Posts Tagged ‘oil’

Top Ten Paths to U.S. Energy Independence

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

1. Drill ANWR and the offshore fields near Florida and California. This is a no-brainer. Drilling for oil can be done without wrecking the environment and that has been proven for years. Every little bit of oil we can get for ourselves comes at the margin. Oil prices are going up at the margin. We need to widen the margins in which we can get the energy we need. In Florida, drilling near Cuba that we don’t do will be done by China at Cuba’s behest. Who do you think uses safer drilling rigs?

2. Mandate flex-fuel capability for all cars sold in the U.S.  Author Robert Zubrin suggested as much in his book. Basically it costs $100 exra per car and involves eliminating terne (an alloy the corrodes in the presence of alcohol) from the gas tank and changing the composition of several other fuel system components, as well as the engine control computer’s settings. Even if we can’t make enough ethanol for ourselves (and that’s questionable), we can buy it from Brazil. Although purchasing ethanol from other countries isn’t really energy indpendence, it is dependence on a competing source of energy, if not on a friendlier regime.

3. Promote the use of anhydrous ammonia as a motor fuel. The safety aspects have been studied: 

This is “hydrogen-lite” since you get a more energy-dense product that is less likely to leach away into the atmosphere through seals that are porous to hydrogen molecules. And it’s carbon free, just like hydrogen. Ammonia is easy to make, store and ship–in fact there is an infrastructure already present in the U.S. to do all of that.

4. Lithium-ion powered electric cars and plug hybrids. The lithium-ion battery technology is touchy, so car-b-ques would doubtless be more common due to the occasional thermal runaway problem. But Tesla has already put a sports car on the road, and both GM and Subaru are promising advanced-tech vehicles using the technology shortly. Molten sodium batteries like the zebra battery are also promising.

5. Build more nuclear plants. Again, new technology leads to safer solutions. Pebble bed reactors won’t melt down, and there are other designs, including a sealed, lifetime, maintenance-free unit that Hitachi can put just about anywhere. Why let France have all the nuclear fun?

6. Promote natural-gas powered cars. Honda has a Civic you can already buy, and a home-refueling station from them is not far behind. Right now the key barrier is that owners planning long trips need to plan them very carefully in order to stop at the few places the public can buy natural gas for their vehicles during those places’ operating hours. More NG cars on the road means more refueling options, which in turn will make the technology more attractive to potentialcar buyers.

7. Use Stirling engines in hybrid cars. The key drawback to the Stirling when Detroit tried to develop it for automotive use was that it took 20 minutes to start generating power for the car. For those not in the know, a Stirling is basically a sealed steam engine, using a gas instead of steam to run, and recirculating that gas permanantly instead of boiling it off. Meanwhile, any external source of heat will make it go–and that means you could conceivably run a car on coal or burning newspapers for that matter, although ideally what engineers would develop would be a vehicle that could use computer burn-management technology to make it run on any liquid or gaseous fuel (it could have both types of burners) and do so with as clean and efficient a burn as possible. A hybrid car could be driven without waiting for the engine to warm up, and the engine could be extremely low-power (say 5-8 horsepower) and used only to recharge the battery. If the vehicle included a computer that could be given a “drive plan” it could make decisions about when to run the engine and when not to–preferring nighttime plug-recharging and using the engine minimally in light of the day’s driving plans.

8. Lower the weight of automobiles, buses, trucks and airplanes. Costs for formerly exotic materials like carbon fiber have come way down, and the ability to engineer traditional materials to perform the same duties using less metal has come way up. The lighter the vehicle, the less fuel it will use.

9. Find new fuels: Coal gasification. Shale-oil deposits in Wyoming. Tar sands in Canada (technically not the U.S., but close enough. Algae products. Biodiesel. There are a lot of things we can find to burn, and a lot of them can be made from what are currently waste products or plants we don’t consider useful crops (perhaps even the Jerusalem Artichoke or hemp). The Brazilians are way ahead on this (their sugar cane to ethanol process has tem times the efficiency of our corn process). Let’s catch up.  

10. Explore the fringe: There are energy sources that have been looked at and largely discarded, although they remain well within the realm of possibility and should continue to be researched for their long term potential. Foremost among them is Low  Energy/Chemically-Assisted Nuclear Reactions (, formerly known as “Cold Fusion”, and their close cousin, sonofusion. Additionally, zero point energy, the research being conducted at CERN, Bussard’s Polywell and even Tesla’s theories merit new attention.

At this point you may be asking yourself what about wind and solar energy? In my view, those technologies are already well established and are being used wherever they are practical. Wal-Mart, for instance, is going to use solar on the rooftops of all of its stores. When they do that, it will be the handwriting on the wall for everyone else to adopt that approach as a matter of course. Everywhere that wind energy is sufficient, it is being installed by power companies and independent entrepreneurs. Again, it is showing up now as a matter of course, although Europe is ahead to the point where on a recent windy day in Spain their wind farms produced 40% of the country’s electricity needs that day. We don’t need to change any policies to get solar and wind technology, nor for that matter to get ethanol–the lobbyists have already taken good care of ethanol as a motor fuel. However, the ten that I mentioned all need help in one way or another to have their day in the sun.

What about hydrogen? Sure, it could come online, but it’s tricky to store and not terribly energy dense. Ammonia trumps it in many ways.

There is something we should stop funding: hot fusion. It’s been fifty years away for … fifty years. It will always be fifty years away. Or 93 million miles away, where it’s working just fine. Perhaps we should just take advantage of the source that is already up and running instead of building huge, expensive toys that don’t do anything but soak up grant money and keep graduate students busy.