Week of August 24

ENVIROLENE mixed alcohol fuel…the U.S. Airforce tests synfuels…a new way of storing electricity

We finally had an opportunity to test a second generation alternative fuel, a product sporadically manufactured by Standard Alcohol Company of America in Durango, Colorado, and trademarked ENVIROLENE by that firm. At this juncture, Envirolene is not really on the market, though one hopes it will be at some future date. A single commercial production run was done for a home improvement retail chain in Nebraska who private labeled it "Ready Go" but went bankrupt before selling much of it. Standard Alcohol reclaimed the remaining stock and has warehoused it ever since, sending out samples to interested parties from time to time. Only a few thousand gallons remain.

ENVIROLENE is a mixture of eight separate alcohols beginning with methanol, the lightest which has only a single carbon atom, and proceeding through to octanol, a heavy alcohol with eight carbon atoms. Standard Alcohol president and founder Mark Radosevich claims that combination has the approximate mass of butanol, a four carbon alcohol, but exceeds the latter in its performance characteristics. Butanol, as informed readers know, is rather close to gasoline in its characteristics as a motor fuel, but cannot be manufactured cost effectively by any proven production process. Dow Chemical, BP, and Virgin Airlines all have active research programs underway toward bringing production costs down, but so far, no breakthroughs.

The Standard Alcohol process is based upon research performed at Dow in the seventies, eighties, and nineties aimed at producing an alcohol-based fuel additive for boosting octane. It is somewhat akin to the Fischer Tropsch process, and a syngas consisting of hydrogen and carbon monoxide is passed over special catalysts repeatedly. Repeated cycles result in a mixture of light and heavy alcohols. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a study of the process a few years ago, and deemed it promising.

The resulting fuel can be added to gasoline in ratios anywhere from 5% to over 30%. We tried up to about 40%. The test bed was a 2006 Yamaha FZ6 four cylinder sports motorcycle which was recently almost entirely rebuilt after a serious accident.

This model, as most motorcycle enthusiasts know, is one of the most popular in existence, with hundreds of thousands on the road throughout the world. It uses a fairly typical "universal Japanese motorcycle engine", a water cooled inline 600cc four with electronic fuel injection, a wet plate clutch, and water cooling.

Such engines operate at high compression ratios in order to achieve high horsepower output from limited displacements and they tend to have problems with pre-detonation even with 93 octane gasoline.

Radosevich claims that the octane rating for ENVIROLENE exceeds 130, or more than the highest octane leaded aviation fuel. We didn't attempt to verify that, but I will say that it obviously has a higher octane than pump premium gasoline because engine run-on, formerly a problem, ceased entirely with a ten percent mixture of ENVIROLENE.

One noted other palpable differences as well, uniformly benign. The engine got significantly better mileage, thirty more miles per tank at freeway speeds. In addition, the engine ran much smoother without the surging that had always characterized it in the past whatever the state of tune. It also ran cooler. And the higher the percentage of Envirolene used, the greater the benefits.

If I could obtain this stuff I'd always run a 30% mixture, but I can't. I do intend to experiment with butanol, however, which is available from chemical supply houses at about five dollars per gallon, dependant upon the price of crude petroleum from which almost all of it is manufactured.

Radosevich claims that he could manufacture ENVIROLENE at costs competitive with those of gasoline if he could obtain the capitalization to build a large gasifier. Unfortunately, that's what they all say—everyone without exception in the alternative fuels business. They're all just ten million dollars away from saving the country from dependence upon foreign oil.

I believe based on the analysis I've done on synfuel production processes that any mixed alcohols process based on catalytic processing of syngas would not be cost competitive with oil refining unless it were based on coal, and unless one achieved sufficient economies of scale, which in practical terms means constructing a plant with at least a 50,000 barrel per day production rate. And that would entail a capital cost of several billion dollars.

Mark Holtzapple's MixAlco process might have somewhat better economics, but Holtzapple is now promoting a similar process for manufacturing gasoline, not alcohol, out of municipal solid wastes. Nobody other than Standard Alcohol is really pushing the mixed alcohol products today. Somebody should because this is an extraordinary product. Unlike E85 which is big step down from gasoline in the riding experience it provides, this is a big step up.

Airborne Synfuel

As previously noted in these pages, the U.S. military has long taken an interest in synfuels. In fact, as far back as 1911, the Navy secured most of the huge Colorado oil shale deposits as a source of synthetic liquid fuel, and they still lay claim to it today. Back in the seventies the Navy ordered hundreds of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel derived from oil shale from Paraho, an industry consortium running an experimental facility. The Navy rejected what they got as being off spec, but they maintained their claim on the raw resource.

Last week the Air Force performed a refueling exercise at March Air Force Base in southeastern California. I was invited but I chose not to attend since I am averse to early rising. The Air Force reported the test to be a success so I missed a historical moment.

According to Jeff Braun, a civilian spokesperson for the Air Force's Fuel Certification Program, the actual fuel utilized was a 50/50 mixture of conventional jet fuel derived from petroleum and a similar product provided by Shell Malaysia and produced via the Fischer Tropsch process from natural gas. Braun further stated that the roadmap for the Air Force's synthetic fuel program calls for testing synthetics derived from biomass as well.

So what's it all mean? At this point very little. There is no large production of synthetic jet fuel occurring anywhere in the world, and, even in the face of protracted high petroleum prices such capacity will not be built quickly. The Air Force at this point is merely contemplating second sourcing as it were, attempting to determine some likely courses of action in the face of a real petroleum crisis.

As we all should be doing.

Mass Electrical Storage

We have visited this subject before, the problem of how to store electricity. If someone could figure out how to do this on a massive scale we would have the basis of a truly viable electric car and of renewable energy generation systems that could truly compete with the fossil fuel incumbents.

But we don't or we haven't.

I recently encountered a company whose name I can't disclose nor the specifics of its technology which may have a solution of sorts for the highly intractable mass electrical storage problem.

What I can disclose is that the new technique builds upon some all but forgotten inventions going way back to the early twentieth century and actually involves vacuum tube technology. What I saw was merely a set of scientific papers, but the overall design concept, which builds upon an existing technology used for other purposes, looks to be sound. If the device can be constructed and successfully operated it should handily exceed any battery in energy density and might come close to equaling a tank of motor fuel.

What's particularly interesting is that the invention does not involve any breakthroughs or new types of circuitry but represents merely a repurposing of established technology. In fact, the device could be built with nineteen fifties engineering and manufacturing techniques though it benefits from the use of modern materials.

If this innovation has any critical disadvantage it is that the benefits of the design can only be realized at very high operating voltages, voltages that are indisputably lethal. The inventor's solution to that problem is the use of redundant internal protection circuits and a ballistic ceramic case utilizing the same material employed to armor Army tanks. In other words, the voltages would supposedly be contained in almost any conceivable situation including earthquakes, building collapses, high speed collisions, and even shots fired from a high velocity rifle. Let's hope so.