We are facing shortages of food, water, medical care, fuel, and human services. The human population of the world continues to climb in spite of having already reached the point where we are putting a severe strain on the worlds resources. There is only one possible outcome if we don’t take immediate and substantial action and that is a global population crash. In other words, the majority of us will die, those that remain will suffer greatly.
We face immediate food, water, and fuel shortage issues. All of these issues are interrelated. In the United States we depend heavily on irrigation to grow our food crops. We’ve depleted aquifers at a rate that substantially exceeds natures ability to replenish them. As a result, land which was formerly productive is now becoming non-productive due to the lack of water. The high cost of oil combined with ill conceived government regulations, primarily driven by special interests, has diverted a huge amount of corn from human and animal consumption to methanol production. This has resulted in a doubling of the cost of corn which has encouraged farmers to switch from other food crops to corn production. At the same time there is a fungus attacking wheat resulting in substantially lowered wheat yields.
To the degree that biomass can be a partial solution to our energy problems, methanol derived from corn is about the least efficient biofuel solution possible. Methanol from corn uses almost as much energy to grow, harvest, ferment, and distill the corn, as it yields in the energy content of the methanol itself.
First, current methanol production uses only sugar or starch as a feedstock. However, it is possible to use cellulose as a feedstock by fermentation with some bioengineered organisms, or by conversion using synthetic enzymes. This allows us to use agricultural wastes, forestry wastes, even lawn clippings to make liquid fuels. This means we can use the corn produced, as human or animal feed, and take the stalks, which would have been waste and convert them into liquid fuels. It allows the use of crops that can grow in marginal land or with less water that would not be suitable for most food crops, so that instead of diverting food crop land to energy production, land not suitable for food crops can be used for this purpose.
Second, ethanol is not the only alcohol that can be produced through fermentation, and for fuel purposes, it is not the best. A four carbon molecule called butynol or butyl alcohol is far better suited as a transportation fuel. Gasoline has an energy content of approximately 125,000 BTU/gallon, ethanol has only 85,000 BTU/gallon and methanol only about 64,500 BTU/gallon. Ethanol and Methanol are also corrosive, methanol much more so, and thus hard on metal and some plastic and rubber engine components. Ethanol and methanol require a much richer fuel to air ratio to burn properly and so can only be used in mixtures of about 10-15% in an unmodified gasoline engine. Methanol can not be mixed with diesel at all due to it’s highly polar nature. Ethanol can be mixed with diesel up to about 10% if it is very free of water content, however, it reduces the lubricating efficiency of diesel causing increased engine wear and it reduces the cetane rating of the fuel.
Butynol by contrast has an energy content of 115,000 BTU/gallon, a road octane of 94, and can be used in an unmodified gasoline engine up to 100%. Butynol has a cetane rating of about 25, ethanol has a cetane rating of 8, methanol has a cetane rating of 3, most diesel engines require a cetane in the mid-40’s though some engines can run on lower ratings and with turbines it’s not an issue at all. The higher cetane rating of butynol allows it to be mixed with diesel in much higher proportions than ethanol and mixed with biodiesel, it can actually raise the cetane rating of the fuel. Because butynol is not hydroscopic, it can be transported in the same pipelines used for petrochemical transports, ethanol and methanol can not be transported this way.
Butynol is a better fuel for gasoline engines than gasoline! The stoichiometric ratio for gasoline is approximately 14.7:1. That means 14.7 parts of air contains just enough oxygen to completely combine with the hydrogen and carbon contained in the gasoline. The most complete combustion of gasoline happens when the mixture is close to being stoichiometric. The stoichiometric ratio for butynol is 12:1. On the surface that would seem to be a disadvantage to have a stoichiometric ratio that is different from gasoline, however, it’s actually a good thing and here’s why.
Automotive gasoline engines are actually run with a mixture of close to 12:1 because a stoichiometric ratio burns too hot and causes pinging, high nitrous oxide emissions, and engine damage. This results in higher carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions from the engine, and those unburnt hydrocarbons only contribute to heat in the catalytic converter instead of engine power.
A stoichiometric ratio of butynol runs cooler because it is less volatile and has a higher octane rating, as a result butynol in a gasoline engine is ideal. Because it is at a stoichiometric ratio, hydrocarbon emissions are reduced to about 3% of what they are with gasoline and carbon monoxide is reduced to levels so low they can’t be measured by conventional exhaust sniffers. At the same time it produces more power and better fuel economy than gasoline even though it’s energy content per gallon is slightly less, because of that more complete combustion. It contains no sulfur and produces fewer sulfurous acids as a result. Because it burns cooler than gasoline, it also produces fewer nitrogen oxides and as a result fewer nitric acids. So this fuel is a big win for automotive applications, better mileage, greatly reduced emissions, and more power.
It used to be that there were only two ways to derive butynol, one was to derive it from oil, the other was to ferment it from plant sources similar to ethanol or methanol. Oil derived butynol defeats the purpose of finding a renewable alternative. Until recently, it was not efficient to ferment plants because the organism used would die at relatively low concentrations limiting yield. However, this has been overcome by a two step fermentation process and now it is possible to derive as much butynol from a bushel of corn as ethanol, but because the energy content of butynol is 135% that of ethanol, you get 35% more energy from that same bushel of corn (and preferably non-food feedstock) if you make butynol rather than ethanol. But there is an additional energy benefit, and that is that the 2nd stage of the two-stage fermentation process also yields hydrogen that can be used as process heat making the overall energy production even more efficient.
I did mention that there used to be only a couple of ways to make butynol, but there have been some recent developments that provide alternative means of producing butynol. Concentrated sunlight in combination with a catalyst is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Recently, it was found that concentrated sunlight and a catalyst can be used to split carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen. The carbon monoxide can then be combined with water vapor forming what is called process gas, and that process gas can then, by a variety of catalytic processes, be turned into a variety of liquid fuels including ethanol, butynol, high quality diesel, and various other substances. This can provide a market for carbon dioxide produced by existing power plants and in do doing displace carbon dioxide that would have been produced by burning oil derived transportation fuels, or it can use carbon dioxide sequestered directly from the atmosphere.
Another new method involves what has been described as a reverse fuel cell which takes water, carbon dioxide, and electricity as input, and produces butynol as a product. This is a way we can take electricity during times when a surplus exists and turn it directly into liquid fuels that can be used for transportation, including airplanes. I failed to mention earlier, butynol also works as a jet fuel and that actually was what lead to the development of this reverse fuel cell. My understanding is that Richard Branson had a desire to find a sustainable and environmentally friendly fuel for Virgin Atlantic Airlines, and butynol is one fuel being considered, presently biodiesel is also being used. He contracted with a company to develop this technology. Information is very hard to come buy so I have not been able to find out details with respect to the economics or viability of large scale production by this method.
But if it works, if the reverse fuel cell method works and is scalable and economical, it could do really good things because another means of generating electricity, wind turbines, has evolved into the least expensive method of generating electricity, less expensive even then coal, and much cleaner. But here is the rub, the wind blows when it wants to and that doesn’t always correspond with when you need power. As a result, if we wanted to provide all of our power needs via wind alone, it could be done but only by over building capacity by a factor of about four times and taking advantage of geographical diversity. If we have to overbuild capacity by four times it ruins the economics of wind power. But, if we can take that surplus capacity and use the electricity to make butynol with which we can meet our transportation energy needs, then the economics of wind power are improved considerably.
We need to not use food crops for energy production, and we need to not displace food production for energy production. But even if we avoid doing these things, water, climate change issues, and plant diseases such as this new wheat fungus, are still going to challenge our food production ability, and water is the biggest factor. We have no real shortage of water, what we have a shortage of is fresh water. We can desalinate water from the oceans, but that is an energy intensive process and we already have a shortage of energy. So clean renewable, sustainable, environmentally friendly energy production, is key to our future, and these shortages are here now and they will get worse, so this a problem that we need to address immediately, not forty years from now.
I write my congress critters, and I get back responses like, “I was a co-author of the … bill”, it contains incentives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10% over the next 40 years, or some other such totally inadequate drivel. This isn’t what we need, what we need is to take immediate concrete rapid action to resolve our energy, food, water, and environmental issues now.
Energy is really at the center, with adequate inexpensive and environmentally friendly energy, we can have all the clean water we need. With adequate supplies of clean water, food production becomes a non-issue. And with adequate water, food, and energy, poverty can be eliminated. And if we eliminate poverty, we will eliminate population growth and reduce the pressure upon the Earth’s resources. And with all of those things addressed, we can make serious inroads into addressing disease and improving the human condition. With adequate energy, recycling virtually anything becomes possible, reducing the demand on the Earth’s resources while at the same time reducing the introduction of harmful substances into our environment.
Government should be passing legislation that puts the massive numbers of unemployed in our country to work building clean energy infrastructure. We should be investing in education to teach people what they need to know to build this infrastructure. We will need engineers, scientists, to design and improve new technologies.
But right now we need to invest heavily in clean technology we already have, wind power, geo-thermal, solar, tidal energy, ocean current energy, wave energy, ocean-thermal energy, sensible biofuels, etc. With solar we have many options beside photovoltiacs, we can build a device known as a solar chimney. A solar chimney is basically just a big brick chimney that gets heated by the sun, draws air up it and through a turbine generating electricity. One advantage of a solar chimney is thermal mass. Because the brick has substantial thermal mass, a solar chimney will continue to produce electricity during the night and for up to three days of overcast weather.
Another technology uses Fresnel lenses or mirrors to focus sunlight on an absorber, to boil water, and drive a conventional steam turbine. Although this tends to involve less solar mass than a solar chimney, there is almost a 90% correspondence between electricity demand and solar flux so even without energy storage, a very large percentage of our energy needs can be met this way.
Liquid fuels, gasoline and diesel, can be made from coal or natural gas by various processes. While I would like to see all of our energy needs met with completely sustainable and environmentally non-damaging energy resources, this can’t happen instantly, but one thing we can do is to displace electricity production by natural gas or coal with renewable resources, and then we can make transportation fuels from the displaced coal or natural gas. I envision this as an intermediary step intended to address serious short-term shortages. In the longer term we can replace petroleum, natural gas, or coal derived fuels used by the transportation sector with solar or surplus wind energy derived butynol, electrification, and if the Bussard polywell reactor works out, even hydrogen-boron fusion.
I am hopeful that the Bussard polywell reactor will be commercially successful and we can replace diesel with hydrogen-boron fusion in ships, trains, and large aircraft. The Navy is funding the Bussard reactor as a possible replacement for fission reactors used in ships and submarines. A bussard fusion reactor using hydrogen and boron as a fuel generates no radioactive waste and electricity can be generated directly through a reverse magnetoplasmadynamics process instead of having to use a thermal process resulting in almost double the efficiency and a smaller heat and acoustic signature. For now we must get started with technology we already have.
This shouldn’t come in the form of incentives designed to steer things over half a century, it should be a crash program that puts people back to work now, creating renewable energy infrastructure that we need now.
I included a link to a Wikipedia article on hydrogen-boron fusion only for the purpose of explaining the significance to those of you who may not be familiar with the concept of aneutronic fuels. However, the Wikipedia article is biased by the conventional idea of using a Tokamak reactor to achieve fusion through thermal acceleration of atomic nuclei. Such an approach is unlikely to be viable, but other methods, such as the Bussard reactor, which accelerates particles through an electrostatic potential well, have a much higher probability of succeeding. The author of the Wikipedia article appears to be unaware of alternative fusion approaches (as is the general public and our representatives that should be funding these alternative approaches strongly).