Week of January 11, 2009

This is of course the last week of the Bush Administration, and it passed with no significant executive orders in regard to alternative energy—at least so far as we know. Henceforth energy policy will be in the hands of Barack Obama and his energy secretary, Steven Chu.

Rather than speculate on the particulars of the course the two might take—we already know the general outline of their policy—I will focus upon reporting on the news just as in any other week. I'm sure the two will surprise us soon enough.

A New Report on Sustainable Cultivation of Biofuel Feedstocks

Earlier we have addressed the issue of sustainability in the cultivation of biomass feedstock for liquid fuel production. There is a sort of assumption afoot that everyone in the biofuels business is practicing sustainable, carbon neutral agriculture, but that is scarcely the case today, and in fact one would be hard put to identify any significant commercial operation that meets such criteria. The question then becomes, is even possible?

A new report entitled "Biofuels, Land Use Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Some Unexplored Variables" authored by staff at Michigan State University and Phillips Academy Andover suggests that it is, and provides the first hard quantitative data in support of that position. It's a lengthy report, and I've just begun reading it, so I can't take any position on the findings other than to say that they're good news for the biofuels camp which in truth has been getting a lot of bad news of late.

I still retain a degree of skepticism regarding the viability of a biofuels industry or industries based on organic agriculture, however, and, to my mind organic agriculture is the only truly sustainable agriculture in the long run.

A New Way of Producing Biodiesel

An Israeli firm calling itself TransBiodiesel has purportedly developed a method for producing biodiesel without the use of alcohol in the production process. Lipases are used instead to catalyze the transesterification process. Most biodiesel is produced with methanol, which is a hazardous material, though the more expensive ethanol can be substituted, and the process requires elevated temperatures. The TransBioDiesel process takes place at lower temperatures as well as eliminating the alcohol requirement, and is said to exhibit superior economics while permitting the use of both plant and animal fats.

The Nightmare Continues – the Climate Changing Potential of Aerosols Is Discussed in a New NASA Report

NASA has done some of the most important work in quantifying the impact of greenhouse gases on climate, and now they've produced a horrifying new study on the impact of aerosols, that is, particulate matter in the atmosphere. It's entitled "Atmospheric Aerosol Properties and Climate Impacts" and it's book length and packed with quantitative data. I'm trying to wade through it and about fifteen other equally ponderous government reports on climate and energy.

The authors point out that researchers have tended to neglect the global as opposed to local effects of these particular pollutants, and they indicate that those effects might be just as weighty as those engendered by carbon dioxide and methane, the principal greenhouse gases.

Interestingly, some scientists have actually suggested increasing the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere in order to block sunlight and hopefully minimize the effect greenhouse gases. This is called geoengineering and is espoused by a number of so-called "climate change realists" who believe that nothing is likely to be done to reduce carbon emissions and that countervailing emissions of aerosols are the only way to stave off catastrophic global warming.
I am not disposed to enter into this particular dispute. Most global warming alarmists, and I don't use the word pejoratively here, are completely outraged at such suggestions, and for fairly obvious reasons. No one can possibly predict the outcome of such homeopathy with any certainty. And, in any case, climate change is only one of several adverse impacts from elevated carbon dioxide levels, and darkening the sky to cool the planet doesn't address the other problems and may well have dire unanticipated consequences of its own. Moreover, aerosol levels are already vastly greater than they were prior to the Industrial Revolution and they've spawned an epidemic of respiratory illnesses while doing little to curb the warming trend.

But who knows. Maybe in the future the aerosol approach will be taken seriously by increasing numbers of decision makers.

HEDGE against Diesel

HEDGE is an acronym for a high-efficiency, dilute gasoline engine, and the acronym has been appropriated by a consortium of companies trying to develop such a beast. They have hired the Southwest Research Institute to conduct basic research in this area. Recently the HEDGE consortium announced a project for developing both light and medium duty HEDGE engines, medium duty being the sort of units that would be employed in commercial trucks.

There is a common belief that compression ignition engines, most of which use diesel, are inherently much more efficient than spark ignition engines, most of which run on gasoline. That view is only partially true, however. The direct injection system used in modern diesels does conduce to higher efficiencies, but it has begun to appear in gasoline engines, and double digit improvements in efficiency may be had by just this means. I believe that within a decade direct ignition will become the norm for this reason. The normally much higher compression ratios used in diesel engines also promote higher efficiency, but such efficiency can be matched or perhaps even exceeded by what is known as homogenous charge combustion in spark ignition engines where combustion is made to occur nearly simultaneously in the air fuel mixture by various means.

Variable valve timing, variable compression ratio, ultra-lean burn, and the use of the Atkinson combustion cycle all are capable of registering significant improvements in fuel economy in gasoline engines as well. Variable displacement engines where one or more pairs of cylinders are disengaged at low power output are also more efficient than the designs of today. In short, the goal of making significantly more fuel efficient engines is by no means unattainable by design approaches that have already been attempted experimentally.

Why haven't we seen such designs before? Because, with historically cheap oil prices, there has been little demand for them in the personal transportation market where they would be utilized. Besides, manufacturers have been reluctant even to attempt development of such super-efficient engines due to the very high cost of prototyping. Mazda, which is not one of the larger manufacturers, is said to have run through 600 million dollars in creating its direct injection system, and that system, while it is glitch free in operation, has provided only modest improvements in fuel efficiency—hardly enough to build a new market and to justify the enormous development expenses.

Whether radically improved gasoline engines can compete effectively with diesels in core medium duty markets like trucks and construction equipment remains to be seen. If some firm like Cummings or Caterpillar were backing this approach it would probably be better positioned. But in the personal transportation arena high efficiency gasoline engines will probably prevail over compression ignition diesel, at least in markets where they are established such as the Far East and the Americas. Gasoline engines have considerably higher energy densities than diesel and that provides further fuel savings.

We shall see.