Monday, October 24, 2005

The Hope And The Hype Of Biofuels

This weekend, Portland, Oregon hosted a biofuel event in which automobiles were featured that run on old soybean vegetable cooking oil and also featured other alternative fuel powered vehicles. Biofuels on the surface seem to hold some promise to reduce petroleum oil fuel consumption, as soybeans are easy and cheap to grow. Yet at the same time some serious shortcomings exist to this biofuel alternate fuel approach.

Volkswagan AG and Archer Daniels Midland Corporation, the world's largest corporate soybean farm products business, have entered a joint project to develop soy based biofuels. To both of these producers soy biofuels have some advantages. They burn cleaner with less pollution than petroleum based oils and tend to clean, not dirty the entire fuel system. And such fuels reduce the the dependence on petroleum oil.

But there is a big disadvantage to biofuels. Soy based biofuels now require more energy to produce than they provide, and as far as corporate efforts to manufacture have proved, they are not cost effective. Only small backyard stills that process soy based biofuels and use used cooking oil from fast food businesses have been able to cost effectively produce user amounts of biofuels. This is especially true when solar power is used to provide the energy required to turn the engine blades that are used to create biofuels and produce the specific gravity required to create usable fuels that work in diesel engines or oil furnaces.

In addition, litmus paper and other test equipment must be used to determine certain factors related to each source of cooking oil to be processed, as well as testing with a hydrometer to gauge the specific gravity of each amount of biofuel produced.

In the long run, biofuels probably have a limited life as an alternative fuel source unless the production costs can be reduced to a level where major corporate production can be cost effective and soy based biofuels actually produce more energy than they require for production. But for now, only in the case of backyard stills, or for the sake of experimental purposes have biofuels proven themselves as worthy. It is possible to not only use soy and corn, but even yard grass clippings could be made into fuel with the use of engymes to break down the grass clippings into a fuel source.

Hydrogen or solar power actually hold far more long range alternate fuel source promise. Both come from plentiful and even far less polluting cleaner elements. Hydrogen is made by seperating water into hydrogen and water. Hydrogen usually only leaves water vapor as an exhaust product. It holds great promise. And solar powered electric automobiles now seem to be more possible as both solar cells as well battery technology have greatly improved. The recent use of hybrid automobiles includes the use of advanced technology batteries. But whether roof sections could be used for solar cell sections to provide enough power to the battery level storage, even with the use an alternator or generator to maintain battery level at a rate faster than the energy discharge under use.

I had an idea for a hydrogen/oxygen powered automobile that would use electrolysis of water in the fuel tank into hydrogen and oxygen, compress the two fuels, inject the hydrogen into the combusion chamber and use an unit similar to the old Paxton superchargers to compress the oxygen into the combusion chamber and the spark plug would ignite the mixture, creating mere water once again as the exhaust product that would run back to fuel tank that would be reused again and again as the cycle continues. The only question is whether this cycle could be completed fast enough to produce enough power to propel a 2 or 3 thousand pound automobile with a driver and passengers down a street or highway.

A few years ago, a relative of mine was the lead engineer for the William Lear steam engine project in the Nevada research site. Steam engines have existed since a crude prototype plans in 1698. In the 1800's, steam provided the power for locomotives, which used wood or coal to heat the water. In 1910, the Stanley Steamer was so fast that a standing offer was made that offered $100,000 to anyone who would drive a Stanley Steamer with the throttle wide open. No one took up the offer.

The Lear steam engine looked similar to an aircraft engine, and was a form of steam turbine design that could be appliedto aviation as well as automobile technology. The Lear design was able to run at 145 miles an hour in a test at the Bonneville Salt Flats, yet still suffered from the slow warmup time. Yet today, with microwave oven technology, these engines could be more viable than when first tested a few years ago as water warmup time could be reduced. Unlike the gasoline powered automobile, the steam engine always requires the comparatively slow water warmup process. And unlike the gas engine which is ready to go very soon after the key hits the ignition, this water warmup time for steam engines could extend for a few minutes. But the hot exhaust water could be recycled back to the engine to maintain the operating heat temperatures after this warmup period is reached.

Just like the days when the world depended far too long on whale oil for lamps, the age of use of fossil fuels has gone on far too long. It is more than time to develop a newer and cleaner energy source derived from the elements that cannot be exhausted and is cheap in supply.

Not only would a use of an alternative fuel be cleaner and better for the environment. Along with a ban on all public cigarette smoking, the use of alternative fuels would greatly clean the air and create far better public health. It would also reduce both the cost of declining availablity of fossil fuels. Most of the world's oil reserves now require the injection of gas or water into the reserves to maintain oil production, yet most have long since reached the scientifically arrived at peak oil in 1977. Yet the world's largest oil reserve in Ghawar Saudi Arabia, now requires that 7 million barrels of water be pumped into the oil reserve to maintain a 4 million barrel a day supply of oil.


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