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?