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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.

The Battle Over Ethanol Takes Shape

The decision isn’t scheduled until June but already opposing sides are converging on Washington, trying to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency over the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard for ethanol.

Last week almost 100 members of the American Coalition for Ethanol descended on the nation’s capital for its annual “Biofuels Beltway March,” buttonholing 170 lawmakers and staffers from 45 states.  The object was to send a message to EPA Administrators Gina McCarthy to up the ante on how many billions of gallons the oil refining industry will be required to purchase this year.

The ethanol program is currently in turmoil.  The latest problem is rail bottlenecks that have slowed shipments and created supply shortages over the winter months.  Record-breaking cold and four-foot snow pack have been partly responsible but the rail lines are also becoming overcrowded.  With all that oil gushing down from the Bakken and Canadian crude now finding its way into tank cars as the Obama Administration postpones its decision over the Keystone Pipeline, ethanol is getting tangled in traffic.  .

“Ethanol for April delivery sold for about $3.02 a gallon on the Chico Board of Trade, an 81 percent increase over the low price during the past 12 months of $1.67 a gallon reached in November,” reported the Omaha World-Herald last Friday  “This weeks settlement price of $2.98 a gallon was the highest since July 2011.”  With only so much storage capacity, some ethanol refineries have been forced to shut down until the next train arrives to carry off the inventory.  As ethanol becomes mainstream, it is becoming more and more subject to market events beyond its control.

But the big decision will be EPA’s ruling in June.  In accord with the 2008 Renewable Fuel Act, Administrator McCarthy must set a “floor” for amount of ethanol refiners will have to incorporate into their blends during 2014.  The program ran into trouble last year when the 13.8 billion gallon requirement pushed ethanol beyond the 10 percent “blend wall” where the auto companies will not honor warrantees in older cars.  Refiners were forced to purchase compensating Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which exploded in value from pennies to $1.30 per gallon, forcing up the price of gasoline.  Contrary to expectations, gasoline consumption has actually declined over the last six years, from 142 billion gallons in 2008 to 134 billion in 2013 as a result of mileage improvements plus the lingering effects of the recession.  Last November McCarthy proposed reducing the 2014 from 14.4 billion gallons to 13 billion.  The industry has been crying “foul” ever since.

But there are other ways to fight back.  Last week in Crookson, gas stations were offering Minnesota drivers 85 cents off a gallon for filling up with E-85, the blend of 85 percent ethanol that many see as the real solution to the blend-wall problem.  “We want the public to understand there are different ratios of gasoline and ethanol and how they can save you money,” Greg LeBlac, of the Polk County Corn Growers, told the Fargo Valley News. 

At the annual meeting of the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers (APFM) in Orlando last week, Anna Temple, product manager at WoodMac, made the case that the industry should forego efforts to raise the blend wall from 10 to 15 percent and instead shoot for the moon, leapfrogging all the way to E-85, where ethanol essentially replaces gasoline completely.  (The 15 percent only ensures starts in cold weather.)

“E-15 is a non-starter in terms of market share,” Temple told her audience, as reported by John Kingston’s in Platts.  http://blogs.platts.com/2014/03/25/eight-fillups/  She argued the incremental battle would absorb vast amounts of political capital yet still not be enough to absorb the 15-billion-gallon target for 2021.  Instead, Temple pointed to the growing fleet of flex-fuel vehicles that now numbers around 15 million, headed for 25 million in 2021 or 10 percent of the nation’s 250-million-car fleet.

“If U.S. drivers poured about 200,000 barrels-per-day of E-85 into their flex fuel cars in 2021, that would take care of about 17 percent of the scheduled ethanol mandate,” Temple said.  “It would only require that flex-fuel owners fill a 15-gallon tank eight times a year.”   The remainder would be absorbed in the 10 percent blend and ethanol producers would not have to cut output.

Platts’ Kingston checked the math and found that even this goal would leave ethanol consumption slightly above the blend wall at 10.5 percent.  “Still, the very modest number of eight fill-ups per flex fuel vehicles per year makes the whole blend wall issue seems a lot less daunting,” he confessed.

Of the 15 million people who own flex-fuel vehicles, of course, many don’t even realize it.  (The yellow gas cap or a rear-end decal are the giveaway.)  But the number of gas stations offering E-85 pumps is rising.  The Energy Information Administration now estimates the number at 2,500 with most of the growth taking place outside the Midwestern homeland.  California and New York each have more than 80 stations apiece.

The problem of rail bottlenecks can probably be solved by increasing the number of E-85 outlets and flex-fuel vehicles to bring supplies closer to the place of consumption.  Still, the industry would probably be happy to have a bigger renewable fuel mandate as well.

Progress on Fuel Efficiency: More is needed

Every now and then I will read a White House Blog.  They’re sort of a fun read when you’re depressed about the state of the world and the country.  The content always somehow reminds me of  Gene Kelly dancing in the street in the middle of the rain, or that old (possibly New Yorker) cartoon where the patient tells the psychiatrist that he is not doing well and the good doctor says ‘no you’re just fine, you’re happy and healthy.’  Probably neither is the proper analog to the politically necessary positive nature of the White House blurbs.  I marvel at times at the President’s ability to seek a better America, especially given the politics of the present.  While his optimism and tenacity don’t always come through as “Morning in America,” I believe that his attitude is based on a reasonable outlook about what the nation can do, if it can engage in an honest dialogue about key environmental and alternative fuel issues.

Last week’s blog focused on the White House’s effort to increase fuel efficiency standards.  It notes correctly that the President’s legislative approach to the environment has resulted in the toughest fuel economy standards in history:

“Under the first ever national program, average fuel efficiency for cars and trucks will nearly  double, reaching an average performance equivalent to about 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025….In 2011, the President also established the first-ever fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles, covering model years 2014 through 2018.”

More is to come! Increased fuel efficiency standards are currently being addressed by the Administration, and the EPA is hard at work developing Tier 3 rules.

The Administration’s record is a decent one and has benefited the environment, lessened ghg emissions, and strengthened the economy. Regrettably though, fuel efficiency regulations primarily apply to new cars.  They should be matched by a cost efficient and comprehensive federal effort to encourage the conversion of older non flex fuel vehicles; they also should encourage Detroit to continue producing larger numbers of flex fuel cars.

In this context, EPA and Detroit automakers need to reach a consensus concerning effective engine recalibration alternatives, as well as an extension of consumer warranties and related financial coverage of recalibrated vehicles.  Without permitting older cars to achieve the fuel efficiency and environmental advantages of flex fuel vehicles, we will not be able to respond to Pogo’s admonition and Commodore Oliver Perry’s initial statement (paraphrased): that we, as a nation, have met the enemy, and he is us!

To grant primacy to new or relatively new flex fuel cars would increase the nation’s ability to reduce ghg emissions and other environmental pollutants (e.g. NOx and SOx). There are well over 200,000,000 non flex fuel cars in the U.S. that cannot readily use available fuel blends higher than E-15 and will not be able to use natural gas based ethanol that hopefully relatively soon will come on the market.

Lowering the certification costs of conversion kits by the EPA and increasing the number of manufacturers of those kits would bring down their price from around 1,000 dollars to the near 300 dollar level that is common in the “underground” market.  Simplifying legal conversion could  —and indeed would —-make an important environmental difference.  Such action would also open up the fuel market to competition, and likely lower the price of gas at the pump for consumers. Finally, such actions would also support the President’s objective to wean the nation off of oil and gasoline.  Oh Happy Day!  Go for it Gene Kelly and the American Association of Psychiatrists!  It might be time to show some real love for environmentally and efficiency neglected and needy older vehicles.

Can Butanol Be the New Ethanol?

Even as the ethanol industry is wobbling over the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to cut back on the ethanol mandate in 2014, a new candidate has emerged as an additive to gasoline – butanol.

Virgin Airways founder and CEO Richard Branson has announced that his Virgin Green Fund will be cosponsoring a groundbreaking butanol manufacturing plant in Luverne, Minnesota.  “Butanol is the future of renewable fuel,” said Branson, who is already using renewable jet fuel for his airline.  “It’s hugely versatile and can be used to produce gasoline fuel blends, rubbers, solvents, and plastics, which gives us scope to enter a range of markets,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.

Corn ethanol now dominates the $26 billion gasoline additive market, drawing the glucose content out of 45 percent of the nation’s corn crop (the protein is fed to animals).  Branson’s butanol would use a similar feedstock – corn, sugar cane or cellulosic biomass – but would produce a fuel that has 84 percent of gasoline’s fuel density compared to ethanol’s 66 percent, although ethanol has a higher octane rating.  The implication is that butanol could be mixed at higher blends, giving it almost the same range as gasoline.

Both butanol and ethanol are made through a process that employs yeasts to ferments the glucose from organic material into alcohols.  Methanol, the simplest alcohol, has one carbon joined to a hydroxyl ion while ethanol has two carbons and butanol has four.  Octane, the principal ingredient in gasoline, has eight carbons without the hydroxyl ion.

As far a butanol is concerned, it’s not as if people haven’t tried this before.  Both BP and Royals Dutch Shell have experimented with producing butanol from organic material but have found the process harder than they anticipated.  “There is certainly a potential, but there have been quite considerable problems with the technology,” Clare Wenner, of the London-based Renewable Energy Association, told Bloomberg.  “It’s taking a lot longer than anybody thought years ago.”

Gevo’s plant in Minnesota, for instance, has been running at only two-thirds of its 18 million gallon-a-year capacity because of a contamination in its yeast fermenting facility in September 2012.  Similar instabilities in the microbial-based process have dogged the efforts to break down cellulose into simple molecules.  There operations can often be performed in the laboratory but become much more difficult when moved up to a commercial scale.

Branson is confident these obstacles can be overcome.  He’s already got Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla on board in Gevo and Total, the French oil company, has also taken a stake.  Together they have enlisted big ethanol producers such as Big River Resources and Siouxland Ethanol to commit to switching their manufacturing process to butanol.  Butamax Advanced Biofuel, another Minnesota refiner funded by Dupont and BP, is also in the process of retrofitting its ethanol plant to butanol.  Taken together, these facilities would be able replace 1 billion of the 14 billion gallons of ethanol now being produced every year.

Whether this would be enough to make a bigger dent in America’s oil import budget remains to be seen.  The 14 billion gallons of ethanol currently substitutes for 10 percent of our gasoline and about 6 percent of our total oil consumption.  The Environmental Protection Agency has limited ethanol additives to 15 percent of the blend, mainly to protect older cars.  (In Iowa, newer cars are running on an 85 percent blend.)  Now the reduction in the 2014 mandate is making the ethanol industry nervous about overcapacity.  Butanol is less corrosive of engines and the 16 percent blend could give it an edge.

On another front, T. Boone Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels announced this week that it may turn a profit for the first time since its founding in 1997.  Clean Fuels is concentrating on supplying compressed natural gas for trucks, signing major contracts with Frito-Lay, Proctor & Gamble, United Parcel Service and Ryder.  It is also attempting to set up a series of filling stations on the Interstate Highway System.  The use of CNG requires an entirely new infrastructure, however, rather than the easy substitution of liquid and butanol.

The dark horse here is methanol, which is liquid and fits easily into our present infrastructure but would be synthesized from natural gas.  Somehow, methanol has not attracted the attention of Branson’s biofuels and Pickens’ CNG.     All of these efforts hold promise, however, and would make a huge dent in our annual $350 billion bill for oil imports, which constitutes the bulk of our $450 billion trade deficit.  So good luck to all and may the best fuel win – or all of them, for that matter.

There’s Gold in Them Thar’ Flares

Walter Breidenstein may be the only CEO in America who still answers the company phone himself. If his operation is still something of a shoestring, it’s because he’s spent four years trying to duel with perhaps the most formidable foe in the country, the oil companies.

“I’ve been trying to get into North Dakota for four years to show them there’s a way to make money by stopping flaring,” says the 48-year-old who started his entrepreneurial career at 15 by washing dishes. “The oil companies have done everything they can to keep me out of the state and the bureaucracy has pretty much goes along with them. The companies know that as soon as they acknowledge we’ve got a workable system here, they’d have to buy one of our rigs for every well in the state.”

North Dakota, in case you haven’t heard, has become one of the biggest wasters of natural gas in the world by flaring off $1 billion worth a year while producing carbon emissions equal to 1million automobiles.  But oil is what the drillers are after and, as it was in the early days of the oil industry; gas is regarded pretty much as a nuisance. The result is gas flares that make the whole state look like neighboring Minneapolis from outer space.

The flaring has generated a lot of negative publicity, environmentalists are up in arms and landowners have sued over lost royalties. The big guys are starting to move into the state. The New York Times ran an article this week about new pipeline construction, fertilizer factories and GE’s “CNG in a Box,” which will capture flared gas and sell it asnatural gas.

Breidenstein has a different idea.  “Somewhere around 2000 I started reading about methanol technology and realized it was a very undervalued resource,” he says. “Then I read George Olah’s The Methanol Economy in 2006 and that convinced me.  At Gas Technologies we’ve been trying to put Olah’s vision into practice.”

Gas Technologies has developed a $1.5 million portable unit that captures flared gas and converts it to methanol. “It’s a very accessible device,” says Breidenstein.  “You can move it around on a flatbed truck.”  The company ran a successful demonstration of a smaller unit at a Michigan oil well last fall but still hasn’t been able to break into North Dakota.

“The oil companies’ attitude is that money is no problem as long as they don’t have to spend it,” says Breidenstein.  “I’ve been in the business 25 years and I know where they’re coming from. But the problem is no one is forcing them to deal with flaring. And as long as they can keep throwing that stuff into the atmosphere for free, nobody’s going to look for a solution.”

You’d think with a billion dollars worth of natural gas being burning off into the atmosphere each year, though, there’d be some say to make money off it and that’s what frustrates Breidenstein.

“Our rig costs between $1 and $2 million dollars,” he says.  “But by capturing all the products of flared gas, you can make around $3500 per day.  That puts your payback at around three to four years.  But the oil companies don’t think that way. They won’t look at anything that goes out more than six months.

That puts things in the hands of state regulators and so far they have sided with the oil companies. “By statute, the oil companies are allowed to flare for a year it there’s no solution that’s economical,” says Alison Ritter, public information officer for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.  “There’s nothing we can do to require them to buy from one of these boutique firms. Many oil companies have already committed their gas to pipeline companies and they can’t back out of those contracts.”  Still, the pipelines may not be built for years. “You have to understand, the Bakken Oil Field is 15,000 square miles, the size of West Virginia,” adds Ritter.  “It’s hard to service it all with infrastructure. We’re building pipelines as fast as we can.” Of 40 applications for flaring exemptions submitted this year the state has approved two and denied one, with the other 37 pending.  While they are pending, flaring goes on.

Of course if Gas Technologies were to start receiving orders right now, they’d be hard pressed to produce a half-dozen of them let alone the 500 that the state might require. “We’ve had talks with venture capitalists but if you’re not from Silicon Valley, they’re not interested,” says Breidenstein.  “But we’ve got a business model here and we know it can work.”

At least someone has taken notice. This year Crain’s Detroit Business rated Gas Technologies Number One in the state for innovative technology, ahead of 99 other contenders, including General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Whirlpool, Dow Chemical and the University of Michigan.  “Because the Walloon Lake company’s patents are potential game-changers, its patents rank high on the value meter with a score of 156.57 (anything over 100 is considered good),” said the editors.

It may not be long before others start noticing as well.

Are Hydrogen Cars the Future – Again?

The hydrogen car may be on the road to another comeback – again.  At the annual auto show in Los Angeles last week, both Honda and Hyundai unveiled “concept cars” of hydrogen models they expect to be available by 2015.  As a result, the automobile press has been filled with stories its revived prospects.

“For a long time, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles were seen as a tantalizing technology to help reduce society’s reliance on oil,” Brad Plumer wrote in the Washington Post. “But the vehicles themselves were seen as forbiddingly expensive. Not the pendulum may be swinging back.”

“Toyota made a decagon – the fuel-cell car is going to be a big part of our future,” wrote Bradley Berman in The New York Times, quoting Toyota spokesman John Hanson.  “Today Toyota is not alone,” he continued. “Four other carmakers – General Motors, Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes-Benz – are also promising fuel-cell cars in the next few years.”

The prospect of an automobile running on hydrogen is indeed perpetually attractive.  Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe.  When combined with free oxygen in the atmosphere it “combusts” to produce H2O – water.  There are no other “exhausts”. Thus hydrogen promises transportation absolutely clean of any air pollution.  No global warming, either.

But it isn’t quite that simple.  The question that always presents itself is, “Where do you get the hydrogen?” Although hydrogen may be the most common element on earth, all of it is tied up in chemical compounds, mostly methane and water.  Accessing this hydrogen means freeing it up, which requires energy.

Most of our commercial hydrogen is made by “reforming” natural gas, which splits the carbon and hydrogen in methane to produce carbon dioxide and free hydrogen. That doesn’t help much with global warming.  Another method is to split water through electrolysis. That is a much cleaner process but requires a considerable amount of electricity. Depending on what power source is used, this can produce zero or ample emissions. If it’s coal, the problem is made much worse. If it’s clean sources such as solar or nuclear, then there can be a strong advantage. In the 1930s, John Haldane proposed giant wind and solar farms that would generate hydrogen that could fuel all of society. Such facilities generating hydrogen for transportation would be a step toward such a utopia.

Even then, however, there are problems.  Hydrogen is the smallest molecule and leaks out of everything.  It is very difficult to transport.  Joseph Romm, a disciple of alternative energy guru Amory Lovins, was appointed head of hydrogen car development program under President Bill Clinton and worked for two years on its development.  In the end, he became very disillusioned and wrote a book entitled The Hype About Hydrogen, in which he argued that the idea really wasn’t practical. Romm is now one of the country’s premier global warming alarmists on ClimateProgress.org.

What has apparently brought hyfrohgen cars back to the forefront has been the substitution for platinum as the principal catalyst in the fuel cell process.

A fuel cell produces an electric current by stripping the electron off a hydrogen atom and running it around a barrier that is otherwise permeable to a naked proton.  The proton and electron are reunited on the other side of the barrier, where they combine with free oxygen to form water.  Until recently, platinum was the only substance that could fill this barrier function. This made fuel cells very expensive and raised the question of whether there was enough platinum in the world to manufacture fuel cells in mass production.  But several platinum substitutes have now been found, making fuel cells considerably cheaper and more accessible.

Estimates are now that next year’s Hyundai and Honda FCVs will sell for about $34,000, which puts them in the range of electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius.  (The Tesla, a luxury car, is  priced in a much higher range,)  The problem then becomes fueling.  The FCV offers considerable advantages over the EV in that it has a range of 300 miles, comparing favorable to gasoline vehicles.  It can also be refilled in a matter of minutes, like gasoline cars, whereas recharging  an EVs can take anywhere from  20 minutes to three hours. But hydrogen refueling stations have not materialized, despite former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s promise of a “hydrogen highway.” At last count there were 1,350 EV recharging stations around the country but only ten hydrogen stations, eight of them In Southern California.

All this suggests that neither hydrogen cars or electric vehicles will be sweeping the country any time soon.  Neither the Chevy Volt nor the Nissan Leaf have sold well and are not expected to do much better next year.  If you read the press stories carefully, you soon realize that the reason the automakers are constantly cycling back and forth between electric and hydrogen cars is that they are trying to meet California’s requirements for low-emissions vehicles that will allow them to continue selling in the state. The problem, as always, is consumer resistance..  The automakers can manufacture all the hydrogen and electric cars they want but consumers are not always going to buy them, especially at their elevated price.  So the manufacturers will end up dumping them on car rental agencies where they will sit on the back lots, as did the first generation of EVs.

There is, however, one type of alternative that succeeded handsomely in California and had widespread consumer acceptance, although it is completely forgotten today.  That is methanol.  In 2003, California had 15,000 cars running on blends of up to 85 percent methanol.  Consumers were extremely happy and did not have to be dragooned into buying them.  Refueling was easy since liquid methanol slots right into our current gas stations. Cars that run on methanol can be manufactured for the same price as cars that run on gasoline.

The experiment only ended because natural gas, the main feedstock for methanol, had become too expensive.  In 2003, natural gas was selling as high as $11 per mBTU, making it more expensive than gasoline.  That was before the fracking revolution.  Today natural gas sells for less than $4 per mBTU and the industry is coping with a glut.  Methanol, which is already produced in industrial quantities, could sell for $1 less than motorists are now paying for energy equivalent in gasoline.  Moreover, methanol can be made from garbage and crop wastes and a variety of other sources that would reduce it’s carbon footprint.

Hydrogen and electric cars each have a future and it is good to see the auto companies keep experimenting with them.  But each has impediments that are going to be difficult to overcome. Methanol, on the other hand, is a technology that could be implemented today at a price that not require subsidies.  Even if it is only perceived as a “bridge” to some more favorable, low-carbon future, it is worth pursuing now.

 

What Do Iceland and Israel Have in Common?

In New York City politics they used to talk about the “three I’s” – the Irish, the Italians and the Israelis, which formed the major voting blocs. Today we can talk about the “two I’s” –two countries that are making significant progress in methanol as an alternative fuel – Iceland and Israel.

Iceland is by far the leader.  The Icelanders are blessed with a string of volcanoes that bristle with geothermal energy. Tapping these vents, they are able to get 25 percent of their electricity from this natural, renewable source – the highest proportion of geothermal in the world. Drawing the other 75 percent from the island’s ample hydroelectric resources, you have a grid running entirely without fossil fuels.

But that’s just the beginning. Blessed with this amplitude of natural resources, the Icelanders have decided to turn it into an auto fuel as well. In 2011 a Reykjavik-based company called Carbon Recycling International set up a unique operation that will capture the small amounts of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emitted from geothermal vents and transforming that into an auto fuel as well.

The target ingredient is methanol, the simplest alcohol, made up of a single carbon, three hydrogens and a hydroxyl ion. Methanol is a liquid at room temperature and can be easily funneled into our existing gas-station infrastructure. Methanol burns with about 50 percent of the energy content of gasoline but has a higher octane rating so the real effect is about 66 percent. Methanol functions similarly to the corn ethanol that currently constitutes 10 percent of our gasoline.

Through a simple procedure, CRI takes the carbon dioxide exhaust from the 75 MW Orka geothermal plant and combines it with hydrogen to produce methanol. The hydrogen is obtained through the electrolysis of water, using electricity from the power plant. The outcome is 5 million gallons of methanol per year. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has not yet approved methanol as a gasoline additive but Iceland allows it to be mixed at a rate of 3 percent (although they also have some Fords running on 50 percent). Cars would actually run on 85 or 100 percent methanol – the Indianapolis 500 cars have done it since the 1960s – but government regulators in both countries are reluctant to give it a try (It would require replacing a few elements in the fuel line to avoid corrosion).

Iceland’s experiment has been so successful that the country has now decided to export the product to Europe. This year CRI has begun to send its “green methanol” to the continent to add to Europe’s gas tanks. The Icelanders advertise that the product adds no additional carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This is because the carbon dioxide that is captured was already headed for the atmosphere. Instead it is burned in gasoline engines, also ending up in the atmosphere, but along the way it has replaced an equal amount of gasoline that would have produced its own carbon emissions.

Icelanders proclaim they are putting into effect what Nobel Prize Winning chemist George Olah called the “methanol economy.”  In his 2009 book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy  

Olah and his co-authors outline how methanol from a variety of sources – natural gas, coal and any biological material – could serve as the basis of an economy much less dependent on fossil fuels. At the Orka carbon recycling and geothermal plant, they appear to be doing just that.

At the same time, Olah is finding recognition in Israel as well. This month Olah and his University of Southern California colleague G.K. Surya Prakash became the first recipients of the Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bestowing the first-ever award. The Israelis are also looking for alternatives to gasoline in order to reach their proclaimed goal of reducing dependence on oil by 60 percent by 2025. With the discovery of new gas supplies in the eastern Mediterranean they are in a good position to apply Olah’s proposed technology in transforming natural gas into methanol for transportation.

Nor is Olah standing still. In an October op-ed contribution to the Wall Street Journalhe announced that he has developed a new technology that will allow large quantities of carbon dioxide from power plants to be transmuted into methanol so that carbon exhausts can be “recycled” just as the they are at Orka. The plan could make use of carbon exhausts in the U.S., perhaps rescuing the fading coal industry.

Iceland and Israel are already taking steps toward the vision of a methanol economy. Will Iowa and Illinois be next?