Everywhere I read, I read that ethanol is the next fuel to save us from a fossil fuel dependant, over heated, polluted future.
This emphasis seems to be the case particularly in the USA. That’s understandable when you consider that the USA is the one great industrial nation that until recently never really embraced diesel engines like Europe. So you can understand their infatuation with ethanol – but that does not make it the right or the only choice.
In September Renault demonstrated its new hydrogen fuel cell powered 207 cabriolet, 28 bhp electric motor, 81 mph and an operating range of 218 miles, producing nothing but water as its sole emission. This month it was BMW with their new hydrogen power 7 series. They already have 3 fuel stations up and running in Germany with more planed. In October another manufacturer announced their hybrid system which converts braking energy not into electricity, but into compressed gas which is then used to help acceleration.
So clearly there are other options - however all of this is rather misses the point. None of these technologies help the power generation industry, nor do they meet the needs of the merchant navy, road hauliers or railway companies, all of whom, at least outside the USA, run on diesel.
Ethanol is a fuel which is complicated to make and thus easy to regulate, it continues to be cost effective only because of the massive government subsidies that it receives, it singularly fails to encourage the use of more fuel efficient diesel engines which simply delays the inevitable.
Which brings us neatly to the next point. The majority of ethanol in the USA is produced from corn – a food crop, a crop which requires good soil if it is to be grown in quantity. Do we face a future where we choose between fuel and food?
As all owners of a betmax video machine can testify, it is not always the best product that wins through. In the 80’s Sony’s betmax technology finally lost out to VHS, not because VHS was better but because it was better supported. With luminaries such as Bill Gates investing upwards of $84 million in ethanol production and distribution it is almost bound to be a success, if not an exclusive one.
In the US led fossil fuel replacement debate ethanol is clearly gaining ground steadily. However the world at large needs a diesel replacement, and the USA will sooner or later have to grasp the concept of fuel economy.
The only contender in this space is biodiesel, a clean fuel that can been made from crops like Jatropha, grown on the most marginal ground not suitable for food crops, and easily manufactured in plants small enough to fit into most peoples back yards.
What is certain is that whichever way this debate goes there is sure to be a rise in demand for a good, dependable supply of hardy, high yield crops whether for food or fuel production. Undoubtedly good news for Monsanto with their GM seeds.