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Let's Burn Coal To Refine Ethanol!

Late last year in Goldfield, Iowa, a refinery began pumping out a stream of ethanol, which supporters call the clean, renewable fuel of the future.

    There's just one twist: The plant is burning 300 tons of coal a day to turn corn into ethanol - the first US plant of its kind to use coal instead of cleaner natural gas.

    An hour south of Goldfield, another coal-fired ethanol plant is under construction in Nevada, Iowa. At least three other such refineries are being built in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

    The trend, which is expected to continue, has left even some ethanol boosters scratching their heads. Should coal become a standard for 30 to 40 ethanol plants under construction - and 150 others on the drawing boards - it would undermine the environmental reasoning for switching to ethanol in the first place, environmentalists say.

[...]

The reason for the shift is purely economic. Natural gas has long been the ethanol industry's fuel of choice. But with natural gas prices soaring, talk of coal power for new ethanol plants and retrofitting existing refineries for coal is growing, observers say.

    "It just made great economic sense to use coal," says Brad Davis, general manager of the Gold-Eagle Cooperative that manages the Corn LP plant, which is farmer and investor owned. "Clean coal" technology, he adds, helps the Goldfield refinery easily meet pollution limits - and coal power saves millions in fuel costs.

    Yet even the nearly clear vapor from the refinery contains as much as double the carbon emissions of a refinery using natural gas, climate experts say.

Notice that the article authors don't even stray near the question of whether the energy in 300 tonne of coal  exceeds the stored energy in the ethanol produced by the plant per diem.  But we know the game has to be net-negative as a whole, because of the Three Laws (no, not robotics, thermodynamics).  Now this is an unplanned improvised riff, so bear with me (and feel free to yomp in with calculations, etc)...

Let's understand something very basic here:  Entropy is Not Mocked.  It takes a certain number of calories H (heat) to make a certain number of calories' worth E of ethanol, out of a certain number of calories R (raw) cane or corn or any other sugar-rich source material.  We know that E will always be less than H+R.  In severe cases, E may even be less than H!  [I don't know that this is the case for the operations in question since the article slithers past this point, but it is the case for petro-intensive farming in general.] Supposing for a moment that we do get less energy out in the ethanol form than we burned in the coal form, then it would have been more efficient just to burn the coal in the cars.  (This might have more negative implications for particulate emissions control, but I am talking only about energy math here).

We will also get less calories out in ethanol per unit feedstock than we put in (in raw feedstock form), because some of the feedstock will be waste;  but the output product will be denser.  [If you really want your head to hurt, consider that the average calorie of high-sugar factory farmed corn has already cost iirc 7 to 10 fossil calories to grow by the time it is cut down and hauled off -- using fossil fuel -- to the fossil-fuel-powered processing plant.  So even if 300 tonne of coal in a day produces the energy equivalent, stored as ethanol, of more than 300 tonne of coal, the corn that was processed into the feedstock was net-negative EROEI to start with.  I think we went through some of this math on a thread long, long ago.]

Here's a way I've been thinking about the problem.  This isn't a finished POV but a kind of cartoon that I keep [NPI] trying to refine...

This game is all about energy density, and the only way to achieve high energy density is time plus pressure (and usually heat).  What coal and petroleum really are, is biotic feedstock plus aeons of time plus aeons of pressure, producing a high energy density which we then make even higher by refining processes which require more heat/pressure cleverly applied.  

So what we are trying to to is to compress time (i.e. energy) in the same way we do with a spring trap or crossbow;  we spend N minutes winding the thing up and then all that invested energy is released in N/X minutes where X is a very big number.  [A a lever or winch works the other way around, extending the time needed to move the weight and thus reducing the calories expended per second -- time expansion, lower energy density aka lower burn rate.]

The private auto, the jet aircraft, and the planing heavy vessel are the ultimate worst case for fuelling, because they require high energy density (high burn rate), which is the costliest thing to achieve in a fuel.  They work only by releasing very large amounts of energy very quickly and keeping up this high burn rate for extended periods.  Thus they require the most grotesque conversion factors from raw (feedstock) calories in to calories out.    [and the reason they do this is not only because of the physical inefficiencies of internal combustion and excessive carcass weight, but because we insist on using them for extreme time compression, i.e. extremely high speeds.]

We have traditionally got this staggering conversion factor by looting geological/evolutionary time, i.e. spending, in a scant century or two, the fossil wealth "wound up" out of biotic processes plus sunlight (heat) plus pressure plus geothermal heat plus aeons of time.

If we now try to produce this same energy density or burn rate using immediate biotic sources, we run into a little problem -- a time travel problem as it were:  a normal growing season doesn't deposit that much energy in a vegetable crop.  Our desired burn rate is grotesquely disproportionate to the growth rate of biotic sources, whether vegetable or animal -- you couldn't drive around carrying the amount of raw feedstock needed to produce the calories to keep the vehicle moving.  So we have to invest a lot of heat/pressure (i.e. energy) to provide even a feeble approximation of the time compression we want.  In other words, burn a lot of coal (or something else fairly dense) to make ethanol;  and burn a lot of fossil fuel in artificial soil enrichments and fossil-powered factory farm equipment to force a higher-than-natural yield rate, to wrench as many calories per acre as we can from depleted soil.  (Again trying to optimise density, not overall EROEI).

Heinberg once wrote in a whimsical "letter from the future" (in which he affected to look back from a life after the oil peak, and write to his real contemporaries today, me and you):

At first, most people thought the shortages could be solved with "technology." However, in retrospect that's quite ludicrous. After all, their modern gadgetry had been invented to use a temporary abundance of energy. It didn't produce energy.  [...]  With the exhaustion of fossil fuels, no technology could have maintained the way of life that people had gotten used to. But it took quite a while for many to realize that. Their pathetic faith in technology turned out to be almost religious in character, as though their gadgets were votive objects connecting them with an invisible but omnipotent god capable of overturning the laws of thermodynamics.  [boldface mine]

And here's the rub.  We don't produce energy. (Nor can we "produce" time.)   There are only three processes that produce energy:  sunlight striking the surface of the planet, the thermal activity of the molten core, and the instability of certain isotopes found in the crust [and many an astrophysicist would scoff at this and say that these things no more produce energy than a Duracell battery -- they merely release, over time, the tremendous initial energy of the Big Bang, the original Wound Up Spring].  What we do is harvest or concentrate energy -- what all life processes do, in fact.

We (humans) have a persistent and aggravated history of overharvesting stored energy, that is, consuming biotic energy resources at a rate that exceeds their regeneration or replacement rate -- whether this be for immediate alimentary needs or for more sophisticated applications like cooking, heating, clothing, etc.  We have a history of looting the stored biotic wealth of topsoil, for example (formed by millennia of forestation) in an extractive mode so as to reap exaggerated harvests from it for a limited time -- depleting it so severely that after the boom period is over, our return on labour invested diminishes rapidly and we have to fall back through a (usually pretty quick) series of devolving crops and practises.   This fallback and devolution is touched on by Jerome in the article;  a frantic spiral downwards from one to another apparently cheaper (slower, less dense) substitute until either equilibrium is restored, or desertification and die-off or migration result.

One end product of this kind of liquidation in an agrarian culture is an arid scrubby biome, xericultivated, with frugal animals like sheep and goats and chickens/rabbits being farmed, and mules or donkeys used for transport, rather than extravagant animals like beef cattle and heavy horses.  With concomitant changes in diet and social organisation a stable human population can live rewarding lives even in such a degraded biome.

The fossil fuel boom is (my view concurring with a school of historical/political thought here) just another one of these stories of looting, in a compressed time period, the accumulated energy discovered "free for the taking".  Whether it be topsoil or petroleum, the initial high burn rate cannot be sustained, and attempts to sustain it hit the walls of thermodynamics very quickly.  This is the final refutation of the infamous doctrine of substitutability:  we can't eat rocks and sand.

Nor, imho, can we sustain an insanely profligate burn rate as required by our present models of transport, housing, commerce, and agriculture by any sustainable substitutions for fossil fuels.  The burn rate itself is inherently unsustainable. This is at present a minority viewpoint, but it is mine until I see some compelling evidence to the contrary.  We should have been called, not homo habilis (clever though we are), nor homo sapiens, nor even homo economicus ("oikonomikos" is in its original usage the management of the finances of a household, and liquidation is piss-poor blind-drunk management);  perhaps we should have been called homo spendthriftus, the species with the high burn rate.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 06:57:33 PM EST
The Executive Summary:

We're screwed.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 07:34:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
are you hoping that I'll disagree?  :-)

actually I'm not so sold on the high-energy lifestyle that I think losing some large percentage of it is the same thing as losing civilisation or "a decent life."  so how "screwed" we are [and I'll remark in passing that a wealth of gender politics is expressed by that colloquialism] depends on whether life without SUVs or strawberries in December seems like life in Hell, or not.  my feeling is, not so much.

people are pretty much happy or unhappy based first on the core needs -- water, food, clothing, shelter, meaning, human company -- and then on invidious comparison (misery is knowing that the other monkey's heap of nuts and berries is larger than your own, even if your own is enough to live on).  I think we could meet the core needs with only a fraction of our current energy expenditure -- that most of oour present energy profligacy is just a form of Pyramid-building, i.e. just showing off for imperial or national or caste aggrandisement.  chest-beating with terajoules.  and much of our energy wealth is invested in grotesque accumulation which only feeds individious  comparison and the ensuing misery and stress.

I'm not sure life would be all that horrible under a lower-energy regime.  my big worry -- and I don't think anyone has really got the math together on this because the problem is too big and most of the necessary numbers too obfuscated and falsified -- can we actually feed everyone a decent health-sustaining diet if we have to revert to sustainable agricultural practises?  note that I don't suggest a "western" diet which is not feasible even with all the fossil fuel we're throwing at the problem currently, but a livable diet.

attached to this big feasibility worry is the inevitable fear that there will not be sufficient political will for resource justice (or that elites with a lot of firepower at their disposal and zero conscience have too iron a grip), and that even if we could feed our current numbers with sustainable practises the attempt will never be made because the global elite will cling like limpets to their profligacy ("The American way of life is not negotiable") and not give a tinker's damn if millions starve per day, even as we don't give much of a damn when tens of thousands starve per day... as they presentiy do.  cornucopianism has substituted for responsibility and conscience for so long now that the latter qualities may have become mostly vestigial.

I'm not so much afraid of some of the shapes human life might take in a lower-energy paradigm, as I am of the global tantrum I expect from the spoilt-brat social stratum (which is larger than ever in human history thanks to the fossil fuel orgy, and I'm a part of it too) we can anticipate on our (looking pretty much inevitable) way there.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 08:16:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
afterthought:

a friend of mine once expressed the unpleasant political reality like this:  you ask an affluent First World inhabitant to get real and decide which is more important, driving their car or feeding their kids.  they blink a couple of times and (most of them) say staunchly:  Feed the kids, forget the goddamn car.

but if you ask them which is more important, driving their car or feeding someone else's kids -- especially someone else who is poor and/or darker-skinned and/or speaks a different language and/or lives more than 30 miles away -- then you are likely to get a different and depressing answer.  and when I think about oil prices and the end of the cheap energy regime, this is what depresses me.

it's not so much that I think "we are all doomed and the human story is over" as that I think very large numbers of us may be doomed unless we learn to think and act in a very different way --r and we have a long record of learning disabilities and truancy in this area...


The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 08:25:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not so much afraid of some of the shapes human life might take in a lower-energy paradigm, as I am of the global tantrum I expect from the spoilt-brat social stratum (which is larger than ever in human history thanks to the fossil fuel orgy, and I'm a part of it too) we can anticipate on our (looking pretty much inevitable) way there.

That's why I think we're screwed. In terms of absolute resources, we're not inevitably screwed. Re-adjustment would be painful, but not impossible. With proper planning a soft landing could even be engineered.

But the social problem is a much more pressing issue. Right now, too many people don't believe there's a problem, and don't want to believe there's a problem. They believe that in spite of occasional alarmist reports things will carry on more or less as they have done - because that's what things do. They have no experience of rationing or serious scarcity, so they can't imagine that rationing or serious scarcity could ever happen or ever affect them personally.

As other people have said, it won't be till gas is $5 and upwards a gallon in the US and the waves are lapping around their beach front homes and the shops are increasingly empty of even the basics that they will start to realise that the world has changed.

It may already be too late by then. And they may simply decide to turn feral and turn on each other.

So without some kind of unprecedented seismic change in awareness, I think the screwed part is looking more and more unavoidable at this point.

Just thinking personally, I would go out and install a large windmill in my back garden tomorrow if I could. It probably wouldn't cover more than about a third of my current energy budget, but it would be better than nothing.

But can I? If I do I will be ordered to take it down because of heritage planning considerations, and if I don't comply it will be dismantled by force with a hefty fine.

When that changes there may be some evidence of intelligent strategy from government. In the meantime - unfortunately not.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Mar 30th, 2006 at 09:04:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
De - why on earth is this not on the front page?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 03:17:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
  1. because it was an improvised riff not a finished essay

  2. because it needed the numbers (see below, further down thread)

  3. because even now that it has numbers, the numbers need double checking.

remember, I come from the world of refereed papers :-)

let's all have a whack at the numbers and make sure there isn't an order of magnitude error anywhere in my back-of-envelope calcs, and if it all hangs together then maybe I can stick part 1 and part 2 together into a front page article for further discussion.

gotta sleep sometime :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 03:34:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
remember, I come from the world of refereed papers :-)
That's the difference between astrophysics and high-energy physics. In the golden age of particle accelerators, preprints were widely circulated among research groups. When the arXiv was set up, the astro-ph section took a while to really take off because <gasp> papers on the archive are not refereed, so how is your average astrophysicist going to know which papers to read?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 06:00:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Your punishment is to be exposed with massive visibility on the basis of an unrefereed draft!

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 07:53:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Jerome, if your human brew is regularly misunderstood over at the Big Orange, how can you expect a different fate to befall the Nectar of the Goddess?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 08:01:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
We have to try anyway, again and again.
But today's reaction seems pretty positive.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 11:22:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Argh, that cost me an hour to read over 300 comments.  Kos is way too crowded a form, it seems to me, hard to keep up with the volume (and besides, a thread that long takes forever and a day to load even over my ADSL).

I note that good ol' Plan9 is in there swinging as usual, promoting nuclear power;  my notes on that debate are still languishing unreviewed so I won't tackle that one right now, just note for the record that I remain skeptical.

The usual suspects are trotted out -- fusion (maybe even cold), TDP, algae ponds, solar, strange Larry Niven fantasies about whizbang orbital constructs that we couldn't have built even at the peak of our industrial resources (round about 1970-1980 I reckon, give or take  some years).  Suggestions that we only need to buy ourselves some time, a few years at most, so that our high priests (sorry, scientists) can "come up with something."  I think others have addressed most of these (though the cellulase stuff is interesting and I would like to read more about that).  There was some good critique of my admittedly nontechnical mumblings about energy vs time (I told Jerome it wasn't a finished essay, dammit).

I would say briefly about TDP and the notion of using algae to process the massive petrochemical runoff from industrial ag (Salton Sea for example) into propulsion diesel:  both these "miracle solutions" rely on the continuation of an enormous waste stream, one which would only continue as it is now if we did not run short of affordable oil.   In other words, conceptually they are about scavenging the waste stream of an energy (and petro) profligate society, which makes them not a solution for a society about to be forced into lower profligacy, because the waste stream is likely to become narrower, or less dense, or however you want to think of "smaller" in this instance.

The assertion that electric supply is the sine qua non of all social well-being is I think either disingenuous or not deeply considered.  When we say "places where there's no electricity are places where women are enslaved, public health is lousy, and hunger is commonplace, therefore electricity equals feminism, health, and food," I think this is conflation.  I know plenty of people who live on cruising boats without refrigeration;  the lack of electric refrigeration does not make their lifestyle as grim as that of a poor woman in Somalia :-)  

What makes the life of a poor woman in Somalia rotten is that she's poor and female and Black -- in a country exploited by the First World, additionally exploited by local elites, in a culture patriarchal and oppressive to her as a woman by local tradition, lambasted by drought and AIDS, plagued by war and infrastructure vandalism, environmentally degraded for varying reasons... not simply that she doesn't have 120VAC power available at the flip of a switch. I think this argument conflates "centralised electricity utilities" with "wealth" and then concludes that "because wealthy countries have centralised electricity, and wealthy countries have better food supplies, water supplies, and medical/transport resources, centralised electricity is the magic ingredient and sole factor predicting access to these goods."  And therefore if we were to lose, say, unlimited (cheap) 24x7 electric service, we would immediately revert to some kind of Hobbesian sub-peasant lifestyle.  

We might as well say that everyone on Earth should have an SUV, because in countries where there are no SUVs, there is more poverty and disease and patriarchal obstructionism.  And if we were to stop having SUVs, we would immediately revert to, etc.  Surely there is some middle ground.  Or so one hopes, anyway.

What I am trying to figure out (just for myself if for no other purpose) is what I really mean by "a decent life."  I think I can live without conveniences like cars, exotic imported fruits, 24x7 120VAC, blazing neon signs and animated billboards, and a long, long list of other things;  especially if by living without those things I can preserve other things that seem to me far more essential and important, like (for example) wireless network communications and cell phone service, or pressurised water delivery, or a modest amount of task lighting for reading and working after dark, or basic civil order.

What counts is security -- by which I mean access to land, housing and food security, adequate water supplies, personal security -- and while these things might be obtained by throwing electricity at the problem, they might also be obtained by throwing less electricity at the problem, or in other ways;  I know many happy and healthy Amish families who have never had electric service at their farms and never plan to;  and there are plenty of poor, ill, frightened, hungry and battered women in the electrified slums of the industrial nations.

Anyway...

I'm puzzled by suggestions that I somehow "want" industrial civilisation to fall on its ass.  Industrial civ -- the culture of the fossil fuel bonanza -- has been good to me, and to all privileged people like myself.  I'm very attached to it;  I grew up with it and it's familiar and comfortable.  I'm actually very frightened by many of the logical conclusions I reach when I consider the stream of present news on both energy and environmental fronts.  I have, if I'm lucky (or maybe not) a few more decades to live in this world and would really rather it didn't turn into a nightmare during my later years, when I have less energy, physical and emotional strength, flexibility, etc. to deal with challenges and hardships.  It would be very nice indeed if everything would just go on comfortably as it is.  

But I don't think it will, or can.  I would have preferred a Star Trek future, if I'd had the choice;  but now I'm thinking about how to mitigate, as best we can, the contraction into an expensive-energy future.

And I think that desperate attempts to make things go on just as they have during our lifetimes, rather than adapting to new circumstances, are likely to make matters even worse than they otherwise woulda been.  Coming to grips -- intellectually, emotionally -- with an unwelcome new reality is the first step in trying to deal with it or survive it.

I'm trying to come to grips with the possibilities and limits myself, all the time.  Wanting these things to happen has nowt to do with it.  They're already happening.  (OK, I admit a world with far fewer automobiles in city and town centres would, imho, be far more pleasant -- I reckon it's human nature to scrabble for any possible upside to cling to when massive scary changes seem to be barrelling down on us.)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Apr 2nd, 2006 at 01:43:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
DeAnander, don't you believe in competition? That single reply is worth in itself a diary... I'm starting to suspect you just like having the status of undercover frontpager.

The fossil fuel boom is (my view concurring with a school of historical/political thought here) just another one of these stories of looting, in a compressed time period, the accumulated energy discovered "free for the taking".  Whether it be topsoil or petroleum, the initial high burn rate cannot be sustained, and attempts to sustain it hit the walls of thermodynamics very quickly.  This is the final refutation of the infamous doctrine of substitutability:  we can't eat rocks and sand.

I loved that. Particularly your view that time becomes an inextricable element of energy concentration strikes me as astute. You've done geological training? All energy examples you quote are time dependent (and running out), following the great Arrow of Time. Even the sun itself is a by time concentrated energy. If we get down to it: it's nuclear fusion, nuclear fission and heat of cooling/precipitation of the earth's core.

Yet on a philosophical tack, something is nagging me. Amino acids formed with little ease in the earth's earliest atmosphere, and we still don't know where life took off first. The oceanic black smokers are still a favourite for many as the progenitors of life: the smokers bring in hot water (from radio nuclear decay) and nutrients. I could understand that temperature is a boundary condition to form life since an absence of T would hinder chemical processes to make them happen. But what about those nutrients? What happens without them? You could then wonder that in the phase spaces of energy, those nutrients form their own part. So perhaps we could say that (and you touch upon this yourself) that in the nutrients of the earth we also find a source of energy that was parcelled out to "us" when the earth took shape: it is part of the biotic energy. Which can indeed run out as well, since it is just as time dependent as the sun or nuclear decay.

The big challenge then becomes tapping responsibly into that biotic energy and I think you're on the ball when you argue that energy shock waits for us around the corner. As for the sustainability of our current burn rate, I take the optimistic view as developments in nuclear fusion are still progressing forward. I do feel that that Race against Time won't be won before the lacking of oil catches up with our feverish spending rate of energy. I'd predict the use of energy as a boomerang curve: it's high now, it will plummet in the future and depending on how fast and how deep it will drop it will take time to creep back up again. On the condition that the Holy Grail of energy is indeed harnessed. But if all goes well, that's probably the stuff of my grandchildren's children...

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri Mar 31st, 2006 at 03:57:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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