Respond to this Article July/August 2004

Independence Way

John Kerry thinks we can innovate our way to energy security. We're closer than he knows.

By Sam Jaffe

If there's one topic on which Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry seems to have the vision thing, it's his goal of freeing America from her dependence on foreign oil. Last month, while delivering the weekly Democratic radio address, Kerry placed this issue to the center of his agenda. "Soaring energy prices are putting our economy at risk," he argued, and "our dependence on Middle East oil is putting our national security at risk."

Unfortunately, Kerry's solution has not quite been quite as forward-thinking as his rhetoric. He wants to provide $10 billion worth of incentives to the U.S. auto industry to encourage automakers to step up their production of advanced vehicles, ignoring the fact that Detroit has been getting similar subsidies for a decade, to little effect. And while Kerry is on the right track when he argues that the only long-term solution to our dependence on imported oil is "inventing our way out of it," his plan to move America to a hydrogen economy by 2020 doesn't go much beyond President Bush's plan for funding more research on hydrogen-powered vehicles. According to an MIT study published last year, even aggressive research is unlikely to put a viable hydrogen car on the road during the next two decades--and wouldn't even necessarily produce less carbon than today's hybrid automobiles.

But there's a way Kerry's plans--or Bush's--can live up to the rhetoric. During the past year, a pair of new technologies has emerged that, if properly nurtured, could provide the key to a broader effort to wean Americans off foreign oil, drastically reduce pollution, and help slow global warming. The first is an industrial process that may make ethanol far cheaper to produce than ever before, with the potential of making this much-maligned--and over-subsidized--biofuel economically competitive with gasoline. The second is a small, inexpensive piece of hardware that could make ethanol the basis for radically transforming our transportation infrastructure. Making these technologies yield a new product at the pump won't be easy. But they're far more promising than much of the research on which we're currently spending federal dollars and intellectual energy.

Bad gas

As far as the science books are concerned, ethanol is merely a form of alcohol, commonly produced from corn, that is mixed in with gasoline to provide transportation power. In Washington, however, the word "ethanol" immediately calls to mind billions of dollars in wasteful government subsidies and sycophantic paeans to imaginary family farmers. And for good reason. Beginning in the late 1970s, the federal government granted a tax credit at the pump for ethanol-compounded gasoline, plus an income tax credit for small ethanol producers--policies that have cost the taxpayer more than $7 billion in revenue over the last two decades, without much payoff (except to agribusiness). The ethanol industry produced 2.8 billion gallons last year, less than 3 percent of the volume of gasoline consumed by Americans. As a result, only a small fraction of gas stations actually sell ethanol-gasohol mixtures. To provide enough grain-based ethanol to power the economy, notes Cornell agricultural economist David Pimentel, we'd have to use almost all of the farmland in the country just to grow the raw materials.

Worse, making ethanol is a hideous waste of energy. Traditional ethanol is made from fruit, primarily corn kernels, while the rest of the plant is either burned or plowed back into the soil. After its arrival at the ethanol refinery, the corn is mashed, producing a gooey soup. Then it is placed in high temperature fermenters that break down the corn sugar into ethanol and water; a series of boiling and condensing processes squeezes out most of the water, leaving fuel-grade ethanol, which is essentially 199-proof vodka. All that work takes up a lot of energy--more energy, in fact, than is contained in the final product. The farming and refining process needed to produce one gallon of ethanol requires the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of gasoline. "Corn ethanol just isn't efficient and people will be left hungry if we use our croplands to grow fuel instead of food," says Pimentel. "It's just a bad idea."

As currently produced, ethanol is also more expensive than gas. Thanks to an intensive Department of Energy research program costing billions of dollars over the last three decades, scientists have determined how to make ethanol from corn as cheaply as possible and make it burn inside an engine as cleanly as possible. But the gasoline-ethanol mix for which most American cars are equipped--known as E85, because it is composed of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gas--still costs at least $2.20 per gallon. Even now, with gasoline prices at a relatively high $2 a gallon, that's no bargain.

Waste lines

Two new technologies, however, have the potential to make ethanol fuels much more practical. The first is a method for producing ethanol not from corn kernels, but from the plant's stalk, roots and leaves, known as cellulosic material. So-called cellulosic ethanol has been around for years, but breaking down the cellulose to make it fermentable was inefficient, expensive, and manufactured a fair amount of pollution. A Canadian biotechnology firm called Iogen, however, has developed a genetically-engineered microbe that processes the cellulose much more easily. (A European company, Novozymes, recently reported that it had developed a similar process.) Cellulosic ethanol made from stalks and husks still has to be fermented. But because it uses cast-off waste products of food that's already being grown, Iogen's process saves on both raw materials (depending on wholesale prices, raw corn can represent anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the wholesale price of traditional ethanol) and energy costs.

According to estimates done by Charles J. Wyman, a Dartmouth environmental engineer who has consulted for ethanol firms and is an expert in refinery technology, the new technologies could bring the price of cellulosic ethanol down to between 60 and 80 cents per gasoline-gallon-equivalent. (Because ethanol produces about a third less energy than gasoline when burned in an internal combustion engine, you need a third more ethanol than gasoline to drive the car the same distance.) And that's within the price range of refined gasoline, which runs between 25 cents per gallon drawn from Saudi oil and 75 cents per gallon for Wyoming oil. "It's getting to the point where the economic argument is just screaming at us," says Wyman. Iogen is already betting on the future: In partnership with Royal Dutch Shell, the company has begun construction on a plant that, by 2006, is expected to produce about 100 million gallons of ethanol per year.

The prospect of cheap cellulosic ethanol makes it possible to envision a very different energy landscape. Since it doesn't require fuel-intensive refining, Iogen's product would provide a net energy gain. If it becomes competitive with gasoline, we could begin substituting cellulosic ethanol for imported gas. According to an estimate by the consulting firm Burrill Co., if the waste products of all American farms were converted into cellulosic ethanol (a long-term, best-case scenario to be sure) it would provide 25 percent of all the energy needed to run our transportation system--about the same percentage which we import today from Venezuela and the Persian Gulf combined. (The rest currently comes from U.S. sources, Canada, and Mexico.)

And while traditional ethanol production requires us to burn our own food, cellulosic production does not. Indeed, a number of energy crops including poplar trees and sugar beets can be grown on land unsuitable for food production. Most intriguing of all is switchgrass, a hardy North American plant that can be raised without irrigation and harvested with a low-labor process similar to mowing the lawn. In other words, it requires very little energy to bring to harvest compared with ethanol's traditional corn. According to Cornell's Pimentel, roughly 15 percent of the North American continent consists of land that is unsuitable for food farming but workable for switchgrass cultivation. Given the typical energy yield of switchgrass, a rough calculation indicates that if all that land were planted with switchgrass, we could replace every single gallon of gas consumed in the United States with a gallon of inexpensive, domestically produced, and more environmentally-friendly cellulosic ethanol.

Fuel cell growth

Burning cheap ethanol instead of gas in our cars and trucks would be a good step towards weaning our economy off Persian Gulf oil. But a second technology could make cellulosic ethanol the basis for a viable hydrogen transportation system.

For years, scientists have sung the praises of hydrogen, which many consider the ideal fuel of the future. When fed into a device known as a fuel cell, hydrogen reacts with airborne oxygen to produce electricity. Because the only byproduct of this chemical reaction is pure water, hydrogen fuel cells are environmentally friendly. And fuel cells produce energy with far less waste than internal combustion engines. Whereas a typical car engine uses only about 25 percent of its energy output to turn the wheels, fuel cells are up to 60 percent energy-efficient. The tantalizing promise of this efficient, nonpolluting energy is what inspired policymakers in the Clinton Administration to urge millions of dollars in government spending on hydrogen fuel-cell technology, lured President Bush into proposing his multi-billion-dollar "Hydrogen Initiative," and convinced Kerry to mimic Bush's plan with his own proposal to convert the United States to a hydrogen economy.

But hydrogen power has long faced seemingly intractable problems. The obvious method of creating hydrogen, refining it from natural gas, uses a lot of old-fashioned fossil fuel. There's also an infrastructure problem: Because hydrogen is a very expansive gas, it has to be highly pressurized--to 700 times ambient air pressure--in order to be transported to filling stations and stored in automobile fuel tanks. In his recent book, The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate, hydrogen proponent Joseph J. Romm calculated that using a tanker and truck system to transport hydrogen would eat up 40 percent of the energy ultimately being delivered at the back end. Romm concludes that "hydrogen vehicles are unlikely to achieve even a five percent market penetration by 2030" and that "neither government policy nor business investment should be based on the belief that hydrogen cars will have meaningful commercial success in the near- or medium term."

There is, however, a better way of storing the hydrogen needed for fuel cells: in ethanol, each molecule of which bundles six hydrogen atoms, two carbon atoms, and one oxygen atom into a package far more compact than gaseous hydrogen. Until recently, no one could figure out how to unbundle the ethanol molecules in an energy-efficient way. But Lanny Schmidt, a chemical engineer at the University of Minnesota, may now have found a silver bullet. He has developed a glass tube containing a series of metal plates about the size of a Bic lighter. Made out of the exotic metals rhodium and cerium, these plates can suck the hydrogen out of ethanol and feed it into a fuel cell. (Ironically, Schmidt had been looking for a catalyst that would strip hydrogen from plain old gasoline, but the ethanol turned out to work even better.) "We can produce about 85 percent pure hydrogen right now," he says. "And there's no reason to believe that we can't push that up to another 10 percent."

The working prototype of Schmidt's ethanol "reconstituter" costs about five dollars, so it's cheap technology. And just as important, the reconstituter works even if the ethanol is "wet," or has a high water content. Schmidt estimates that over half of the energy used to produce fuel-grade ethanol for internal combustion engines is consumed in squeezing out that last five percent of water content. "If you don't have to refine that out," Schmidt points out, "you save a lot of energy and money"--on top of the energy and money saved by using non-food crops to produce cellulosic ethanol.

Because it can use wet ethanol, the reconstituter makes it possible to save much of the energy that is otherwise wasted purifying the ethanol for use in internal combustion engines. A car could conceivably fill its tank with cellulosic ethanol and then run a fuel cell off the ethanol's hydrogen. The process isn't perfect. Whereas a fuel cell running on gaseous hydrogen leaves behind only electricity and water, Schmidt's reformer produces a byproduct of waste gases, including carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. But it's still far cleaner than an internal combustion engine burning gasoline (or ethanol, for that matter). And crucially, the process doesn't add any extra carbon to the atmosphere, since each carbon atom being released by the reconstituter has already been inhaled from the atmosphere by plants. So while an ethanol-based fuel cell utilizing Schmidt's device would still produce some pollution, it would also produce renewable energy without adding to global warming.

The perfect v. the very good

Even if Schmidt's discovery proves to be legitimate and the Iogen enzymes really can produce cheap ethanol, there are still significant technical and logistical obstacles to realizing the new technologies' promise. What's needed most is a fuel cell design which can run on the slightly impure hydrogen produced by Schmidt's reconstituter. Currently, the lion's share of private and public research funds have been spent on a different form of fuel cell, known as the proton exchange membrane (PEM), which requires a stream of nearly pure hydrogen to function properly. The alternative is to use solid-state fuel cells, which can take an impure hydrogen stream and transform it into electricity. But they can only operate at temperatures of about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, a level of heat which makes them impractical for use in cars. Before Schmidt's discovery makes hydrogen cars possible, scientists will need to engineer ceramic materials that can function at that temperature throughout the car's lifetime. The good news is that ceramics research is a well-established science, in which advances depend far less on massive breakthroughs or new scientific principles compared with the steps needed to make PEM fuel cells economical and durable.

That makes it a better investment than PEMs, to say nothing of the money now spent getting consumers to buy a old-fashioned, energy-inefficient corn ethanol. "This technology doesn't need subsidies to survive," says Schmidt. "What we need is a uniform, clear and sensible energy policy. All we have now are a smattering of small research programs and a lot of words." Bush's Hydrogen Initiative is supposed to fund basic research to help create a hydrogen economy, but the small portion of that money that hasn't been spent on pork projects to "educate" the public is earmarked for research into exotic technologies that look unlikely to pan out. And as yet, Kerry's hydrogen proposal doesn't go much beyond hopeful generalities.

Instead of spending all of our research funds on such long-shot technologies as artificial zeolite construction or nanotube-based polymers, federal research dollars should be directed at the more immediate goal of straightening out the final kinks in the ethanol-to-hydrogen plan, such as improving ceramics technologies for solid-state fuel cells, re-engineering our petroleum infrastructure for ethanol, and learning how to farm switchgrass in the most profitable and environmentally-sustainable manner. Today, there are no more than a half- dozen scientists who specialize in switchgrass; we should turn that number into half a thousand. Instead of subsizing the purchase of ethanol, federal dollars might be better spent priming consumer purchase of flexible-fuel vehicles, widespread adoption of which would hasten the emergence of cellulosic ethanol as a competitive alternative to gas. Kerry or Bush could also jump on the bandwagon built by Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who have co-sponsored a bill to push cellulosic ethanol.

Encouraging research into cellulosic ethanol makes political sense. Landowners in the Southwest (think swing states Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico) would see their property values rise if switchgrass cultivation became widespread. And cellulosic ethanol made from castaway plant matter would provide a new source of income for farmers in the Midwest and Plains (the Dakotas, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana). That would bring the price of cellulosic ethanol up a bit, but it would still be far cheaper than traditional ethanol made from food crops.

The good news is that we don't have to wait to build the perfect fuel cell. If mass-produced cellulosic ethanol pans out, it's still a better fuel--for our environment and our security--than gasoline or old-fashioned ethanol. By expanding our domestically-raised supply of cellulosic ethanol, we can begin the slow process of weaning ourselves off Middle East oil. (It only costs about $50 to retrofit a car to run on ethanol alone.) Because ethanol doubles as an internal combustion fuel, we can begin creating an ethanol infrastructure even as fuel-cell research continues apace. Once fuel-cell technology matures, Detroit can start making cars that don't require internal combustion engines but run on the same fuel as cars already on the road. By 2020, the United States could have a transportation economy that spews only trace amounts of pollutants, adds no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and runs entirely on domestically produced fuel.

Manufacturers of traditional ethanol might put up a fight. And some environmentalists will hold out for the dream of solar and wind power. But in this case, the perfect may be the enemy of the very good. "Most politicians talk about fixing the energy problem in a time frame of decades," says Anne Korin, an analyst at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, an energy policy think tank. "If we wait for a perfect energy technology to be developed, it will take a very long time. We now have several technologies that work well enough to end all foreign oil imports in ten to fifteen years, but only if we start implementing them right now."

Sam Jaffe is an editor at The Scientist magazine.


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