Moonshine to Replace Gasoline in America’s Cars

Our cars could soon be running on moonshine, according to aA front page story in yesterday’s WaPo.

While ethanol made from cornstalks may sound a lot like ethanol made from corn, the technology required is markedly different. The technique was long considered too expensive to compete with gasoline produced from oil, but the cost is declining rapidly just as oil prices hit record highs. Experts say that soon, those trends will open the possibility of a vast new industry in this country producing a homegrown fuel.

If the notion that a country the size of the United States could power its vehicle fleet on what amounts to moonshine seems crazy, consider this: Brazil is already well on its way to running a fleet on rum. After a 30-year campaign, Brazil has replaced 40 percent of its gasoline with alcohol produced from sugar cane. With new oil wells coming on line this year, the country is expected to declare independence from foreign oil producers.

The sugar-cane plan won’t work in the United States — only a few states have the right climate. But the country has vast supplies of wood chips, sawdust, wheat straw, waste paper and many other materials that could be turned into liquid fuels, and it has millions of acres that could be devoted to growing special energy crops like the switchgrass President Bush has mentioned repeatedly this year.

“If you think we’re heading towards a future where oil prices are going to stay relatively high, $50-plus a barrel, then the energy cost delivered in plant biomass is much, much less than the energy cost delivered in oil,” said Bruce E. Dale, head of the Biomass Conversion Research Laboratory at Michigan State University. “I’m completely convinced that this industry is going to happen on economic grounds alone. The demand for liquid fuels is so high and rising that we’re going to convert an awful lot of stuff to liquid fuels.”

Speculative investment capital and even money from some of the big oil companies is moving into the field. A handful of biomass-ethanol companies have built pilot plants, and some are scouting locations for bigger facilities. Politicians are trying to hurry the industry along, with Congress dangling potential loan guarantees to pioneer companies.

So, let me get this straight. There could be a technological solution to our dependency on foreign oil but achieving it will require the right economic incentives to exist? And the evil oil companies might invest in those alternatives if they think they can make a profit doing that?

That can’t possibly be right, can it?

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Science & Technology, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Rodney Dill says:

    (on your comments)

    Nice.

  2. Rick DeMent says:

    OK well ethanol can and will be an adjunct to the energy mix. It cannot replace, or even make a large dent in our energy problems because of scale. If we used all the currently available land currently used for growing corn and their stalks, we would be able to produce exactly 0.4 % of your current usage of gasoline(and Gas has more kick so the .4 number is naively optimistic).

    I love the idea that new technologies are being investigated, but the idea they we can get though this without drastically impacting our consumption or economy is a pipe dream.

  3. McGehee says:

    OK well ethanol can and will be an adjunct to the energy mix. It cannot replace, or even make a large dent in our energy problems because of scale.

    Rick is right.

    […]

    Rick?

    Somebody get the smelling salts!

  4. Wayne says:

    The price in Brazil is about $3.12 per gallon. They donâ??t have as large of economy of U.S. You have to make special engines to run off of high % ethanol. In U.S. it cost about $2.96 per gallon to produce ethanol compare to approx $2.30 in oil base gas. The $.50 to $.68 of tax the government puts in a gallon make them somewhat comparable but government will tax ethanol if it were to become a high enough % of gas use. If you want to pay extra money for alternative fuel go ahead. I want the cheap stuff.

    http://money.cnn.com/pf/features/lists/global_gasprices/

  5. legion says:

    [insert Uncle Jesse/Dukes of Hazzard joke here]

  6. Rick DeMent says:

    McGehee,

    Had to happen sooner or later, but look at the bright side, now we can go back to our normal MO of antagonistic bickering [grin].

  7. keitho says:

    Since we (ihe government) subsidize ethanol producers 51 cents a gallon, who can guess where this alternative thing will go?