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McDonald’s Gas Line Commercial

30 Apr

While researching a chapter on biofuel I found this classic McDonald’s commercial …

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Biofuels Chapter Excerpt

29 Apr

In the winter of 1917, as American troops sailed for Europe to join the bloodiest war in recorded history, automobile magnate Henry Ford steered a specially built Model T through the humid backwoods roads of rural Florida, on the lookout for sugar plantations and farmland suitable for growing crops that could be turned into motor fuel.  As much as anyone in America, Ford was responsible for ushering in a modern, fast-paced, motorized era increasingly dependent on gasoline and oil.  But, an agrarian at heart, he disdained the profit-driven oil barons and wildcatters whose motor fuel business both enabled and depended on the stratospheric growth of the automobile industry.  To Ford’s mind, the oilmen were unprincipled speculators whose obsession with the quick strike did little to benefit the towns and farming communities that opened their land to drilling. Plus, Ford believed—presciently, it turned out—that gasoline exhaust fumes polluted the air.  To be forced to rely on such unwholesome fuel rankled, and the carmaker was intent on finding alternatives for his wildly popular Model T.  Like many others in the quickly maturing automobile business, Ford was intrigued by the prospects of alcohol.  It not only burned cleaner than gasoline but was also a renewable resource derived from grains and other annual crops.

Although Ford had scrupulously avoided the drudgery of physical labor as a boy growing up on his family’s farm outside of Detroit, gravitating instead to Detroit and its bustling, mechanized factories, throughout his career he maintained a sentimental attachment to the rural life and the welfare of American famers.  Promoting alcohol as motor fuel would benefit not only the automobile industry, Ford thought, but also help farmers would find a ready and lucrative market for their surplus produce.  Florida, with its tropical climate and abundant, largely unsowed acres of rich, arable land, was intriguing for Ford’s purposes, and in fact was beginning to attract the attention of Louisiana sugarcane growers.[i] And so Ford’s mission that winter was to scout the Florida landscape for working plantations and plots large enough to grow enough sugarcane to put a scare into the oil industrialists and gasoline jobbers who had cornered the market on motor fuel.

Sitting next to Ford on the Model T’s padded front seat was another American icon of 20th century progress and industry—Thomas Alva Edison. Like many Americans living at the turn of the century, as a boy and young man Ford had idolized Edison, marveling at the famous scientist’s ingenious inventions and entrepreneurial drive.  Ford had first met Edison while working as chief engineer at Detroit Edison in the mid 1890s. Invited to New York as a member of the Detroit delegation to annual convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies in 1896, the then 33-year-old Ford was introduced to Edison as an up-and-coming horseless carriage pioneer and obliged the celebrated inventor by sketching out his latest ideas on the back of a menu.[ii] Later, as Ford rose to prominence as the world’s leading carmaker, the two became close friends. It was Edison, in fact, who first introduced Ford to Florida’s balmy weather, in 1915, when Ford and his wife, Clara, stayed at Edison’s summer house in Fort Myers, on Florida’s west coast.  Ford bought his own vacation home in Fort Myers, next door to Edison, and wintered there with his family until the early 1930s.  It was during an annual Florida getaway that Ford and Edison motored across the state to advance Ford’s scheme of making motor fuel from plants.

Unlike Ford, Edison had no personal stake in the matter. His bailiwick was electrical power, not liquid fuel. But the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park (the New Jersey town where Edison had his famous laboratory) was certainly aware of the growing scientific and public interest in alternatives to petroleum-derived gasoline, driven largely by what national columnist Frederic Haskin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, referred to as the “awful terror” of an impending gas shortage.[iii] The war raging in Europe was unique not only in being the first “world war” but also in being the first war fueled by oil and gas. And the thousand of airplanes, cars, trucks, tanks and other motorized vehicles consumed millions of gallons of fuel made in and imported largely from the United States.   The pressure on the American oil industry to produce ever-greater amounts of gasoline during the war prompted Haskins and other journalists to report that, according to “government experts,” oil wells—and therefore gasoline supplies—would soon peter out.  “Therefore we must now discover a permanent source of motor fuel to take the place of the temporary one upon which we have been drawing,” Haskins wrote in 1919. “Scientists seem to agree that alcohol will furnish this permanent source of motor fuel.”[iv]

The Rise, Fall, Rise and Fall of Alcohol Fuel

In fact, scientists and industrialists had been touting the benefits of alcohol as a fuel for nearly a century. While whale oil was the leading fuel for lamps throughout the early decades of the 1800s, by the 1830s camphene—a blend of ethyl alcohol, turpentine, and camphor oil—was in demand. Clean, abundant, and cheap compared to increasingly scarce whale oil, camphene, otherwise known as “burning fluid,” was a boon for farmers who sold grain to distillers who, by 1860s, manufactured around 25 million gallons of alcohol fuel annually.[v]

By the dawn of the 20th century, though, alcohol and other plant-based fuels had been edged out by gasoline made from crude oil. Two events, occurring at roughly the same time,were at the root of the switch.  In 1859, former railroad conductor “Colonel” Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in the United States, in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Although oil seeping naturally from the ground had been collected and used in small amounts for centuries—the ancient Persians and some Native American tribes used it for lighting and to make medicines—until the mid 1800s the black, viscous substance was viewed mainly as a nuisance.  When well diggers looking for salt water or drinking water struck oil, they often abandoned the project.  But as whale oil used as lamp fuel became more scare and therefore more expensive, some entrepreneurs began to see oil as a potentially valuable commodity.  In 1854, a Canadian scientist, Abraham Gesner, perfected a process for refining crude oil into Kerosene, which quickly became popular as a cheap, dependable fuel for oil lamps.  If oil could be collected from the ground in large enough quantities, investors reasoned, the manufacture of Kerosene could become a lucrative business.

Such was the logic behind Connecticut baker George Bissell’s plan when he hired Drake to drill for oil in Titusville, where dozens of natural seeps supplied locals with oil for lubricating farm machinery.  Bissell’s choice of Drake was curious. A former railroad conductor with no training in or demonstrable knowledge of geology or drilling, Drake was a dreamer, imagining himself destined for a future of great achievement and recognition. In reality, he was a failure, having drifted from job to menial job.  Drake wasn’t even a real Colonel; Bissell and his partners had tacked on the title to impress investors. Yet in some sense Drake was a natural for the task. Despite limited attempts at drilling for oil overseas and the success of Canadian businessman James Miller Williams’ commercial oil well in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1858, digging for oil was largely dismissed as a futile enterprise.  Only a man with Drake’s history of unrealized schemes and grandiose plans would stake his future on such a risky venture.[vi]

Yet despite numerous financial and mechanical setbacks, after several months of continuous drilling, Drake did indeed strike oil at a depth of 70 feet, single-handedly giving rise to the modern oil industry.  Within months, a full-bore oil rush was in effect.  Fueled by the sudden glut of new wells, the kerosene business took off, rapidly encroaching on the well-established market for alcohol-based illuminating fuels.  Then, in 1861, newly elected president Abraham Lincoln unwittingly dealt the alcohol fuel industry another major blow when he authorized a $2.00 per gallon sales tax on alcohol—both for drinking and industrial uses—to fund the Union cause in the just-erupted Civil War.  Lincoln had nothing against alcohol as spirit or fuel; it was merely one commodity among many—Kerosene included—caught in the sweep of widespread taxes to fund the war. But at only 10 cents a gallon, the Kerosene tax gave the oil-based fuel a big advantage over its more heavily taxed, plant-based rival.  Virtually overnight, kerosene became the fuel of choice.  And because the alcohol tax remained on the books until the first decade of the 20th century, when Henry Ford and other carmakers were building the first mass-market automobiles, alcohol simply couldn’t compete with gasoline.

In mid 19th century Europe, meanwhile, in the absence of crippling taxes, alcohol remained a popular fuel and the obvious choice for early prototypes of the internal combustion engine.[vii] In 1860, German inventor Nicholas Otto designed his four-cylinder engine to run on alcohol. And although German engineer Rudolf Diesel’s eponymous engine did not burn alcohol, crowds at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, where the French government put a working Diesel engine on display, were later surprised to learn that the motor ran on pure peanut oil.  Lacking domestic oil production or significant reserves, France and Germany were especially motivated to explore alcohol as a viable fuel.  In 1901, the Automobile Club of Paris sponsored a 50-vehicle race across France for vehicles running on pure alcohol and alcohol-gasoline blends.  A year later, the French government hosted the Paris Alcohol Fuel Exposition, featuring alcohol-powered cars, farm equipment, lamps, stoves, heaters, and dozens of other industrial and household products.  In Germany, the official Office of Alcohol Sales used tariffs and subsidies to keep alcohol on equal footing with gasoline.  The German Emperor, Kaiser William II, offered prizes for the most ingenious alcohol engines.

In the United States, meanwhile, as gasoline prices rose during the first decade of new century, farmers and automobile clubs saw the success of alcohol fuel in Europe and began to openly agitate for Congress to lift the long-standing alcohol tax.  “Gasoline is growing scarcer, and therefore dearer, all the time,” said Dave Hennen Morris, president of the Automobile Club of America, quoted in the New York Times in 1906. “Automobiles cannot use gasoline for all time, of that I am sure, and alcohol seems to be the best substitute that has yet appeared.”[viii]

After several aborted attempts, Congress did in fact abolish the alcohol tax later in 1907, leading some to believe that alcohol would soon edge out gasoline.  In a publicity stunt celebrating the event, Joe Tracy, a famous champion of the new and popular sport of racecar driving, drove his 30 horsepower “Dragon car” from New York City to Philadelphia using alcohol as fuel.  Meanwhile, dozens of well-known scientists, chief among them famed inventor Elihu Thomson, who partnered with Thomas Edison to found General Electric, touted the benefits of alcohol compared to gasoline.  “It is found by actual experiment that a gallon of alcohol will develop substantially the same power in an internal combustion engine as a gallon of gasoline,” Elihu told a reporter.  “This is owing to the superior efficiency of operation when alcohol is used.”[ix] Alcohol not only burned cleaner than gasoline but also, unlike oil, came from abundant, reliable and renewable sources.  As J.A. Anglada, chairman of the Society of Automobile Engineers, opined, “the sources of alcohol are inexhaustible, or, as it has been otherwise expressed, alcohol can be produced as long as the sun shines and the rain falls.”[x] Speaking on behalf of American farmers before the Committee of Ways and Means, Nahum Batcheider, Master of the National Grange of the Patrons of Industry, testified that “for lighting, motor fuel, and household purposed alone there should be a demand for at least 100,000,000 gallons of alcohol in the near future, and with the steady increases in the use of the farm engine and the alcohol lamp the quantity used for these purposes would soon greatly exceed this great amount.”  Such demand for alcohol, Batcheider added, would benefit the nation’s hard-working farmers by significantly increase the market for corn, potatoes, sorghum, beet sugar, molasses, and other crops.  Henry Ford, in an early effort to support American farmers, built early Model T engines with adaptors to allow them to run on alcohol.

In short, alcohol seemed poised not merely to compete with gasoline but to replace it.  But only potentially.  First, scientists and engineers would have to overcome some significan hurdles.  Chief among them was cost.  Although numerous articles and editorials written during the first decade of the 20th century bemoaned rising gasoline prices, alcohol was even costlier.  A study published in Scientific American in 1907 found that running a car with a regular engine on alcohol cost more than twice as much as fueling it with gas.  Plus, for alcohol to work efficiently as motor fuel, it had to be used in high compression engines—engines designed to more forcefully compress the mixture of fuel and air in the cylinder.  Most cars already on the road were made to run on gasoline, and so had relatively low-compression engines.

Meanwhile, Standard Oil, which before being broken into several dozen companies in 1911 controlled nearly 90% of the oil industry, had not been idle.  Responding to the growing market for gasoline—and to rumors of gasoline’s imminent demise—Standard began developing massive new oil fields in Oklahoma and Texas in the early 1900s and spent millions on infrastructure.  Within a decade, pipelines snaking across the Western prairies transported more than enough oil to east coast refineries to meet the demands of growing numbers of gas-hungry motorists.  Standard agents bought up hundreds of horse stables and turned them into filling stations.  Hand wringing about the perceived shortage or oil and gas appeared to be quashed—gas was abundant, cheap, and clearly preferable to alcohol, despite its efficiency and less-noxious exhaust.

But, in fact, concerns about supplies of oil and gas had not disappeared for good.  After WWI, in the wake of the unprecedented hundreds of millions of gallons of petroleum channeled overseas to fuel the war, dire predictions about the imminent collapse of oil reserves were rampant. In the ripest of purple prose, an article published in the Los Angeles Times in 1920 wondered if the United States was entering a new chapter in the “epic drama” of fuel.  Noting the exhaustion of forests logged for timber and wood fuel and the apparent decline in coal reserves, the article lead with the “expert” opinion that “oil is about to follow its Promethean brothers into eclipse.”[xi] By 1921, U.S. gasoline consumption had reached record highs—a fact reported with trepidation in leading newspapers.  An article by noted chemist G. Ross Roberston of the University of California, Southern Branch pointed out that while the number of cars on the road had increased by a whopping 3000 percent since 1909, oil production had grown by a mere 150 percent.[xii] Even oilmen, such H. W. Marland, president of the independent Marland Oil Company, expressed concern that in order to meet growing demand for gasoline, since 1915 the United States had been importing ever increasing amounts of oil from Mexico.[xiii] Taking advantage of the anxious climate, dozens of con men sold bogus shares in companies claiming to have discovered miraculous new motor fuels. Acting on the complaints of 200 peeved investors, Brooklyn police discovered that the local Fermogas Company’s allegedly successful demonstration of its motor fuel made from corn stalks, cane sugar, and yeast was a fraud.  The tank containing the miraculous fuel was in reality filled by a hose connected to two barrel of grain alcohol hidden behind the scenes.[xiv]

More legitimately, respected scientists and carmakers took renewed interest in alternatives to gasoline, chief among them alcohol.  During WWI, alcohol production ramped up to meet demand extra demand not only for lighting and motor fuel but also for gunpowder and mustard gas, of which alcohol was a main ingredient.  So as Henry Ford explored the potential for plantations in Florida, other auto industry heavyweights explored alternate paths, chief among them General Motors vice president of research and president of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Charles Kettering.  While not as widely famous as Ford, Kettering was just as highly respected in the car industry as arguably the world’s best automotive engineer.  His invention of the battery powered electric starter—first included in the Cadillac in 1912—saved motorists the hassle and danger of having to crank their engines to life.  During WWI, Kettering, working with fellow GM engineer Thomas Midgley, tackled the problem of “knocking” in generators and airplane engines. As they do today, four stroke (or cylinder) engines in Kettering’s time worked by compressing a cylinder filled with air a gas before the spark plug ignited it.  If the compression was too high, the air-gas mix could ignite before the spark, causing a damaging “knock.”  Built for power and speed, wartime generators and airplane engines worked at high rates of compression, compelling engineers to search for non-knocking fuels.

Kettering and Midgley’s wartime and subsequent research led down two paths: toward the now-infamous use of lead as an anti-knock fuel additive, and also, at least for a short time, toward using alcohol in addition to and eventually as a replacement for gasoline.  Like many scientists of the day, Kettering and Midgley worried about how long U.S. oil supplies could meet what one writer derisively called the “orgy of gasoline consumption.”[xv] Working with fellow researcher T.A. Boyd, Kettering and Midgley pushed G.M. to pursue alcohol not only as a solution to knocking but as a means of bolstering and eventually replacing gasoline, should the many dark predictions come true and domestic oil begin to dry up.

The effort got off to a rocky start, though. Despite alcohol’s many advantages as a motor fuel—it burned cleanly and without knocking under high compression, allowing for engines of greater horsepower, as Midgley told a highly attentive audience at a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Indianapolis in 1921—there was the not so small matter of producing enough alcohol to even begin to meet the rising demand for motor fuel.  In the early 1920s, thanks largely to the recent passage of the national prohibition amendment, the alcohol industry was limited to about 100 millions gallons of ready supply—a volume that seemed tiny compared to the more than eight billion gallons of gasoline consumed annually.  Having commissioned a study to explore what it would take to distill enough alcohol to close the gap, Kettering was dispirited to learn that doing so would consume nearly half of all grains and other produce grown every year. So Midgley and Boyd turned to British-born chemist Harold HIbbert, then at Yale, whose research focused on extracting the sugar necessary for alcohol fermentation from the cellulosic, non-edible parts of plants.  Well ahead of his time, Hibbert forewarned that within a few decades “this country will be dependent entirely upon outside sources for a supply of liquid fuels … paying out vast sums yearly in order to obtain supplies of crude oil from Mexico, Russia and Persia.”[xvi] Intrigued by Hibbert’s experiments on converting waste from farm crops, timber scraps and seaweed into alcohol, Boyd moved his family to New Haven in 1920 to glean what he could about the prospects for producing alcohol fuel on an industrial scale.

But despite Kettering, Midgley, and Boyd’s best efforts (not to mention Ford’s Florida expedition), alcohol motor fuel remained only an intriguing idea.  Prohibition’s ban on spirits severely hampered the manufacture of industrial alcohol, as politicians shied away from subsidizing an industry so obviously liked to the production and consumption of “demon rum.”  And the truth was that the old problem of cost persisted—making alcohol from plants was still more expensive than making gasoline from oil.  Distilling alcohol from cellulose would have been costlier still.  In any case, all along Kettering and his colleagues had been developing an ethyl lead additive to solve the knocking problem and to make gasoline more efficient.  Alcohol was liberally blended with gasoline throughout Europe, Australia, South America, Cuba, and the Philippians.  But it gained little traction in United States.  In 1922, making use of cheap industrial alcohol left over from the war, Standard Oil marketed a 25 percent alcohol blend gasoline in the Baltimore area.  But due to  storage problems and customer complaints about clogged fuel lines, the initiative flopped.  By the late 1920s, thanks largely to a powerful alliance between General Motors, Standard Oil, and the chemical giant Dupont, leaded gasoline, despite its obvious health risks, had won the day.  By the mid 1930s, nearly 90 percent of all gasoline produced in the United States contained lead.


[i] See John A. Heitmann, “The Beginning of Big Sugar in Florida, 1920-1945,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, 77 (Summer 1998).

[ii] Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World (New York: Viking, 2003), pp. 24-26.

[iii] Frederic Haskin, “May Replace Gas as Fuel,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 20, 1919.

[iv] Frederic Hasking, “Big Future For Alcohol,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 1919.

[v] Hal Bernton, William Kovarik, Scott Sklar, The Forbidden Fuel: A History of Power Alcohol, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), p. 8.

[vi] Leonardo Maugeri, The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History, and Future of the World’s Most Controversial Resource (Connecticut: Praeger, 2006), pp. 4-5.  Despite his initial success, Drake died penniless after a series of subsequent failures in oil drilling and stock trading.

[vii] One of the earliest such engines, a two-cylinder contraption designed by American inventor Samuel Morey in 1826, burned ethyl alcohol and turpentine.

[viii] “Auto Club Aroused Over Alcohol Bill,” New York Times, Apr. 26, 1906.

[ix] “Future of Alcohol in the Industries,” New York Times, Aug. 5, 1906.

[x] “Praises Alcohol as a Motor Fuel,” New York Times, May 24, 1914.

[xi] “What’s Coming in Fuel Drama?” Los Angeles Times, Sep. 12, 1920.

[xii] “What if Gas Supply Gives Up the Game?” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 1, 1920.

[xiii] “Insecurity of Oil Supply Held a Grave Menace,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1922.

[xiv] “Fake Motor Fuel Swindle Charged,” The Washington Post, Nov. 2, 1920.  Motor fuel scams were rampant, during the 1920s with no end of gullible investors eager to cash in on the latest ingenious replacement for gasoline.  In hindsight, the swindles are often hilarious. An article in the New York Times from 1921 reported that one fraudulent inventor who claimed to make gasoline from a mixture of water and white powder simply filled a demonstration tank with real gasoline from a pipe attached to a supply out of sight of his naïve investors. Another common ploy was for the inventor to secretly replace water with alcohol.  One swindler whose fuel consisted of water and “magic powder” was found to keep two hot water bottles filled with alcohol hidden in his coat.  “But for the interference of a strong-arm man,” the Times reported, the inventor would have gotten away with the con by dumping the water and secretly adding alcohol to the mix.

[xv] “What if Gas Supply Gives Up the Game,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 1, 1923.

[xvi] William Kovarik, “Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and the ‘Fuel of the Future’,” http://www.ratford.edu/wkovarik/papers/fuel.html.

[xvii] August W. Giebelhaus, “Farming for Fuel: The Alcohol Motor Fuel Movement of the 1930s,” Agricultural History, 54 (Jan. 1980), p. 176.

[xviii] Ibid,. p. 179.

[xix] Ibid. p. 180.

Colorado Research Trip Pics

26 Mar

Just got back from my Colorado research trip. Very successful. I met with scientists and researchers from the Rocky Mountain Institute, UC Boulder, Colorado State, SunDrop Biofuels, the Denver International Airport’s solar installations, and other places. I learned a lot, got great material, and took a lot of pictures …

Rocky Mountain Institute office in Boulder, CO

Notice the straight air ducts descending diagonally from the ceiling. They’re designed to channel air more efficiently than ducts with numerous twists and turns. The RMI building also features windows specially treated to trap solar heat and lots of natural lighting.

RMI’s non-water-flushing toilet.

SunDrop Biofuel’s solar collecting tower. Thousands of mirrors reflect sunlight onto a large plate that heats to around 1200 degrees C. The heat is used to turn a mixture of woodchips and chemicals into gas that’s then refined into gasoline and diesel.

A smart grid test station at Colorado State, in Fort Collins.

A large wind turbine barely visible through a dense snowstorm at the National Wind Technology Center.

A many-tubed apparatus at NREL’s wind-to-hydrogen project using solar and wind-generated electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored and used in fuel cells and internal combustion engines.

Part of a wind turbine blade. These things are freaking huge. On the largest turbines, each blade is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 feet long. So in terms of sheer length and width, a rotating large scale turbine is like a spinning football field.

Purdue Visit Part II

2 Mar

I went to Purdue again last week, on Feb. 23, to meet with people who are, across the board, about a million times smarter than me. I’ll say this about being a science writer: it’s interesting and often humbling to sit across from and talk with someone whose intellectual wattage surpasses your own. Not that telling stories doesn’t require intelligence … but it’s not quite the same thing.

Anyhow, I met with two scientists–agricultural economist Wallace Tyner and fluid power specialist Monika Ivantysynova

A few highlights …

A lot, most, of the people I talk to who are now tenured professors working on energy came of age during the late 70s–the last time energy was a big deal like it is today. (Energy is always important, of course, but the average person only takes notice when there’s an “energy crisis,” so-called.) Wallace Tyner is no different. Wallace Tyner actually is a product of the 60s. After getting an undergrad degree in chemistry, he joined the Peace Corps and ended up in India raising chickens. But Tyner wasn’t really a chicken farmer–he was a scientist at heart, and before long he began measuring the chemical composition of chicken feed, trying to figure out how to make it more nutritious.

After the Corps, Tyner ended up at the U of Maryland studying economics, spent time back in India studying the leasing of oil and gas resources for his Ph.D., then eventually got a job at Purdue as an energy economist. But when oil dropped to $4/barrel by the mid 80s, Tyner turned to development and ended up spending three years in Morocco working on agricultural policy and trade.

Now, though, since 2004, since energy is once again hot, Tyner is back to energy.We talked about corn ethanol, which by now is a fairly well known story. His current work focuses on the economics of cellulosic biofuels. Tyner seems fairly upbeat about the prospects for cellulose. He recently got a $1 million grant to study how biofuels consume water.

Monika Ivantysynova is a smart woman. So smart, in fact, that I barely understood what she was telling me about her work on hydraulic power systems in large vehicles like earth movers. I got this gist, though … I think. Hydraulics are actually pretty simple. It basically involves using pressurized liquid–typically oil–to move things. The breaks in most cars use hydraulics. Most construction machinery uses hydraulics to raise and lower arms and scoops. The benefit of hydraulics is that it’s a very efficient way of moving things around. It also allows for precise control over a machine’s moving parts. Or something like that. Anyhow, Ivantysynova and her colleagues and grad students are working toward developing hydraulic systems for passenger cars.  Here’s an explanation I found online of how such a system works:

“Hydraulic hybrids operate basically the same way as gasoline-electric hybrids, but they use a motor-pump instead of an electric motor-generator—and an accumulator rather than the battery pack. An accumulator is essentially a pressure tank that stores compressed gas or liquid. When the driver slows down or brakes, the pump forces the hydraulic fluid out of a low-pressure tank into a twin high-pressure tank. To accelerate, the fluid is forced back to the low-pressure tank past the pump/motor, which applies torque to the wheels. The hydraulic regenerative braking system, which can put as much as 80 percent of the braking energy back to the wheel, is more efficient than regen braking in current hybrid cars.” Source: hybridcars.com

Hybrid-hydraulic systems are evidently already out there, at least in prototypes. Since the systems relied on frequent stopping and starting, hydraulics make the most sense for delivery trucks, garbage trucks, etc. The reason scientists and auto companies are interested in developing hydraulic systems for passenger cars is because it helps save on fuel consumption and cuts down on emissions.

I’ll be honest–I still don’t quite understand this, but it’s worth learning more about.

Biofuel 2.0: Cow Rumens and Helicopters

18 Nov

I was on the road this past Monday, visiting biofuel researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was my first real research trip for the book, and my mind is still spinning.

Because it’s one thing to read about biofuels, to get a handle on the general story of how corn ethanol boomed and then went bust, leading to great interest in cellulosic biofuels. But it’s really another experience entirely to meet people who work on this stuff and see first hand what they’re doing every day. The moment you begin to really dig into the science of biofuels, the complexity and enormity of the task of turning plants into fuel begins to come into focus. And it’s at the same time fascinating and exhilarating and even frightening.

Biofuel research is fascinating and exhilarating for a few reasons. First, because it’s incredibly complex–much more so than the sense you get from reading about biofuel in the popular press. For example, the obvious first step in developing cellulosic biofuel (fuel made from non-edible plants, also known as biofuel 2.0) is finding the best plants to grow as energy crops. And there are a few promising candidates, including switch grass, miscanthus (a tall, bamboo-like grass of Asian origin), tropical maize (a type of corn that in North America does not produce ears and so ends up storing its load of sugars in the stalk–also known as “Midwest sugarcane”), and others.

But determining which of these plants, or what combination, works best is difficult. And the methods used to study the problem are way more high tech and complicated than I ever would have guessed. I met with ag engineers at UI whose approach to study crop growth involves hardware and tactical maneuvers resembling a military campaign. They use tall observation towers equipped with infrared cameras to monitor crops as they grow. $60,000 remote controlled helicopters hover over the crops, taking pictures. Robots about the size and shape of Wall-E are deployed into the fields with webcams to give researchers a real-time view of how the crops respond to insects, water stress, weather patterns, and everything else.

Then there’s the question of how to best harvest energy crops. Existing harvesters are designed specifically for corn. Set a corn harvester loose on a field of miscanthus and there’s no telling what may happen. So a big part of the puzzle is redesigning harvesting tools to chop miscanthus and other grasses in the most efficient way.

The list of other basic crop-related problems goes on and on. And then there’s the not-so-small matter of inventing the best way to take raw grass and process it into liquid fuel. Plant cell walls are some of the toughest, most resilient objects in nature.  They’ve evolved over millions of years to resist insects, drought, wind, and anything else that poses a threat. So we’re literally up against the full bore of plant evolution here. Which is why scientists are looking for answers in nature, specifically inside cow rumens, where hundreds of different types of bacteria excel at breaking down nearly every kind of plant material out there. In their own way, these bacteria are as efficient and expert at breaking down plant cells as plants cells are at keeping themselves intact.

But even if scientists were to pinpoint the specific bacterium best suited to break down miscanthus, say, it’s still anyone’s guess as to whether we can mimic the process in a biorefinery at industrial scales.

Bottom line, there’s great promise in biofuels, but also great uncertainty. The people I met at UI are incredibly smart and talented and dedicated, but they’re also savvy enough to recognize that they’re only at the beginning of a very long, uncertain process that may or may not get the sustained funding it needs to produce significant results.

And so it’s all a little frightening. Because, after all, the stakes are pretty high. By all accounts, biofuels have the potential to become a major piece of the renewable energy puzzle. But there’s no guarantee. Basic research has a long, long way to go, and like all basic research, its future depends on funding and government mandates and policy and many other external factors over which the scientists best able to do the research have very little control.

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