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100 tons of plants wasted per gallon of gas we burn

by Jerome a Paris Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 11:10:12 PM EST

Sometimes a good graph (slide 8 of this Rocky Mountain Institute presentation (pdf)) really is worth a thousand words:

Now combine this with this article:

Bad Mileage: 98 Tons Of Plants Per Gallon -- Study Shows Vast Amounts Of 'Buried Sunshine' Needed To Fuel Society

A staggering 98 tons of prehistoric, buried plant material that's 196,000 pounds is required to produce each gallon of gasoline we burn in our cars, SUVs, trucks and other vehicles, according to a study conducted at the University of Utah.

[T]hat's how much ancient plant matter had to be buried millions of years ago and converted by pressure, heat and time into oil to produce one gallon of gas, Dukes concluded.

Dukes also calculated that the amount of fossil fuel burned in a single year 1997 was used in the study totals 97 million billion pounds of carbon, which is equivalent to more than 400 times "all the plant matter that grows in the world in a year," including vast amounts of microscopic plant life in the oceans.

Here's the study: Buring Buried Sunshine (pdf) (html summary here)

by RedDan (reddan@gmail.com) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 11:24:37 PM EST
You can make biodiesel from damn near anything. The problem is making enough of it.

Efficiency is the first thing we need. Hell, if Americans just stopped insisting on driving whales and switched to European style cars that'd save a good portion of oil.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 11:43:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Read the article.

It addresses current usage and volumes of both Biodiesel and growing area required to meet current demand...the article also addresses your efficiency argument, and completely falls into your camp on that score.

by RedDan (reddan@gmail.com) on Tue Jun 28th, 2005 at 11:48:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
of a use for the Republican Party...
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 12:29:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have a feeling that processing that much bullshit would require extensive industrial infrastructure, however.

Perhaps they should be introduced into the fuel cycle earlier in the process...fertilizer, maybe?

by RedDan (reddan@gmail.com) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 12:45:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Easier to just use the bullshit in a fermenter producing methane.  Or in the case of Rush, just stick a pipe up his a-- and connect it to your carburetor.
by HiD on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 12:49:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, you get some fuel...but dragging his fat ass around would more than cancel the number of calories introduced into the system.
by RedDan (reddan@gmail.com) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 12:51:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
with all that gas he isn't lighter than air????
by HiD on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 12:56:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's an interesting article. Perhaps it makes light of the difficulty of building such huge algae farms, but still.

Since the idea is to build in the desert, it's a possible solution for the US, China too. Not for Europe or Canada. Here biodiesel is mostly talked about in terms of use of rapeseed + cereals, in other words, a transfer of arable land from foodstuff production to fuel production. How efficient that would be doesn't seem clear.

DeAnander, on RedDan's indispensable diary re Republican attacks on science, mentions having issues with "green cars" for reasons to do with physics.

DeAnander, if you're reading this, could you be more specific?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 01:37:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you follow the link he posts, his complaint is that there can be no such thing as a "green car" because of the amount of energy it takes to build a car. Public transportation is the only green form of transportation.
by jam on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 10:12:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The link pretty much explains it.  Single-occupant private auto transport model plus population increase plus finite surface area for overpaving equals diminishing returns and massive resource waste.  Take my town -- pretty much built out.  20 percent of its surface area is dedicated to the automobile.  The population keeps growing, that means (in the US) more and more cars.  What do we do?  increase that area to 30 percent?  40 percent?  Do we start tearing down houses and shops to make wider and wider roads and more and more parking?  See these amusing photos for some perspective on surface area claims of private auto vs bus vs peds/bikes.

Doesn't really matter whether the cars run on Tinkerbell Vibes and emit only a faint scent of violets -- the overpaving, gridlock, and resource consumption from manufacturing them, storing them, and moving them around are a killer even w/o the fossil fuel consumption.  It's a dead-end technology in urban areas.

This is why I have always scoffed at Lovins' HyperCar dream.  It is all the same Cornucopian message:  we can go on just as we are, we just substitute New Improved Material X for old boring Material Y, New Clean Fuel A for old dirty fuel B, and we can pursue that American Dream unhindered and with clear consciences:  the American Way of Life is Not Negotiable.  I'm with asdf here [hey, asdf and I are on the same page, call the newspapers]: demand reduction, not substitution, is the way forward.  The "green car" hype and the "hydrogen economy" hype are imho just ways of telling the spoilt hyperconsumer that they can have their cake (planet) and eat it too.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 11:23:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
have now read your letter.

I quite agree that the cars-for-all model is not sustainable, and that the principal effort that needs to be made is to reduce car (and truck) use. I'm particularly concerned by the concreting over of more and more space as people spill out from the sub- to the exurbs, overspill that is only made possible by cars, and  above all the two/three-car family model. And, as a lifelong pedestrian (at least, it's my preferred mode), I'm sharply aware of the ridiculous imbalance in the allocation of public space -- urban, suburban, and even rural.

This said, I don't think it's indifferent what efforts are made to develop alternative fuels for cars. Firstly because, when we say a model isn't sustainable, that doesn't mean it's going to disappear all at once -- in other words, cars are not going to go away just like that. Secondly, the choice of one alternative fuel rather than another may mean more or less pollution, more or less cost in terms of energy, a more or less acceptable industrial structure. Even if there were limitless supplies of oil, it might be preferable to use a "greener" fuel -- obviously the "greener" the better.

I was wondering whether your "physics" comment referred to the production of biodiesel, and, in particular, to the EROI of biodiesel produced from crops (as opposed to algae). I heard the ratio was poor. I'll have to do some looking about to see if I can get some dependable data.

Thanks for replying.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 01:27:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Biodiesel is a vexed issue.  I have some back of envelope math someplace that suggests the total arable land area of the US would not be sufficient to produce enough biodiesel to run the US vehicle fleet at its present size, annual mileage and pathetic fuel efficiency.  I believe there is some stress on Brazil at present due to the amount of cropland dedicated to growing corn for ethanol (for gasohol) vs corn for food...  this would make an interesting thread or diary actually, the conflict between arable land use for food production and for motorised vehicle fuels.

Most of the successful biodiesel applications I know of are using a blend of 10 to 30 percent veggie oil in a straight petro diesel base.  I believe to use "pure" biodiesel you need a preheater, as it's quite a bit more viscous than petro diesel when cold.  Also it appears to be more solvent, and tends to "clean out" your engine block of old deposits when first used, which can clog filters pretty fast.  Some older rubber hoses will swell when in contact with the blend.  I think you have to use modern synthetic hose with it.

But back to land and petro use patterns:  there is also the idiocy of current petro-intensive ag methods which mean that 10 calories or more of fossil fuel go into producing each calorie of crop in some cases.  If this be true of soy, canola, or high-sucrose corn (damn, is it sucrose or fructose in corn anyway), then making the corn or oilseed crop into biodiesel with an additional processing effort and energy inputs is obviously ludicrous.  Worth checking some numbers there.

Once again we come back to the repeating theme that reducing demand is the single most effective way to conserve a resource.  With arable land losses facing us worldwide (salination, desertification, topsoil loss, pesticide and petro augmentation buildup, etc) it doesn't make a lot of sense to displace food production for transport fuel production...  

As a Lama once said when watching affluent Americans doggedly jogging, exercising and so forth to lose weight, "Why do they not just eat less?"  Facing multiple constraints on energy use (toxicity, climate disruption, scarcity of cheap fuel) why do we not just drive less, fly less, truck things long distances less?  ah, but that would "hurt the economy."  And that leads us to ask once again what the heck is meant by "economy," and what kind of concept it is, if its "health" requires maladaptive r-selected behaviour?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 05:11:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
most of the lost carbon was just converted to methane and CO2 and returned back to the life cycle as plants rotted.  It didn't just disappear.  

the auto efficiency calc also shows why folks are so excited re fuel cells.  Much more efficient energy conversion in the engine (look at all that engine loss). Plus the idling loss goes away.  Add in regenerative brakes and looking a whole lot better.  But at $1.50 for a gallon of gas nobody much cares to change the status quo.  High oil prices will be a good thing ultimately.

by HiD on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 12:55:44 AM EST
Well, the point is not the carbon per se, but the sheer amount of plants required to get the corresponding volume of carbon in its "interesting" (i.e. energy-storing) form. The rest is essentially irrelevant to that calculation, but of course you are right to say that it is not lost.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 01:31:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
it's interesting that the engines of our society are run on decaying matter...there's some kind of metaphor there, somewhere...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 02:05:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I get it, but no one is seriously expecting to ever replace our hydrocarbon deposits by waiting for plants to decompose again.  So while the calc is great for a MSM hype headline, it really doesn't mean anything.

Even the luddites figure we'll run out of oil someday, just after they are dead and don't care.  The lunatic fringe (abiotic believers) are truly loonie.

by HiD on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 02:20:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
with your last paragraph in particular.

Another point that occurs to me concerns the even-more-industrializing effect on agriculture of biodiesel production. If crops are principally grown to provide biofuel and not food, why should the agri-world worry about yet-greater intensification, use of synthetic chemicals, GMOs, etc? The prospect is one of entire tracts of countryside given over to a totally industrialized form of agriculture, backed by the immense sanction of fuel lack -- we can't stop doing this because we'll have no more fuel for cars and trucks. Currently, it's possible (in Europe at least) to argue for a model of sustainable family farms producing better-quality (including organic) foodstuffs to be consumed locally or regionally. Re-conversion from increasingly industrialized production to this model is feasible. If the car fleet depended on the biodiesel industry, the situation would in all likelihood be blocked, with little hope of return.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jun 30th, 2005 at 04:03:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This was meant to be a reply to DeAnander's Re. Sorry I missed the link, above.

I clicked "Reply to this" but the comment got pushed down...

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jun 30th, 2005 at 04:09:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
regarding hydrogen.  I am completely unconvinced that any of this is worthwhile except as a laboratory study.

In their slides they show a concept car that gets ~110 mpg equivalent.  Big deal - VW built a turbodiesel concept car that gets 250mpg.  Concept cars mean nothing because they aren't designed to be mass produced or affordable.  VW has production cars in Europe that get 70mpg - also turbodiesel.  Pluggable hyrbrids have even greater potential.

At what point do we say that the possible benefits of fuel cell cars aren't sufficient to justify billions spent on a hydrogen infrastructure?

My greatest concern about Hydrogen is the simple question - where do we get the stuff from??  The cheapest way to get it is to make it from natural gas or coal.  This does nothing for global warming however, plus it again shackles us to yet another non-renewable resource.

One can also make it by splitting water, but this is very energy intensive and for that matter far less cost effective.  For that matter most electricity in this country is still from coal, so we would still be tied to fossil fuels.  And for that matter a pluggable hybrid is a more efficient use of electricity than having to first make hydrogen and then run it through a fuel cell.

by ericy on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 04:17:17 AM EST
As an official hybrid car nut let me say that practical experience proves that the presentation is mostly unrealistic.

First, what you find out when you try to optimize your hybrid's fuel economy is that the main problem is speed. It's easy to get good mileage if you go 40 mph. It's impossible if you go 70. Everything else pales in comparison. Regenerative braking is cool, but all you're doing is charging up a battery that you're going to use for un-needed acceleration. Idle stop is cool, but if you're idling much then you're in a city where you should be on the bus or your bike anyway.

And the idea of using composites for car construction is folly. Bending sheet metal into car bodies is one of the most efficient manufacturing processes known. You can assemble hundreds of steel car bodies in the time it takes to make a single composite body. Thin sheet metal stamped into shaped panels, spot welded together by robots into a strong, lightweight structure; what's the problem? Sure, composite technology gives you bodies that are strong and light, but it's simply not realistic for mass production because you have to lay up the panel and then let it cure. Aluminum is a good compromise, but you end up with cars that cost $40,000 instead of $10,000.

To solve the transportation problem we have to use less transportation. It's simple: Reorganize our living situation so we can walk or bus to work. Think inner city London or Paris or Boston.

by asdf on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 05:33:04 AM EST
asdf, this is the first time that I've heard anyone argue against composite car bodies.  At first glance, I'm not convinced by your arguments.  Nearly every boat is made of fiberglass, and most ATVs and snowmobiles also have fiberglass body panels.  Not to mention the plastic body on every Saturn car.  

Additionally, moving to composite bodies eliminates the two biggest capital costs of an assembly factory: the paint shop and the steel stamping machines.  By reducing the barriers to entry, this technology ought to promote more competition and innovation.

by corncam on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 06:50:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem with composite bodies is that they are incredibly expensive to manufacture.

Most modern cars have unit body construction: no frame. Using steel or aluminum you just press sheet metal into complicated shapes, have a robot spot weld the pressings together, and you're done. It only takes a few minutes for the factory to go from a pile of flat sheet metal to a complete body/frame system. This is probably the most optimized manufacturing process known.

The Saturn is a conventional pressed steel car with plastic exterior panels. The panels have embedded color, so they don't need to be painted. This is a good step forward, but it's a long way from a car with a plastic structure.

Racing cars and boats are made of composites varying from glass to carbon fiber with epoxy resin as a binder. This is moderately expensive from the material viewpoint, but VERY expensive from the labor viewpoint. You put the pre-preg composite in a mold and then bake it to cure it, which takes a LONG time, like 12 hours.

Then to assemble the car you have to glue the pieces together, which also has a long cure time. While some of this could undoubtably be automated, there is still a basic problem of holding a lot of in-work inventory while its curing.

Composite bodies need to be painted.

The basic problem is getting the composite process to work in a high-volume manufacturing environment. The result is better, but it's way too expensive.

And, in the end, you are talking about saving a few hundred pounds of weight in the car, which is nice but doesn't really solve the problem, which is that we drive too much!

by asdf on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 08:03:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
so if those numbers are right, we burn at least 400 years worth of plant material per year.  which means that over the past 30 years we've burned 12,000 years of plants.

so the creationists are wrong?

i'm stunned.

by Kevin Lyda (kevin@ie.suberic.net) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 07:59:40 AM EST
I understand that in Europe for a car company to be competitive they must produce diesel cars. In my part of California the only diesels you see are either old mercedes and volvos or trucks of the Ford F350 variety (very large noisy trucks). In large part the conception of diesel is that it is noisy, smelly and polluting. A move to Biodiesel here is seemingly limited by the number of car options. What is the possibility of the diesels produced in Europe coming here? I understand that even American manufacturers produce them over there.
by toad on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 09:07:47 AM EST
and why they were willing to pay such a large price (2 billion dollars) afterwards to cancel the purchase - they got Fiat's modern diesel technology for their Opel subsidiary in the meantime.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 10:05:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
About half of new cars in Europe are diesel. This is the result of a conscious effort by European governments to change over to diesel fuel for the purposes of better economy.

In America there's no point to diesels--or hasn't been until recently. They get good mileage, but the diesel oil sold here isn't very clean so the total pollution from a diesel is pretty high. Also, despite advances in performance and the overall driving experience, they are still smelly and noisy compared to gasoline powered cars.

You can already buy diesels here if you care to; Mercedes and VW (and maybe Audi?) have several models to choose from. But the market remains small..

by asdf on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 11:58:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes there's something inherently absurd about a utilitarian vehicle that outweighs its payload by factors of 20 to 50... I commented on this years ago in The Strange Case of the Weighty Lunchbox -- the figures are a little loose, but Jerome's graph substantiates the general principle:  most of the fossil fuel energy burned in a car does nothing but produce heat (from friction, plus waste combustion heat) and move the lumbering carcass of the vehicle itself.  Only a tiny amount actually gets the job done, i.e. moves the driver and cargo.  So wasteful!

Most tools that people have invented allow us to change the duration over which effort must be applied thus reducing the effort per second (gears  and pulleys and tackle and levers) -- or to get assistance from free sources like wind, river flow, tidal flow, water and thermal expansion etc. (windmills, sails, water mills, splitting rock with water-soaked wooden wedges)  -- or to transform effort from a relatively weak slow motion for our primate arms and legs to a strong motion (the bowstring drill or lathe for example converts rotation which is hard for us to do, into a sawing motion which is easy). The astonishing bicycle, which reduces the effort of moving our body over the land by 30 percent compared to walking, leverages our human strength and stamina tremendously.  The wheeled handcart or wheelbarrow is another big winner enabling us to carry many times the weight we could tote on our backs.  The digging stick, the hoe and scythe, the spade and froe also leverage and multiply our apparent strength.

The automobile however is a descendant of the concept of draught animal or slave labour.  It doesn't leverage the user's own effort, but exploits an external source -- what Illich called an "energy slave".  It is really an ox cart or horse wagon, evolved to substitute an ICE for the draught animal:  a modern day chariot, barouche, coach, landau, call it what you will, it's an ox cart :-)  Even the railroad train is far more innovative and further from our ancient roots than the automobile.  It's a curious survival, often seems to me a vivid illustration of "paving the cowpath".

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 05:30:51 PM EST
sorry the weight/cargo ratio range s/b 10 to 50.  typo.

50 being the extreme top end, monster trucks, stretch hummer limos, etc. driven by a solo driver without significant cargo.

in those cases I guess we would have to say the vehicle is no longer utilitarian, but exists only for social display and ranking purposes. rather like a gilded state coach... so perhaps the whole argument about how efficient it is is irrelevant at these extrema -- like wondering why people spend $50K on a wedding when the registrar's office would do just as well for tax purposes :-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 05:35:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not sure what you mean by "monster trucks," as there are plenty of Super Duty Fords around here. They have an empty weight of over 6600 pounds, and are frequently driven to the grocery store by small cowgirls. If the cowgirl weighs 110 pounds, that's a 60:1 ratio...
by asdf on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 07:04:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Dunno too many Amurkans who weigh 110lbs :-)  

I was referring to this latest obscenity -- what happens when someone tries to one-up the SUV.  At curb weight over 13,000 lbs its carcass to cargo ratio is well over 25 even with two 250lb adults on board.  One hefty adult, ratio just over 50.  One skinny little guy or gal, it only gets worse...

Note the tie in with "Homeland Defence" and the implicit nationalist appeal.  Marketing like this we ain't known since Leni's heyday.  And she, I regret to say, had better taste.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Jun 29th, 2005 at 10:22:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's pretty funny.

But you know, I don't really worry too much about that sort of thing, or even the Hummer. Obviously the Hummer is a stupid thing to drive around, and the owners know it. They're just making a statement about how they can afford such waste, and next month they'll probably have a BMW or a Prius or some other show-off car.

But the Ford F-150 pickup truck is a real problem. Most people aren't aware that here in the U.S., the F-150 is THE MOST POPULAR MODEL SOLD. Including cars and trucks and everything else, there are more F-series pickup trucks sold than any other "car" model.


We 'mericans like to drive BIG POWERFUL TRUCKS to prove that we are big and powerful.

by asdf on Thu Jun 30th, 2005 at 10:38:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
We hermit crabs like to usurp large colourful shells to hide our soft vulnerable little bodies...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Jun 30th, 2005 at 04:30:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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