If you want to help break our country’s dependence on foreign oil or decrease the amount of pollution we put into our atmosphere, then there is something you can do right now to help: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/declare-july-4th-energy-independence-day.
It is a petition to help promote the use of Ethanol, and it was put together by DrivingEthanol.org (http://www.drivingethanol.org/news_events/epic_news.aspx?Newsid=213)
I know, perhaps you heard bad things about Ethanol (e.g. it takes more energy to produce than it yields; it’s driving up the price of grain). If so, then you should continue reading the rest of this post. It will tell you the other part of the story – the part that never seems to make it onto the evening news.
One of the least reported, but most important applications of ethanol, is its use in replacing Methyl tert-butyl Ether (MTBE) in the production of gasoline.
If you’ve never heard of MTBE, then you can hardly be blamed. Newspapers and cable news organizations don’t like to talk about it.
They don’t like to report on it because it has a long, technical sounding name. And they are probably afraid to tell people it causes cancer (read: lawsuits). But this stuff is nasty, and has been added to our gasoline since the early 1990s to increase octane and lower emissions.
You see, adding MTBE helps oxygen bind with petroleum and burn more completely. Theoretically that’s a good thing. And the government requires oil companies to take steps to help make gasoline burn more cleanly. But wait, there’s more…
The downside is that MTBE is highly soluble in water and is a known human carcinogen according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Every time someone fills up his or her gas tank a little gas spills on the ground. The MTBE from the gas ends up in surface and groundwater.
Furthermore, many of the big fuel storage tanks that gas stations have underground contain small leaks. So even if you are very careful filling up your car, the MTBE is still seeping into the ground water.
I’m not going to geek out on you too much here, but MTBE does not readily break down in nature. The bacteria that contain the enzymes necessary to decompose the ether are not plentiful enough to keep up with the level of pollution.
Therefore as MTBE builds up in the water supply, it renders large areas of ground water non-potable. You may not think you care, but if it contaminates the area where your water comes from, then you’ll care.
Ok, so what does this have to do with Ethanol?
Ethanol accomplishes the same goal of increasing the octane of gas as MTBE. Only it isn’t going to poison the groundwater. Why? Because ethanol is basically purified beer! You can pour it all over the ground and all you’re going to get is a bunch of drunken worms.
Furthermore, Ethanol requires less energy to produce than MTBE. So, it is a more efficient way to make our cars pollute less.
Oh, and ethanol helps reduce engine knocking!
You may have heard of fuel cells. Basically this is the process of making hydrogen – but in reverse. You bring hydrogen (or a solution containing hydrogen such as, hmmm… Ethanol) together with oxygen (err… air), and when the two combine to make water, electricity is given off.
It’s like a battery, but you recharge it by adding more fuel instead of plugging it in.
The electricity is channeled into an electric motor to power the vehicle.
Traditional fuel cells have been made using gasoline, but you can also use Ethanol. When you do so, the only emission is trace amounts of water and CO2 – way, way, way less than an internal combustion engine.
These types of fuel cells are called Direct-ethanol Fuel Cells (DEFC). The result is a vehicle that can get amazing mileage.
In fact, the world record in automotive efficiency was set by the PAC-Car II (http://www.paccar.ethz.ch/) in 2005 when it achieved 12,645 miles to the gallon using a fuel cell system!
Yeah, I know, you heard some idiot on TV say that Ethanol isn’t efficient. Keep reading.
Corn-based to Cellulosic Ethanol
Historically, ethanol in the United States has been made out of corn.
The answer comes down to the alcohol industry. You see, as mentioned above, Ethanol is basically beer that has been distilled into a very pure form of Vodka or Whiskey. The easiest, least creative way to make more ethanol is to simply follow the methods that have been used to make liquor in the past.
You take a pile of corn, boil it up into a mash. Let it ferment for a while, then distill it to fuel grade (195 proof or so) and dehydrate it. Presto! You have pure Ethanol.
This is the way we’ve been making Whiskey, Moonshine, and Vodka for two hundred years. Heck, we’re good at it! Just ask all those Koreans who buy Jack Daniels for $100 a bottle!
The problem? We use corn for food, and it takes a lot of energy to do all this.
So, it turns out that the process of making “beer” can be carried out by enzymes instead of heat and energy. It doesn’t have to taste good, it just has to make ethanol.
Even better, if you use non-food materials such as straw, wood chips, saw dust or switchgrass, then you could produce ethanol more efficiently and have virtually no effect on the food supply.
Wait, What the Heck is Switchgrass?
Switchgrass is a native American grass that doesn’t require irrigation, and thrives in environments where you can’t grow any other crops except maybe cactus.
Therefore if we could use it to make ethanol, then it wouldn’t effect our ability to grow food, and it would just employ a whole lot more farmers (see below).
Switchgrass is a grass that grows about 7 – 8 feet tall and contains a lot of cellulose.
The cellulose can be broken down into simple sugars by the use of special enzymes. These enzymes are the key to this fuel, and this is where all the research is going right now.
The first cellulosic ethanol plants came online a couple years ago. A whole lot more are coming online in the near future. And this is what makes this kind of fuel efficient enough to replace gasoline.
Ethanol Helps Domestic Farmers
All things being equal, wouldn’t you rather pay a farmer in the United States, Mexico or Canada for your fuel than a dictator in the Middle East?
When our farmers make money to produce fuel, the investment stays here in North America. It doesn’t fund our enemies. Our farmers turn around and use that money to buy equipment and materials manufactured in our country to help them to develop their lands and grow even more crops in the future.
The money that’s left over goes into our Farmers’ IRAs and Keogh plans. It pays for their kids to go to school at the University of Iowa. It doesn’t fund Medrasas in Pakistan; it doesn’t buy North Korean missiles.
Addressing the Critics
You will often see pundits on TV providing misleading information to kill the idea of ethanol. Reporters rarely contest these misinformed and misleading assertions because the reporters just don’t know the facts.
Let’s change that. Here is how we can address these criticisms directly with FACTS.
Myth #1: Ethanol Diverts Feedstocks Away from Producing Food…
There is a common misconception that anytime you make ethanol you are diverting grain from food to fuel. This just simply isn’t the case.
The primary byproduct of the ethanol production process is Dried Distillers Grains (DDG). This is used almost exclusively to make animal feed.
The grain is used to make ethanol first, THEN it is turned into animal feed. So, if the grain is ultimately used to make animal feed, then how can anyone honestly say that if you use the grain for fuel, it isn’t being used for feed?
Furthermore, as cellulosic technologies are advanced, less and less of the available farmland will be used to make fuel at all. Instead, lands that are currently unused will be utilized to harvest indigenous crops like switchgrass to make ethanol.
Myth #2: Ethanol Drives Up the Price of Grain…
Grain prices are affected by a number of factors - the cost of fuel is chief among them. It takes a lot of fuel to run the tractor, to dehydrate the grain for storage, to take it to market, deliver it to the manufacturer, process it into products, then deliver it to the end consumer. By creating domestic alternatives to foreign oil, we can bring the cost of fuel down, and with it the price of grain and products made out of grain.
By using each bushel of grain produced in this country more efficiently we actually increase the yield of the grain. Over time this increased yield (read: profitability) will bring more farmers online and increase production of grains. Temporary adjustments of commodity prices will happen, but the overall trend will be to make food and fuel more affordable.
Myth #3: It Takes More Energy to Produce Ethanol than it Yields…
Back when ethanol was first considered as an alternative to petroleum products in the late 1970s, the process of making ethanol was incredibly inefficient. Back then; it really did take more energy to produce ethanol than the ethanol would yield.
Today things are different. Even the traditional methods of making ethanol are more efficient, and with advances in cellulosic technology the efficiencies are proving to be even greater.
Comparing the efficiency of ethanol production today to what it was like in 1978 is like comparing the efficiency of a 2008 Toyota Prius to that of my father’s old 1972 Mercedes.
You cannot honestly argue that the Prius only gets 8 or 10 miles to the gallon simply because it has an internal combustion engine similar in function to that of the 1972 Mercedes. It’s a stupid comparison.
Modern efficiencies are around 1.34:1 using corn. If you use cellulosic processes with switchgrass, then the efficiencies are around 5:1; and if you use sugarcane, then the efficiency is 8:1.
So, this would be like if my old man’s Mercedes could hypothetically get about 70 miles to the gallon.
When you add in the value of the by-products (DDGs, Proteins, etc), the efficiencies are actually much higher since you are negating the need to produce these products using other manufacturing processes.
Now this “analogy” Benz is getting about 100 mpg. Nice! We might just have to paint the old girl green.
Make Your Voice Heard
There are plenty of voices that would prefer our Nation to maintain the status quo. Who say we should continue to purchase petroleum from people like Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadenijad; and nations like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.
What does your voice say?
Declare your independence this July 4th. If you have a website then link to this article (heck, republish this article – just make sure you tell people where you got it). If you have a blog, then write about the truth.
Help us to educate our fellow Americans about Ethanol and all the alternatives we have. There isn’t much time.
Vote for independence: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/declare-july-4th-energy-independence-day.