Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hair Brain Schemes

Another week has passed and the price of gasoline has risen to a record high for this time of the year. We are only slightly lower than the record high reached in the summer of 2008. I am fortunate to commute to work in a van pool so I only drove 53 miles last week and my 1999 Mercedes C280 only needed 2.5 gallons of midgrade gasoline at $4.35 a gallon. In 2010 my fellow Californians still drove their cars as much as they as they did in 2009. The State Board of Equalization that levies taxes on fuels sold in the Golden State reported that taxable gasoline sales increased from 14.81 billion gallons in 2009 to 14.87 billion gallons in 2010. Gasoline consumption peaked in 2005 at 15.94 billion gallons. I believe that the slight increase in gasoline consumption in 2010 over 2009 is an anomaly and by 2015 we will be using one billion less gallons of gasoline than we did last year. Small cars are replacing large SUVs and there is no longer a mad rush to move 50 miles away from our places of work. With the record high prices of gasoline we will also see more people carpooling or taking public transportation.

The economy of the not so golden state is still depressed. Diesel consumption is an excellent indicator of economic activity. We consumed 2.59 billion gallons of diesel in 2010. This is a quantity that is almost identical to the 2.58 billion gallons we consumed in 2009. Diesel consumption peaked in 2007 at 3.08 billion gallons. I am sure that in a decade with population growth and eventual economic recovery diesel usage will increase. Also there will be more diesel cars on the road and the Green Machine will be very happy as we substitute diesel cars for gasoline cars going forward.

Motorists in the USA drove almost 3 trillion miles last year and used approximately 9 times the amount of fuel that Californians did. The 3 trillion mile figure is some 20.5 billion more miles than was traveled in 2009 by the car crazy Americans. In 2006 we Yanks with gas in our tanks actually exceeded 3 trillion miles of vehicular travel. Every time gasoline prices increases CNN and other major news organizations bring guys out of the woodwork with new invention to improve gasoline consumption. Ravi who is a regular reader sent me a link last week from CNN of some wannabe thermodynamics king with an electrolyser that converts distilled water to hydrogen using the car’s alternator and somehow the usage of gasoline is reduced by 20%. In 2008 I wrote a whole blog on hydrogen assisted combustion and determined that these on board electrolysers may give a 1 or 2% boost to fuel efficiency as there is indeed some merit to hydrogen assisted combustion . The primary boost comes from the wide range of concentrations that hydrogen combusts in air and therefore with the proper controls on the air fuel mixture in the engine it is possible to operate the engine with less throttling of the air and improve fuel efficiency. The 20% claim of improved efficiency is spurious and the Green Machine is not endorsing this idea in any way shape or form.

Ajay another regular reader, sent me a link about another Vinod Khosla company that takes wood chips and through rapid pyrolysis converts the wood chips into diesel. I had to tell Ajay that Vinod was once again making wood out of furniture from an economics perspective. The Vinodian company will build a plant in Mississippi and will use yellow pine for feed stock. I told Ajay the folks in Miss could simply make pine planks for furniture and have far higher value than chipping the lumber into pellets for the very expensive plant to perform the pyrolysis and purification. Where I come from one gets ahead by making furniture out of wood and not wood out of furniture. The US department of entropy and the State of Mississippi have supported the plan to make wood out furniture to the extent of hundreds of millions of dollars. I guess it is a case of who you know not what you know that helps fund hair brain schemes.

Actually I bet there is some guy out there asking for US and State funding for a way to rapidly perform pyrolysis on the hair and brains of sheep to yield bio diesel. But sheep hair is worth much more as wool and sheep brains can be sold as a delicacy. The morons in the Obama administration will rather support a hair brain scheme to produce bio fuels for bio fools. Sheep brain masala is called Maghaz in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. Perhaps old Vinod can get a serving of this soul food.


  1. Lindsay,

    perhaps I am a fool at 53, given I have NOT given up on being idealistic about man's intent on earth, man's responsibility to his fellow man and his environment and humanity in its broadest sense.

    Why then would it be so hard for a sensible group of people (of all areas/disciplines of thought and academia) to come up with the 5 or 10 most sensible and realistic ways to address the environmental challenges we have as a society, many of them so articulately expressed weekly in your blog.

    Having a Nobel laureate as Sec of Energy, Dr Chu and the stature and power of the US behind him surely must be able to achieve such an outcome that can have the Pareto effect across the globe.

    Perhaps the challenge we face is not a scientific challenge but a sociological challenge !!

    Kin regards and keep the Green Machine going.


  2. Neels Ou Maat You are spot on we face a challange of lifestyle not fuel. No doubt Chu knows the American dream will require 6 planet earths for all 7 billion people. But he has to follow his leader and sell hope as we have the 2012 election looming. The Nobel committee should retract two prizes they awarded as the guys receiving them were duds. Actually three. Obama, Chu and Gore.

  3. Rather than report yet another failed attempt at alternative energy conversion, how about naming some performance standards that an energy conversion system would have to have that would meet our current needs and lifestyle expectations? For instance, what conversion efficiency, and storage density and efficiency, would make an ideal energy system? If we were to apply these performance standards to solar PV, say, how efficient a PV would we need? What would its storage density and efficiency be?

    In other words, could we design a better system than fossil fuels? I wonder how many terawatts of sun fell on some patch of Pangaea for every barrel of sweet Libyan crude we're trying to keep pumping? In addition to conversion efficiency, we have to think of time as well. A system that's super efficient but uses 100M years isn't exactly practical.

    Just some thoughts on how we can rephrase the question.

  4. Perhaps the challenge we face is not a scientific challenge but a sociological challenge !!

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