Four new anticipated novels about the decline of oil and gas prices

Harlequin novel cover“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge,” said John Naisbitt, American author and public speaker. Because of this fact, intuition and instinct, rather than rational thinking, often guides leadership behavior. Guess right, based on what your intuitive self or instinct tells you concerning your iterative policy decisions — particularly the big ones — and the payoff for you and the nation may well be significant. Guess wrong, and the nation could be hurt in various ways and you might not be around for a long time, or get buried in an office close to a windowless washroom. Charles Lindblom, noted political scientist, probably said it correctly when he noted that in complex environments we often make policy by “muddling through.”

Confusion reigns and analyses are opaque and subject to quick amendment concerning the current, relatively rapid decline in oil and gasoline prices. Indeed, key government institutions such as the EIA (Energy Information Administration) and the IEA (International Energy Agency) appear to change their predictions of prices of both, almost on a daily basis. Oil and gas production, as well as price evaluations and predictions resulting from today’s imprecise methodologies and our inability to track cause-and-effect relationships, convert into intriguing fodder for novels. They do not often lend themselves to strategic policy direction on the part of both public and private sector. Sometimes, they do seem like the stuff of future novels, part fiction, and, perhaps, part facts.

Ah … the best potential novels on the decline of oil and gas, particularly ones based on foreign intrigue, will likely provide wonderful bedtime reading, even without the imputed sex and content of the old Harlequin book covers and story lines. Sometimes their plots will differ, allowing many hours of inspirational reading.

Here are some proposed titles and briefs on the general theme lines for four future novels:

An Unholy Alliance: The Saudis and Qatar have joined together in a new alliance of the willing, after secret conversations (likely in a room under a sand dune with air conditioning built by Halliburton, in an excavated shale play in the U.S., a secret U.S. spaceship, or Prince Bandar’s new jet). They have agreed to resist pressure from their colleagues in OPEC and keep both oil production and prices low. By doing so, they and their OPEC friends would negatively affect the Russian and Iranian economy and limit ISIS’s ability to convert oil into dollars. Why not? The Russians and the Shiite-dominated Iranians have supported Syria’s Assad and threated the stability of Iraq. Qatar and the Saudis support the moderate Syrian rebels (if we can find them) but not ISIS, and are afraid that Iran wants to develop hegemony over Iraq and the region, if they end up with the bomb. Further, ISIS, even though it’s against Assad, is not composed of the good kind of Sunnis, and has learned a bit from the Saudis about evil doings. If ISIS succeeds in enlarging the caliphate, it will threaten their kingdoms and the Middle East. According to a mole in the conversations, Russia was really thrown into the mix because, sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to show that you might be helping the West while paying attention to market share.

OPEC in Fantasy Land: Most OPEC members see U.S. oil under their bed at night and have recurring nightmares. “Why,” they asked, “can’t we go back to the future; the good old days when OPEC controlled or significantly influenced oil production and prices in the world?” Several members argued for a counter intuitive agreement.

Let’s surprise the world and go against our historical behavior. Let’s keep prices low, even drive them lower. It will be tough on some of us, whose budgets and economy depend on high oil prices per barrel, but perhaps our “partner” nations who have significant cash reserves, like my brothers (the hero of this novel started to say sisters, but just couldn’t do it) in the Kingdom, can help out.

Driving prices lower, agreed the Saudis, will increase our collective market share (really referring to Saudi Arabia), and may permanently mute any significant competition from countries such as Russia, Mexico, Iraq, Venezuela, and others. But, most importantly, it will probably undercut U.S. producers and lead to a cutback in U.S. production. After all, U.S. production costs are generally higher than ours. Although some delegates questioned comparative production cost numbers and the assumption that the U.S. and its consumer-driven politics will fold, the passion of the Saudis will win the day. OPEC will decide to continue at present production levels and become the Johnny Manziels of oil. Money, money, money? Conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy!

Blame it on the Big Guys: The U.S. will not escape from being labeled as the prime culprit in some upcoming novels on oil. The intuitive judgments will go something like this: Don’t believe what you hear! U.S. producers, particularly the big guys, while worried about the fall in oil and gas prices, on balance, believe both will have intermediate and long-term benefits. They have had it their way for a long time and intuitively see a rainbow around every tax subsidy corner.

Why? Are they mad? No? Their gut, again, tells them that what goes down must come up, and they are betting for a slow upward trend next on the following year. Meanwhile, technology has constrained drilling costs. Most feel they can weather the reduced prices per barrel and per gallon. But unlike the Saudis and other OPEC members, they are not under the literal gun to meet national budget estimates concerning revenue. Like the Saudis, however, with export flexibility in sight from Congress, many producers see future market share as a major benefit.

Split Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personalities exist among the U.S. producers. Jekyll, reflecting the dominant, intuitive feeling, supports low prices. The Saudis and OPEC can be beaten at their own game. We have more staying power and can, once and for all time, reduce the historic power of both concerning oil. While we are at it, big oil can help the government put economic and political pressure on Russia, Iran and ISIS, simultaneously. Wow, we may be able to get a grant, change our image, a Medal of Freedom and be included in sermons on weekends!

Hyde, who rarely shows up at the oil company table until duty calls, now joins the group. He offers what he believes is sage, intuitive advice. He is the oldest among the group and plays the “you’re too young to know card” a bit, much to the chagrin of his younger colleagues. He expresses some rosy instincts about the oil market but acknowledges the likelihood that the future is uncertain and, no matter what, price cycles will continue. He acknowledges that there might be a temporary reduction of the political pressure to open up the fuel markets and to develop alternative fuels because of present relatively low prices. However, based on talking to his muses — both liberals and free market conservatives — and reading the New York Times, he suggests that it might not be a bad idea to explore joining with the alternative fuel folks. Indeed, Hyde indicates that he favors adding alternative fuel production to the production menu of many oil companies. If this occurred, oil companies could hedge bets against future price gyrations and maybe even win back some public support in the process. The industry also might be able to articulate their overblown claim that the “drill, baby, drill” mantra will make the U.S. oil independent. (At this point, the background music in the room becomes quite romantic, and angelic figures appear!) Hyde doubt that going after global market share would bring significant or major early rewards because of current regulations concerning exports and may interfere with the health of the industry in the future as well as get in the way of the country’s still-evolving foreign policy objectives.

Tough sell, however! Contrary to Hyde’s desires, Jekyll carries the day and “kill the bastards” (assumedly the Saudis) becomes the marching orders or mantra. Let’s go get ‘em. Market share belongs to America. Let’s go see our favorite congressperson. We helped him or her get elected; now is the time for him or her to help us eliminate export barriers. A U.S. flag emerges in the future novel. Everyone stands. The oil groupies are in tears. Everybody is emotional. Even Hyde breaks down and, unabashedly, cries.

David and Goliath: Israel has also become a lead or almost lead character in many potential novels on oil. According to its story line, because of Israel’s need for certainty concerning U.S. defense commitments, it has convinced the “best in the west” to avoid a significant reduction in drilling for and the production of oil. Israel advises the U.S. to extend its security-related oil reserves! Glut and surplus are undefined terms. Compete with the Saudis. Drive the price of oil lower and weaken your and our enemies, particularly Iran and Russia. The U.S. should play a new and more intense oil market role. For some, an alliance among U.S.-Israel and other western nations to keep oil and gas prices low is not unimaginable and, indeed, seems quite possible. What better way to anesthetize Iran and Russia? Better than war! An Iran and a Russia unable to unload their oil at what it believes are prices sufficient to support their national budgets would be weakened nations, unable to sustain themselves and meet assumed dual objectives: defense and butter. Finally, what more “peaceful” way to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas, to some extent, than to cut off Iran’s ability to lend them support?

Each of the future novels summarized above clearly suggests some reality driven by what we know. But overall, each one has a multitude of equally intuitive critics with different facts, hypotheses, intuition and instincts. As indicated earlier, it is too bad we cannot generate better more stable analyses and predictions. For now, however, just realize how complex it is to rest policy as well as behavior on, many times, faulty projections and intuition or instinct. Borrowing a quote by the noted comic and philosopher, George Carlin, “tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.” Similarly, restating but changing and adding words, a quote from the Leonard Bernstein of science, Carl Sagan, that the nuclear arms race (if it does occurs in the Middle East) will be like many “sworn enemies waist-deep in gasoline,” the majority with many matches and one or two with only a few matches.

Novels and Alternative Fuels:

Where does this all leave us with respect to alternative fuels and open fuel markets? Too many producers and their think tank friends believe that low oil and gas prices will reduce the likelihood that alternative fuels will become a real challenge to them in the near future. They, instinctively, opine that investors, without patient money, will not risk funding the development of alternative fuels because prices of oil and gas are so low. Further, their “house” economists argue that consumers will be less prone to switch from gasoline to alternative replacement fuels in light of small or non-existent price differentials between the two.

The truth is that we just don’t know yet how the market for alternative fuels and its potential investors will respond in the short term to the oil and gas price crash. Similarly, we don’t know how long relatively low prices at the pump will last. We do know that necessity has been and, indeed, is now the mother (or father) of some very important U.S. innovations and investor cash. In this context, it is conceivable that some among the oil industry may well add alternative fuels to their portfolio to mute boom, almost boom and almost bust or bust periods that have affected the industry from time immemorial. Put another way, protecting the bottom line and sustaining predictable growth may well, in the future, mean investing in alternative fuels.

Low gas prices presently will likely be followed by higher prices. This is not a projection. History tells us this: importantly, lower gas prices now may well build a passionate coalition of consumers ready to, figuratively, march, if gas prices begin to significantly trend upward. The extra money available to consumers because “filling ‘er up” costs much less now, could well become part of household, political DNA. Keeping fuel prices in line for most consumers, long term, will require competition from alternative fuels — electricity, natural gas, natural gas-based ethanol, methanol, bio fuels, etc. Finally, while our better community-based selves may be dulled now by lower gas prices, most Americans will probably accept a better fuel mousetrap than gasoline because of their commitment to the long-term health and welfare of the nation. But the costs must be competitive with gasoline, and the benefits must be real concerning GHG reduction, an enhanced environment and less oil imports. My intuition and instincts (combined with numerous studies) tell me they will be! Happy Holidays!

To Use Less Oil, We Need To Think About Cars As Software Platforms

Some time in the future–perhaps a decade from now–we’ll all be driving around in electric cars (probably). Battery technology will have evolved to allow longer trips on a single charge, and they’ll be significantly cheaper than they are now.

A decade from now, though? That’s a long way off. In meantime, we’re going to need other ways to reduce our dependence on oil–both because oil increases instability in the world (look at Russia’s current oil-fueled adventures) and because it contributes to climate change, a problem that really can’t wait.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle

Japan bets big on hydrogen fuel cells

Remember when Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) used to sit atop the Japanese industrial complex, steering it like some giant Godzilla hovering over the entire world?

Those were the days when Japan’s government-industry partnership was supposed to represent the future, when Michael Crichton wrote a novel about how Japan would soon devour America, when pundits and scholars were warning that we had better do the same if we hoped to survive – before, that is, the whole thing collapsed and Japan went into a 20-year funk from which it has never really recovered.

Well those days may be returning in one small part as METI prepares to direct at least half the Japanese auto industry into the production of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

“Japanese Government Bets the Farm on Fuel Cell Vehicles” ran one headline earlier this month and indeed there’s plenty at stake for everyone. The tip-off came at the end of May when Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American operations, told Automotive News that electric vehicles are only “short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile…But for long-range travel, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and, tomorrow, fuel cells.” The target here, of course, is Tesla, where Elon Musk appears to be making the first inroads against gasoline-powered vehicles with his $35,000 Model E, aimed at the average car buyer. Toyota was originally in on that deal and was scheduled to supply the batteries until it pulled out this spring, ceding the job to Panasonic.

But all that was only a preview of what was to come. In early June, METI announced it would orchestrate a government-private initiative to help Toyota and Honda market fuel-cell vehicles in Japan and then across the globe. Of course that leaves out the other half of Japan’s auto industry, Nissan and Mitsubishi, pursuing their version of the EV, but maybe the Japanese are learning to hedge their bets.

The hydrogen initiative will put the fuel-cell vehicle front-and-center in the race to transition to other forms of propulsion and reduce the world’s dependence on OPEC oil. Actually, hydrogen cars have been in the offering for more than twenty years. In the 1990s soft-energy guru Amory Lovins put forth his Hypercar, a carbon-fiber vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inaugurated the “Hydrogen Highway,” a proposed network of hydrogen filling stations that was supposed to blanket the Golden State. Unfortunately, only ten have been built so far, and there are still no more than a handful of FCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) on the road. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW all have small lines but none are marketed very aggressively in the United States.

This time, however, there may be a serious breakthrough. After all, Toyota, Honda and METI are not just in the business of putting out press releases. Toyota will begin production of its first mass-market model in December and Honda will follow with a 5-passenger sedan next year. Prices will start in the stratosphere — close to $100,000 — but both companies are hoping to bring them down to $30,000 by the 2020s. Meanwhile, GM is making noises about a fuel-cell model in 2016 and South Korea’s Hyundai is already unloading its hydrogen-powered Tucson on the docks of California.

What will METI’s role be? The supervising government ministry promises to relax safety standards, allowing on-board storage of hydrogen at 825 atmospheres instead of the current 750. This will increase the car’s range by 20 percent and bring it into the 350-mile territory of the internal combustion engine. Like the ICE, hydrogen cars can “gas up” in minutes, giving them a huge leg up on EVs, which can take anywhere from 20 minutes with superchargers to eight hours with household plugs. METI has also promised to loosen import controls so that foreign manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz can find their way into Japan. And, of course, it will seek reciprocal agreements so Toyota and Honda can market their models across the globe.

So will the one-two punch of government-and-industry-working-together be able to break the ice for hydrogen vehicles? California seems to be a particularly ripe market. Toyota is already the best-selling car in the state and the California Energy Commission is promising to expand the Hydrogen Highway to 70 stations by 2016. Still, there will be stiff competition from Elon Musk if and when his proposed Gigafactory starts turning out batteries by the millions. Partisans of EVs and fuel-cell vehicles are already taking sides.

In the end, however, the most likely winners will be consumers who will now have a legitimate choice between hydrogen vehicles and EVs. It may be a decade or more before either of these technologies makes a significant dent in our oil consumption, but in the end it will be foreign oil providers that will be feeling the pain.


DME poses a challenge to CNG

If there’s an Achilles’ heel to the efforts being made to introduce compressed natural gas (CNG) into the country’s vehicles, it is that somebody is going to come along with a liquid fuel that works much better.

CNG has many things going for it. Natural gas is now abundant and promises to stay that way for a long time. That puts the price around $2 a gallon, which is a big savings when gas costs $3.50 and diesel costs $3.70 per gallon. Trucks — mid-sized delivery trucks and big 18-wheelers — are the target market. Delivery vans usually operate out of fleet centers where a central compressor can be installed to service many vehicles. Meanwhile, pioneering companies such as Clean Energy Fuels are busy building an infrastructure at truck stops along the Interstate Highway System to service long-hauling tractor-trailers on their cross-country routes.

But there is a weakness. As a gas, CNG requires a whole new infrastructure. Compression tanks must be built at gas stations, much stronger than ordinary gas tanks and tightly machined, so gas does not escape. Even under compression, CNG has a much lower energy density than gasoline. This requires special $6,000 tanks that must still take up more space. In passenger vehicles they will devour almost all the trunk space, which is why vendors are concentrating on long-distance tractor-trailers.

As a result, there always seems the chance that some liquid derivative of methane is going to come along and push CNG off the market. Methanol has been a prime candidate since it is already manufactured in commercial quantities for industrial purposes. M85, a mixture of 85 percent methanol and 15 percent gasoline, is legal in the United States, but has not been widely adopted.

Now a new candidate has emerged in the long-distance truck competition — dimethyl ether or “DME.” Two methane ions joined by a single oxygen molecule, DME is manufactured from natural gas and has many of the same properties as methanol. It is still a gas at room temperature but can be stored as a liquid at four atmospheres or -11o F. It can also be dissolved as a gasoline or propane additive at a 30-70 percent ratio. In 2009 a team of university students from Denmark won the Shell Eco Marathon with a vehicle running on 100 percent DME.

So is it practical? Well, we’ll soon find out. Volvo has just announced it will release a version of its D13 truck in 2014 that runs on DME. At the same time, Volvo pushed back the launch of its natural gas version of the same line, meaning it may be changing its mind about which way the technology is going to go. In case you haven’t been keeping abreast, Volvo is now the largest manufacturer of heavy trucks in the world, having acquired Mack, America’s oldest truck company, in 2000.

So does that mean that CNG may turn out to be a dead end and Clean Energy Fuels is going to get stuck with a lot of unused compressor pumps? Well, hold on a minute. Technology does not stand still.

Last week at the Alternative Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif., Ford and BASF unveiled a new device for the Ford F-450 CNG fuel tank. It’s called a Metal Organic Framework (MOF), a complex of clustered metal ions built on a backbone of] rigid organic molecules that form one-, two-, or three-dimensional structures. Lots of surface area is created, making MOFs porous enough to hold large amounts of gaseous material such as methane.

MOFs create the possibility that on-board CNG tanks will not have to operate under extremely high pressure or extremely low temperatures. Like a metallic sponge the high-surface material soaks gas right up, where it can be easily dislodged as well. According to BASF and Ford, the same amount of natural gas that requires 3,600 pounds per square inch (PSI) can be stored in an MOF tank at close to 1,000 PSI. That makes a big difference when it comes to designing an automobile.

So does that mean natural gas is going to be able to hold its own against DME and other liquid competitors? Well, wait a minute, there’s still more. Not only is MOF technology good at storing methane, it also works with hydrogen! That means the hydrogen-fuel cell — still the favorite among Japanese manufacturers — may be able to work its way back in the game as well.

In fact, Ford isn’t playing any favorites. Equipped with its new MOF tanks, the F-450 will offer drivers a choice of seven — that’s right, seven — different fuel options using the same internal combustion engine. “Ford has no idea which of these fuels will make the most sense,” Ford’s Jon Coleman told Jason Hall of Motley Fool. “So we need to build vehicles that have the broadest capability and the broadest fuel types so our customers can choose for themselves.”

That’s the name of the game. It’s called Fuel Freedom.

JP Morgan

Rin Tin Tin, RINs and the price of ethanol

Is the son or daughter of Rin Tin Tin alive and well? For a while I thought he or she was, while catching up on my reading over the weekend. I kept reading articles about RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers), their possible impact on the ethanol market and relatively high ethanol prices, despite the apparent weakening of the ethanol market. There seemed to be RINs and more RINs on every page I turned! Because I hadn’t slept for two nights, I couldn’t really focus on the contents of the articles, but only on the dog Rin Tin Tin and his offspring. How many of you have done that? Come on, be honest. Don’t make me feel bad!

I felt guilty after it became obvious that my focus on Rin Tin Tin resulted from a tired brain and eyes. I am back to the complex world of RINs today. (I had a bit of sleep).

Okay, you ask, “What the hell are RINs?” They are sort of a pass at reflecting company fulfillment of government mandates concerning biofuels. For this article, think ethanol! They are issued at the point of ethanol production or the purchase of the fuel by companies. They are approved by the EPA. They reflect a credit that verifies that the required amount of ethanol has actually been blended into gasoline. Succinctly, the Renewable Fuel Legislation, now the law of the land, mandates that a Renewable Identification Number (RIN) must be attached to every produced or imported gallon of renewable fuel in the U.S. One more thing, RINs are separated from the batch of renewable fuel when it is blended with gasoline. This fact indicates compliance with the law and Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs). Credits, at this juncture, can be used for trading purposes.

In 2012, before the EPA’s Nov. 2013 proposal to change RIN quotas and lower requirements for ethanol, the price of RINs was very volatile. Initially, they ranged around 1 to 10 cents a gallon. By spring of 2013, however, they were around $1.

Why the price increase and what does it bode for the price of ethanol in the future? Initially, the RINs were thought of as a way to encourage refiners to produce renewable fuels, like ethanol, and to “pay” for credits if they don’t “play” by  meeting fuel targets.

Part of the volatility and increase in costs of RINs, probably, has to do with speculation by banks and other financial institutions. Thomas D. O’Malley, chairman of PBF Energy, indicated in a recent New York Times article that financial institutions “helped transform an environmental program into a profit machine…These things were designed to monitor the inclusion of ethanol in the gasoline pool…They weren’t designed to become a speculative item. For the life of me, I can’t see the justification for it.” Interviews with members of the financial community, conducted by the New York Times, seem to suggest agreement with O’Malley.

According to the Times, speculation in RINs “could have consequences for consumers. In the end, energy analysts say, the outcome will be felt at the gas pumps — as the higher cost of the ethanol credits get tacked onto the price of a gallon of gasoline.” The Times reports that the “credits, which cost 7 cents each in January [2013], peaked at $1.43 in July, and [were] trading for 60 cents” in September. Jordan Godwin in the Barrel Blog indicated that like RINs in 2013, ethanol prices in 2014 are downright wacky. “In a matter of less than two months, ethanol prices went from six-month lows to eight-year highs.” Godwin and others blame delayed returning train cars during the winter and constraints on supply and production. I would add speculation by Wall Street and uncertainty as to the impact and longevity of EPA’s new regulations concerning the reduced mandates for ethanol and other biofuels. It’s a dilemma for proponents of alternative fuels. Less speculation regarding trading, sustained predictable production and refinement of the distribution system, (along with avoidance by some retailers and blenders to price ethanol well over costs) would facilitate more competition with gasoline at the pump. More predictable competition and larger sales at the pump of E15 and E85 would generate more private-sector fixes to the ethanol supply chain as well as likely stabilize prices and, over time, lower them. In light of ethanol’s benefits to the nation, wise folks might be asked to find policies and stimulate market behavior that permit the American people to have it both ways.


Can graphene, the wonder material, build better batteries?

In 1962, German researcher Hanns-Peter Boehm suggested the versatile carbon atom, which can form long chains, might be configured into a chicken-wire pattern to create a stable molecule one atom thick.

The idea remained a theoretical construct without even a name until 1987, when researchers started calling it “graphene.” Basically, graphene is two-dimensional graphite, the pure carbon material that makes up “lead” pencils. The term was also used to describe the carbon nanotubes that were beginning to attract attention for their ultra-solid properties. For a while there was talk of elevators reaching up into space until it became clear that creating nanotubes without impurities that degrade their properties was currently out of the reach of mass production.

Then in 2004, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, two researchers at The University of Manchester, came up with something a little more prosaic. They applied Scotch tape – yes, ordinary Scotch tape – to pure graphite and found they could peel off the single layer of carbon in the chicken-wire pattern that Boehm had described. They called this substance “graphene” and were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010.

The discovery of single-layer graphene has set off a stampede into research of its properties. Carbon is, after all, a versatile element, the basic building block of life that can also be packed into a material as hard as a diamond, which is also pure carbon. When stretched out into lattices a million times thinner than a human hair, however, it has the following remarkable properties:

  • It is the strongest material ever discovered, 300 times stronger than steel.
  • It is the most electrically conductive material ever discovered, 1,000 times more conductive than silicon.
  • It is the most thermally conductive material ever discovered.
  • It is bendable, shapeable and foldable.
  • It is completely transparent, although it does filter some light.

In short, graphene is now being touted as “material of the 21st century,” the substance that could bring us into an entirely new world of consumer products, such as cell phones that could be sewn into our clothes.

All this still remained somewhat theoretical, since no one had been able to produce graphene in dimensions larger than single tiny crystals. When these crystals were joined together, they lost most of their properties. Two weeks ago, however, Samsung announced that it has been able to grow a graphene crystal to the size of a wafer, somewhat on the same dimensions as the silicon wafers that produce computer chips. Thus, the first step toward a new world of electronics may be upon us. Graphene cannot be used as a semiconductor, since it is always “on” in conducing electricity, but combined with other substances it may be able to replace silicon, which is many researches believe is currently reaching its physical limits.

So what does this mean for the world of transportation, where we are always looking for new ways to construct automobiles and find alternative power sources to substitute for our gas tanks? Well, plenty.

Most obvious is the possibility of making cars out of much lighter-weight materials to reduce the power burden on engines. Chinese researchers recently came up with a graphene aerogel that is seven times lighter than air. A layer spread across 28 football fields would weigh only one ounce and a cubic inch of the material would balance on a blade of grass. All this would occur while it still retained its 300-times-stronger-than-steel properties. Graphene itself would not be used to construct cars, but it could be layered with other materials.

But the most promising aspect of graphene may be in the improvement of batteries. Lithium-ion batteries achieve an energy density of 200 Watt-hours-per-kilogram, which is five times the 40-Wh/k density of traditionally lead-acid batteries. That has won it the prime role in consumer electronics. But Li-ion batteries degrade over time, which is not a problem for a cell phone, but becomes prohibitive when the battery must undergo more than 1,000 charge cycles and is half the price of the car.

Lithium-sulfur batteries have long been thought to hold promise but they, too, deteriorate quickly, sometimes after only a few dozen charges. But recently, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley Labs in California modified a lithium sulfur battery by adding sandwiched layers of a graphene. The result is a battery that achieves 400 Wh/k – double the density of plain lithium-ion – and has gone through 1,500 charging cycles without deterioration. This would give an electric car a range of more than 300 miles, which is in the lower range of what can be achieved with the internal combustion engine.

And so the effort to improve electric vehicles is moving forward, sometimes on things coming out of left field. If graphene really proves to be a miracle substance, look for Elon Musk to be discussing its wonders as he prepares to build that “megafactory” that is supposed to produce lithium-ion batteries capable of powering an affordable new version of the Tesla.


Is butanol the next big thing in biofuels?

Fuel Freedom recently learned about a man named David Ramey who drove his 1992 Buick Park Avenue from Blacklick, Ohio to San Diego using 100 percent butanol, without making any adjustments to his engine.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be big news. But with the EPA now considering cutbacks in the 2014 biofuels mandate, some producers of ethanol are starting to turn to butanol as a way of getting around the limitations of the 10 percent “blend wall” that is threatening to limit ethanol consumption. This could be another breakthrough in our efforts to limit foreign oil.

Butanol is the alcohol form of butane gas, which has four carbons. Because it has a longer hydrocarbon chain, butane is fairly non-polar and more similar to gasoline than either methanol or ethanol. The fuel has been demonstrated to work in gasoline engines without any modification to the fuel chain or software.

Since the 1950s, most butanol in the United States has been manufactured from fossil fuels. But butanol can also be produced by fermentation, and that’s where another opportunity for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels exists.

The key is a bacterial strain called Clostridium acetobutylicum, also named the Weizmann organism for pioneering biological researcher Chaim Weizmann, who first used it to produce acetone from starch in 1916. The main use for the acetone was producing Cordite for gunpowder, but the butanol, a byproduct, eventually became more important.

Once set loose on almost any substratum, Clostridium acetobutylicum will produce significant amounts of butanol. Anything used to produce ethanol — sugar beets, sugar cane, corn grain, wheat and cassava, plus non-food crops such as switchgrass and guayule and even agricultural byproducts such as bagasse, straw and corn stalks — can all be turned into butanol. (Of course, not all of these are economical yet.)

Given the modern-day techniques of genetic engineering, researchers are now hard at work trying to improve the biological process. In 2011, scientists at Tulane University announced they had discovered a new strain of Clostridium that can convert almost any form of cellulose into butanol and is the only known bacterium that can do it in the presence of oxygen. They discovered this new bacterium in, of all places, the fecal matter of the plains zebra in the New Orleans Zoo.

DuPont and BP are planning to make butanol the first product of their joint effort to develop next-generation biofuels. In Europe, the Swiss company Butalco is developing genetically modified yeasts from the production of biobutanol from cellulosic material. Gourmet Butanol, a U.S. company, is developing a process that utilizes fungi for the same purpose. Almost every month, plans for a new butanol production plant are announced somewhere in the world. Many refineries that formerly produced bioethanol are now being retrofitted to produce biobutanol instead. DuPont says the conversion is very easy.

What are the possible drawbacks? Well, to match the combustion characteristics of gasoline, butanol will require slight fuel-flow increases, although not as great as those required for ethanol and methanol. Butanol also may not be compatible with some fuel system components. It can also create slight gas-gauge misreadings.

While ethanol and methanol have lower energy density than butanol, both have a higher octane rating. This means butanol would not be able to function as an octane-boosting additive, as ethanol and methanol are now doing. There have been proposals; however, the proposals are for a fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent butanol (E85B), which eliminate the fossil fuels from ethanol mixes altogether.

The only other objection that has been raised is that consumers may object to butanol’s banana-like smell. Other than that, the only problem is cost. Production of butanol from a given substratum of organic material is slightly lower than ethanol, although the increased energy content more than makes up for the difference.

Ironically, the EPA’s decision to cut back on the biofuels mandate for 2014 is now driving some refiners to convert to butanol, since its greater energy density will help it overcome the 10 percent “blend wall.”

“Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, an industry group, said butanol was a ‘drop-in’ fuel, able to be used with existing gasoline pipelines and other equipment because it does not have a tendency to take up water, as ethanol does,” The New York Times reported last October. “‘It’s more fungible in the existing infrastructure,’ he said. ‘You could blend it with gasoline and put it in a pipeline — no problem.’

“Butanol would also help producers get around the so-called blend wall, Mr. McAdams said…With the 10 percent limitation, ‘you don’t have enough gasoline to put the ethanol in,’ he said. ‘You don’t have that problem with butanol.’”

So here’s to butanol. It will be yet another big step in reducing our dependence in foreign fuels.


Of myths, oil companies and a competitive fuel market

I do not wish to join the intense dialogue concerning whether or not the government should allow exports of crude oil. Others are already doing a good job of confusing and obscuring the pros and cons of selling increased amounts of America’s growing oil resources overseas.

What I do want to do is just focus on the logic of one of the oil industry’s major arguments for extending the permitting of exports — again, not on the wisdom of exporting policy. Permit me to do so in the context of the industry’s long-standing argument concerning the pricing of gasoline to U.S. consumers. The argument is that more oil drilling in the U.S. will lower the price of gas and put America on the path to oil “independence.”

In somewhat of circuitous manner, oil companies are using the opposite of their domestic advocacy for “drill, baby, drill” policy as a way to keep prices lower at the pump. Their yin is that producing more oil in the U.S. and sending significant amounts overseas, combined with declining vehicular fuel demand, will lower gas prices. Economist Adam Smith would applaud the simplicity if he were alive and well. Their yang presents a bit more complicated set of “ifs.” That is, the industry presumes that fulfillment of the yen (excuse another pun) to export will result in more U.S. oil being drilled because of increased world demand generated by the assumed ability of the U.S. to produce oil at less costs than the world price for oil. It will also help foster infrastructure development in the U.S. to break up current log jams concerning oil transportation. Finally, it will facilitate more efficient refineries, allowing them to specialize in different types of oil. The yin and yang will result in (marginally) lower prices of gasoline — so goes the rhetoric and oil-industry-paid-for studies.

Paraphrasing Dr. Pangloss in “Candide,” the oil companies hope for the “best of all possible worlds.” But, before Americans run out and buy stock, note the price of gasoline does not directly reflect oil production volume. Indeed, gas prices, despite increased supplies, have gyrated significantly and now hover nationally over $4 a gallon. Generally, oil and gas prices relate to international prices, tension in the Middle East and investor and banker speculation — not always or directly domestic costs. Stockholders and executives of oil companies function not on patriotism but on profit and to the extent that the law permits, they will sell overseas to get the best price — in effect, the best dollar over payment for a barrel of oil. Consumers, I suspect, are rarely a significant part of their opportunity costing.

Unfortunately, lack of strong empirical evidence tempers the company’s argument that increased world demand will stimulate good things like refinery efficiency and log-jam-ending infrastructure. Maybe if the price per barrel is right (clearly, higher than it is now) and seems predictable for more than a small period of time, refinery and infrastructure developments will be positive. But, the costs to the consumer, in this context, will be higher. It will also be higher because shale oil is tight oil and more risky and costly to drill.

Oil independence is a myth suggested by oil industry and a non-analytical media. Certainly, the oil boom and less vehicular demand have generated less imports and less dependency. But we still buy nearly 300 billion dollars’ worth of oil every year to respond to need and we still produce far less than demand.

Somewhere in the dark labyrinth of each major oil company is a pumped-up (another pun), never-used, secret justification for franchise agreements impeding the sale of alternative fuels in their retail outlets. To alleviate guilt, it may go something like this: “Monopolies at the pump will allow us to make larger profits. You know we will someday soon want to give back some of the profits to consumers by lowering the price of gasoline.” If you believe this still-secret beneficence, let me sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is another way to steady the gasoline market and lower consumer costs. Inexpensive conversions to allow older vehicles to use safe, cheaper and environmentally better alternative fuels (as opposed to gasoline), combined with expanded use by flex-fuel owners of alternative fuels, would add competition to the fuel market and likely reduce prices for consumers. Natural-gas-based ethanol is on the horizon and methanol, once the EPA approves, will follow, hopefully shortly thereafter. Electric cars, once costs are lower and distance on single charges is higher, will be a welcome addition to the competitive mix.