Friday, October 20, 2006

Misanthropy I

Here's a post, with which I wholeheartedly agree. It appears the misanthropes are at it again, this time of the eco-maniac variety.

I sort of understand this misanthropy, where it comes from. It does not mean I sympathise. In fact, it's annoying, creepy, and indicative of a totalitarian mindset (mankind is not conforming to my beautiful IDEAL, and is therefore evil, hopeless, and worthless, and I will celebrate the day it is brought to its knees).

I've come up against the same attitude again and again. In fact, I'm going to have to invent or find a word to classify these recurrent themes which I encounter repeatedly in the thinking of others.

For example, just today on some random post about fads on an astronomy board, someone posted the following:

"You get blasted with carefully constructed psychological manipulation that promise the next piece of rubbish you buy will finally give meaning to your life. And because most people don't have any meaning in their lives, they are desperate enough to keep falling for it."

Because most people don't have any meaning in their lives. Oh no. Their lives are meaningless. Worthless. Plodding. Monotonous. Why, they go about buying things that amuse them, or please them, or that they think they "need" (a ridiculous notion, since purpose can only be derived from "meaning") without any consideration whatsoever to their grave offense to the observer's aesthetics.

They are desperate, you see? Desperate to find the "meaning" that conforming to the author's IDEAL can only provide. (They just never seem to realize it). Otherwise they would behave "properly", rather than in the intransigent manner that they do.

What condescending dreck!

Perhaps what I'm reacting to is a bit more than what these two examples let on, but I've seen a lot of aspects of this before. From eco-nazis to luddites to apocalyptic prophets of doom, to utopians, this same theme appears again and again. Look at most modern movies and their rank condescention towards the "common man". (Take the Matrix, for example.)

(PS, that's not to say I don't have my moments of depression/pessimism/misanthropy. And it's not to say I think people are perfect or that you can assume their natural goodness. Far from it. It's for things like this that you have to watch your back when dealing with human nature.)

The "sheeple" must be herded to greener pastures, otherwise they'll just stand there, doing whatever pleases them, and we can't have that, can we? It's often taken for granted that they will be herded by "evil" manipulators if they aren't herded by the "enlightened", "good" manipulators, that they have no volition or agency of their own, that their autonomous goals and desires aren't sufficient direction for their lives ("meaningless", "purposeless", "hopeless", "graceless"), or are irrelevant to the Real Important Things.

All I can say is that, when you see this pattern manifesting, reach for your philosophical/political/moral wallet, you're being had.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Biofuels Revisited II

Ah. Here's the relevant quote from Den Beste.

Biomass: I'm a bit embarrassed that I forgot this one to begin with. Biomass is, at its core, an extremely roundabout form of solar power. The idea is to use farmland to grow greenery, and then to burn the greenery to generate energy, but depending on who is making the proposal the details can vary wildly. Ethanol as a fuel is one example of this, but it is exceedingly inefficient because it is based on corn and only utilizes the grain, and wastes most of the energy in that and uses none of the energy in the rest of the plant.
A more efficient form of biomass is methanol, which can be created from the entire plant. The most efficient form is to burn the entire plant in a big power facility, for instance as a substitute for coal in electrical generation. There are some engineering issues involved, such as the fact that the biomass has to be dried or somehow have its water content reduced substantially, but that's a detail of the process.
It's an attractive idea, but I'm not sure the numbers make sense. I'm not sure I believe it's possible to actually supply a significant portion of our current energy use this way. You're only talking about actually harvesting greenery from the fields once or at most twice per year, and you're only going to get a few tons of dried fuel per acre each time you harvest. The US uses about 60 million short tons (about 55 million metric tonnes) of coal per month, or about 650 million metric tonnes per year.
According to this page at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, anthracite and bituminous coal (which make up most of the coal we use) contain 27-30 gigajoules per metric tonne. Agricultural residues are 10-17 gigajoules per metric tonne (as a function of water content). As an approximation, that means about 2 tonnes of biomass would be needed to replace each tonne of anthracite. Are we actually capable of producing, collecting and transporting 1.3 billion tonnes of dried biomass per year? The US currently has about 200,000 square kilometers of irrigated land; can we generate seven thousand tons of biomass per square kilometer? Or even a tenth of that? Not easily, if it's possible at all.
One of the reasons we can produce that much coal is that it's concentrated; a given coal mine can produce millions of tonnes of coal with a relatively small amount of machinery. But biomass would be extremely spread out, and you'd need an impressive infrastructure investment for all the trucks to collect it and bring it to rail yards for transport to the power plants. And a non-obvious part of the problem is that right now our agricultural practices are using that same biomass, partly to stop soil erosion and partly to reduce fertilizer usage. (Also, a lot of it is used as animal feed.)

Biofuels Revisited

“Fletcher continues leadership on energy independence”
“USDA and DOE Fund Biomass Research Projects”
“$17.5 million for biofuels”
“Harvesting Sunshine for Biofuels”
“Biodiesel proves its worth with bus fleet (KRTB)”

Some articles from around the internet. Bio-diesel is supposed to save us from fossil fuels. Bio-diesel will grow our way to sustainable energy. It’s the new clean green “way-of-the-future”. The people who aren’t onboard are “oil-lackeys” or “not aware” of fossil fuel’s limitations. They are standing in the way of our bright future. They are the reasons why we’re still dependent on foreign oil. They’re the reason why investors haven’t flocked to the farms. Yeah. Them. Oil lackeys. Bio-diesel is supposed to power our civilization in an eco-friendly way. Will it?

I’ve always been skeptical. Actually, I’ve been derisive. The world burns 50 million barrels of oil per day. The US burns 20 million of those barrels. A barrel of crude oil weighs136kg, so annually we (US) go through about 1 Gtonne of oil per year. 1E12 kg/year. That’s the finish line. If you want to replace the energy we get from fossil fuels, you have to play on that degree of scale. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts that’s a no if’s ands or buts condition. We either generate that level of energy, or we all get a lot poorer and possibly subservient to those nations that manage to hold onto the oil. Civilization is not magically going to morph into some radically “efficient” form where people don’t need to eat, drink clean water, run factories, or ship goods. Can we get here from there growing corn?

Subjectively, when I think of the fields behind my house, the breadbasket of the world, I can’t imagine that something harvested only once a year could possibly add up to that kind of mass. Could a field even fuel the tractor that harvests it? It doesn’t look like it to me.

But let’s run the numbers. According to, North Dakota gets about 121 bushels of corn per acre.

For soybeans, it’s around 40 bushels/acre. That’s industrialized, fertilized, mechanically planted and harvested soybeans. The “organic” (as if industrial agriculture is inorganic!) counterparts to soybeans rate around 16 bushels/acre. And that’s from an approving site!

Now, a bushel is an amount by volume measurement. A bushel of soybeans is around 60 lbs. That translates into 1.1 tonnes soybeans/acre. Corn is about 56 lbs/bushel, or 3.04 tonnes/acre. Of course, that’s tonnes of actual corn. The North Dakota site gives around 16 tonnes of silage, and I assume that a fermenting reactor is not particular about which bit it eats.

But you have to alternate corn and soybeans each year, otherwise you wear out your soil. You can’t go overfarming your land without crop rotation, unless you want to set off another dust bowl and ruin our ability to feed the world. So, assuming that you can just go corn/soybean/corn/soybean ad infinitum without consequence, you’d have an average of 8.5 tonnes/acre.

If a tonne of produce could magically be transformed into a tonne of crude oil, then we’d need to farm 117 million acres constantly.

*Note 1 hectare is not, as I have previously assumed, 100 acres. It is actually 2.47 acres. Big difference there. Nice to know when slinging agricultural lingo. :-P says the following about our agricultural statistics:
We have 179,000,000 hectares of permanent arable cropland. We currently grow corn on 28,710,000 of these hectares. Soybeans on a similar area (expectedly). And of course, we’re well to the top of both of these charts, worldwide.

So basically, we would need to devote land on the order of 27% of our arable land to bio-diesel production to make this work, assuming 100% efficiency in food to fuel conversion!!! We’d need to double the portion of our country devoted to corn and soybean production! And, as you all know, assuming 100% efficiency is a good way to be completely divorced from reality.

(Side note – America’s farmland is actually doing far better in the analysis at this point than I initially expected. It just goes to show that you always have to run the numbers when talking about this degree of scale. Humans do not instinctively think in terms of quantities on this degree of scale. We can’t extrapolate from things that we’re familiar with, on our personal visual scale, onto levels of national production, without resorting to a lot of math.)

Next to get an idea of the efficiencies involved, I’ll reference this article that caught my eye – “The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials”, Science Magazine, 27 Jan 2006. This article talks about harvesting wood for bio-materials. They are looking at something like 10-20 tonnes/hectare for woody crops, about on par with corn. (Though I imagine, far more involved and energy intensive to harvest). I hope they are including a suitable crop-rotation time for the forests to grow back, or we’ll denude our continent for a decade or so of fuel.

They claim that a process involving super-critical steam can break up 57-77% of their bio-mass in their hypothetical bio-refinery into condensable gasses, which can further be processed into syngas (% not given), which can finally be processed into Biofuels.

I think the Fischer-Tropsch process is commonly mentioned as a last-step in the creation of biofuels. Fischer-Tropsch can also process coal and other materials into fuel. For this DOE paper ( it seems as if the maximum theoretical stochiometric efficiency of coversion is around 39.3%.

Stochiometric efficiency isn’t by mass efficiency. It looks like they’re measuring mols hydrogen per mol biomass. CH1.47O0.67. Looks like it would relate to a hydrocarbon CnH2n with something like a 40% or 30% by mass ratio.

So the overall process is looking like it’s around 25 – 30% efficient by mass. For brevity (and due to time constraints), I won’t consider harvesting, transporting, or the energy costs of refinement. We will need around 400 million acres of farmland to replace our gasoline consumption. We would need to be using something like 90% of those 179 million arable hectares for biodiesel production.

I don’t think we’ll be able to replace gasoline with bio-diesel. I’ll admit that I didn’t imagine it would even end up in the neighborhood, but it seems our nations maximum possible agricultural production is at least in the neighborhood with what it would take to produce sufficient quantities of biofuel to free us from fossil fuels.

Still, it doesn’t need to be pointed out that we don’t need to nuke our soil with incessant corn production. Nor can we cease our agriculture for our other purposes. We need food. We need corn syrup for almost every industrial process imaginable relating to organic substances. The rest of the world needs our food too. We can’t be giving 90% of that up to get rid of oil.

You might protest that we’ll only need some fraction of our oil replaced by biofuels. 10-20% replacement is a good start. But the problem is, that's where it will stop too. What happened to “energy of the future?”. So we’ll be needing 80-90% of that oil after all? The goalposts have moved then. This won't be making us "energy independent" by any stretch of the imagination. And we’ll have to give up 10-25% of our farmland to achieve this? (And, assuming the economics of the situation don’t change, we’ll have to be subsidizing it at that!) Doesn’t sound like much of a deal to me. To pretend that it will replace oil feels too much like an agricultural scam.

If you want to replace oil, I mean actually replace the energy behind it, you’ll have to turn to a different source. But at least, after examining the concept, I won’t laugh as hard as I was laughing. At least it isn't windmills.

Steven Den Beste at USS Clueless blog (now, unfortunatel, inactive) has written several posts on alternative energy, mostly him raising similar objections to the ones I have raised, but with far more eloquence. Somewhere in one of his three articles I thought I saw something on bio-diesel. Not sure though. And, though he thinks large-scale nuclear power production is an insurmountable marketing obstacle in the short term, I believe, as stated in my previous posts on energy, that the prospect of going back to the 17th century in the long term (100 years or so) is a highly persuasive marketing force.