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By Robert Rapier on May 19, 2010 with 51 responses

Book Review: Julian Comstock

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Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles WilsonWhen I was a kid, “USA” was forever. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. I am sure kids growing up in the USSR in the 1970’s probably felt the same way about their country. As I grew older, and started to learn about civilizations that rose and fell, I would always wonder “Could that ever happen in the U.S.?” But my childhood conclusion was always “No, American society will stand the test of time.”

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about what the future holds. I think about the world that my children and eventually grandchildren are inheriting from us. I am optimistic about certain issues, but there is plenty that concerns me.

We tend not to be very good at long-range planning, and that fact concerns me more than any other. In that old fable about The Ant and the Grasshopper, our political leaders are like the grasshopper. We tend not to like to sacrifice today for the possibility of a better tomorrow. As a result those who ask for sacrifice tend to have short political careers, so we have conditioned our politicians to avoid long-range planning that involves short term inconveniences for their constituents. We live for the moment, and when the bills come due we find ourselves being forced to bail out the auto industries and the banks. But we can’t bail out industries forever – we have to modify the sort of short-term thinking that led to the problems in the first place.

Are we adequately planning for life after oil? My belief is that what we are doing amounts to very little in the way of preparing for major declines in oil production. Yes, there are a lot of ideas in the pipeline, but generally when I take a very close look I find that most of these ideas are riddled with faulty assumptions. Sure, if I put together a model that projects that people will pay me $100 a ton to take their biomass, I can make some very aggressive projections on how cheaply I can make biofuels based on that biomass. But a model isn’t reality; it is a projection and it can be horribly flawed based on the assumptions that are put into it. I think the biggest challenge will be whether some of contenders can really make it in a world that is dealing with seriously declining oil production. After all, many of the contenders are enabled by cheap fossil fuels, so we don’t know whether they can compete when that crutch is removed.

These themes all play out in Robert Charles Wilson’s book Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America. People had recommended Julian Comstock to me on several occasions, so I picked it up and read it on my recent trip to New Zealand. Wilson has long been one of my favorite science fiction writers. In Spin and Axis he created complex stories with rich characters, and the overriding theme was an uncertain threat that hung over mankind. (Spin was actually one of the best science fiction books I have ever read). The reason I enjoy science fiction is that it helps me envision possibilities. We don’t know what the future holds, so it is prudent to plan for multiple possible outcomes (like someone who has insurance against multiple possible outcomes). Books like Julian Comstock explore one of those possible outcomes in some depth and will cause you to consider some of the things you may not have considered.

Wilson’s 22nd century America has seen the decline of petroleum, and with it the loss of today’s industries that are dependent upon petroleum. This book is a more ambitious version of Jim Kunstler’s World Made by Hand. The characters are more complex, and there are more parallel stories playing out. Making a comeback in 22nd century America is the coal-powered steam engine, which is used for rail and marine transport. Personal transportation has reverted back to horses or foot. Resource wars are taking place, and there is big business in mining the dump grounds from the time when oil was cheap. People have turned back to religion in these difficult times, and religion has a very powerful position in the government of the 22nd century.

Wilson’s 22nd century America is not an America I want to see, but it would be foolish to discount the possibility that falling petroleum production may cause a domino effect that could end badly. I believe we have the capacity to transition from oil, but if we display grasshopper thinking and only start to take drastic measures once we are in crisis, then the doomers will have been right.

This book is a sharp departure from Wilson’s earlier work, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But as with his earlier works, Wilson does a fine job of telling a story, and as a result I had a hard time putting the book down. As Wilson clearly conveys, there is a threat hanging over mankind. The threat is the very petroleum-dependent world we have created. Life beyond petroleum is difficult to fathom, but the threat of what might be is what motivates me to do what I do.

  1. By Al fin on May 19, 2010 at 9:12 am

    Humans are not rational, but they possess reason. Human reason is guided by deep emotions and drives, rather than the other way around. If you already believe that an event is likely to happen, confirmation can come from virtually any direction.

    Everything you think you know, just ain’t so. Science fiction writers understand this, so most of them do not take their own speculative works too seriously, in terms of forecasting. A good writer can elicit an emotional response from a reader, causing the reader to believe that he is reading “truth”. The America that Wilson describes will never come about. It is possible that something much worse can arise, if the policies of those who deeply believe in climate catastrophe and peak oil doom are instituted in a dictatorial manner.

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  2. By Rufus on May 19, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Ah, I don’t see it. It looks to me like the only thing that’s leaving us is the oil companies. And, they won’t be missed.

    We do have to start thinking about phosphorous, though.

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  3. By Laura on May 19, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Great post, Robert.

    Rufus, read the Straight Dope’s take on peak phosphorus. It may not be as dire as you think.

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  4. By Laura on May 19, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Laura said:

    Great post, Robert.

    Rufus, read the Straight Dope’s take on peak phosphorus. It may not be as dire as you think.


     

    Sorry, I meant to link the phosphorus article:

     

    http://www.straightdope.com/co…..bal-crisis

     

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  5. By Rufus on May 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to intimate that I thought a “Phosphorous Crisis” was “Imminent,” Laura, just that it will, likely, be the next “Big” Thing.

    40, or 50 years can sound like a “Long Time” to someone who’s 30. Not so long to someone in his sixties. :)

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  6. By rrapier on May 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    It looks to me like the only thing that’s leaving us is the oil companies.

    And yet that underpins our entire Western society. Look around your house at all the things that are made from oil, and then ask yourself where the replacements are.

    Replacing oil is not going to be a trivial challenge. You may think so because you believe the claims of various ethanol producers regarding costs without understanding how they are arriving at those costs.

    The first question I always ask when someone tosses around a low number for cellulosic ethanol is “What is your assumption on biomass costs?” I find again and again that people believe there is a lot of free biomass that they are going to be able to acquire.

    RR

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  7. By Benny BND Cole on May 19, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Certainly, empires fade.

    Even religions die out–we today worship different totems than 3,000 years ago, and probably will worship still differently in another 3,000 years.

    But I am not gloomy about oil. We have the price signal. We have gobs of natural gas. France and Japan are well on the way to nuclear-based energy systems. If PHEVs become commercialized, then both those nations will easily leapfrog any oil problems–and serve as a role model for the rest of us.

    Methanol can be made from natural gas for about $1 a gallon, at current prices. Ethanol can be made for some higher price, as determined by Rufus.

    Right now OPEC is sitting on 5 mbd of excess production, and the world is soaked in oil. Iran can’t find a place even for its limited (by its stupidity) production. Iraq may go to 12 mbd of production, if its people ever agree to live and let live.

    Saudi Arabia has a miniscule number of rigs going, something like a couple of dozen, compared to hundreds or thousands in the United States. Meanwhile, Brazil, Angola and Columboia are boosting production handsomely, and Mexico is levelling off, after Mexico decided to actually spend some money in its fields.

    Crude oil demand has been falling in Europe for decades, proof that higher and better living standards are possible even as oil consumption falls. I think with high mpg cars and PHEVs, you will see Euro oil demand plummet in years head.

    I see a better and cleaner future for all of us.

    Sad to say, but only man’s inhumanity to man will thwart progress, and it may. But probably not–we have been bettering our lives for generations. I think we can keep it rolling.

    The tyranny of liquid fuels could be broken in as little as 10 years, if PHEVs prove at all practical. The GM Volt comes to market this year, and we will see what can actually be manufactured in large volume. Jeez, if GM can come close now, what will a Nissan or Ford do in five years from now?

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  8. By Wendell Mercantile on May 19, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Methanol can be made from natural gas for about $1 a gallon, at current prices.

    Benny,

    Ditto for methanol from coal, though the environmental impact would likely be higher than gas to methanol.

    Now if Rufus would just win a Nobel Prize for figuring out how to fix phosphorus as those Haber-Bosch guys did for nitrogen, we’d be all set.

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  9. By Benny BND Cole on May 19, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Wendell-
    Methanol from coal or NG is an interesting option, along with CNG cars. If gasoline ever stays above $5 a gallon, look for heroic growth in CNG and methanol cars. Also PHEVs.
    I think people will learn to have an alternative fuel car for home, and then rent a gasoline ICE if a cross-country drive is wanted. PHEVs of course, solve a lot of probelms, but cost another $5k or so to make.
    However, we have never seen anything above $4 a gallon sustained in the USA. Demand starts falling, crashing the price.
    The price signal. Never underestimate the results of a price signal.

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  10. By Rufus on May 19, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    I don’t think there’s much in my house that, Absolutely, requires oil. That said, however, there will, Always, be “some” oil. Just not enough to use for transportation.

    Saudi Arabia, a “couple dozen oil wells,” Benny? :)

    I imagine the “Capital costs,”alone, for a coal to methanol plant would be getting close to $2.00 gallon.

    I’m sure Fiberight is getting a “tipping fee” for taking the waste paper off the city’s hands. On the other hand, it must be more expensive to process paper than it is to process grass, and cobs. I would, also, imagine that they have a long-term contract with the city to lock in their price of feedstock.

    I don’t think “you” have locked in the ramifications of a 90% drop in the cost of enzymes, Robert. Anywhere in the $2.00 to $2.25 per gallon range for cost of manufacture of cellulosic ethanol is a really big deal.

    And, now the “yeast” companies have cast a baleful eye upon those C5 Sugars. That might be next.

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  11. By rrapier on May 19, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I don’t think “you” have locked in the ramifications of a 90% drop in the cost of enzymes, Robert. Anywhere in the $2.00 to $2.25 per gallon range for cost of manufacture of cellulosic ethanol is a really big deal.

    No, you just overrate that development. Expensive enzymes were never the thing stopping cellulosic ethanol from being competitive. Of course I have told you this before. We always had other methods (non-enzymatic) of breaking down cellulose. I never considered enzyme cost to be a major barrier. I do consider several other items be be major barriers.

    My prediction is that we won’t see any commercial plants coming online. You will wonder why the POETs and Iogens of the world are delaying plans to build big plants. I won’t wonder.

    RR

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  12. By Rufus on May 19, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    I won’t be wondering. Poet is waiting for “Guvmint-Guaranteed” Money, and I don’t expect Iogen/Shell to ever produce anything.

    In the meantime, Fiberight, and Inbicon are “Producing.”

    It’s either “enzymes,” or “Heat,” isn’t it? Heat doesn’t seem to be destined to become less expensive, and that leaves enzymes. Fortunately, we hit a “home run” with enzymes.

    BTW, Fiberight has One significant cost that the cobs, and grass guys don’t have – the cost of “Sorting” the trash. They’re only using, it looks like, about 40% of the waste. The rest is sent on to the landfill (except, possibly, for some that is used for process energy.)

    Anyway, the “free” biomass isn’t quite as “free” as it might, at first glance, appear.

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  13. By Wendell Mercantile on May 19, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Anyway, the “free” biomass isn’t quite as “free” as it might, at first glance, appear.

    Rufus~

    What about the millions of tons of leaves that fall off all the deciduous trees in the Eastern U.S. each fall ~ don’t you have a scheme for collecting them? Free bio-mass ~ just for the picking. I think you ought to get a fleet of leaf pickup trucks to keep your county’s local fuel distillery supplied.

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  14. By rrapier on May 19, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    It’s either “enzymes,” or “Heat,” isn’t it?

    It isn’t an either/or. Those enzymes don’t work well at room temperature.

    There are lots of ways for breaking down cellulose. You can do it with strong acids or strong bases, or you can do it with steam explosion or ammonia explosion.

    Poet is waiting for “Guvmint-Guaranteed” Money,

    If they can produce it is cheaply as they say, why should my taxpayer dollars fund their plant? I can only imagine what the world would be like if everyone waited for government money before proceeding with a project.

    RR

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  15. By rrapier on May 19, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    I am just looking at some of the Fiberight numbers, and they don’t compute. Some excerpts from their press releases:

     

    Fiberight LLC announced today that it commenced production at the
    nation’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant using enzymatic
    conversion technology and industrial/municipal solid waste (MSW) as
    feedstock. Fiberight recently completed its initial stage development
    by converting a former first generation corn ethanol plant in
    Blairstown, Iowa to cellulosic biofuel production which incorporates
    specialized waste treatment and biochemical technologies to efficiently
    turn MSW into biofuel.

    Fiberight has retained Source Capital Group Inc. of Westport,
    Conn., to complete a financing led by Venture Cross Partners of Great
    Falls, Va. to provide expansion capital for the Blairstown biorefinery.
    Following a total $24 million investment, the facility will be scaled
    to final commercial production capacity of approximately 6 MMgy in
    2011.

     

    The Blairstown facility will use initial feedstock from paper pulp
    wastes from a paper plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, followed by
    integration of other industrial wastes and processed MSW from
    Fiberight’s operations in Lawrenceville, Va. By mid-summer, operations
    are projected to begin use of MSW from the Benton County municipality
    and other Iowa landfills. At targeted full production, the Blairstown
    plant will be processing over 350 tons of wastes per day into valuable
    biofuel, at a cost of less than $1.65 per gallon.

    If they ultimately think they will use 350 tons to produce 6 million gallons per year, that is a conversion of only 47 gallons per ton. To be realistically scalable, long-term biomass costs are going to be $50 to $100 per ton. All our projections show that you are quickly going to run into escalating costs as you try to scale up any of these. So their process quickly has embedded biomass costs of $1 to $2 per gallon before any processing takes place.

     

    As I said, they are clearly making some optimistic assumptions on the kinds of tipping fees they will get. That’s why I always discount those sorts of projections. Here they have a “commercial” plant that they hope to scale to almost 400 barrels per day at full production. So count me among those who do not believe that they can do what they say at any sort of scale.

     

    RR

     

     

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  16. By Rufus on May 19, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Robert, what I think you’re missing is they say they will get 85 gallons per ton of “sorted” waste. It looks to me like they’ll only end up using about 193 tons/day of “sorted” trash. The rest will be “dumped.”

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  17. By Benny BND Cole on May 19, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Rufus-

    A company named Methanex sells methanol today, right now, for $1 a gallon.

    Methanex Regional Posted Contract Prices:

    Price
    Europe (Valid April 1 – June 30, 2010)
    European Posted Contract Price
    Posted March 19, 2010 Euro 250/MT

    North America (Valid May 1 – 31, 2010)
    Methanex Non-Discounted Reference Price USD 1.00/Gal*
    Posted April 28, 2010 USD 333/MT

    Asia Pacific (Valid May 1 – 31, 2010)
    Asian Posted Contract Price
    Posted April 29, 2010 USD

    You could argue that if demand rises, then methanol prices would go up. However, we could also expect economies of scale to kick in, if large yet competing companies got involved.

    There could be a huge future in methanol, if gasline stays above $5 a gallon–but I dont know if it can.

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  18. By Benny BND Cole on May 19, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Add on: I don’t know all the ins and outs of Methanex, but evidently thay are selling methanol at $1 a gallon, without any government subsidies.

    So why help the ethanol crowd at all? 

     

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  19. By Wendell Mercantile on May 19, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    So why help the ethanol crowd at all?

    Benny~

    Because ethanol comes from Big Corn and Big Ag. The only reason corn ethanol ever got any traction in the first place is Corn Belt politics.

    In a rational world based on good science and sound technology, we’d have been using methanol long ago, but methanol doesn’t have the political clout that corn ethanol has. Unfortunately, the politicians outnumber and have more influence than the technocrats.

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  20. By Rufus on May 19, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    You mean, other than the fact that it’s poisonous, has approx. 20% less energy, and is made, primarily, from a Finite Fossil Fuel?

    Yeah, I know, you can produce it by “gasification,” ala Range; but that doesn’t seem to be working out too well, does it?

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  21. By Benny BND Cole on May 19, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Rufus-
    Methanol is less poisonous than gasoline, and at one point the EPA suggested we use it instead of gasoline. It was used in Indy cars, prior to ethanol.

    Methanol does have less BTUs per gallon than ethanol. But, at $1 per gallon–a real price today in the real world sans subsidies–vs an extremely optimistic $2 a gallon for ethanol, methanol easily wins out, on a BTU per dollar basis. Even if ethanol fantasies come true, and we can consistently produce ethanol in volume for $2 a gallon.

    Yes, natural gas is finite–but we have about 100 years of it, and reserves have a way of growing, as you discover better technologies. We are new to shale gas. Reserves will likely shoot to the moon, in the future.

    Add in PHEVs, and we have a game plan for the next 100 years.

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  22. By Kit P on May 19, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    If I was going to get obsessive about
    something it would be peak phosphorous.

     

    http://www.holon.se/folke/kurs…..orus.shtml

     

    The primary benefit of anaerobic
    digestion of dairy farm manure is the near 100% recovery of P & K
    with N at about 90% (some is lost as N2). The environmental impact
    of mining and processing phosphorous is just staggering. However,
    the benefit (eating food) far out weighs the costs.

     

    Just think we used to wash our cloths
    with TSP (Trisodium phosphate). One of the reasons I am optimistic
    about the future is we have learned to enjoy the benefits of modern
    life and protect the environment.

     

    Who remembers what a VCCHOC is? Do
    soda fountains still exist?

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  23. By Rufus on May 19, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Benny, you Are aware that we continue to Import nat gas, right?

    What would the “supply,” and “price” be if we Doubled our use of it?

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  24. By Benny BND Cole on May 19, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Rufus, we have natural gas coming out of our rear ends, we have epic supplies of the stuff. I suspect the price of methanol would stay around $1 a gallon, if we had economies of scale, and competition and we increased our use five- or 10-fold.

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  25. By Rufus on May 19, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Eh, maybe, Benny; But, we still Import Nat Gas.

    Meanwhile, guess who has the best “Global Price” of Ethanol? Yep. The Good Ol’ U.S. of A.

    http://www.ethanolrfa.org/page…..df?nocdn=1

    Our 3rd Largest customer the 1st quarter was Brazil.

    Our 4th Largest customer was The United Arab Emerites.

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  26. By jcsr on May 19, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Ethanol, Methanol, Good ol’gasolene when available. What ever we can get with the help of the drill baby drill government to keep our fat arses in our liquid driven i.c.e. driven cars just a little longer. Just the water required to supplement these fiberous products is unsustainable.
    Benny Cole talks about one hundred years of natural gas. RR’s post subject was the future of this nation. I’m eighty one years old and my elders told me all about the thirty years before I started remembering things so really, a century is just a few thoughts away.
    Right now the government along with subsidizing the corn belt is trying to handle unemployment compensation. Sooner rather than later something has got to give. The cities and suburbs are broke. There are a lot of people who cant afford new cars and once the price of fuel goes realistically up people will be looking for places with good mass transit.
    We will be seeing a lot of changes once the price of oil becomes dearer than seafood. We will uncomfortably cope.

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  27. By takchess on May 20, 2010 at 5:17 am

    I’ll check JC out.I did enjoy a world made by hand.

    A good book is

    http://www.goodreads.com/book/….._the_Earth

    As we turn everything into fuel, I hope we still remember the importance of amending the soil.

     

    Interesting things on local New Hampshire radio this week talking about local agriculture. The average Vt family spends only  30 dollars a year on Vermont Produce.I’m checking out The town saved by food as well.

     

    http://benhewitt.net/index.php

     

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  28. By Kit P on May 20, 2010 at 8:46 am

    “Ben Hewitt writes and farms in
    Northern Vermont.”

     

    Farming is a hobby in Vermont and New
    Hampshire .

     

    “I hope we still remember the
    importance of amending the soil.”

     

    Oh gosh I wonder if real farmers know
    anything about soil. Maybe we could have some folks from the big
    cities in New England explain it too .

     

    “Ben is currently working on a book
    about food safety”

     

    That is really nice. I bet Ben’s idea
    of safety is to fear monger on the insignificant risk while promoting
    eco fascism to reduce the food supply of the starving poor.

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  29. By rrapier on May 20, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    You mean, other than the fact that it’s poisonous, has approx. 20% less energy, and is made, primarily, from a Finite Fossil Fuel?

    Sounds kind of like ethanol, no? As has been pointed out here numerous times, ethanol is quite toxic. The ethanol that is sold by ethanol distilleries has been denatured, and thus is poisonous. But I don’t ever recall hearing you mention your problem with the toxicity.

    Benny, you Are aware that we continue to Import nat gas, right? What would the “supply,” and “price” be if we Doubled our use of it?

    You are aware that the ethanol industry is heavily reliant on natural gas, right? In fact, a few years back the industry was fretting about how they would impact natural gas prices as ethanol production ramped up and consumed more and more. Fortunately for them, shale gas is keeping them out of trouble at the moment.

    RR

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  30. By Rufus on May 20, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Well, how about this? The train has left the Methanol Station, and, ain’t ever, in a million years, coming back. You can “hate ethanol/Fantasize over Methanol” in some sort of Dream World, or we can adjust to reality, and get on with our business of replacing a depleting global oil resource.

    Also, it’s disingenuous to overlook the fact that nat gas is, more, and more, being replaced by biomass (corn cobs, lignin, waste wood, etc) in the ethanol refining process.

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  31. By rrapier on May 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Also, it’s disingenuous to overlook the fact that nat gas is, more, and more, being replaced by biomass (corn cobs, lignin, waste wood, etc) in the ethanol refining process.

    Actually, it’s disingenuous of you to suggest that this is the case. I remember when you threw out your “10%” number and then had to back-track. So can you provide some real statistics? What percentage of energy is being provided by biomass? What is the growth rate? Can you answer these questions, or is this just more smoke and mirrors?

    I can tell you that your agenda shines through most clearly when the talk turns to methanol. Given the reasons you have repeatedly cited for supporting ethanol, you should be supportive of methanol and you should take claims from companies like Range at face value. After all, that is what you do with cellulosic ethanol companies who make claims – you take them at face value. So your bias here is very clear – not as someone who supports renewable energy – but as someone who is dead set on defending corn ethanol’s position.

    You always attempt to undermine methanol (you have thrown out that “toxic” claim numerous times), which could be produced in vast quantities from biomass. You have companies who say they can do it cheaply – but you apply a different standard than you do when companies are claiming to make cheap ethanol.

    RR

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  32. By Rufus on May 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I’m a Pragmatist, RR. Methanol isn’t “going anywhere.” It’s just talked about by people that don’t like ethanol. Look, I don’t own a farm. I don’t own an Ethanol Refinery. I don’t draw a penny from anyone who does. It matters not a whit to me how we replace our diminishing supply of oil – just that we do.

    I didn’t make the decision to go with ethanol. I don’t even know who did. Nor why. BUT, the Decision was Made. We’re going with ethanol. That is not going to change. We’re doing almost 13 Billion gpy, at present, and we’re committed to 36 Billion gpy. That, also, isn’t going to change.

    Those Ethanol Plants are “profitably” selling ethanol for $1.50/gal. Maybe you can gasify pine trees, or acacia, or whatever to methanol for less than that (of course, you’d really have to do it for $1.20 to make up for the difference in btu content,) or maybe you can’t (I know which way I’d bet,) But it doesn’t matter. t’s not in the “Plan.”

    I guess the correct argument would be that, all you’d have to do is produce the biologic methanol for $1.60 to compete with $2.00 “cellulosic” ethanol; but, again, it doesn’t matter. We’re not going that way.

    I just think it’s an example of misdirection. Obfuscation. Muddying of the waters. And, believe Poet, Novozymes, Fiberight, Genera, Dupont-Danisco, or not, I haven’t read where Anybody claims they can produce Methanol from Biomass for $1.60.

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  33. By Wendell Mercantile on May 20, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    RR,

    Curious if you happen to know the EROEI of both natural gas to methanol and coal to methanol. We know the EROEI of corn ethanol is ~ 1.2 to 1.

    I suspect NG to methanol and coal to methanol both would beat that number handily, but am only guessing. Of the two, NG to methanol woudl have the best return and I would suspect an EROEI of perhaps as high as 10 to 1. Coal to methanol perhaps 4 or 5 to 1.

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  34. By Kit P on May 20, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    “So your bias here is very clear –
    not as someone who supports renewable energy – but as someone who
    is dead set on defending corn ethanol’s position.”

     

    So what is wrong with that?

     

    I am in Camp Pragmatist with Rufus. I
    happen to be for all solutions that can be shown to be better than
    how we are currently doing thing.

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  35. By Wendell Mercantile on May 20, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    RR,

    If methanol could be distilled from fermented corn mash as ethanol can, Rufus would love it — just as he loves corn ethanol.

    I can accept either alcohol as a motor fuel, what I can’t accept are the backroom deals, and scuzzy politics that brought corn ethanol to the position it is in today. Rufus knows very well that the ascendancy of corn ethanol had nothing to do with the thermal efficiency of growing, fermenting, and distilling corn into alcohol, but was instead a ploy to increase the size of the commodity market for No. 2 field corn on the backs of American taxpayers.

    If not for Corn Belt politics, the only corn ethanol on the market would be that made by Jim Beam and Hiram Walker.

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  36. By moiety on May 21, 2010 at 3:14 am

    To put the toxicity into persective see the table. In general terms there is little difference between the two with the values on a par with each other.

    However when we go a little deeper the comparison becomes more difficult. Specifically ingestion of methanol is much more problematic due to its (more immediate) poisonus effects and medical complications (blindness is often specified). However that said ethanol is a low level carcinogen and is specified as one in many countries.

     

    All in all the toxicity arguement has littleto no basis as a choice between the two.

     

    Source- Merck Catalogue

     

     

    MEOH

     

    EtOH

     

    Main

     

    Flammable, toxic

     

    Flammable

     

    Water

     

    Slightly water polluting-1

     

    Slightly water polluting-1

     

    Poison

     

    Strong poison-3

     

    Not listed-F

     

    MAK

     

    270 mg/m3

     

    960 mg/m3

     

    Other

     

    -

     

    Carcinogen

     

     LD 50 oral

     

     5628 mg/kg

     

     7060 mg/kg

     

    [link]      
  37. By paul-n on May 21, 2010 at 5:05 am

    Wendell,

     

    here is a link to a 1973 paper that compares methanol production from gas, coal and biomass

     

    http://www.anl.gov/PCS/acsfuel/preprint%20archive/Files/21_2_NEW%20YORK_04-76_0037.pdf

     

    Making methanol from nat gas results in about 2/3 of the original energy being preserved in the finished product, with almost all the energy inputs coming from the ng itself, so the EROEI would be about 3:1 (similar to oilsands!).  It is possible to use the waste heat from the exothermic process to produce steam and some useable electricity – if you recover 20% of the 33%, you have 6.5% of the original, so your EROEI would now be 3.3:1.  

    This of, course, does not include the enrgy to get the NG in the first place, but that is relatively small.

    Methanol from coal preserves 55% of the energy (best case) for an EROEI of 2.2

    Interestingly, use BOTH in your process and you can get 75%, or 4:1.  not surprisingly, the Chinese are pursuing this pathway.

    The methanol as fuel issue can be resolved by just changing the rules to an “alcohol” standard, based on energy content.  So E10 would be equivalent to M15, roughly, and you could have a mix of the two.  The engines won;t notice the difference.  The engine might see a mileage (but not power) difference on E85 compared to M85, but then, M85 would be sold for less than E85.

    AS has been said before, to get the most out of (either) alcohol as fuel, you need to give up the ability to run on gasoline and run diesel like compression ratios, and an alcohol/NG engine would be a great combination.

    Methanol is being used for fuel already in China, but I think the real reason why Methanex and others are not actively pursuing methanol as a fuel, is that they already have a profitable industry as is, with being involved in the gasoline business.

    Some further improvements to methanol fuel cells, as supplementary power for EV’s might change that, as would some breakthrough in DME production costs.

     

    [link]      
  38. By takchess on May 21, 2010 at 7:22 am

    Farming is a hobby in Vermont and New
    Hampshire

    I imagine this would come as news to people who make all of their income in Dairy Farming, Maple Sugaring, Vegatable Farming in VT.

    http://www.farmlandinfo.org/vermont/

    please don’t make up facts.

    It only a h

    [link]      
  39. By Rufus on May 21, 2010 at 8:33 am

    Well, find me someone who has a plan for producing Methanol from biomass for $1.60/gal, and we’ll talk.

    [link]      
  40. By Herm on May 21, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Paul N said:

    AS has been said before, to get the most out of (either) alcohol as fuel, you need to give up the ability to run on gasoline and run diesel like compression ratios, and an alcohol/NG engine would be a great combination.

     

     


    The new GM Regal is using the Saab Biopower ethanol optimized engines, and they still run well on gasoline.. all you need to do is have a variable compression ratio (thru variable boosting) and adjust the timing plus a good transmission. 

    [link]      
  41. By paul-n on May 21, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Herm, you (and Rufus) are correct in that the new Regal engine will run well on either fuel – the fuel consumption deficit is gone.  But it is still not what I would call a truly “optimised” engine for ethanol.

    That would be when you got a compression of 20:1, and then you can get close 40% thermal efficiency on ethanol (and 42% on methanol) – same as a diesel.  

    http://www.methanol.org/pdfFra…..XV-EPA.pdf

    Now, you could make such an engine run on gasoline, by bringing the compression down by half, and with a halving of your power output.  

    The Ricardo engine comes closer to this concept;

    http://www.ricardo.com/en-gb/E…..uels/EBDI/

    Unfortunately, while I think such an engine would be a great thing, mainstream buyers would be suspicious of it, so it is unlikely to be a big seller.  The way GM is going with the Buick is a safer bet, but is only a small step forward, not a great leap.  There is much more that could be done to unlock the true potential of alcohol fuel.

    [link]      
  42. By rrapier on May 21, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Well, find me someone who has a plan for producing Methanol from biomass for $1.60/gal, and we’ll talk.

    All I have to do is make some generous tipping fee assumptions as all of those cellulosic wannabes are making, and I can come in at $0.50 per gallon.

    RR

    [link]      
  43. By Benny BND Cole on May 21, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Rufus, you initially stated your support for ethanol was due to a desire to boost American businesses and stop financing thug states.
    Methanol from natural gas would accomplish all those goals.
    I agree with the sentiments of some here that high-compression engines for pure-alcohol cars makes sense, especially when combined with a PHEV.
    Such vehicles would result in radical reductions in crude oil demand.

    [link]      
  44. By rrapier on May 21, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    So what is wrong with that?

     

    I am in Camp Pragmatist with Rufus.

     

    What’s wrong is those two statements are mutually exclusive. Will be addressed in my next essay.

     

    RR

    [link]      
  45. By rrapier on May 21, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    I agree with the sentiments of some here that high-compression engines

    for pure-alcohol cars makes sense, especially when combined with a PHEV.

     

    You guys are stealing my thunder now. :) All addressed in my next essay.

     

    RR

    [link]      
  46. By Wendell Mercantile on May 21, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Rufus, you initially stated your support for ethanol was due to a desire to boost American businesses and stop financing thug states.

    Benny,

    Both methanol from NG and methanol from coal would do that in spades — give us control over our motor fuel source and stop financing thug states. You’d think Rufus should love that wouldn’t you?

    But he doesn’t. Why? My guess is because methanol would be of little direct benefit to either Big Corn or Big Ag.

    [link]      
  47. By Kit P on May 21, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    “please don’t make up facts.”

     

    From takchess link

     

    “Full-time operators  3,461,  Part-time operators 3,523”

     

    The point being that takchess recommended a book by a hobbyist farmer and professional journalist.   RR also recommended a book by a science fiction author.  While it might be a good place to start a discussion on energy, there is no reason to take them seriously on energy.

     

    I have talked to many full and part time farmers.  They farm because they love the land.  If producing energy can help them stay on the farm, they like it.  There is also a difference between full time organic farmers that support many families and people who live on a farm and try to grow food organically.     There is no reason to think that the later is more than the current hippie trend.  

    [link]      
  48. By od on May 21, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    But he doesn’t. Why? My guess is because methanol would be of little direct benefit to either Big Corn or Big Ag

     

    Very good points Wendell. I think Rufus has some explaining to do.

     

    I’m firmly in the camp of throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at getting us less dependent on oil, especially foreign oil.

     

    It was encouring to read Toyota & Tesla have partnered. Hopefully it is not too little, too late. A mass build out of PHEV’s would definitely be the fastest way to reduce our oil compsumption(sans conservation), assuming we can provide the electricity for them and don’t run into other limits such as rare earths. A lot of big ifs.

    [link]      
  49. By rrapier on May 21, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    RR also recommended a book by a science fiction author.  While it might
    be a good place to start a discussion on energy, there is no reason to
    take them seriously on energy.

     

    Who is taking them seriously on energy? I don’t consider the author to be an expert on energy. I do know from reading his books that he does a very good job of thinking out fine details of scenarios he puts together. He also writes engaging stories. As such, I find his writing very stimulating.

     

    Believe it or not, there is a wide world of literature out there that can add value to the conversation. Even the Big Coal journalist that you roundly dismissed – but who turned out to be very presicient regarding the Massey disaster – has very valuable information to share. If you dismiss authors too quickly, then you will miss out on quite a lot.

     

    RR

    [link]      
  50. By Kit P on May 21, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    “If you dismiss authors too quickly,
    then you will miss out on quite a lot.”

     

    RR have you read the NATIONAL ENERGY
    POLICY, May 2001 yet?

     

    I have no problem finding lots of good
    reading on energy issue with out resorting to folks who majored in
    journalism. I respect good journalism but it is rare to learn more
    from a journalist than their big city agenda.

    [link]      
  51. By rrapier on May 22, 2010 at 12:26 am

    RR have you read the NATIONAL ENERGY

    POLICY, May 2001 yet?

     

    Memory failing you?

     

    RR

    [link]      
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