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Is alcohol the energy answer?

DaimlerChrysler file
Daimler's NECAR 5 prototype gets a methanol fill-up
during a cross-country test drive in 2002. The
methanol powered a hydrogen fuel cell on the
experimental vehicle.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how to free America from the grip of high-priced oil imports. Or does it?

Rocket scientist Robert Zubrin lays out the case for an alcohol-based fuel economy in a new book titled "Energy Victory" – and although ethanol is the best-known alcohol replacement for gasoline, Zubrin focuses on a different brew called methanol, also known as wood alcohol.

The concept behind "Energy Victory" is to go after energy independence as a means to cut off the flow of money through the Middle East to terrorists – and that concept surfaced just a few days ago in the presidential campaign, courtesy of GOP hopeful Mike Huckabee.

"Every time we put our credit card in the gas pump, we're paying so that the Saudis get rich - filthy, obscenely rich, and that money then ends up going to funding madrassas" - religious schools "that train the terrorists," Huckabee said last weekend on CNN.

As a result, American money ends up financing both sides in the war on terror, Huckabee argued - and that's why he says it's imperative to move to energy independence within the next decade.

That argument gets a thorough airing in "Energy Victory."

"The world economy is currently running on a resource that is controlled by our enemies," Zubrin declares on the first page. "This threatens to leave us prostrate. It must change - and the good news is that it can change, quickly."

I'm inclined to jump over the politics of the argument for a couple of reasons: First, the calculus involved in Middle East relations is incredibly complex, as evidenced by today's news about a Saudi anti-terror crackdown and progress on the peace front. Second, you don't have to use fighting words to convince me that energy independence and alternative fuels are very good things. But how easily and how quickly can things change?

Here's where the rocket-scientist background plays a part.

"I was actually a nuclear engineer before I became a rocket scientist, and was well-acquainted with energy policy" said Zubrin, who's best-known nowadays as the president of the Mars Society. "And furthermore, the work that I did relating to Mars taught me a lot about fuel synthesis. It became apparent to me that the Bush administration's hydrogen policy was completely unworkable, but the easiest liquid fuel to make would be methanol."

Methanol? Wasn't ethanol supposed to be the fuel of the future?

After the ethanol euphoria
Last year, ethanol fuel - alcohol that can be made from corn, sugar cane or other plants - was touted as the answer for what ails America's energy economy. With the price of oil rising, ethanol blends have become much more economical.

However, the ethanol boom has turned into something of a bust over the past year, as detailed today in The Wall Street Journal. Because corn is the primary U.S. crop for ethanol production, rising grain prices have sparked fears about a "food vs. fuel" dilemma. There are also environmental concerns, about stoking up air pollution as well as draining water supplies.  

To address the food-vs.-fuel issue, and boost the amount of biomass available for ethanol production, researchers are working on innovative processes that could convert plant cellulose into ethanol - with federal funding, of course.

Cellulosic ethanol production is currently the major research focus, but the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory is taking a long-term look at other fuels as well, including methanol.

Adding methanol blends to the mix would help close the gap, Zubrin said. "Methanol can be made from any kind of biomass without exception," ranging from raw plant cellulose to paper waste. It can also be made from stranded natural gas or coal, turning not-so-portable fossil fuels into liquid energy that could power a car or an airplane. In fact, methanol-powered cars passed technical tests at Ford 20 years ago, and at Daimler five years ago.

The current price equation is favorable to methanol as well, Zubrin said. "Methanol at 93 cents a gallon is like gasoline at $1.70," he said.

Switching to methanol, ethanol, biodiesel and other alternative fuels would make energy markets more competitive - and even though there's widespread worry about the effect of higher grain prices on the Third World, Zubrin argues that many developing nations would benefit as well.

"If we go to the alcohol economy, not only will we stop the current price rise and reverse the coming one, but we'll be able to shift a lot of money from OPEC to the world's agricultural economies," he said.

There are drawbacks, of course. Otherwise, we'd be driving alcohol-fueled cars already, right?

Problems and solutions
Unlike ethanol, methanol is toxic, which complicates handling (although Zubrin maintains that "people can handle that the way they handle gasoline"). It's also more corrosive than gasoline, which means fuel lines would have to be made of sterner stuff. What's more, methanol packs only half the punch per gallon that gasoline does, meaning that cars running purely on methanol would have to fuel up twice as often.

For these reasons, the Department of Energy's alternative-fuel database notes that methanol is currently "not commonly used or easily available." There would have to be a powerful incentive to gear up the production and distribution of methanol fuels.

Yet another factor to consider would be how oil exporters might respond to a substantial shift toward alternative fuels.  If such fuels start to take hold, oil prices could well start dropping - which would appear to be a good thing, but would also stall the momentum for embracing the alternatives and getting closer to energy independence. That's what happened in the United States after the energy crisis of the 1970s.

Courtesy Robert Zubrin
Robert Zubrin says
methanol, ethanol and
flex-fuel cars can get
America closer to energy

There's a simple solution to many of these drawbacks, Zubrin said: Require automakers to produce flexible-fuel cars capable of running on any blend of methanol, ethanol or gasoline. That could add hundreds of dollars to the cost of a car, but Zubrin said it'd be worth it.

The requirement should apply to BMW and Toyota as well as Ford and GM, he said. "The key policy here is mandating that all new cars sold, not made, in the United States would be flex-fueled," he said.

Zubrin's not the only one taking this stand: A coalition called Set America Free is working to get the alcohol economy, flex-fuel and plug-in hybrid vehicles on the political agenda as an international security issues as well as an economic and environmental issue.

So what about those plug-ins? If it takes electricity to turn biomass into alcohol fuels, why not focus completely on developing plug-in cars with super-duper-batteries?

Zubrin argues that the energy economy cannot live by plug-in hybrids alone. Even if we're able to wean ourselves off oil, liquid fuels will play a role into the foreseeable future, he said. And if you believe that energy independence is fundamental to winning the war on terror - as Zubrin, Huckabee and many others do - then alcohol fuels are the closest answers at hand.

"If I were writing a science-fiction novel about this, I could give everybody plug-in hybrids and nuclear power plants," he said. "If we're talking about taking this world right now and changing it to something else in a way that breaks the power of the oil cartel, this is the only way to do that."

Update for 5:15 p.m. ET Nov. 29: Rather than focusing on methanol, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are studying how to make ethanol out of a wider variety of materials - through new twists in biochemistry means as well as the gasification process that produces methanol.

That's the word from Richard Bain, principal research supervisor at NREL in Colorado. Bain's been at the lab for 18 years and is familiar with the latest trends in alternative fuels. For now, at least, methanol isn't one of those trends.

"I've been in the business long enough that I know ultimately the market will decide," he told me today. Gasification (of coal as well as biomass) is an up-and-coming technology that is well-settled for making methanol, and is currently being fine-tuned for making ethanol.

"You have a choice of which one the market wants to use," Bain said. "You can make both, but the automobile industry has accepted ethanol rather than methanol."

The fact that methanol is more corrosive than gasoline is a stumbling block, because as some commenters have already noted, a lot of components would have to be made of stronger materials. That goes not only for the vehicle itself, but for the plumbing that would deliver the methanol to your fuel tank.

"If you've designed for ethanol, you'd have to redesign for methanol. ... There is a cost associated with any fuel that doesn't fit in the normal distribution infrastructure," Bain said.

The good news is that more people are catching on to gasification as a means for producing not only methanol and ethanol, but other products with energy applications as well, such as butanol.

So Zubrin's basic message still holds: Flex-fuel cars are key to keeping our energy options open. And if they're plug-in hybrid electric flex-fuel vehicles (PHEFFVs?), so much the better. How does 250 miles per gallon sound? That's what Congress called for in Section 706 of the energy bill that was signed into law a couple of years ago - a section that sets aside money for research into HEFFVs and PHEFFVs.

Some have estimated that PHEFFVs could cut liquid-fuel consumption for transportation (as well as carbon-dioxide emissions) by more than half. What do you think?

Where do you stand on the energy equation? What roles do you see for biofuels, conservation, wind power, nuclear power, solar power, microbial hydrogen, algal oil and even more efficient fossil-fuel use? Add your comments below.