A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Business, Environment, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 18, 2013
Information on pump regarding ethanol fuel ble...

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While various predictions about when we will run out of fossil fuels have proven to be erroneous, it is obvious that the reserves are finite. As such, if human civilization continues to use these fuels long enough, we will exhaust them. Assuming that we will continue to need an energy source that is comparable to fossil fuels, then we will need to find a suitable replacement as a matter of practicality.

Some people are also concerned with the moral aspects of fossil fuels, specifically regarding the various harms associated with them. These typically include environmental harms which range from the pollution generated by lawn mowers to the impact of huge oil spills.

One proposed solution to both the practical problem (getting more fuel) and the moral problem is biofuel. Put rather simplistically, biofuels are created from biological sources (hence the name). These sources are typically plants (such as the corn used for ethanol) but other sources (such as animal waste) can be used.

Like many people, I sort of vaguely favor biofuel development—after all, we will probably need a renewable fuel source and “biofuel” sounds vaguely environmentally friendly. However, it is well worth considering the matter critically.

While I am not an expert on biofuel, one does not need to be an expert to grasp one of the basic requirements for a successful biofuel, namely a viable energy cost. In general, the creation of a usable biofuel is analogous to converting oil to gasoline in that the process involves changing the starting material into a usable form. To use a specific example, we obviously cannot burn corn (even creamed corn) in our vehicles. To be used as fuel, it has to be processed and distilled into ethanol. This process takes energy and so does growing the corn crop in the first place. Intuitively, to be a viable source of energy the creation of the biofuel needs to cost us less energy than the biofuel provides. In the case of corn, we get some of the energy for “free” from the sun. However, corn is now typically processed into ethanol using fossil fuels and this process is not very efficient. Adding to the matter is the fact that ethanol (and other biofuels) provide less energy than fossil fuels. This efficiency problem is a significant hurdle for the development of biofuels.

As might be suspected, people have proposed using other renewable sources of energy to provide the energy needed to create biofuels. For example, solar power could be used to provide the heat needed to distill a biofuel.

Provided that the renewable sources are adequately efficient in terms of their own energy costs, this could be a viable option. However, one rather obvious concern is that it might make more sense to just use the alternative energy source directly rather than adding in the extra step of creating biofuel. For example, instead of using solar power to turn corn into ethanol to fuel cars, use the solar power to charge the batteries of electric cars. That said, for applications that require actual fuel (such as running the millions of existing internal combustion engines), then the alternative energy would not be a viable option.

Another basic requirement is simply the matter of cost in terms of dollars (or whatever). After all, even if the energy cost of a biofuel makes it viable (that is, the process is efficient enough) it could be the case that the overall cost is too high. Calculating this cost is not a simple matter of considering the direct cost of the fuel, but also the indirect costs. For example, some biofuels are based on food crops, such as corn. Using food crops in this manner will tend to drive up the cost of the foods based on the crop, thus adding to the cost of the fuel. This specific cost can be offset or even eliminated by using non-food crops grown in areas that are not used to grow food crops or by using the “waste” from food crops. However, these options would also have costs as well.

As another example, replacing older vehicles with those that can burn certain biofuels could be costly. This could be offset by gradually replacement as older vehicles are phased out normally due to age and damage.

In regards to cost, it is worth noting that energy sources have traditionally had high start-up costs. In many cases, such as with fossil fuels, this cost was shifted to the taxpayers in the form of subsidies for the energy companies (a practice that still continues). While this fact does not diminish the cost of developing biofuels, it does show that the high startup cost is not unusual. Of course, there is the concern that the subsidies of biofuels will continue past the startup time, just as the needless subsidies for the fossil fuel industry continues to this day.

As a final point, biofuel will need buy in from those with political influence, especially fossil fuel corporations. While it might be tempting to think that the fossil fuel corporations would want to prevent the development of biofuels, they can have excellent reasons to want to get into the business themselves. After all, there is an existing network for fossil fuels that could be partially converted to biofuels and the fossil fuel companies know that their main product will eventually run out, so they will need something else to sell (and get subsidies for). In fact, I suspect that biofuels will only become really viable when the fossil fuel companies start selling them.


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16 Responses

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  1. FRE said, on September 18, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    Using solar energy for heat is slightly over 50%.

    Using PV panels to generate electricity is currently less than 16%.

    Solar thermal electric systems are somewhat more efficient than PV panels.

    Plants, according to what I’ve read, are able to convert only about 1% of the sun’s energy into something that can be used as fuel. Thus, one would not expect biofuels ever to be practical except perhaps on a very small scale under special circumstances. They are so inefficient that it would be more practical to use a solar electric system to produce an artificial fuel, such as ammonia (NH3). The electricity could be used to decompose water into H2, then combine the H2 with atmospheric nitrogen to produce ammonia. IC engines can be designed to run very well on ammonia. There are some obvious problems, such as the fact that ammonia tends to be deleterious when breathed.

    Actually, it would be more practical to use nuclear power to produce ammonia or some other synthetic fuel.

  2. WTP said, on September 19, 2013 at 7:38 am

    There is plenty of oil liquid form and shale etc, natural gas, et al to last us quite some time. As FRE pointed out elsewhere we will not run out of oil abruptly. Whenever oil does become naturally scarce, it will gradually get more and more expensive as supplies decrease. In the mean time, provided government refrains from meddling, there are hundreds of thousands of people actively engaged, of their own volition, or greed as Mike would call it, in searching out more reliable energy sources and technologies.

    This is nothing for philosophers to worry their pretty little heads about. Perhaps your time would be better spent pondering the meaning of the word “is”. Or contemplating your navel. Or you could pick up a shovel and start digging…like study the subject much more deeply and then do some actual work on a viable prototype. But please don’t be pontificating about a subject you know nothing about, just so philosophy can make yet another claim of actually doing something by doing nothing but talking about it.

    • T. J. Babson said, on September 19, 2013 at 8:02 am

      There is no shortage of fossil fuels–there is probably 1000 years left in the ground. But they will become increasingly more expensive as they become more difficult to extract. As fossil fuels become more expensive, renewables will become more competitive.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 19, 2013 at 12:30 pm

        There is likely to be newly found sources of fossil fuels. But, as you say, the cost of getting them will probably be ever increasing. But, the situation might be like that of gold: it has been economically viable to “mine” for what amounts to gold dust spread out in vast amounts of earth. The same might prove true of fossil fuels-stripping the earth to gather up specks of fuel.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on September 19, 2013 at 7:58 am

    I have no problem with the government funding basic research on energy. What bothers me is when government planners favor one technology over another. For example, the Bush administration favored hydrogen, whereas the Obama administration drastically cut hydrogen research and poured money into Li-ion battery research.

    My view is that as long as the basic research is freely available to all, the market will sort out which ideas make economic sense.

    • WTP said, on September 19, 2013 at 10:33 am

      I have no problem with the government funding basic research on energy.

      Generally, I agree. But I think in certain instances more progress would be made if government offered rewards for achieving milestones rather than throwing money at researchers, the classic example being the British Longitude Act. There is a danger though, of people (Mike being a prime example) thinking that only government can solve these problems. Also, one might argue that by government focusing the problem on chronometers, other solutions might have been overlooked. It’s difficult to say what would have happened with or without government “help”. Again, I’m inclined to agree but with the caveat that such government involvement should only be applied to the most pressing issues that have little profit incentive. There’s plenty of profit incentive in energy. The internet dating habits of Americans is not a pressing issue: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=0751977.

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 19, 2013 at 11:37 am

        “The internet dating habits of Americans is not a pressing issue…”

        Disagree. This looks like high quality sociology research.

        I actually think that one of the most important reasons to go to a good university is because that is where you might meet your future spouse.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 19, 2013 at 12:31 pm

          Future ex-spouse. 🙂

        • WTP said, on September 19, 2013 at 1:03 pm

          Disagree. This looks like high quality sociology research.

          Quality is/was not the issue. The pressing need is. Of course…ahhh…you’re kidding, right? We’ve never met. This is the internet. Sometimes I’m never sure of these things. You did admit voting for Jenius John Kerry.

          • T. J. Babson said, on September 19, 2013 at 1:46 pm

            Not kidding. Do you object to the entire discipline of sociology? Should we not, as a nation, fund sociology research?

            • WTP said, on September 19, 2013 at 2:23 pm

              Well, as it is practiced by 97.33% of the sociologists today, yes. But in general, no. Is this a legitimate role of government? Are you saying such work would never be done unless funded by taxpayers? Univiersities have endowments and such for things like this. We’re awash in useless, psuedo-scientific “information” that often does more harm than good. I don’t see the need for the government to extort money from taxpayers to pay for trivialities such as this. There’s no quality control. There’s no skin in the game for the people granting the money. In the context of Miton Friedman’s observation as to the efficient use of resources, this is people spending money somebody else’s money on somebody else. The least effective re:

              There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government. And that’s close to 40% of our national income.

            • WTP said, on September 24, 2013 at 10:07 pm

              So TJ, do you consider this sociological research worth the tax dollars paid for it?

              A recently published study strongly suggests men succumb to sexual temptations more than women — for example, cheating on a partner — because they experience strong sexual impulses, not because they have weak self-control.


              Next week expect to see a study on why water is wet.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 19, 2013 at 12:28 pm

      The market is just a bunch of people, which is also true of the government. Why think the bunch in the market will make better decisions than the bunch in government?

      • WTP said, on September 19, 2013 at 12:58 pm

        Because the bunch of people in the market have skin in the game. They are playing with their own money or the money of people who are directly responsible for their employment. Jeebus…we’ve been over this and over this and over this. you learn nothing. See your own standards (https://aphilosopher.wordpress.com/2007/08/27/is-philosophy-useless/#comment-5818):

        1) Accepts the basic principles of logic and reason as the foundation of rational inquiry.
        2) Values the truth above personal ideology.
        3) Honesty.
        4) Willingness to admit error.
        5) Possesses a love of wisdom.

        Items 1, 2, and 4. Possibly even 5.

      • T. J. Babson said, on September 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

        “The market is just a bunch of people, which is also true of the government”

        Mike, in the market millions of people make millions of decisions. In government, a handful of people at the top make decisions.

        • WTP said, on September 19, 2013 at 2:26 pm

          As I said, we’ve been down this road many a time. He’s either dishonest (#3, skipped that one) or simply obtuse.

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