Friday, May 11, 2007

Ethanol is coming...

I read with some surprise this morning that the NSW Government has decided to put in place a compulsory ethanol percentage in all fuel to be sold in NSW.

From ABC Online:

Ethanol to be in every NSW car

New South Wales is set to become the first state to mandate the use of ethanol in petrol.


The Minister for Rural Affairs and Regional Development, Tony Kelly, says the plan is for fuel to contain 2 per cent Ethanol from September onwards.


Mr Kelly says the move will have many benefits for the environment and rural Australia.


"The time for talk on Ethanol is over," he said.


"The Federal government has gone missing on biofuel, so it's up to the states and territories now to lead the way."


"I've outlined to Parliament the Government's intention to implement the 2 per cent mandate to meet the desired timeframe, and we'll shortly bring legislation before parliament."


"It's also fantastic for the environment. It helps reduce the effect on the environment particularly smog particles."


"It also replaces the fuel we import from overseas. A decade ago we imported $488 million worth of fuel from overseas. Last year we imported $10 billion worth."

Is this really worth an announcement? 2 per cent? Is that all. At least make a real damn effort and make it 10 or 15 per cent.

No matter what the percentage the increased use of ethanol will be good for CO2 emissions as it is much closer to being carbon neutral than the current oil based products are.

But the piece of information that got me was this:

"It's also fantastic for the environment. It helps reduce the effect on the environment particularly smog particles."

What a blatant lie to give to the public. Ethanol actually creates more smog through the emission of unburnt ethanol from a car's exhaust.

From a New Scientist article on a Stanford environment model:

The findings run counter to the idea that ethanol is a cleaner-burning fuel. Cars running on gasoline emit a number of pollutants – including nitrogen dioxide and organic molecules like acetaldehyde – that react with sunlight to form ozone.


Along with many of the same pollutants as gasoline, a large amount of unburned ethanol gas escapes into the atmosphere. That vapour readily breaks down in sunlight to form acetaldehyde, which can send ozone levels soaring.


While ethanol-burning cars will emit fewer carcinogens such as benzene and butadiene, they will spew out 20 times as much acetaldehyde as those using conventional fuel, Jacobsen found.


Ozone is one of the main constituents of smog, which carries a number of health risks.

My biggest concern with the use of ethanol is what plant matter is used in the production of the ethanol. At present in the US, the main crop that is used to produce ethanol is corn, which can produce 3461 litres of ethanol per hectare, which is considered to be quite low, and at a cost of US$142 per ton. There are many other crops which are far more efficient producers of ethanol than corn is.

A few other ethanol crops source (from Wikipedia):

Miscanthus - 14031 L/ha, US$70/ton

Switchgrass - 10757 L/ha, US$40/ton

Sweet Potatoes - 10000 L/ha

Sugar Cane - 6192 L/ha, US$315/ton

Corn - 3461 L/ha, US$142/ton

As you can see there are many other better crops for ethanol production than Corn, and for that matter Sugar Cane. I can't find the figures now, but I have read that Hemp produces 4 times as much ethanol as corn and is cheaper to produce as well.

Another very major concern with using ethanol is diverting food crops into the production of ethanol which will cause the price of food to increase. We have already had some major increases in food prices due to the drought, you just imagine what would happen if more crops and water were diverted into the production of ethanol. There is also the concern of farmland reduction due to salinity.

I don't think ethanol is the answer to the world's dependence on oil, but it could be used in the medium term until a better solution comes along. For example, there has been a fair bit of research into a process called 'Thermal Depolymerization' which is explained as follows:

Thermal depolymerization (TDP) is a process for the reduction of complex organic materials (usually waste products of various sorts, often known as biomass and plastic) into light crude oil. It mimics the natural geological processes thought to be involved in the production of fossil fuels. Under pressure and heat, long chain polymers of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon decompose into short-chain petroleum hydrocarbons with a maximum length of around 18 carbons.

At present the process is in operation, but the cost of its oil is around US$80 a barrel, a bit higher than the dino juice that it could replace. But as oil costs increase, the TDP process will become more viable. And there is no shortage of waste production from humans (US EPA estimates 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day), this process can use a wide range of waste products from offal to vegetable waste to sewage in the production of oil.

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