by Dave Blume
You’ve heard a lot about ethanol–and if you’re at all even interested in the subject, have no doubt formed an opinion about it.
I am asking you suspend your prejudices or beliefs for the duration of this review. Because there is a new book (25 years in the making) that is the absolute final word on the subject. It’s Alcohol Can Be a Gas!, by Northern Californian David Blume. It’s 640 large size, very entertaining and technical pages.
(P.S. For those of you who are clueless, ethanol IS alcohol–grain alcohol, specifically–the same thing you find in alcoholic beverages.)
The author has been experimenting with alcohol for use as automotive fuel for decades and I first observed a demonstration by him at Solfest three years ago. At that point I was just getting started with my alt fuels research, and noted he was trying to raise funds for his book.
Blume is no corporate, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) sponsored lackey. He is to alcohol fuel what veggie oil co-ops are to Willie Nelson’s well funded efforts to establish interstate biodiesel fueling stations for truckers, if that is even an apt analogy. He has not prospered from or even ridden the boom in ethanol production in this country–in fact, his book was independently published only after hundreds of small donors (like me?) invested the quarter million dollars he needed. It wasn’t easy. Big Oil (which he calls MegaOilron) killed Blume’s efforts way back in 1983 on San Francisco’s PBS station KQED–it was all set to go when Chevron threatened the station with loss of its sponsorship. A suit ensued, but Blume had to eventually back down.
What I learned sometime ago from Blume is that, were there adequate sources of ethanol (only one public pump exists in California, in San Dieg–but Blume is working on opening one in Santa Cruz), the existing automotive technology in what’s called “flex fuel” (FFV) vehicles would give Americans it’s quickest leg up in replacing petroleum products in cars. GM, Ford and others have at least 5 million vehicles that can run on gas or E85 ethanol (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline).
Yet today ethanol is mostly used as a substitute for noxious MTBE, which boosted mileage but polluted ground supplies–including here in my town of Cambria.
So yes, ethanol is a fuel that can be used in gasoline engines, as it is in Brazil, where 80% of the cars on the road use E96 (almost pure alcohol). Are there any drawbacks? Yes, ethanol does not have the BTU’s of gasoline–for example, the same volume of gas will propel a vehicle about 20% further. But as a fuel it is superior to gasoline in many other ways–engine performance, with 105 octane (why race cars use it), safety (it is far less flammable), emissions (it burns very cleanly), and availability (local farmers can grow the feedstock). And, in fact, the mileage hardly matters when Blume shows you how to make the fuel for less than a dollar a gallon and then shows you how to get back 61 cents a gallon in cash from the IRS.
And you heard it first here–as an emergency fuel, a 50/50 ethanol and gasoline blend could get your existing car down the road, without any modifications. (But modifying a gasoline car to run on alcohol would cost under $300 based on the directions in Blume’s book–or just a little more to convert a diesel engine to run on “moonshine”.)
The debate on ethanol is raging as I write. In the federal energy bill that is about to be voted upon the likelihood is that fuel economy standards (to 35 mpg by 2020) will be increased for the first time in 32 years, there is an ethanol rider. Good Democrats are split about the rider, since it offers farmers subsidies, and there are concerns about ethanol’s EROEI (energy return on energy invested) and industrial impacts. Currently ethanol production, at least as produced in the United States, is possibly a negative returner. The main feedstock, corn, has escalated in price–possibly not due to ethanol demand as is reported in the press but to a doubling of the natural gas based fertilizer used to grow it–and there is concern that ethanol production will create a food vs. fuel dichotomy.
Blume addresses these issues in detail in his book. The EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) studies are detailed to a degree I have never seen before. (There is actually a preponderance of studies that ethanol is a net energy gainer).
Blume makes it very clear that there are many efficiencies that could be implemented–the Brazilians, for example, have spent a couple decades implementing them, and now have a 9:1 energy return to energy invested ratio. (Interestingly, this is close to what gasoline producers claim to be getting these days, but if you factor in transportation by tanker, tariffs, subsidies, and exploration costs, it is probably much less). Blume says it is indeed much less, a minus 20%, since oil needs to be burned in transportation and refining before it gets to the gas tank.
And Blume is not really a proponent of large scale ethanol operations anyway–he sees small distilleries as a way to energy independence, much as distributed solar PV in neighborhoods or communities
is or could be. (Blume, by the way, is an organic farmer and permaculturalist).
The feedstock issue is also detailed by Blume, who has no doubt experimented with every organic material on earth. There are long lists of feedstocks that clearly indicate that ethanol can be produced from nearly anything cellulosic, and his philosophy is that farmers should select which ones are viable based on site appropriateness. One of his major theses is that we don’t even have to go to cellulosic ethanol if we just switch to high yield starch or sugar crops that outstrip corn and can grow in deserts, marshlands, sewage treatment plants, and even in the ocean as in the case of farmed kelp. His book reveals the dozens of feedstocks which are available, and rates them by their yields per ton for 199+ proof fuel. (Corn, by the way, is not the best one, nor is sugar cane.)
Just a few parting comments. It seems to me that we’d do far better diverting some alcohol production AWAY from “spirits”–a campaign could be started “Don’t Drink and Drive–Drive with ‘DRINK’! The criticism that burning ANY fuel adds C02 to the atmosphere may be true–EXCEPT that when you grow a plant, the C02 it captures in production is only released when it is burned–so it is basically in equilibrium.
Also, I learned (some time ago) that although corn is not the best feedstock, much of our production goes to feed farm animals–and they actually get fatter on the post-processed mash than they do on the raw kernals needed for ethanol production.
There is so much oil company propaganda that the general public has a hard time discerning fact from fiction about “alcohol fuel.” Alcohol Can be A Gas cuts though the rhetoric and shows us a positive, viable, ecological, permaculture approach that will carry us through the upcoming rocky Peak Oil disruptions.
Let the debate go on, but at the end of the day we clearly need this biofuel as a part of our energy independence and self-sufficiency mix.
Reviewed by William L. Seavey, an alternative energy consultant and writes about Blume’s efforts in his research report, Power Your Car WITHOUT Gasoline!! His site is at PowerFromSun.com .