11: Facing Our Energy Future

The following excerpt is from chapter 11 of Sustainable Ethanol: Biofuels, Biorefineries, Cellulosic Biomass, Flex-Fuel Vehicles, and Sustainable Farming for Energy Independence

Facing our Energy Future

Alcohol was used as a fuel well before the petroleum era. Over time, it came to be known as power alcohol, agricrude alcohol, gasohol, and finally ethanol. As the era of cheap oil comes to a close, ethanol and other biofuels will play an important role in our energy future. Just as William J. Hale’s 1930’s “agricrude”[i] terminology sounds odd to us, today’s biofuel technology will seem old-fashioned to future generations. We will find new ways to make, distribute, and use biofuels. Based on reasonably achievable advances, the future might include:

● sustainable farming of perennial energy crops
● additional biofuels such as biobutanol (a 4-carbon alcohol), bio-oil, and biogas joining ethanol and biodiesel
● transporting biofuels by pipeline
● super-efficient automobiles getting better fuel economy on biofuels than on petroleum
● “sugar cars” fueled by on-board conversion of sugars and starches to hydrogen[ii]
● replacing U.S. petroleum imports with domestic biofuels

Ramping up production and infrastructure will take time, while our appetite for liquid fuel continues to grow. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) predicts alternative technologies will displace the equivalent of only 4% of projected U.S. annual consumption of petroleum products by 2015.[iii] Such small numbers cause some skeptics to dismiss the whole idea of ethanol and other biofuels. This would be a mistake. Biofuels are not perfect, but they are better than the status quo. With technologies like cellulosic ethanol and biobutanol, biofuel market share will continue to grow. The DOE predicts alternative technologies could displace up to 34% of U.S. petroleum consumption in the 2025 through 2030 time frame, “if the challenges are met.”[iv]

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[i]. William J. Hale, Farmward March (New York: Coward-McCann, 1939).
[ii]. Researchers at Virginia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Georgia are developing technology for the direct enzymatic production of hydrogen from sugars and water. If perfected, it could increase the efficiency with which we use biomass such as corn starch. Susan Trulove, “Novel sugar-to-hydrogen technology promises transportation fuel independence,” Virginia Tech news release, May 23, 2007, http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/story.php?relyear=2007&itemno=300; The Zhang Lab, http://filebox.vt.edu/users/ypzhang/research.htm.
[iii]. United States Government Accountability Office, CRUDE OIL: Uncertainty about Future Oil Supply Makes It Important to Develop a Strategy for Addressing a Peak and Decline in Oil Production, February 2007, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d07283.pdf.
[iv]. Ibid.

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