like an attempt to enforce dependence rather than reduce it.

I agree with you in the sense that our progress in unconventional natural gas has had a huge benefit in keeping domestic supplies solid for the short term. But for how much longer? I'm sure there will also be a scramble for oil shales, more gas shales, CTL, more offshore oil and other nonrenewables. And I'm not entirely against their use. I just think we should set the focus toward moving away, in a concerted fashion, from fossil fuels which got us where we are in the first place.

The combined cycle gasoline electric engines are much more efficient in their energy consumption than primary ICEs. Of course, overall fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions are dependent upon the vehicle. If you look at the Prius, for example, according to the New York Times:

"The E.P.A. estimates that a Prius driven 15,000 miles a year will emit 4 tons of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide. While that is well below the 5.5 tons a year, or more, from small gasoline cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, it is still not zero. As for smog-causing emissions like nitrogen oxides, the Prius is a super-ultra-low-emission vehicle, or SULEV, under California rules. That is the best rating short of zero, and it means the Prius's emissions are a tiny fraction of those from most cars. But the SULEV rating has also been achieved by special versions of the gasoline-only Honda Accord EX and Nissan Sentra CA."

The cost and added materials of the Prius aren't really that much more than comparable vehicles and continue to drop. So the emissions and impact to fuel supply are markedly less.

I would agree that the Bush administration's priorities seem strange in its budget.

Why? They are the things that will help keep the masses from independence while allowing the top 1 - 5% maintain their place, while building themselves off-grid compounds.

Not strange at all.


If you really believe in the GHG/Anthropogenic GW story, here is an excellent post (in rebuttal to today's "Iowa farmers will burn up the Earth-Screed from the journal-Science- or whatever it was) that will make you feel much better about Biofuels.

Great Job Gail

I actually like the kilocalorie comparison. Thomas Homer-Dixon in "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization" goes to great lengths to estimate the number of kilocalories of food and how much farmland was required to build the Roman Coliseum.

Without oil, it would be kilocalories...

Sir, many good points; I totally agree with almost everything; however, I think that Brazil’s sugar cane ethanol experince diserve a more accurate observation:

"d. Ethanol from sugar cane. Not cost efficient in US; Brazil makes low-cost product with much hand labor. Brazilian product is very energy efficient, but has human rights issues for laborers. Relatively small amount available for export. Would be another source of imported fuel."

1) It could be cost amd energy efficient in some parts of the US – Florida, Lousiana, Alabama…..
2) Brazil has 30 years experience in producing ethanol and using it as an alternative liquid fuel.
3) Much had labor: mechanization of sugar cane harvesting is already significant in Brazil, all new projects are mechanized! I can guarantee that all ethanol producers in Brazil would be happy to switch to mechanical harvest as fast as possible, but this has to take place gradually otherwise would create a major social problem.
4) Human rights issues for laborers does happen in some cases; this is definetly not the rule. In Brazil’s ethanol industry, as in any industry all over the world you always have good and bad business man.

To conclude I think that you should mention: Flex Fuel Vehicles and E85. This could represent a partial solution, as an alternative to increase the oil life-cycle. In the US there are already more than 6 million FFV, as you have mentioned.

Sir, many good points; I totally agree with almost everything; however, I think that Brazil’s sugar cane ethanol experince diserve a more accurate observation:

"d. Ethanol from sugar cane. Not cost efficient in US; Brazil makes low-cost product with much hand labor. Brazilian product is very energy efficient, but has human rights issues for laborers. Relatively small amount available for export. Would be another source of imported fuel."

1) It could be cost amd energy efficient in some parts of the US – Florida, Lousiana, Alabama…..
2) Brazil has 30 years experience in producing ethanol and using it as an alternative liquid fuel.
3) Much had labor: mechanization of sugar cane harvesting is already significant in Brazil, all new projects are mechanized! I can guarantee that all ethanol producers in Brazil would be happy to switch to mechanical harvest as fast as possible, but this has to take place gradually otherwise would create a major social problem.
4) Human rights issues for laborers does happen in some cases; this is definetly not the rule. In Brazil’s ethanol industry, as in any industry all over the world you always have good and bad business man.

To conclude I think that you should mention: Flex Fuel Vehicles and E85. This could represent a partial solution, as an alternative to increase the oil life-cycle. In the US there are already more than 6 million FFV, as you have mentioned.

The things I have read basically say that the very high EROEI of Brazilian sugar cane comes because so little mechanization is used in the process. It still might be cost-competitive to use mechanical harvesting, but the higher EROEI claims come down a lot, so the advantage over US produced ethanol is largely lost.

In the US, most places have a much shorter growing season than Brazil. Once we factor in one crop instead of two, and higher wages, plus the cost of fuel for machinery (ant the cost of building the machines), the cost becomes non-competitive. I know that before the ramp up of corn ethanol, there were studies done in the US as to which biofuel to plant. Sugar cane came out behind corn. (I can't find the study now however.)

As everybody probably knows I reject EROEI as fundamentally flawed since it compares apples and oranges and leaves out the critical factor of price when used to allocate resources. When comparing apples and apples it is valid but pointless as price usually does the work if it is allowed. EROEI has been used to slam ethanol but not electricity which has a lower EROEI than ethanol thus demonstrating that some other force is at work. This factor I beleive is bias against ethanol. This is an old idea I have often expressed.

My new idea on ethanol EROEI criticizes it for not taking into account (adding back in) the energy savings of corn for ethanol compared to corn for hogs, chickens and such. Corn not used for ethanol is used to feed animals which by their very nature are inefficient converters of energy into food or whatever. When corn is used for ethanol this lost energy should be added back in as it is "captured" compared to feeding animals. A similar phenomenon occurs when corn is not exported. Corn used for ethanol "captures" the energy gain that would go to the foreign purchaser. This energy gain comes in two forms: The savings in transportation energy cost, which is no small matter, and in the fact that corn is inappropriately priced relative to crude oil. Corn sells at about half the price it should for it's energy content compaired to LP. This energy is effectively lost when corn is exported. When it is used for ethanol this gain is captured and turned into a useful energy product which can be used by the current automotive infrastructure. If I were Gail I would be careful about putting my name on curricula that might be deemed erroneous in hindsight.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair

Carry on Gail. Excellent work as usual. Good luck in the classroom!

I expressing my ignorance but I fail to comprehend why you insist on using price in your calculations for EROEI.
Energy Return On Energy Invested. Where is price a consideration at all.

No matter what the tangible return is, if the return on the energy investment is not greater in terms of energy, the scenario is less in the system, no matter how you rationalize your thinking.

A billion dollars for a barrel of oil, even if it cost one dollar to extract is still a negative EROEI if more energy was used to extract it than the barrel contains.

I cannot see any (direct) connection between money and energy...............yet.

This is an old idea I have often expressed.

And one you continue to express, despite countless refutations that you have never bothered to answer.

"Why oil is so valuable " needs elaboration. Specifically, oil's explosive rate of burn permits direct use without intermediate step.

Why Oil ?
Consider fuel as solid vs. liquid/gas = slow vs. EXPLOSIVE burn, or rate of energy release.

Consider ENERGY, for example, as coal vs. oil:

COAL burns slowly and requires an INTERMEDIATE like a steam-accumulator [boiler] to yield EXPLOSIVE expansion; led to steam ENGINE-via-boiler development [Industrial Age]

But, PETROLEM as oil or gas works DIRECTLY via atomization to yield EXPLOSIVE expansion [basis for internal-combustion engine, or ICE], the most useful RATE of WORK produced relative to any other commodity fuel. Oil or gasoline, as liquid, is a uniquely MOBILE fuel, requiring only pumps and valves to manipulate [ easily automated process-control] or efficiently move and store great quantities in simple containers, safely.

Cars and planes cannot work on coal, wood, etc without the intermediate [e.g. steam] to produce the required EXPLOSIVE rate of energy release, and so are impractical; the intermediate, such as a boiler, is required to achieve the high rate of energy release. Even NUCLEAR requires the intermediate boiler to create the EXPLOSIVE expansion of steam which is then modulated or throttled to to do work.[That nuke boiler is called the Steam Generator which, until a few years ago, was the greatest limiting factor in the life of a nuke electrical power station].

The ICE was designed to use that EXPLOSIVE rate of energy release of petroleum and some other fuels, like alcohol. Petroleum dominated because of low cost, abundance and availability. No other practical and scaleable ENGINES have been developed to work solely and directly on heat/radiation, due to portability/mobility and energy-density problems. There are possibilities such as thermo-electric, ion-electric, photo electric,wind, etc.

[Portability and energy-density restrictions can be overcome by future development of electric distribution grid, fed by wind, solar, etc. along with development of storage, as batteries. Aircraft engines can use alcohol and other alternates.]

Also note these DickCheney 1999 speech* quotes:
Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in [its] nature.
Energy is truly fundamental to the world's economy.
The degree of government involvement also makes oil a unique commodity.
Oil remains fundamentally a government business.
It is the basic, fundamental building block of the world's economy.
It is unlike any other commodity.
The Middle East with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies
The Middle East and Africa have over one hundred year’s supply of gas reserves at current low usage levels and the former Soviet Union and Latin America have gas reserve-to-production ratios which should last over seventy years.
[..].estimates there will be an average of 2% annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead along with conservatively a 3% natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50,000,000 barrels a day. So where is the oil going to come from?

* London, at Institute of Petroleum; full text at

I hadn't really been aware of the difference in rate of energy release. You are right about the other fuels needing a steam intermediary. The point you make makes it even clearer that oil is unique - one cannot substitute some random other fuel, even if we could get an adequate quantity.


I think rather than use the term "exlposive", it would be more technically correct to identify volatile liquid fuels as "having a high flame speed". When gasoline is ignited in compressed air in an engine, the gas mixture burns smoothly from the spark on one side across the piston head to the other. That is, unless the fuel octane is too low or the compression ratio is too high. In that case, before all the fuel can be burned smoothly, the remaining unburnt part does indeed "explode" and that is the noise you hear as ping or "knock" (also called detonation) in the engine.

Gasoline quality (octane) is something you may want to discuss. Octane is increased by converting certain precursors (naphthenes), present in heavy naphtha, to aromatics via the "reforming" process, a high-temperature, endothermic process that actually "shrinks" the volume. Also, some straight chain hydrocarbons with low resistance to knock are converted to branch chain hydrocarbons with higher octane value, although little volume change occurs.

Another widely used gasoline maker is "alkylation" in which isobutane (branched chain) is combined with a C4 olefin (one double C=C bond) to make octane, obviously a "high octane" component with a much lower Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP). Either sulphuric acid or HF hydroflouric acid (very dangerous if allowed loose) are used as catalysts for the process which may take place in the liquid phase around room temperature.

There also is a similar quality for diesel fuel called the "cetane index". In this case (due to late injection of fuel), straight-chain hydrocarbons (fast burners) are preferred to other types, unless there are so many that "wax" formation begin to occur at low temperature.

A final thought--light transportation (hydrocarbons) contain on average about 14% hydrogen (balance carbon), conventional crude about 13%, conventional heavy crudes 12%, oil-sands 10%, and coal about 3% (available) hydrogen.

Thanks. In one version, I included a link to a reference talking about octane, and how it was raised. I took out the comment about ethanol being used to raise octane, so I took out my link also.

I agree it is interesting. I am not sure i can put more in this version, but perhaps if I expand it at some time.

The explosion and fire at that sugar refinery in Georgia shows how explosive a solid fuel can be. It has been shown that if ground into sub-micron particle sizes solid coal can work in a diesel engine. On-board wood and coal gasifiers can and have fueled ICE cars and trucks.

I am highly skeptical of attempts to 'remake the world' around the electron(electron economy).
The reason is that we are running out of energy NOW, not 50 years from now.
We are having tremendous difficulties in just keeping the whole technological infrastructure from sinking into the abyss NOW.

Richard Duncan in the Olduvai Theory says that 'Progress' fueled by exponential growth in fossil fuels ended in 1970 and since then we have been on a linear growth track, due to go negative in 2008. The out-of-control construction cost we see today is directly related to the slowing rate of energy availability as reflected in the fall in per capita energy. There simply isn't be enough money to rebuild the world. The emphasis will be on making things last and countering declining energy with efficiency gains.

When energy growth goes negative, then be prepared to see people abandoning their technology. This will be a VERY BAD THING.(The same thing happened around the end of the Roman Empire with emperors and even the Goths passing laws requiring the Romans to maintain their buildings and infrastructure properly).

You should probably reserve Duncan for the final lecture in your series.


I have read quite a bit on the Olduvai Theory, the per capita/energy rate ect. It is a bit scary the implications and the probability of this scenario. However I think it does fail to take into account that we will still have alot of benefits left over from the fossil fuel area. While renewable sources of energy will most likely never be as energy dense and useful as oil, oil has done alot of work for us. It has liberated metals and minerals from the mines and manufactured them further from ores into pure metals. We will retain this benefit and I think renewable energy combined with tons and tons of already manufactured materials will make it easier to maintain some degree of modernity by having some but less energy to use on already manufactured and therefore less energy intensive goods. I am not sure the steep decline back into the stone age it advocates will happen due to all that their will be to salvage from our current civilization. So im not sure Duncan's theory would be the best to present as more than just a theory.

Dear Gail,

You are quite right in your analysis. We should emphasis on the following two things:
- Carbon free energy (electricity)
- Carbon containing energy (oil, coal, gas, biomass)

Carbon free energy is abundant (solar energy).
Carbon containing energy will become scarce.

Whatever you do, since we are losing energy production, we should add energy tot the total equation. You can shift around as in a 15 puzzle, but that will not the change the number of pieces in the puzzle.

Start building massive renewable energy production. At least 15GW (coal equivalent) a year.

This can be wind, solar PV, solar thermal, solar CPV.

1GW (coal equivalent) solar thermal plant, costs about 6 billion dollar. So, it costs 90 billion a year. 60 billion can be privately financed, so it costs 30 billion public money.

Add 5 billion for wiring to those remote locations.

Get the people off the carbon for heating. Using Ground Source Heating Pump GSHP (as in previous article on this site).

Subsidize this with 15 billion a year.

Concentrate carbon energy for those areas where it is really necessary.

Finally this will be:
- Aviation
- Petrochemical industry

For the short term (until 2025), we also need it for the car. But oil will not be depleted from one moment to another.

From 2025 and onwards, new cars need to carbon free (electrical or hydrogen). This means, that car industry has still 15 years to figure out how this car will look like, while they are already busy with serious models (Chevy Volt). So, this is possible.

For concentration we use:
- Existing oil (we get some more, because of the GSHP).
- Waste reuse.
- Cellulose ethanol
- Coal to liquids (some amount freed up, due to 15GW solar).
- Gas to liquids (some amount freed up, due to 15GW solar and GSHP).

After, the car becomes electric, coal and gas will not be necessary anymore. The biomass is sufficient for aviation and petrochemical industry.

Support this step with 10 billion a year.

30 + 5 + 15 + 10 = 60 billion dollar a year.
Remove 15 billion dollar subsidize for oil.
45 billion dollar a year.

This is a significant amount, but Iraq war costs 70 billion a year. It is entirely possible.

- No oil usage
- No other fossil energy usage.
- No Green House Gases
- Aviation for the same price
- No temporarily price hikes for gasoline
- Cheaper heating for people using oil now

It seems many posters, here, are unable to come to terms with one fact. Distillers Grains is a 1:1 substitute for corn (actually, it's about a 1.1:1 substitute; but, we'll keep it simple.

This brings the yield/acre up to about 675 gallons.

Ergo: we used about 10 Million acres to produce that 6.5 Billion gallons of ethanol.

That's an area LESS THAN 1/3 THE STATE OF IOWA.

When we complete the 15 Billion gallons RFS for corn ethanol we will utilize an area less than 2/3 the size of Iowa.

That's an area LESS THAN 1/3 THE STATE OF IOWA.

So, we use up 1/3rd of one of our most productive farm states, for how much net energy? How much of our gasoline supply? Using the (pro-ethanol) USDA's EROEI numbers, of the 15 billion gallons, we netted out (if we count the DDGS as BTUs) only 3 billion gallons of ethanol - or 2 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent BTUs. Nice. Less than 2% of our gasoline supply for using up 1/3rd the state of Iowa. We could have gotten that much energy by properly inflating everyone's tires.

I will say this. For someone with no ties to the ethanol industry at all, you certainly are putting up a vigorous defense. You were also quick to discount that new study in Science. An objective person might have taken time to consider the study, but you immediately dismissed it. Impressive.

You my friend are totally full of prunes. I may be late but this nonsense can not go unanswered.

The average corn yield in the US was 153 Bu/acre in 2007. The US produced 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol and had an average yield of 2.7 gallons per Bu. That is 2.4 billion Bu consumed for ethanol. At 153 Bu/acre that required 15.7 million acres.

Per the USDA Iowa harvested 13.95 million acres of corn at 175 Bu/acre for 2.441 billion Bu. So 2007 ethanol production required the entire equivalent Iowa 2007 corn crop. Iowa is 56.3k sq miles 21.8k sq miles was in harvested corn.

To get to 15 billion gallons would require all of Iowa, Illinois, and 80 percent of Indiana’s 2007 corn harvest.
I doubt with soy-beans approaching $14/Bu. and current May wheat futures at $11.09 that we will see another 13.1 billion Bu corn harvest.

IMO If we produced 15 billion gallons this year corn would be at $10/bu. A starving person seldom buys ethanol if he can find food first.

Robert, I read a lot. I was aware of the information in the biopact post before they posted it. Did you look at it?

Have you looked into Poet's "project liberty," and how it will work?

I used 150 bu/acre. Iowa probably averages close to 180 bu/acre.

There are 3100 Counties in the U.S. They contain, in median, about 400,000 acres. Only 16.7% of counties have a pop of more than 100,000.

We use about 250 Billion gallons of gasoline, and diesel. That's 80 million gallons per county. It's hard to conceive of an American county that couldn't, with PRESENT technology, produce 80 Million gallons of biofuel.

675 x 400,000 = 270,000,000 gallons per year/40 = 6.75 million barrels per year x 3100 = 20.925 billion barrels per year

... by your calculation. That's about three times the total US oil consumption of around 7.5 billion barrels per year and six times total imports.

Where do these figures come from? Are they true? And if so, what happened to estimates that the US could never substitute total fuel consumption with ethanol or biofuels?

I think the numbers are nonsense. A lot of the land is not arable. Some might be arable, if we cut down trees, and didn't worry about erosion. I doubt that makes sense.

Quite a bit of the United States is too hot or too dry to grow a crop like corn. We don't have water to water huge amounts of corn for very long. We would also have fertilizer issues quickly.

Robert, I read a lot. I was aware of the information in the biopact post before they posted it. Did you look at it?

I read Biopact all the time. But you are once again putting your faith into a concept that perhaps could be, but isn't. We could be feeding all the hungry children in the world. Reality is different. So we have to deal with the reality, not what we wish reality was. If the wishes come true, then we celebrate. But wishes often do not because politics or science intervene.

I, also, can't understand why anyone would convert cattle feed into btus. It's cattle feed. We've been growing it for hundreds of years. To feed cattle. According to the Nebraska Cattle Producers:

corn = 60 lbs weight gain

Distillers grains in 30% concentration = 660 lbs weight gain

So, 1/3 of the bushel of corn comes back as "Better" Corn. BTUs? Huh?

Just like talking about btus without considering octane. Silly. It's NOT how many btus, but how much work the fuel will do. How many HP it will produce. Ethanol will do more work in a proper engine than gasoline will. btus, take a hike.

Did you see where GM is adding flexfuel ability to it's 2.2 and 2.4 liter, VVT engines. The next iteration will surely be direct injection, vvt, variable turbo. Whole new ball game.

The new Poet technology will use, virtually, NO Fossil Fuels. It will return CO2 to the ground in the form of Char. The methane produced COULD be used in the production of fertilizer.

These articles are way behind an emerging technology, guys. Way behind.

Lol, I figured people from the auto industries and fossil fuel based industry and god knows who else would start commenting on the theoildrum eventually. That just shows that the peak oil awareness is starting to gain real traction. Thanks for trying to wow us with flashy ethanol statistics. Unfortunately technophiles, businessmen and cornicopians like you seem to be completely ignorant to basic physics and the laws of thermodynamics. Its called EROEI, it means energy returned on energy invested, which means no matter how cheap it may be to do something if your EROEI is not acutely positive it is likely to be more trouble than its worth.

Corn Ethanol good idea?= hell no

Cellulosic ethanol= maybe many years from now

Electric Cars and vehicles= the only reasonable solution to transportation

Fact is Peak Oil is here, and a lot of people are going to suffer economically before any emerging technology can distribute itself throughout the economy. which may take 20-30 years to do and even longer post peak..

I cant believe any idiot would be advocating corn ethanol after what we know now

Also we scientifically minded people are taking the total energy content of gasoline and total energy content of ethanol in btu's for a reason. That is the theoretical limit of how much energy you can turn into power if 100% is converted.

Ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline, about 2/3 = fact
Combustion engines are at most 20% efficient at converting that energy to mechanical movement.
please go back to high school and take a little physics and chemistry before you make more of an fool out of yourself.

There is a low limit on just how much distillers grains can be feed to cattle, pigs and chickens (the exact #s have been posted here before, and varies by species). Unsure about catfish.

The available feed market is getting close to saturation. You can only stuff so much distillers grains down a cow before they get the scours (diarrhea). etc.

All in all, corn ethanol is waste of time, money and energy.

Best Hopes for Using Subsidies to build stuff that does work, and last a L_O_N_G time, such as Electrified Rail,


Let them eat grass. The cows at least...

I, also, can't understand why anyone would convert cattle feed into btus. It's cattle feed.

Because that was the only way they could get the EROEI up to 1.3 in the USDA studies.

The new Poet technology will use, virtually, NO Fossil Fuels. It will return CO2 to the ground in the form of Char. The methane produced COULD be used in the production of fertilizer.

You put an awful lot of faith in that which hasn't been done yet. E3 Biofuels was going to do a no fossil fuel operation. Got loads of press. It didn't work.


Let's see: 35,000 btus of nat gas (soon to be about 23,000) in fertilizer, and processing, and Diesel in fertilizer, and farming yields a gallon of liquid fuel with the ability to do slightly more work than a gallon of gasoline (116,000.)

Enlighten me.

The problem with your scenario, O Scientificlly-Minded One, is that Ethanol's much higher Octane allows it to be used in a much higher compression engine. This allows it to achieve up to 42% "Efficiency." Try multiplying .42 x 76,000, and comparing that to 116,000 multiplied by .23.

Let me know what your result is.

I doubt that even a higher compression but air throttled engine can get 42% thermodynamic efficiency in a real world ICE. The octane of ethanol will not support THAT high a compression AFAIK.

I would like to see some links for your claim (see Rules at TOD, you must support claims with data).


EPA paper on 1.9 liter, turbocharged VW engine - 42% efficiency running ethanol

Figure 3 of the referenced paper shows a very narrow area of 41% (no 42%) efficiency for E100 (variables rpm & load). Under lab conditions, new engine, etc. 37% or 38% seems a more reasonable average for real world rpms & loads but with lab spec operation.

Please note that E100 cannot exist for more than a few hours when exposed to air (except VERY low desert humidity) due to the hydrophilic nature of pure ethanol.

E85 is a couple of percent less efficient (figure 5) than E100, but E85 also absorbs water (just less) and the balance appears to be gasoline not a real world mix of ethanol, gasoline and water.


Alcohol v. Gasoline:
The history of tetraethyl-lead [TEL] has vital data on alcohol v. gasoline as a fuel.
This extract is from The Secret History of Lead:

Kettering [of Sloan-Kettering Labs fame]was convinced, rightly, that knocking was a function of an engine's fuel rather than ignition problems. When Kettering and his partners sold DELCO to Durant's GM and its new partner--Alfred Sloan's Hyatt Roller Bearings--in 1916, his lab was already engaged in a search for the cure. Following the sale, this work was transferred to his new firm, the Dayton Research Laboratories, where a newly hired assistant,

    Thomas Midgley, was assigned to study the problem of engine knock.

Stabbing in the dark, Midgley got lucky quickly when he added iodine to the fuel, stopping knock in a test engine and establishing for all time that the malady--premature combustion of the fuel/air mixture--was connected to the explosive qualities of the fuel, what would later be called "octane." Iodine raised octane and cured knock; however, it was corrosive and prohibitively expensive. Inspired by the fundamental breakthrough, Midgley nonetheless carried on with fuel research, testing every substance he could find for antiknock properties, "from melted butter and camphor to ethyl acetate and aluminum chloride." Unfortunately, "most of them had no more effect than spitting in the Great Lakes."

    The Antiknock That Got Away

Automotive engineers knew by this time that engines that didn't knock would not only operate more smoothly. They could also be designed to run with higher compression in the cylinders, which would allow more efficient operation, resulting in greater fuel economy, greater power or some harmonious combination of the two. The key was finding a fuel with higher octane. Though octane sufficient for use in high-compression engines had been achievable since 1913 through a process called thermal cracking, the process required added expenditures on plant and equipment, which tightfisted oil refiners didn't relish. The nation's fuel supply remained resolutely low grade, a situation that troubled Kettering.
By limiting allowable compression, low-octane fuel meant cars would be burning more gasoline. Like many visionary engineers,

    Kettering was enamored of conservation as a first principle.

As a businessman, he also shared persistent fears at the time that world oil supplies were running out. Low octane and low compression meant lower gas mileage and more rapid exhaustion of a dwindling fuel supply. Inevitably, demand for new automobiles would fade.
By 1917 Kettering and his staff had trained their octane-boosting sights on

    ethyl alcohol

, also known as grain alcohol (the kind you drink), power alcohol or ethanol. In tests supervised by Kettering and Midgley for the Army Air Corps at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, researchers concluded that alcohols were among the best antiknock fuels but were not ideal for aircraft engines unless used as an additive, in a blend with gasoline. This undoubtedly led Kettering to concur with an April 13, 1918, Scientific American report: "It is now definitely established that alcohol can be blended with gasoline to produce a suitable motor fuel."
The story of

    TEL's rise, then, is very much the story of the oil companies' and lead interests' war against ethanol as an octane-boosting additive that could be mixed with gasoline or, in their worst nightmare, burned straight as a replacement for gasoline

. For more than a hundred years, Big Oil has reckoned ethanol to be fundamentally inimical to its interest, and, viewing its interest narrowly, Big Oil might not be wrong. By contrast, GM's subsequent antipathy to alcohol was a profit-motivated attitude adjustment. Alcohol initially held much fascination for the company, for good reason. Ethanol is always plentiful and easy to make, with a long history in America, not just as a fuel additive but as a pure fuel.

    The first prototype internal-combustion engine in 1826 used alcohol and turpentine

. Prior to the Civil War alcohol was the most widely used illuminating fuel in the country. Indeed, alcohol powered the first engine by the German inventor Nicholas August Otto, father of the four-stroke internal-combustion engines powering our cars today. More important, by the time of Kettering's antiknock inquiry,

    alcohol was a proven automotive fuel

As the automobile era picked up speed, scientific journals were filled with references to alcohol. Tests in 1906 by the Department of Agriculture underscored its power and economy benefits. In 1907 and 1908 the US Geological Survey and the Navy performed 2,000 tests on alcohol and gasoline engines in Norfolk, Virginia, and St. Louis, concluding that higher engine compression could be achieved with alcohol than with gasoline. They noted a complete absence of smoke and disagreeable odors.
Despite many attempts by Big Oil to stifle its home-grown competitor (one time-honored gambit: lobbying legislators to pass punitive taxation thwarting alcohol's economic viability), power alcohol would number among its adherents several highly regarded inventors and scientists, including

    Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Henry Ford built his very first car to run on what he called farm alcohol. As late as 1925, after the advent of TEL, the high priest of American industry would predict in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor that ethanol--"fuel from vegetation"--would be the "fuel of the future."

Four years later, early examples of his Model A car would be equipped with a dashboard knob to adjust its carburetor to run on gasoline or alcohol.
Ethanol made a lot of sense to a practical Ohio farm boy like Kettering. It was renewable, made from surplus crops and crop waste, and nontoxic. It delivered higher octane than gasoline (though it contained less power per gallon), and it burned more cleanly. By 1920, as Kettering was aware, a US Naval Committee had concluded that alcohol-gasoline blends "withstand high compression without producing knock."
Higher compression was, after all, what the GM men were after. In February 1920, shortly after joining General Motors' employ, Thomas Midgley filed a patent application for a blend of alcohol and cracked (olefin) gasoline, as an antiknock fuel. Later that month K.W. Zimmerschied of GM's New York headquarters wrote Kettering, observing that foreign use of alcohol fuel "is getting more serious every day in connection with export cars, and anything we can do toward building our carburetors so they can be easily adapted to alcohol will be appreciated by all." Kettering assured him that adaptation for alcohol fuel "is a thing which is very readily taken care of" by exchanging metal carburetor floats for lacquered cork ones. GM was concerned (albeit temporarily) about an imminent disruption in oil supply, and alcohol-powered cars could keep its factories open. An internal GM report that year stated ominously, "This year will see the maximum production of petroleum that this country will ever know."
Ethanol on the March
In October 1921, less than two months before he hatched leaded gasoline, Thomas Midgley drove a high-compression-engined car from Dayton to a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Indianapolis, using a gasoline-ethanol blended fuel containing 30 percent alcohol. "Alcohol," he told the assembled engineers, "has tremendous advantages and minor disadvantages." The benefits included "clean burning and freedom from any carbon deposit...[and] tremendously high compression under which alcohol will operate without knocking....

    Because of the possible high compression, the available horsepower is much greater with alcohol than with gasoline

After four years' study, GM researchers had proved it: Ethanol was the additive of choice. Their estimation would be confirmed by others. In the thirties, after leaded gasoline was introduced to the United States but before it dominated in Europe, two successful English brands of gas--Cleveland Discoll and Kool Motor--contained 30 percent and 16 percent alcohol, respectively. As it happened, Cleveland Discoll was part-owned by

    Ethyl's half-owner, Standard Oil of New Jersey (Kool Motor was owned by the US oil company Cities Service, today Citgo). While their US colleagues were slandering alcohol fuels before Congressional committees in the thirties, Standard Oil's men in England would claim, in advertising pamphlets, that ethanol-laced, lead-free petrol offered "the most perfect motor fuel the world has ever known," providing "extra power, extra economy, and extra efficiency

For a change, the oil companies spoke the truth. Today, in the postlead era, ethanol is routinely blended into gasoline to raise octane and as an emissions-reducing oxygenate. Race cars often run on pure ethanol. DaimlerChrysler and Ford earn credits allowing them to sell additional gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles by engineering so-called flex-vehicles that will run on clean-burning E85, an 85 percent ethanol/gasoline blend. GM helped underwrite the 1999 Ethanol Vehicle Challenge, which saw college engineering students easily converting standard GM pickup trucks to run on E85, producing hundreds of bonus horsepower. Ethanol's technical difficulties have been surmounted and its cost--as an octane-boosting additive rather than a pure fuel--is competitive with the industry's preferred octane-boosting oxygenate, MTBE, a petroleum-derived suspected carcinogen with an affinity for groundwater that was recently outlawed in California. With MTBE's fall from grace, many refiners--including Getty, which took out a full-page ad in the New York Times congratulating itself for doing so--returned to ethanol long after it was first developed as a clean-burning octane booster.
[Midgely went on to try TEL and the story really gets wild...]

I think I have seen this before.

Ethanol, when viewed as an alternative to lead or MTBE, doesn't look too bad as an additive.

It is only when you get to the real world, and start converting a lot of corn into ethanol and analyzing the tailpipe emissions that you discover things are nearly as good as they looked. Pollution is not really helped because of the problem. Global warming gasses are a problem. There really isn't enough land to grow very much ethanol fuel for cars, relative to what is needed. With the small supply, cars are always tuned to have optimal performance under gasoline, not ethanol, since there cannot possibly be very many stations selling 85% ethanol.

Gail, don't let the etha-naughts buffalo you.

The plain fact is the emissions of alcohol based fuels are lower in every pollutant except aldehydes which are not regulated than for straight gasoline.

See page 34 below for tailpipe emissions

The Natural Resource Defense Council disagrees strongly with the view of Mark Jacobson on E85 emissions (who seems to be another Pimental clone).

Ethanol is slightly better for the 'clean air' than gasoline. It's a world beater when it comes to CO2.

It sounds like you are moving beyond E10 and want to look at E85 with cellulosic ethanol (which the USDA says has an EROEI of 4.5 for what that's worth).

The US has a lot of biomass;
We have 250 million tons per year of landfill trash most of which is paper plus 270 million tons of forest products(wood) plus a potential crop of switchgrass or miscanthus on 35 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program land about 200 million tons,etc.

That totals to 720 million tons of plant fibers which at 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of biomass is 72 billion gallons of ethanol.
E85 gets about 30% worse mileage than straight gasoline so that would be equivalent to 50 billion gallons of gasoline.
The US currently scarfs down 150 billion gallons of gasoline.

So it seems that even E85 can't solve our current liquid fuels problem with everything as is.
But if we triple our fuel efficiency or
conserved a lot better we would be within striking distance. Superlight passenger hybrid or fuel cell cars could get +60 mpg, but the best incentive would be $10 a gallon gasoline.

Are you serious! Do you honestly expect that 100% recovery of waste is realistic?
How much energy will be expended producing the fuel? How much in transport?

No problemo, dude. The EROEI folks give cellulosic ethanol it better than a 4!
That means for every four barrels of ethanol produced, the energy equivalent of 1 barrel of ethanol is need(and that includes transport).

But if you mean to heat the process, 75 billion gallons of ethanol weighing 250 million tons out of 720 million tons of biomass feed means that there is a whole lot of biomass
'chaff' left over somewhere.(720-250=470 million tons?? for stoking the boilers!)
left over

But if you mean to heat the process, 75 billion gallons of ethanol weighing 250 million tons out of 720 million tons of biomass feed means that there is a whole lot of biomass
'chaff' left over somewhere.(720-250=470 million tons?? for stoking the boilers!)
left over

And, it is sopping wet, and took a lot of energy to get it to the plant. There is a big logistics problem involved, that hasn't been worked out:

You're a worrier, no doubt.

I doubt that the amount of energy required to drain and dry leftover
ethanol mash is greater than to make paper(final product 3-5% moisture) from a vat of cellulose mash.

Let's see--it takes about 3.6 million Btu
to evaporate water(1.185x971x2000) from a ton of paper pulp. A ton of paper when burnt has
12 million BTUs in it.

So it appears that draining mash and drying it into paper, only to burn that paper as fuel for the burning is energy positive. (EROEI-1=e0/ei) therefore(1+12/3.6)=4.33. Since all this mash-paper-fuel is already at the distillery, there's no need for transport.

I for one hope scientists can improve
these processes but it is certainly possible to turn cellulosic ethanol residual mash to to energy (which could be returned to the ethanol process).

The wet mash could be fed directly to an anaerobic digester and the generated gas used as distillery fuel.

I doubt that the amount of energy required to drain and dry leftover ethanol mash is greater than to make paper(final product 3-5% moisture) from a vat of cellulose mash.

The problem is, no way will you get it down to 3-5% moisture. Right now, drying the DDGS is a major energy sink for a conventional ethanol plant, and it is a minor product relative to the ethanol produced. The left over cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin will constitute at least 75% of what you started off with.

I am not speculating. I have done this in the lab and I know the steps. I know where things have been hyped way beyond reality. Cellulosic ethanol has been with us for about 40 years now. There are very good reasons that it hasn't been commercialized before. But I am also working on a process to commercialize it in a way that addresses the logistics problem. Right now, I am under an NDA with strict instructions not to discuss details, but as soon as I am turned loose I will write up something about it.

The Natural Resource Defense Council disagrees strongly with the view of Mark Jacobson on E85 emissions (who seems to be another Pimental clone).

Ad homs will get you nowhere, and Jacobson's results have been repeated by others. Scientists for the state of California showed that evaporative emissions are much higher with ethanol blends, which will increase smog. That's because ethanol increases the vapor pressure when mixed with gasoline - a known fact. The EPA said "tough", deal with it. So now California air quality has gotten worse since the major switch over to ethanol. That's also documented.

RVP(Reid Vapor Pressure) is not the issue you think it is.
Every gas station in the country and every storage tank for VOC now have 'vapor recovery' systems attached to them keeping volatile organic compounds from 'gasing out' Smog comes out of the tailpipes of cars, not from fuel storage tanks. Jacobsen is so concerned with the smog situation in Sao Paulo he's
lost perspective for California. The tailpipe emissions reports tell the story.

Ethanol use has barely reached CA despite
government mandates so I'm not sure how you declare that ethanol is causing 'worsening' air quality.

(Oddly, this 2007 article says CA air quality is improving.)

I think you could argue that MTBE or other oxygenates would be as good or equal to ethanol for CA air quality and more economical. I don't claim ethanol is the absolute best solution for everything but it's certainly not bad as you claim.

After 4 years of lawyering by CA, Bush is still requiring ethanol oxygenate for CA smog filled cities.(Normally, I would agree that everything Bush says is wrong, but OTH 'a broken clock is right twice a day'.) You may remember that before Bush embraced ethanol, he unsucessfully tried to get a law passed immunizing MTBE manufactures from groundwater pollution lawsuits which were exploding across the country.

Low emission 'advanced diesel' is interesting--this is probably NG-T-L(terrible EROEI, terrible net energy) the great hope of Big Oil (replace oil with LNG)to battle against ethanol.
Sorry, THAT ain't gonna happen.

RVP(Reid Vapor Pressure) is not the issue you think it is.

It's every bit the issue I think it is. I blended gasoline for 4 years; there is a reason we have as summer and winter spec: RVP. If it wasn't an issue, we wouldn't have to blend to a lower RVP in the summer.

Just a small nit to pick: Yes, vapor recovery systems are the norm nowadays in the U.S. on fuel delivery systems. Although I still see non-recovery systems at stations in some rural areas. They capture a high percentage of what vapors off during the fueling process at both terminals and gas stations.

They do nothing whatsoever to capture what evaporates while just sitting in a tank. Oops...

Terminal gasoline tanks of any size will have an internal floating roof that will minimize evaporation. These predate recovery systems by quite some time. Gasoline station tanks do not have that luxury and must be vented to 'breath'.

There are three sources of VOCs from fuel tanks; breathing losses, flashing losses and working losses.

In transportation fuel storage tanks, there aren't flashing VOC losses because the tanks are always very close to atmospheric pressure.

The breathing VOC losses per year are proportional to the volume of the tank and a 20 gal. car gas tank is small.[36 pounds per YEAR per 1000 gal of capacity per AP42~.72 lbs of VOC for the car with the 20 gallon gas tank]

The 10,000 gallon gas station tanks are already hooked up to the vapor recovery systems. They are underground so they are also temperature stable.

The working losses are losses that occur when filling and emptying a storage tank. [2 pounds per 1000 gallon at say 1000 gallons of fuel a year is 2 pounds VOC.]

When you put gasoline into the tank the liquid displaces the lots of VOCs in the nearly empty fuel tank which go into that goofy-looking nozzle hood.

+90% of the gas station VOCs are captured by vapor recovery where mandated. It's true that many rural areas don't have VR systems, but then they don't have much smog either.

When a car engine burns gas, air from the atmosphere goes into the fuel tank to make up for the fuel level going down. So it is not an emitter of VOCs except thru the tail pipe.

EPA has AP-42 someplace if you want to look on how to calculate VOCs from tanks.

Now a typical car emits about 10 grams of VOCs per gallon of gasoline, so the 1000 gallon per year engine would emit
10 kg or 22.5 pounds of VOC.

Therefore a car will emit 22.5 pounds a year from the tailpipe, 2 pounds from unregulated filling operation and .72 pounds from tank breathing. Tank breathing losses are about 2.5% of the car VOC sources.

Doesn't look like smog comes from fuel storage tanks but from the tailpipe.

Ethanol has lower tailpipe VOC emissions than standard gasoline as I posted before.

Excellent post Gail. A few observations.
Batteries will be supplemented by ultra-capacitors in transportation. Ultra-capacitors can be constructed with carbon, and would have similar range to lithium ion batteries. Either batteries or ultra-capacitors will supply sufficient range to cover every day driving range. Urban freight hauling can be conducted using battery or ultra-capacitor powered trucks. Longer distance freight hauling can be assigned to electrified rail. The use of ultra-capacitors in railroad engines would mean that rail lines do not need to be electrified continuously. The train can pick up enough electricity to charge its ultra-capacitors every few miles. Inter-urban passenger traffic can be handled by high sped electric trains. Limited amounts of oil can be reserved for long distance air travel, and for water born freight.

Agriculture and mining can at least partially electrified, with the use of battery or ultra-capacitors.

Although Lithium is fairly rare, it is possible to build rechargeable batteries that use aluminum. Aluminum produced represents about 14 KWh of electricity per Kg, which is not bad. Aluminum-air batteries with electrical densities as high as 1330 W.h/kg have been claimed.

I have discussed some technologies technologies that are on the shelf already, some which appear to be highly likely in the near future, and some technology that is further down the line if ever. Clearly the era of transportation mobility is not over.

I just read about ultra-capacitors in the last day or two. It sounds like at least some of these things have some possibilities. I can at least add a few words about ultra-capacitors.

I can show you about 50,000 miles of electrified railroads in operation around the world, from India to Siberia.

I can show you tens of thousands of miles of Urban Rail in operation today.

I can show you the recent announcement in France (~1/6th USA population) that they will build 1,500 km of trams in a decade. (About 4,300 miles of Light Rail in ten years would a USA equivalent effort, and the French have a 36 hour work week and take all of August off for vacation).

But finding a ultra-capacitors vehicle in daily commercial operation would be quite difficult (there may be one, but I doubt it).

I personally think that ultra-capacitors will never go commercial in the USA because of their tendency to discharge completely in a millisecond when grounded, say due to damage in an auto accident.

Best Hopes for Reality Based Planning,


I changed the part about electrified rail to

Another is electrified rail transportation. If this can substitute for part of current truck and auto transportation, it has the possibility of reducing petroleum use.

Do you like that any better?

The following would do two things. Inspire more hope (and hopefully action) and would serve as a basis of discussion and insight. Hopefully a "Light Bulb moment" for some.

IMHO, it would broaden the horizons of the far too insular American college student (if we do not do it in the USA, or in their lifetimes, then it is "off the radar").

It is possible to build a comprehensive Non-Oil Transportation system in parallel to our existing Oil Dependent Transportation system, as France has done since the 1973 Oil Embargo. Intercity rail can be electrified for both passengers and freight. Towns as small as 100,000 can justify light rail or streetcars, development can be focused on Transit Orientated Development with walkable communities, and bicycle ridership can increase with rent-a-bicycle programs and other measures to as much as 600 miles/year/capita (Denmark & the Netherlands).

France has announced plans to electrify every meter of their railroads in 20 years, build 1,500 km of tram lines in a decade and further expand their high speed TGV system.

A comparable effort for the United States will take a complete change of priorities and funding as well as a change in culture. And the resources and time required to build a Non-Oil Transportation system in an oil constrained future will be problematic.

Perhaps a link to the CSX proposal for DC to Miami for further discussion ? And a list of all the streetcar systems of North America ?

I find the list fascinating, especially for the much smaller and VERY much poorer population with limited technology then.

Fair enough ?

Best Hopes,


Another discussion item (including comments) is my own 10% reduction of US oil use in 10 to 12 years. I think it is another way of expanding the thought processes of the students.

Look above. I did make a change and make a longer write-up.

Another is electrified rail transportation. If this can substitute for part of current truck and auto transportation, it has the possibility of reducing petroleum use. - Gail

Gail I am impressed by your flexibility and willingness to learn.

Gail high speed electric trains can travel as fast as 300 MPH, and reach sort range inter-city destinations far faster than by aircraft. They are even competitive for cities as far as 1000 miles apart. We can adjust for the slightly longer time for cross continental train travel. In a few years no one will notice, but we cannot cross the Atlantic by train, But a bridge between Alaska and Siberia is possible.

A little perspective on a 75 volt ultr-cap used for pitch control on wind turbines.

It has the weight and volume of a large deep cycle lead acid battery, about 1 cubic foot or 1720 cu inches.

55 watt hours of usable storage capacity, about 5% of a deep cycle lead acid battery, however it can be charged and discharged very rapidly with an available energy source.

Internal resistance of 15 milly ohms. So operating at average current of 50 amps with a 5% duty cycle it would only dissipate about 7 watts internally. The internal conductors dissipate the same on charge as discharge.

Life cycle is much longer, however price is much higher. (not given)

3 pages PDF

5000 pounds of ultra-caps can provide 300 HP for about 6 minutes

As to the sugar cane ethanol, you have to look at the Christian Science Monitor photo from Brazil the other day, a pair of cows pulling a huge wagon of sugar cane-hand work to run cars! The only reason corn/ethanol "works" economically in US is the huge subsidy.
I just want everyone to know there is an all solar bus already. Adelaide, Australia has it and a PV array to feed it with excess production going to the town. Vehicle can handle 12% grades and has 200+km range. With Nanosolar sheets of pv, a city could do pretty well. Imagine that the bus would no longer be called a "shame train" but be a quiet clean event.
Thanks Gail, great work and everyone for discussion.

I know that there has been a solar tractor. It had limited horsepower, but did a lot more than using a hoe. If we can get solar to work, that would be great.

I found a link to the solar bus.

c. Its high level of concentration. Those of us who have done cooking or counted calories know that oils have a lot more calories for the same volume than other foods. It is the same way with fuel. Gasoline has 115,000 Btu per gallon

Conversion to Megajoules (MJ) in SI units might be a good idea:

115,000BTU x 1,055.056joules(International standard ISO 31-4 ) = 121,331,440J
~ 121MJ

However, a more accurate volumetric energy density for gasoline is 132MJ/USgallon (+/- 2%). Here's a reference closest to those figures:

Gasoline contains about 34.6 megajoules per litre (MJ/l) or 131 MJ/US gallon. This is an average; gasoline blends differ, therefore actual energy content varies from season to season and from batch to batch, by as much as 4% more or less than the average, according to the US EPA.


a. Coal to liquid. Process to convert coal to a petroleum substitute was developed many years ago...

b. Natural gas to liquid. It is theoretically possible...

You seem to underestimate the possibilities of CTL and GTL
CTL has been in use for the past 60 years ; it is still now a major source of gasoline for coal-rich South Africa ; a single plant currently produces 160 000 bbl/d. You seem to ignore that the USAF successfully tested and approved the product last year : what was that for ?

Same thing for GtL, which has even better future, as gas is still cheap today. Qatar is particularly interested, especially when you think of :
- the biggest gas field in the world, and
- a large airplane company.
Operator is Shell. GtL is quite an easy tech, and will be particularly popular next decade - oil is still too cheap today.

GTL seems to be one of severable viable alternative to bring to market what otherwise would be stranded natural gas.

As far as CTL via gasification and Fisher-Tropsch sythesis, I think that it's fair to say that it's proven technology which could get slightly better in efficiency using DOD's latest proposals.

However, you should also mention that, out of every six carbons brough to the CTL plant, only two of them wind up in the liquid fuel. The other four--you guessed it--wind up in the atmosphere as CO2. Of the two that wind up leaving the plant gate as liquid fuels AT LEAST one of them would need to be consumed to mine the coal, build the CTL plant and provide profit for the owners.

Bottom line: less than one out of six of the carbon atoms in the original coal would be available to the consumer to displace foreign oil.

For unconventional (heavy) oil, about 3-4 (depends on production or mining costs) out of six original carbon atoms wind up as fuel available to the consumer. For conventional oil, it is about 4-5, depending on quality, transportation costs, embedded plant energy, and--you guessed it--Big Oil profits.

I did not find any mention of
- tar sands
- oil shales.

Tar sands currently produce more than 1 000 000 bbl/d ; the US government has urged the Canadian government to push the production to 5 000 000 bbl/d, which would make it the largest single source of liquids on earth. While this issue is quite debateable, you cannot avoid it when looking at the future of oil.

Part 1 mentions tar sands, and "oil that is not in liquid form", in questions 4 and 5.

If I were to expand the material, I would probably say more about these.

Right, in the first part : you introduce it as though it were a mere idea. Then in the second part you devote three long items to biofuels, mainly to criticize them. How much can we expect from each ? Do you believe you grant to each in proportion of their respective present and future ?

I did not find any mention of methane clathrates ; they will be the largest source of hydrocarbons energy after 2050 ; they seem to be the largest reserve even now. You cannot make a paper about the future of oil without at least mentioning them.

I did not find any mention of Santa Claus; his reindeer can move millions of tons of Chinese toys into millions of homes in minutes and so this will be the largest source of energy anytime we really really need it and remember to be good little boys and girls; these reindeer and their most excellent and jolly heigh ho-er are definitely the largest reserve of energy even now. You cannot make a paper, even a toilet paper, about the future of oil without at least acknowledging this most scientific and technically feasible fact.

P.S. And the north pole foodstuff eaten by the little elvy gays who neatly and nicely put all the nice wrapping on all the neat Chinese toys can solve all the world's hunger problems forever and ever and so what's the big deal about biofuels and starvation, anyway??? Sheesh, some people are just so dumb they can't see these self-evidencing truths.

You use an awful lot of declarative sentences about future events. I think this may get you into trouble here on TOD. Everyone likes new info; nobody likes a know-it-all with no data. Further, I get the impression you didn't read the original post, the second post (Part I) and this post (Part II) completely.

She's not writing a book, friend.

As Alanfbe might say,

Here's to moderated tones and more links.

Meanwhile, In the REAL WORLD Ozone Exceedence Days dropped in S. California, New York, Denver, E Wisconsin, and, it looks like, Everywhere an ethanol mandate has been instrumented:

I've got news for you: the air in Cali has been improving for decades. The air was literally brown in my childhood. It was gray in my college days. It's gray less often these days. This is not due to ethanol.

"I haven't lived in Cali for a few years now. The removal of my flatulent ass apparently has ended Ozone Exceedence Days."

Correlation does not equal causation. Dishonesty is bad. Don't be dishonest.

Unless, of course, you've got some stats you are withholding for some bizarre reason?


How's about you just supply me with the name of a city where Ozone levels have gone up - and by how much - as a result of an ethanol mandate.

I realize this study was done in 2006; if you have any more up-to-date proof please offer it. I was merely responding to Robert's clain that the air in LA had gotten worse as a result of the mandate. I haven't seen any data to verify this.

Q: We're already using more ethanol in our fuel now, because of the outcry over the fuel component methyl tertiary butyl ether or MTBE and its propensity to foul groundwater. You had warned that replacing MTBE with ethanol could hamper efforts in cities like Houston to improve air quality because of these problems with volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. So has that actually happened?

A: Yes, it has happened. Los Angeles is the cleanest example. They began switching from MTBE to ethanol in 2001. But when they made their major switch in 2003, there was a significant decrease in air quality. They basically stopped making progress toward attainment on EPA's ozone standards when they switched to ethanol. When using MTBE, with the cars getting cleaner each year, coupled with a very clean fuel, Los Angeles was on a straight-line path toward attaining EPA's air standards by about 2002 or 2003. Now that they have switched to ethanol, the trend line indicates nonattainment for many years to come.

How's about you just supply me with the name of a city where Ozone levels have gone up - and by how much - as a result of an ethanol mandate.

Just spent some time on the California Air Resources Board site. Checked out L.A., and the trend was falling ozone until 2002, and then it reversed direction and was up for 3 years in a row. 2006 was back down some.

Here's Diane Feinstein fighting for a waiver:

The California Air Resource Board (CARB) researched this issue at length and found that ethanol-blended gasoline does not help California meet the goals of the Clean Air Act as it relates to reducing ozone formation, particularly during the summertime, and, in fact, ethanol actually increases the emission of pollutants that cause ozone during the summer months.

The Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency quantified the impact of ethanol on air quality in a letter to me dated August 1, 2003:

"...our current best estimate is that the increase in the use of ethanol-blended gasoline has likely resulted in about a one percent increase in emissions of volatile organic gases (VOC) in the SCAQMD [South Coast Air Quality Management District] in the summer of 2003. Given the very poor air quality in the region and the great difficulty of reaching the current federal ozone standard by the required attainment date of 2010, an increase of this magnitude is of great concern. Clearly, these emission increases have resulted in higher ozone levels this year that what would have otherwise occurred, and are responsible for at least some of the rise in ozone levels that have been observed."

The scientific evidence linking ethanol blended gasoline with air pollution continues to mount. It is time for the EPA to grant California a waiver from the federal oxygenate requirement. Even the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has told the EPA that it must reconsider its denial of the waiver. In fact, the Court said on July 17, 2003 that the Agency “abused its discretion in refusing to consider and weigh the effect of the proposed waiver on particulate matter pollution along with its effect on ozone levels.” At that time, I urged the EPA’s Acting Administrator to act quickly to grant California the oxygenate waiver. Unfortunately, the EPA took a different route and petitioned the Ninth Circuit to overturn the July 17th decision. On October 30, 2003 , the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the EPA’s petition and remanded the waiver request back to the EPA.

Robert beat me to it. Still, it does your argument no good to try to refute with false evidence. While ethanol might be better than straight gasoline, to give it credit for the cleaner air in Cali was unjustified. MTBE apparently is some nasty stuff, so ethanol may be preferential on the basis of health re cancer risk, but not on the basis of air quality. Balancing act. A perfect example of technology not being the greatest thing ever.

I, like many here, I'm sure, welcome any voice. Honest disagreement is healthy. I don't, however, welcome voices that use distortion to try to make a point.


Gail, I, obviously, didn't mean that Every County can produce 80 Million gallons/yr of ethanol from Corn. Georgia will use a lot of forestry waste, as will many other states. Florida will grow a lot of switch grass, and use residues from it's citrus. Big Cities, like NY, and LA will manufacture Millions of Gallons from Waste Water, and Garbage. Boogeta, boogeta.

By the way, the First American "Commercial" Cellulosic Ethanol Plant went online the other day in Wyoming. Several technologies have been shown, in pilot, and demonstration plants, to works. Now it's just a matter of refining the process through learning "best practices" (the same process the corn ethanol plants are going through, now.

The first small-scale American "Commercial" Cellulosic Ethanol Refinery is supplying ethanol to the Chevy Racing Team. First Refinery:

I am glad you put that commercial in quotes, because it is a pilot plant.

"Today, KL researchers continue to refine patent-pending technology as the first demonstration unit to process waste-wood material comes on line near the Black Hills National Forest. The Upton, Wyoming plant, Western Biomass Energy, is expected to come on line in August 2007 and will be the first biomass ethanol plant not using acids or having a full dependency on specialized enzymes to release cellulosic sugars from lignin fibers."

They don't say how they are breaking down the cellulose. Anyone have further data?

I've looked; but they seem pretty closed-mouth. I guess the fact that they are selling Some amount of ethanol makes them "commercial." I've gotta admit, I don't want to beat the drum too loudly on this one particular small plant. When the Range Fuels Plant, or Abengoa's plant goes online, and starts producing tens of millions of gallons I'll be pounding harder on it.

There's really not much doubt, in my mind at least, that, in light of the fact that the big guys are preparing to build big plants, that cellulosic works, and it's just a matter of price points. They've been running pilot plants for a couple of years, now; and it seems unlikely they would be gearing up to spend the "big bucks" if there were many doubts.

The question isn't can ethanol be produced. The question is can it be produced with a high EROI using non-food stocks. It does little good to switch our fossil dependence from Oil to Natural Gas, as we doing with corn ethanol. I will be interested to see how the energy input/output numbers for this plant really turn out. I would have hoped that with a University affiliation they would be more forthcoming.

Dunno about cellulosic ethanol, but they produce plenty of biogas using wastes which include wood:

This is a far better option than ethanol, I feel.

Here's a Good example of an "integrated" food/fuel process. Lifeline

I just noticed that RFA has LK listed at 1.5 Million gal/yr. Not huge, but "commercial."

Dave, you're correct; you will get considerably more energy converting wood, corn, or, almost anything else to biogas than you will creating a liquid fuel. The problem, of course, is that we need something, pretty much, Right Now. Converting to biogas would/will be a pretty difficult, time consuming process.

Germany is doing some big stuff producing biogas, and feeding it into their natural gas system.

The original plan with the university that I am working on this for was that I would put together a strictly "peak oil" piece that was short enough that the department could insert it into the syllabus without displacing too much other material.

If that worked out OK, we would think about a second piece on natural gas / electricity. I figured that biogas fit in the second phase better.

When you do, Gail, in the chapter on future technologies, be sure to include a mention of the Atmospheric Vortex Engine (L.M. Michaud, Inventor) which can not only convert waste heat into electricity (~20% efficiency) but also can tap the largest store of solar renewable energy (that you've never heard of) Convenctive Available Potential Energy (CAPE).

M. François Maugis, ingénieur conseil (consulting engineer) from Association Energie Environnement, has written an article entitled "Tour solaire à vortex: maitriser la puissance des cyclones - Une énergie propre et inépuisable pour l'ensemble des hommes" (English translation - "The solar vortex tower: controlling the power of cyclones - A clean and inexhaustible energy source for all of humanity")

M. Maugis states that vortex engine type systems ("rotational flow wirling system") are the only renewable energy systems which could potentially be used to meet the energy needs of the entire planet. The article outlines some of the historical development by both Edgard Nazare and Louis Michaud. The vortex engine technology is compared to the Solar Chimney and the additional benefits of the vortex engine are described.

Mr. Michaud's invention, publications and FAQ's can be reviewed at

Thanks! It is ingenious. Making commercial use of something like this seems to be still a ways away.

It sounds like a prototype operated in Spain for 7 years in the 1980's, until it was blown over. I would guess that it was too expensive at the time for the energy it was producing. Otherwise, others would have attempted a similar design also. I wonder if we will here more about it in the next few years.

Actually, only ones with a vortex replacing a physical tower have the potential to produce large amounts of electricity.

The vortex may be viewed as a "worm hole" (in the sci-fi sense) that allows warm air near the surface to "drain upward" to its neutral buoyancy altitude, in what amounts to (almost)frictutionless flow.

Robert, according to this study of WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED, S. Cal smog exceedance days declined 22% from Jan 04', when the E6 mandate took place, and Dec 06'. This is not a theoretical, computer model, but "observed" results.

One thing became obvious to me when I went over and looked at the data. There are many different measurements, and many different measuring stations. One could conceivably "prove" anything you wanted by being selective with the data.

But what I did was simply take a random station in LA, ask for the 8-hour maximum ozone reading, and then plotted that. It was exactly as the man stated above: LA was on a trajectory that was taking the maximum levels down each year, and then in 2003 the trend reversed direction, and increased each year for the next 3 years. That was what I found without setting out to prove anything - I simply checked a data point.

CCPO, I hardly think I was being anything but honest. I gave a link citing official data. If it was some sort of weird coincidence that NY (68% reduction in smog since Jan 04 10% ethanol mandate,) S. Cal, E. Wisconsin all had significant drops in Smog after mandating ethanol blends, so be it.

BTW, it's becoming pretty obvious that the Cal Predictive Model underestimated, by quite a bit, the improvement in CO emissions (also, a major cause of smog) from burning an ethanol blend in a modern engine. This could, quite likely, account for the discrepancy between the "Prediction," and the "Fact."

Fair enough. For now.



Another excellent post, Gail

I researched the point you brought up about many batteries having insufficient resources to enable them to be used to run most cars, and came up with information to show that this is valid.

It appears that the only technology with the right resource base and characteristics such as high capacity is zinc-air.
It is also the only battery alternative with the right characteristics to run heavy lorries and machinery.

Since everything but Lithium is now getting trivial amounts of funding in connection with car battery technology, then that blind alley is going to mean further delay in moving to a electric economy.

With time lags you must surely be talking about 2020 before they can be in widespread use, effectively long after oil is in serious short supply and after it has lead to large reductions in automobile use.

I therefore find it persuasive that major disruption is likely.

Thanks for your timely analysis.

One poster wrote to me that he has a nickel-metal hydride battery in his electric vehicle that seems to work reasonably well. He says the range is 100 to 150 miles between charges. If we lower our standards, and have cars for local driving, it would seem like that could work.

I don't know much about availability, but most likely better than lithium. Does anyone have any good information? There is a write-up on this battery on wikipedia.

You will find the information you want here:
Meridian International Research - EV Research Papers

Download the document 'The Trouble With Lithium'

I oversimplified my original argument slightly, as we are looking at the time frame up to, say 2020, and other alternatives than zinc-air have even less development so would take even longer, presumably, to bring into mass use.

The basic problem with the Nickel Manganese batteries is the word 'Nickel', it is expensive and in short supply, although not as bad as lithium.

From the pdf I link Sodium Nickel Chloride may be the current best alternative, although it is limited by Nickel availability and price, however they use a lot less than nickel metal hydride.

Replacing the Nickel with Iron seems hopeful for the future, but this is very early days for the technology, and I had not yet looked into it so I omitted it from the analysis as for present purposes it seemed sufficient to show that there were batteries available which could potentially do the job but none of them were being funded, and Zinc air fills that job whilst also providing the possibility of discharging and recharging a slurry so effectively using a similar refill technology to the present.

There is also the possibility of using solar energy to make zinc from zinc oxide which is then powdered and transported to filling stations, where it is used to make hydrogen by combining with steam and the car is filled with hydrogen.
The zinc oxide is then transported back to be re-cycled.

This is the only practical way I am aware of of going to the hydrogen economy without incurring huge inefficiencies.

However, AFAIK the only practical way at the moment of using a fuel cell to utilise the hydrogen in the car is a membrane as developed by Ballard, and they also utilise rare materials.

This might change with future development of Fuel cells, but as of now they cost a fortune and have resource issues even graver than for lithium.

One possible technology which might use the hydrogen is this:
Super Soaker inventor touts solid state heat-2-leccy | The Register

This consists of a closed cycle engine which uses any heat source to force hydrogen through a membrane between two different temperature regimes.
Much further work needs to be done to perfect the membrane, but efficiencies of 60% seem possible.

This if it works is very efficient, much more so than burning the hydrogen in an ICC, which I would guess would require prohibitive amounts of hydrogen and vast scaling up of the zinc production, likely more so than would be practical in it's early days would be my guess.

In summary, there are good prospects of running everything including heavy machinery and road haulage using batteries and/or hydrogen, but the time horizon is some way out, and currently alternatives which would not do the job are those being pursued.

Severe fuel constraints are therefore likely at least until the 2020 time period, and likely until around 2025.

I find I was not explicit in my previous post - nickel metal hydride batteries, although less resource constrained than lithium, are limited enough that it appears very unlikely that they would be able to provide power storage for significant numbers of cars, and the price would be high due to nickel shortages.
Sodium nickel chloride batteries use nickel a lot more efficiently, but probably not enough to solve the issue, and may have other problems as detailed below.

A Google using the terms 'Sodium Iron Chloride battery' or 'Sodium Nickel chloride battery' comes up with results which are mostly around 1995.

This perhaps provides some indication of the level of interest in research in this technology and shows that it would not be possible to scale production to significant levels anytime soon.

The term 'Zebra battery' brought up this:

Wikipedia shows that many molten salt batteries have issues if shut down and not left under charge, taking days to pre-heat them:

The only potential 'Get out of jail free' card we would appear to have which would enable similar consumption patterns of liquid fuel as in the past to continue in the immediate future would seem to me to be liquid fuels from algae.

Since this is a immature technology any idea that it could be ramped to substantially replace oil within the next few years up to 2020 would seem to me mind-bogglingly optimistic.

We are still at prototype stage.

Algae, if it could be made to work, would be one solution. Another would be widespread use of some type of enhanced oil recovery method, if it could be used to raise the percentage of oil recovered.

The algae could theoretically be sustainable; the EOR could possibly make a second peak or put off the day of reckoning a little while longer.

AFAIK enhanced recovery is built into the models which show us very short of fuel, and anyway potential demand is vast, so small differences are not going to make much difference to the overall picture.

Up to the time frame 2020, we would already have to have a good idea of what we were going to do, to allow time for implementation.
Incremental advances are going to happen, but are already counted in.

There are not great breakthroughs ready to go, I believe.

I made on suggestion regarding the possibility of using hydrates from the tundra:

But questions of how advisable or even possible this is aside, it would hardly have significant impact on supply in the next few years, and nor would any other breakthrough technology - they take too long to ramp up.

In the long term we would appear to have adequate technologies even at present moment, with just a little development and no breakthroughs required, but we have to get there first.

Just a quick note on a further thought, nothing we have worked out means that you could not use something like a Firefly advanced lead-acid battery with capacitors to build some sort of little electric run-about, short range at good cost, so perhaps the cost of running down the shops and short-distance commuting will not be prohibitive.

The time frames work well too, as vigorous development is underway.


I understand from your two part draft that they are to be the probable outline of a course programme about 'Peak Oil' to be given to faculty and undergrads, and delivered by a third-party - Is this correct?

Personal Comments:

Peak Oil is a complex topic and I assume that it has a conceptual structure; that is, foundation concepts, then a set of suporting concepts standing on the foundation and finally a set of over-arching concepts resting on the supports (imagine the subject as a building). It is essential to clearly state what these various concepts are - else your listeners will be unable to focus their attention.

A concept map of a subject is a very useful device to show the interconnectdness and hierarchy of the concepts, but is very difficult to prepare unless you are quite expert in the subject. Else use a Gowin-V heuristic diagram to illustrate the differences between, observations, transformations of these observations, knowledge claims based on the transformations and any value claims. The topic must be embedded in a clear, systematic, scientific framework.

Remember that any controversial subject may have a very sentimental aspect, and sentiment will always triumph over
reason. Thus, you have to be very focused with both your content and delivery - and on no account attempt to persuade or get sidetracked into a 'babblefest' similar to the dozens of comments that follow your postings. Just lay out the minimal necessary facts; "Seek for a modest degree of accuracy, not a pretentious muddle" .

Professional Comments:

When preparing a presentation for third-level you MUST have a set of cognitive objectives (3 is max and min). eg.,

Learning Objectives (cognitive domain); upon completion of this series of (lectures/classes/llab exercises), you (the
student) will be able to;

1. State or describe a conventionally accepted definition of ... ...

2. State, describe and explain the concepts of exponential growth and depletion of a finite, natural resource.

3. State, describe and explain the nature of chemical energy that may be extracted , transformed and used from a
finite, fossile fuel resource.

or some such other cognitive objectives that are appropriate for the particular programme.

It is essential that the presenter establish and maintain editorial control of the presentation; no sidetracks, no 'red herrings'. Do NOT use PowerPoint unless there is absolutely no other alternative. PP is for Boardroom presentations, only, not third-level lectures or classes. Have an appropriate handout for distribution AT THE END of the presentation.

Hope these comments are helpful. Please feel free to contact me at my college address (

Best of luck with your endeavour.

Brian P Woods MSc

Thanks for your insights.

I'll see what I can do. The university really has the final say in this kind of thing.

I think this assertion is questionable:

b. Long time frame. It is likely to take 20 years to get cars to get battery-operated cars to a small percentage of the population, say 10%, and much longer than that for them to reach a substantial share of the population.

Electric vehicles are simpler and often much cheaper (save for high-tech batteries) than ICEVs.  The US is headed for 2% of all vehicles sold being hybrids, a large majority of them being a single model (Toyota Prius).  A large increase in the number of hybrid models can be expected over the next few years, with a similar increase in total market share.  At some point the price of fuel will create consumer demand for EVs, and companies like Commuter Cars are already preparing product.

c. Electricity issues. We assume that adequate excess electricity will be available to charge the cars 20 or 30 years from now, but that may not be the case.

An EV is likely to consume less than 2500 kWh/year, or an average of about 300 watts.  1 kW of wind generation at 30% capacity factor is sufficient to supply this.  In 2007, the USA added 5.2 GW of new wind generators, supplying perhaps 1.56 GW of average power.  This would supply 5.2 million EVs at 300 watts each.  That would be sufficient to power almost 1/3 of annual US light vehicle production.

Wind installations in 2007 were more than double the 2006 figure, but we can go much faster yet.  At 20 GW/year, we'd stay comfortably ahead of vehicular energy demand even if all new vehicles were EVs.

Regarding the long time frame, this consists of really three factors:

1. Research to be able to develop batteries that can be scaled up to the quantity needed is required. Lithium is clearly not in adequate supply. It is not clear than lead or nickel is either. We can make a few cars with batteries that have materials that are in short supply, but not nearly enough.

2. Time to design cars and build factories.

3. Time to replace cars that are currently on the road. Unless we make huge numbers of factories, and people are very rich, this whole process will take many years. Also, each year we need to obtain all of the resources (including oil) that go into making all of the new cars, and these are likely to be in limited supply.

With respect to electricity issues, the problems I see in the electricity sector are more basic than what you are looking at. I expect that we will have to significantly reduce electricity usage in the next 20 years, for a variety of reasons - including lack of natural gas, lack of new electrical plant consturction, wind not working up to people's expectations, and coal plants taken off line because of pollution issues. Problems with the grid are going to be much more common than what we have today. We will not be able to count on electricity at the level we currently use it, much less anything additional.

1. Research to be able to develop batteries that can be scaled up to the quantity needed is required. Lithium is clearly not in adequate supply. It is not clear than lead or nickel is either.

Lithium is about 180-200 ppb of seawater.  At some price, it will be worth recovering; the energy requirements are not burdensome, rising as the negative log of concentration.

2. Time to design cars and build factories.

Technologies like Honda's IMA can be shoehorned between the engine and transmission.  This can be put into existing models with minimal redesign.  Tacking a motor onto the differential is another possibility; if there's space in the existing vehicle, it's "free".

3. Time to replace cars that are currently on the road.

Cars cover half of their lifetime mileage in just 6 years.  This period would be shorter for high-consuming vehicles in a regime of expensive fuel; we'd see accelerated turnover just like the aftermath of the 70's oil shocks.

I expect that we will have to significantly reduce electricity usage in the next 20 years, for a variety of reasons - including lack of natural gas, lack of new electrical plant consturction, wind not working up to people's expectations, and coal plants taken off line because of pollution issues.

In order:

  1. Natural gas is declining, but we may be able to offset this with IGCC.  High-temperature fuel cells are a wild card.
  2. We're building plants (including a new crop of nuclear), but DSM may be the big factor here.
  3. Wind was already up to 80% of the production of geothermal in 2006.  I expect that 2007 figures will show that wind passed geothermal.  The greater the geographic dispersion of wind farms, the better our "expectations" are likely to be met.
  4. Repowering with IGCC essentially eliminates the pollution issues aside from carbon, and the syngas can be steam-reformed to hydrogen.