February 5 2013
Norman Pagett writes:
The great engineers and entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century laid the foundations for our prosperity, but it was never their intention to use their collective genius to create an entire new lifestyle for humanity. They were basically clever innovators whose common idea was to leverage hydrocarbon energy to build machines that could be used to turn a useful profit by consuming still more fuel. Mass prosperity was an unforeseen side effect. Darby and iron, Dunlop and rubber, Cunard and steamships, Ford and cars, Edison and power: all these great enterprises may seem disparate, but they all had something in common, the need to burn colossal amounts of coal oil and gas in one way or another to be commercially viable.
But they didn’t have billions of people waiting expectantly on their big ideas, which is precisely the situation we are in now. We are drawing on the experience of our past to convince ourselves that we can deliver a stream of innovations again that will power our future, somehow using those ‘alternative’ energy sources we hear so much about.
This is fantasy.
When Henry Ford built a primitive car and fitted an engine into it, his initial concept of a cheap motorised vehicle was for the typical farmer based in remote country areas. Ford was of the horse transport era, and he was trying to create a possible alternative that was faster, cheaper and more reliable than the horse and buggy. Like other great engineers of his era, he was full of ideas, but none of them was remotely feasible without a reliable energy source. Gasoline could be distilled from oil, but was regarded as too dangerous to use in motor vehicles, so he used what was commonly available at that time. Around 1900 it was perfectly feasible and legal to produce a few gallons of ethanol distilled as necessary from a small part of a corn harvest – literally moonshine.
The world transport system now uses about 7.5 billion litres (2 billion gallons) of liquid fuels a day, and while it may be expedient in the short term for politicians to perpetuate the fallacy that even a meaningful proportion of this can be obtained in the same way, that is also moonshine.
Yet ethanol production is increasing dramatically, at 13.7 billion gallons, ethanol production in the US has risen nine fold since 2000. In 2007 the US government passed legislation allowing $170 billion for the development of the infrastructure of biofuel refineries, allowing the annual production of about 35 billion gallons of ethanol from corn that would otherwise be used to stabilise the world food supply.
And ethanol has a sting in its tail for everyone who is willing to ignore the fact that we are burning food, it’s rotting our engines and fuel systems, and because fuel tanks in gas stations are made of steel, there will be increased corrosion from the metal salts-ethanol-water electrolyte. This corrosion will ultimately eat through the tank walls.