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Ethanol Is The Answer?
From a Fortune Magazine piece by Adam Lashinsky and Nelson D. Schwartz:

You probably don't know it, but the answer to America's gasoline addiction could be under the hood of your car. More than five million Tauruses, Explorers, Stratuses, Suburbans, and other vehicles are already equipped with engines that can run on an energy source that costs less than gasoline, produces almost none of the emissions that cause global warming, and comes from the Midwest, not the Middle East.

These lucky drivers need never pay for gasoline again--if only they could find this elusive fuel, called ethanol. Chemically, ethanol is identical to the grain alcohol you may have spiked the punch with in college. It also went into gasohol, that 1970s concoction that brings back memories of Jimmy Carter in a cardigan and outrageous subsidies from Washington. But while the chemistry is the same, the economics, technology, and politics of ethanol are profoundly different.

Instead of coming exclusively from corn or sugar cane as it has up to now, thanks to biotech breakthroughs, the fuel can be made out of everything from prairie switchgrass and wood chips to corn husks and other agricultural waste. This biomass-derived fuel is known as cellulosic ethanol. Whatever the source, burning ethanol instead of gasoline reduces carbon emissions by more than 80% while eliminating entirely the release of acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide. Even the cautious Department of Energy predicts that ethanol could put a 30% dent in America's gasoline consumption by 2030.

We may not have to wait that long. After decades of being merely an additive to gasoline, ethanol suddenly looks to be the stuff of a fuel revolution--and a pipe dream for futurists. An unlikely alliance of venture capitalists, Wall Streeters, automakers, environmentalists, farmers, and, yes, politicians is doing more than just talk about ethanol's potential. They're putting real money into biorefineries, car engines that switch effortlessly between gasoline and biofuels, and R&D to churn out ethanol more cheaply. (By the way, the reason motorists don't know about the five-million-plus ethanol-ready cars and trucks on the road is that until now Detroit never felt the need to tell them. Automakers quietly added the flex-fuel feature to get a break from fuel-economy standards.)

What's more, powerful political lobbies in Washington that never used to concern themselves with botanical affairs are suddenly focusing on ethanol. "Energy dependence is America's economic, environmental, and security Achilles' heel," says Nathanael Greene of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a mainstream environmental group. National- security hawks agree. Says former CIA chief James Woolsey: "We've got a coalition of tree huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, hawks, and evangelicals." (Yes, he did say "evangelicals"--some have found common ground with greens in the notion of environmental stewardship.)

The next five years could see ethanol go from a mere sliver of the fuel pie to a major energy solution in a world where the cost of relying on a finite supply of oil is way too high. As that happens, says Vinod Khosla, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has become one of the nation's most influential ethanol advocates, "I'm absolutely convinced that without putting any more land under agriculture and without changing our food production, we can introduce enough ethanol in the U.S. to replace the majority of our petroleum use in cars and light trucks."

...Not that ethanol will replace gasoline overnight. There are 170,000 service stations in the U.S.; only 587 (count 'em!) sell E85. To refine enough ethanol to replace the gas we burn (140 billion gallons a year) would require thousands of biorefineries and hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet one of capitalism's favorite visionaries is convinced that very soon filling up on weeds and cornhusks will be no more remarkable than tanking up on regular. Says Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group is starting an ethanol-inspired subsidiary called Virgin Fuels: "This is the win-win fuel of the future."

Posted by aalkon at January 30, 2006 7:11 AM

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Well, I run the risk of repeating myself, but this is no cause for celebration. Alcohol, you see, has almost a third less energy per pound. Volumetric consumption goes UP with alcohol.

Down at the racetrack, alcohol-fueled cars are plenty quick, but they a) burn a whole bunch of the stuff, b) have measures in place to prevent widespread corrosion problems inherent in using a fuel with NO paraffin component, and c) stick like the dickens if you get downwind. The exhaust, when an alcohol engine is not tuned correctly, contains interesting radical compounds like formaldehyde. This means a new race to produce engine controls cpable of overcoming these shortcomings.

Parking your car is still the only answer to the question, "How do I save gas?"

Posted by: Radwaste at January 30, 2006 3:37 PM

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