Sunday, September 24, 2006

Alternative Fuel Sources

Alternative sources of fuel for cars may be too little too late, but they are certainly better than nothing. In many cities all across the nation, alternative fuel sources are becoming increasingly popular, as people begin to plan for what looks to be a bleak energy future. The importance of alternative fuel sources can not be overrated. We have reached the half way point for oil consumption, and from here on in, it will get more and more expensive to extract smaller and smaller amounts of oil, resulting in the end of fossil fuel use. The sooner we switch to alternative fuel sources, the better, but it seems that our economy is so completely dependent on gasoline that switching might not be enough to save us now. Solar is a really useful alternative fuel source which will always be available. Although solar power is not one of the alternative fuel sources for cars, it is a great source of power for houses. A few solar panels can provide all of the heating needed for the water tanks, and for the house as well. It is even possible for a house to become completely powered by alternative fuel sources, although this is still often an expensive option. Alternate fuel sources for cares are varied. Hybrid cars, although technically not using alternative fuel sources, have found ways to make gas consumption much more efficient. These vehicles can get 50 miles per gallon or more out of conventional fuel! This is, in my opinion, better than alternative fuel sources which involve the inefficient burning of vegetable oil. Biodeisel, and ethanol powered cars, while eliminating our dependence on oil through using alternative fuel sources, still pollute the environment with their smoke. Does it make sense to switch to an alternative fuel source which does every bit as much to pollute as the one which we were using before it? It sure does not make sense to me! Two of the most promising alternative fuel sources are electricity and hydrogen. These alternative fuel sources are actually closely related; hydrogen is a highly efficient way to store power which can be then converted into electricity in the car. This alleviates the need for huge, bulky, heavy batteries. The car can be lighter, which means that it can be more efficient and easier to maintain. If these alternative fuel sources are perfected, they might form the best solution to all of our fuel problems.

1 Comment:

Cranky or Just a Crank said...

A few issues.

Firstly, you are probably too pessimistic on the quantity of oil that can be recovered.

There are still large finds of conventional oil being found in somewhat mature basins such as the Gulf of Mexico and newer basin such as west Africa.

As well, there are known formation of oilsands and oil shales through the Western US, Venezueula and Australia that will probably be commercially exploited soon. Recall that it took 50+ years in order for the producers to getin the Athabasca oilsands to a commercial operation, but that was back when $20 oil seemed like Christmas came early.

The issue with ethanol is that it still costs more to produce, including the conventional fuels to farm the crops to makes it. The Canadian Alternative Fuels site puts the cost of a barrel of ethanol at $41. However, on an energy basis, gasoline gives 32 Mj per litre and ethanol 20. So on an energy equivalent basis that is about $66. The costs will fall with volumes and technology, but there is a finite limit to the amount of ethanol that can be produced simply because of climate and arable land constraints. Add on the normal farming risks that seem to plague the conventional agriculture year in, year-out, and security of supply has to be a big question.

Hydrogen as conventional combustion fuels is probably impractical given its extremely low energy per volume or the need to have very high pressure storage tanks that can only get one thinking Hindenburg.

The real potential is to use hydrogen in fuel cells. This is something that needs to get scaled up to commerciality or rather the size of fuels cells reduced so that their weight to power ratio works in a passanger car. This is probably not too far of given the current research.

The trick here is where to get the hydrogen since it rtequires a fair bit of energy to produce hydrogen in any appreciable quantity. If we assume that using hydrocarbons to get the hydrogen does nothing for the underlying problem, that leaves nuclear as the only viable option. This technology has its own issues, but these are mostly PR or arise from the fact that the relatively high development and construction costs of the past were incurred by horribly cost-inefficient government-owned entities - do I need to say more than Ontario Hydro - or other utilities that operated on a cost-of-service basis with little supervision so that there was little cost control.

Solar and wind are nice little sceince experiments that may shave a little bit off te edges of what is needed in the big pictunre but they do not have the reliablitiy or the capability of sufficiently large energy production so that there is a need to have reliable conventional back up for almost all of the energy that you expect to derive from solar or wind, which puts them out of the market for large scale usage.

So in the end, I think that you are probably overstating the issue of fossil fuel use in the near to mid-term since there is still plenty of oil out there. Peak oil is just a bogeyman used to jack up the price of oil by traders.

What needs to get addressed is the non-transportation uses of fossil fuels. That should be displaced by nuclear. This would extend even further the window in which transportation uses of fossil fuels may be used until fuel cell technology can efficiently displace most, but probably not not all, transportation uses.