Archive for December 7th, 2006|Daily archive page

Ethanol – The Black Hole of Energy Costs?

Mark Chu-Carroll has a great post up pointing out the silly arguments being used to dismiss ethanol as an alternative fuel.

One thing I’ve been hearing a lot lately is discussions about Ethanol, and it’s been really pissing me off. Can ethanol be a serious replacement for oil as a source of energy? I don’t know. Because both sides are using really bad math to make their arguments.

There are two fundamental questions about ethanol as fuel where the bad math comes in:

  • How much energy does it cost to produce ethanol compared to the amount of energy released by consuming ethanol?
  • How much pollution is generated by the process of producing ethanol?

Now you might have noticed Mark doesn’t believe in mincing words. He also doesn’t obscure the math. The premise being bandied about here is that it takes 1.3 gallons of gasoline to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. Since it takes 1.5 gallons ethanol to replace 1 gallon of gasoline, you have a net energy loss. Just stick with gasoline, it’s cheaper.

This silliness dates back to a study by David Pimentel, a Cornell Professor, who has studied ethanol for the last 20 years. He did an extremely (his critics say too extreme) complete analysis of the amount of energy needed to produce ethanol. How extreme? He included the calories used by the workers harvesting the corn to make the ethanol in his calculations.

Towards the end of Mark’s post, where you will go after you finish reading this, he points to a feature from Minnesota Public Radio discussing ethanol. This has the stop-the-argument-in-it’s-tracks quote.

Pimentel’s analysis is so detailed it yields some big surprises when it’s applied to other energy sources. Take gasoline. Pimentel says if all the energy used to make the fuel is considered, gasoline, too, is a net energy loser. 

“If you include the pumping and processing and so forth, it runs a little over 10 percent,” says Pimentel.

Oh. Gas is energy negative as well; ethanol is only about 20 percent worse. That doesn’t do the anti-ethanol crowd much good. 

Of course what bunched my panties, both about Mark’s post and the MPR feature, is that neither mentioned where the energy in ethanol originates. Corn you say. And from where does the energy in corn come? Corn is a fairly inefficient but cost effective solar collector. Unlike a silicon solar collector, corn converts solar energy to chemical and not electrical energy. The nice part about the chemical energy in corn is that it is easily stored, transported and processed. That’s what makes the idea behind bio-fuels so cool. Be it ethanol or canola oil (increasingly being used as a diesel alternative in Germany), bio-fuels are ultimately solar powered.

Bio-fuels are also CO2 neutral. MPR didn’t get that point. They even passed on the gas lobby talking point.

Ethanol opponents question whether the fuel is a higher quality energy source. They say it adds to air pollution.

The amount of carbon produced when they are burned comes from the atmosphere in the first place. While this is also true for fossil fuels,  the carbon in gasoline was also in the atmosphere originally, that atmosphere was here millions and millions of years in the past and not part of the current ecosphere. That makes a big difference because the biosphere can only absorb so much CO2, that’s why the concentration (about 335 parts per million or ppm) is low but increasing. If we stopped putting ‘old’ carbon back into the atmosphere, that number will start going down again.

But pro or con, it is an energizing debate – just as long as you get the math right.


New Martian Canals

Starting in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he had seen long straight features on surface of Mars. He called these features, which later turned into out to be an optical illusion, canali in Italian meaning channels. This was mistranslated into canals and led not only science fiction authors to wax poetic about surface water and ancient civilisations but Percival Lowell to build his observatory near Flagstaff.

Today NASA held a very important press conference. As reported by the Washington Post and the New York Times , researchers are saying they have found evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars; not surface water from millions of years ago – surface water today – now. Usually I would then give the floor to the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait. But, since he has decided it would be appropriate to pose for non-profit sort of for-profit but for a really good cause adventure featuring partial nudity and skepticality, I will go instead to the excellent space exploration blogger and new mother Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society.

Newly released images from Mars Global Surveyor contain telltale deposits left behind by liquid water flowing on the surface within the few years that the spacecraft surveyed Mars.  Scientists had previously announced the discovery of features that must have been carved by water within the last several million years, but this is the first evidence that water has flowed on Mars’ surface while humans have been studying it.

“Ten years ago, Mars scientists were talking about water billions of years ago.  Five years ago, [Mike Malin and Ken Edgett] were talking about water millions of years ago.  I think now we can honestly talk about liquid water on the surface of Mars today.  And that revolution in our thinking truly has changed how we view Mars and how we should think about exploring Mars,” said scientist Phil Christensen at a press conference held today at NASA Headquarters.

Wow. I mean wow.

Ok. The features found are gullies and not canals. But for all of my anti-people-in-space snark, this would be a very important step toward being able to send people on Mars (and be able to get them back).

For the scientists, perhaps just as interesting is the new information about the number of new craters found. Again from Emily’s article,

At the same press conference, Mike Malin, lead scientist for Mars Global Surveyor’s camera systems, unveiled new sets of “before” and “after” shots of newly formed small impact craters.  “We had not anticipated, though we probably should have, that we could actually see craters forming,” Malin said.  “Given the extended duration of the Mars Global Surveyor mission, up to nine years, we could have hypothesized that we might be able to see them, but we didn’t.  So this was a completely serendipitous discovery.”

Malin stated that as a result of a systematic survey, they had found a total of 20 new craters in images covering the 30 percent of Mars that they were able to photograph twice.  Two of the areas were even imaged twice by the highest-resolution camera, permitting detailed analysis of how the surface had been changed by the asteroid impact.

This is really important because it allows scientists to remotely judge the geographic activity on the face of Mars. By comparing the number of new craters formed per year to the number of craters currently visible, one can make an estimate of how ‘old’ certain areas on the Martian surface are. This gives feedback on Martian geologic activity. Cool.

You might know that the Mars Globel Surveyor went silent about three weeks ago. From what I gather, NASA assumes that one of the solar panels malfunctioned and the space craft was unable to remain in the appropriate orbit. This was the end of one of the most productive missions to another planet. If the MGS is gone, at least it went out with a bang.

So perhaps Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury got it wrong when they talked about the Martian Canals. But maybe Carl Sagan was more prophetic when he quipped “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars, I’m glad you’re there, and I wish I was with you.” And you might be standing next to a canal gully full of water.

Airbus Hits Boeing Turbulence Again

Spiegel is reporting (German) on yet another Airbus ouch.

Lufthansa has announced that they will be receiving a total of 20 the new Boeing 747-800 long range aircraft. A further seven long range Airbus A340-600 aircraft should supplement the fleet in 2008 and 2009. According to the company the ordered aircraft have a list price totally $6.9 billion.

The head of Lufthansa Wolfgang Mayrhuber bluntly explained that his airline would be the first to use the new super-jumbo from Boeing. The 747-800 from the US manufacturer is the newest and enlarged version of the 747 jumbo family, which has been in service since 1969. The Lufthansa order gives the 747 program a much needed tailwind. The list price for the 747-800 passenger aircraft is between 272.5 and 282.5 million dollars. [my translation]

This hasn’t really been the best year for Airbus. The A380 has both delivery problems and the orders are trailing far behind expectations. Now with Lufthansa, the German ‘national’ airline, ordering aircraft from the American competition, the reindeer aren’t playing the little reindeer games in the Airbus hallways in Hamburg this week.

Lufthansa has been slowly increasing it’s fleet this year with the board of directors announcing the purchase of over 35 aircraft over starting in 2007.