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The Pulpit
Pulpit Comments
June 06, 2008 -- It's the Platform, Stupid
Status: [CLOSED]

"More than six times as high" or "more than five times higher."

Fernando | Jun 06, 2008 | 3:31PM


I bought a diesel car and then stumbled on this:

"... city buses in half a dozen cities
in France ... are using a new type of diesel
fuel that contains 13 percent microscopic
water droplets about one-thousandth of a
millimeter in size.

"Trademarked 'Aquazole', the mix is now
available commercially in France at the same
cost as diesel. By law, all buses in Paris
must use it. Throughout Europe, over 9,000
buses run on Aquazole. "

N.C. Brown | Jun 06, 2008 | 4:04PM

I don't see enough biomass available, unless it's currently waste material, to replace a significant chunk of our gasoline consumption without disrupting food crops. will sorghum grow on marginal farmland in marginal climates, i.e. places that aren't used with great success and great impact on the food crop market. Or are we all going to be eating a lot of sorghum?

Put in a simpler fashion, is there enough farmland and farm production capacity in this country to grow all of the food that we require and to grow enough sorghum to make a large dent in OPEC?

I don't feel that even at 6-times the ethanol per bushel than corn that there's enough farmland in the US to completely replace gasoline.

How about a report on algae oil? There was a feature on CNN this week about somebody coming up with a new way to grow algae and that the algae could be genetically engineered to produce some form of oil. It featured a vertical flow-through hydroponic growing method that was pretty cool. I was wondering if they couldn't engineer those algae to produce other interesting products on a large scale. The guy interviewed that invented the process claimed that they could take a corner of Arizona and produce all of the gasoline requirement of the entire country. That would not disrupt food crops. I'll try to find a link to this process.

Dutch | Jun 06, 2008 | 4:11PM

"With $2.50-$3 gas with us probably forever, we're finally starting to learn to do things somewhat differently"
Your argument is built on the foundation of the above quote but I'm not sure it holds up.
Here in the UK, we pay $9 per US gallon for our fuel. Many do run more fuel efficient vehicles than the average American model, but there are plenty who still run gas guzzlers.
I guess that in 100 years people will look back on today's gasoline economy with the same sense of bewilderment that we look back on, say, WW1 trench warfare.

ToWS | Jun 06, 2008 | 4:21PM

Too bad you are going to need a lot of fertilizer derived from oil to grow all of that sorghum and a lot of diesel trucks to ship it to all of the airports.

Steve Dean | Jun 06, 2008 | 4:23PM

Yes whenever I'm in France I rent peppy little diesel cars that get 50 or so mpg
I've seen that stuff advertised and friends over there have spoken of it. For some reason they are not offering it here in the US yet . . .
We like our Gasoline wheels. (or industry and lawmakers want to keep us using them)

But as happens, it rubbed off on me and now, here in the US, I driven a vintage (25 year old) little diesel and am used to getting 40-45 mpg with little or no maintenance - all my friends
who get this horrible gas mileage of 30 or 32 mpg
with gasoline just roll there eyes but will never
seem to change. they get a new car and its a whopping 35 mpg! ooooo

I'll never go back to owning a gasoline car - it's just not well developed engineering, diesel is far superior - I hope soon we'll have diesel/electric hybreds - tell then I'll keep driving my Mercedes (they basically last forever if you're nice to them) getting a steady 40-42 mpg (48 on a good day!)

Gordon | Jun 06, 2008 | 4:27PM

I just read in The Atlantic that the largest single 'consumer' of energy -- 40% -- is heating and cooling buildings. So how much energy could we save if the government subsidized (mandated?) new windows for homes and offices?

Tony | Jun 06, 2008 | 4:34PM

Sounds a lot like butanol to me. Guess we'll have to wait for the MSDS to find out what it really is.

Bill | Jun 06, 2008 | 4:34PM

Excellent article. Even if SwiftFuel just replaces 10+% of our gas usage, it will help. Let's pray the Big Oil companies leave it alone, or help it along. We can raise more sorghum if we stop planting so much tobacco (and the farmers will still stay gainfully employed).


Another option: I saw an article a year or so ago where a U of I (Champaign) professor made crude oil from hog waste. Supposedly it costs too much to send that little bit to the big refineries. How about nano-refineries where farmers can produce their own oil from animal waste, refine it, and pump it back in to their tractors, etc.? Does that provide new meaning to "the smell of money"?

David | Jun 06, 2008 | 4:38PM

More interesting than the fuel is the fuel cell Swift is developing. The cell will run on something similar to ethanol, but the efficiency of converting ethanol to electricity to rotary motion is almost an order of magnitude greater than combusting it.

Another interesting thing Swift can do is blend fuels to create higher octanes. Potentially they can bring back the 140 octane fuel that the high-horsepower warbirds used.

Eric Coronado | Jun 06, 2008 | 4:54PM

I wonder what the efficiencies of this energy distribution are compared to more conventional forms of solar energy.

Sun light + water + fertilizer => sorghum => swift fuel => motion

Sun light => electricity => motion

David | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:01PM

The web page mangled some of my words... 2nd try


I wonder what the efficiencies of this energy distribution are compared to more conventional forms of solar energy.

Sun light + water + fertilizer => sorghum (processing) => swift fuel (transportation) (combustion) => motion

Sun light (photo voltaic or steam turbine) => electricity (transmission) (battery storage) (electric motor) => motion

David | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:05PM

"It is made entirely from biomass, which means it has a net zero carbon footprint and does nothing to increase global warming."

This is clearly a hyperbole.

Does the biomass plant and harvest itself?

Even if it DID, is the ethanol plant 100% effecient?

Even if it WAS, did the land used to grow the biomass displace food crops that will have to still be produced?

Zero Carbon is not such an easy condition to meet.

Joe J.

joe johnson | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:08PM

Just as an FYI...there are various other things that can be used to raise octane that are not as environmentally unsound as lead, one of which is toulene. While not the best thing to handle, it does substantially raise octane rating. That is only one example, there are several others. Jamie Kitman (automotive journalist and manager of They Might Be Giants and The Meat Puppets) had written a great article for 'Car' magazine in Britain about the use of lead in fuel (and how it was unnecessary).

Osmodious | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:17PM

Interesting article but I cannot for the life of me understand where the "carbon neutrality" comes from. It seems to me, assuming this new fuel emits the same amount of carbon dioxide during combustion as gasoline, and I have no reason to doubt that, that the carbon emissions would increase since a substantial amount of fuel is burned to create the biomass crop, and then the fuel itself, once made, is also burned. In addition, as everyone else is pointing out, all the farmland being used to make food for our cars cannot be used to make food for us.

This hardly seems like it will be more than a small supplement to existing fossil fuels.

ConceptJunkie | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:20PM

I'm thinking that the real future of transportation fuel will be about localized lower cost alternatives to gasoline, similar to the way home heating fuels have evolved, rather than a mass conversion to a single alternative.

There are many fuel choices to heat your home today, from wood logs, wood pellets, propane, natural gas, fuel oil, electricity, solar, etc. The cheapest and most convenient choice depends on where you live in relation to the source of the fuel and how much labor one wants to commit to the cause.

The standard will be gasoline for everybody, but local "SwiftFuels" and other alternative biofuel factories will be built locally depending on where the biomass is abundant.

Bill Lime | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:23PM

Here's a link to the Kitman article (which is cited all over the 'net), entitled "The Secret History of Lead"
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20000320/kitman

Osmodious | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:24PM

Its a little paranoic to talk about oil companies being able to kill anything that has the economic gain formula on its side. Unfortunately for cars the ethanol thing is not there yet. When we are looking back Bush will be thought a genius when the cellulosic ethanal puzzle is finally solved for having the nuts to make the switch and get the infrastructure in place before it arrived. Of course some other president will take credit.

Fred X | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:28PM

Substantial improvements in gas mileage can be had right now. But HURRY, because many of us believe that the oil industry, working in connivance with the auto industry and all the crooked politicians in Congress is going to try and suppress the technology again and/or pass laws preventing its use by Americans. They have succeeded before, but that was pre-Internet, and the information is now out in the open and traveling like lightning all over the world. It cannot be suppressed any more.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. See this link:

http://www.water4gas.com/2books.htm

And, Water4Gas is NOT a scam. For a good analysis of why it is not, also see this link:

http://www.auto-facts.org/water4gas-scam.html

Cars which run almost 100% on water exist today; this technology is being worked on further at an accellerating pace, and I'm expecting more news in a year or two. But don't expect the controlled news media to report anything on it.

TheOldeGrumpp | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:36PM

You write that the life expectancy of cars in the US is ten years. This is completely inaccurate. I forget the exact figure, but it is at least 14 years.

Nicolai | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:40PM

The platform that we run on is instant grafification, and ignoring the cognitive aspects of how people work is the reason geeks don't make good problem-solvers.

"Status must depend on service, not consumption."

Americans are energy hogs, just to increase their psychological comfort. We have no spine. Jetskis, Harleys, McMansions, fat in our food and on us, SUV, instant delivery, airplane trips, powerboats, theme parks, giant TVs, solo commuting, avoidance of mass transit.

All psychologically based. And your solution is StinkyFuel.

I noted how carefully you avoided mentioning what it is.

Ormond Otvos | Jun 06, 2008 | 5:56PM

SwiftFuel will succeed if it passes the FAA tests because it fills a real need in the GA sector and will sell world-wide.

There's another reason, too: the global supply of tetraethyl lead is currently made by just one smallish company. That's a big risk to face if you operate an aeroplane.

However, SwiftFuel will need to transition to cellulosic ethanol PDQ or it will be impacted by the food vs. fuel problem.

I have a feeling it will have little or no impact on road transport until its feedstock can be made at industrial efficiencies from concentrated solar power or there's an order of magnitude drop in per capita fuel use. This is simply because almost any biofuel process will be unable to meet the current energy demand even if its production occupies the entire land surface of the world. George Monbiot calculated that running the UK on biofuel would require about five times the UK's land area to grow the stuff. The same would apply to any Western nation.

Martin Gregorie | Jun 06, 2008 | 6:00PM

Ahhh.... Nothing like burning topsoil to feed our engines.

But, we can make more topsoil, easy! Just have another ice age and wait 10,000 years - bingo: More topsoil !

What a bargain!


William Donelson | Jun 06, 2008 | 6:00PM

Developing a fuel that runs on a staple food of the poorest in Africa. What could possibly go wrong?

Will | Jun 06, 2008 | 6:09PM

Yeah, George Bush has worked hard for the cellulosic ethanol business, and I have a bridge I'll sell you.

Ethanol is a waste of time and cropland. Electric is the only answer, we just need to accelerate the technology.

Tim | Jun 06, 2008 | 6:14PM

Hmm, timely piece given today's close at $138/barrel.

John S. | Jun 06, 2008 | 6:31PM

Well you are missing an angle to the problem. Changing the platform can have too much inertia/friction, but this is relevant only if you assume that the platform already is the correct one for the job.

Going back to your computer analogy, platform change IS taking place. Many of the computing that was done on the PC is migrating to the mobile device. This is not just a technology-driven platform change, but also a usage one. Sometimes a cell phone is the right device for the job, not the PC.

Let's translate this to energy usage. What if we realize that the automobile is not the right technology for the job all of the time? If we accept that the bicycle is the better platform for short commutes and store trips, we adapt to the energy cost issue.

And the platform change is not radical. Practically all the necessary infrastructure (primarily just paved roads) exists to enable this technology. And only a minor investment is necessary to make it more efficient and accessible.

So automobile is to PC as bicycle is to cell phone. Not a great paradigm change, and maybe an inevitable one. Sure, there will always be some tasks for which a PC is required (e.g. building a complex spreadsheet) and for which a car is required (e.g. traveling from Seattle to Portland), but that does not mean that they are the correct platform for all tasks.

Accepting the smaller platform for the smaller task is part of the solution.

Murali | Jun 06, 2008 | 6:56PM

There are two problems with the demise of gasoline:
First, it's an energy medium. That is, it's a convenient, energy-dense medium for moving energy out of a pump and into relatively compact and safe tanks in our cars. That's a platform issue, and Swiftfuel, or improved electric batteries, or maybe hydrogen will someday be a great replacement "platform".

But unlike all these others, gasoline is also effectively the source of energy. It's the accumulation of millions of years of solar energy in a convenient package.

It's fine that another platform will replace the energy transaction medium, and maybe you'll find one that cars love. But WHERE'S THE ENERGY COMING FROM? There's no way we can produce energy from solar at the rate we've been consuming oil-based energy without some major disruption.

So when you ask, Bob, "So how do we leave that platform intact and unchanged, ask nobody to significantly sacrifice," I think it should be pretty clear that we can't. Somebody (probably all of us) is going to have to get off his duff and sacrifice. Living off a solar budget's just not as easy as staying at home and munching off your savings. The problem is, of course, eventually the savings account runs dry . . . .

Jeff B. | Jun 06, 2008 | 7:33PM

A nit on accelerating automotive platform change to more that 10% per year. One must actually build the darn things, and there is a finite manufacturing capacity to do so. Ain't gonna happen much faster.

Dan Casali | Jun 06, 2008 | 7:37PM

Big oil companies may be evil, but they aren't stupid. If this stuff works, they will want to be among those who get rich selling it.
We can rejoice that high oil prices are driving innovation. We desperately need innovation, and as Bob points out, pain is the most effective motivator in economics.

Damien | Jun 06, 2008 | 7:51PM

First:
Alcohol is harmful to tour car.
You sure about that?
Alcohol itself isn't really very much more corrosive than Gasoline. However, because of fears of the "demon rum" the government requires that distilleries poison (denature) alcohol, so that if anybody drinks it, they will die. Most distilleries use Methyl Ethyl Ketone or Acetone for this. Both are extremely harmful to rubber & plastic. The BATF now allows denaturing with Gasoline, which isn't any more corrosive than ... gasoline.

Second:
Joe Johnson & ConceptJunkie, it's called Carbon Sequestration. It means that basically, we had a baseline level of carbon in the atmosphere when we started using fossil fuels. Fossil fuels over 100's of millions of years have locked up (sequestered) an astronomical amount of atmospheric carbon in the ground. When we burn fossil fuels, we release that carbon.

When we grow plants, they take some carbon out of the air. When we burn plants, they release the carbon into the air that they took out of the air to grow. No increase in the atmospheric carbon.

If the tractors & fertilizer come from petrochemicals made from fossil fuels, then yes, that would be bad. But they also can be had from carbon neutral sources.

Third: I'm sure somebody quoted the "research" that says it takes more energy to produce ethanol than you can get out. Can't find the quote now. But anyway, it's complete & utter rubbish. Funded by one of the oil companies. They use the production of food grade corn, to make food grade alcohol.
There are many crops which produce many, many times more alcohol than corn.
There are many ways of cokking the mash & firing the distillation column that do not involve the energy waste of food grade production.
All of the tractors, transport trucks & fertilizers can be replaced by no fossil fuel options.
Fuel grade crops do not require the level of "weed & feed" that food grade requires.
Cars run on straight alcohol DO NOT require the purity of alcohol required for alcohol destined to be mixed with gasoline, also a major energy savings.

Fourth:
Brazil!

o4tuna | Jun 06, 2008 | 8:27PM

Bob wrote:
[long article that didn't mention NerdTV Season 2]

So, Bob, where's Season 2 of NerdTV?

Derek | Jun 06, 2008 | 8:32PM

I second Derek's comment - please don't let NerdTV Season 2 turn into the next Duke Nukem Forever.

Graham | Jun 06, 2008 | 9:07PM

No idea where yuu got the $1.42/gallon number for wholesale ethanol, but it is at least a dollar low. It varies a lot between states, but the lowest state price I could see today was $2.57 in South Dakota.

matt wilbert | Jun 06, 2008 | 9:25PM

Fascinating concept. I hope it's real. One minor quibble. There are lots of farmers in South Texas who would be surprised at your comment about sorghum. My family has been growing it for 3 generations and there are many thousands of acres harvested every year in the southern quadrant of Texas. There is even a USDA price support subsidy.

Brad Roberts | Jun 06, 2008 | 9:43PM

>>>...because Moore's Law is going to give us a 100 percent improvement anyway on our next PC without having to throw away any software or peripherals.

Unless the OS vendor makes it impossible to run your OS on a changed machine, and the peripheral vendors stop making drivers under pressure from the OS vendor, and the vendor's lobbyists make it impossible to migrate your same hard drive and same system configuration (that you already paid for!) without explicitly breaking some new law or some bizarre interpretation of an old one.

I wouldn't mind the monopoly so much if only they were as reliable and compatible as the monopoly phone company used to be.

DutchUncle | Jun 06, 2008 | 10:01PM

Is there nothing Moore's Law can't explain?

bill | Jun 06, 2008 | 10:09PM

Your friend's recollection, from your linked story: [i]"During the summer of 1973 I worked on a tow boat on the Mississippi River. Every 10 to 14 days, we'd load our barges on the Gulf Coast and deliver petroleum products to some place in the Midwest. That was the summer of the big gasoline shortages. As we would travel up and down the Mississippi, we'd pass an Exxon tow. It would have eight barges (a double unit) fully loaded, or about 10 million gallons of gasoline. The tow wouldn't be moving, it would be tied up in a quiet spot on the river. Each trip we find more tows tied up. Shell, Texaco, Exxon, Amoco were all doing it. One day they announced in the news how much gasoline would be used in the USA in a single day. I made some quick calculations and realized we had passed a month's supply on our last trip"[/i]


1. Unfortunately, your friend's memory is defective. The shortages began well after that summer, when the Arab oil embargo started on October 17, 1973, eleven days after the beginning of the Yom Kippur war (when Egypt and Syria coordinated attacks on Israel, but were quickly and decisively repulsed, with Syria losing the Golan Heights and Egypt losing the entire Sinai peninsula, right up to the Suez Canal).

2. Further, parking the equivalent of a month's supply of U.S. the nation's gasoline consumption on the Mississippi River or holding it off the market speaks either to wildly excessive refinery output - or to some advanced knowledge that a price spike was about to occur.

Was Big Oil stirring the pot, hoping Egypt and Syria would take the bait and invade Israel, prompting OPEC nations to display Arab solidarity and thereby create a major disturbance that could send gas prices sky-high? The former wasn't visible by anyone but your friend (ergo hearsay and besides, inaccurately placed in time) and the latter is just a wee bit too cynical, don't you think?

--
Now, to the matter of transition to a new platform. That's a good way to view the challenge. But that is not to say oil and petroleum are dead.

There are still substantial reserves available, for less cost to develop than either $139/bbl or that of the alternative fuels cited.

The present and long-standing problem is two-fold, but it arises from insufficient competition in the producer market.

First, the vast majority of current production is in the hands of nationalized producers, compounded by the monopolistic cartel of OPEC. Additionally, these nations have neglected to invest in new recovery technologies, which means they're preparing to walk away from large amounts of recoverable reserves, happy to minimize their (often quite minimal) cost of production while world prices skyrocket).

Second, as we all know, U.S. environmental restrictions have prevented competitive domestic producers from tapping reserves well within their reach -- and within their ability to finance, given their large reported earnings of late. This point need not be elaborated.

Just as the control of world markets by lazy, disinterested foreign producers needs to be addressed, so too domestic environmental barriers need to be removed. The oil and petroleum platform has a lot of life left in it, if we show some determination to meet our needs.

T Heller | Jun 06, 2008 | 10:14PM

sorghum is a fast growing grass that can be grown in the off season by most farmers as a second crop. new ethanol plants using lonnie ingram's (U of Fla http://www.ufl.edu/spotlight/ingram.html) cellulose conversion enzymes are supporting the low cost of ethanol claims. however, UT/Austin (http://cns.utexas.edu/communications/2008/04/biofuel_microbe.asp) has microbes that can produce cellulose ready to convert into ethanol, ALL FROM MICROBES, FROM BIRTH TO GAS TANK. sorghum, although much more efficient than using food crops like sugar or corn, is not even necessary. ethanol converted from cellulose produced by microbes is more like a pennies for the gallon process.

the fact that this swift fuel can use the current platform and hybrids are coming out left and right, we could make a huge dent in gasoline use in this country by converting. transportation is most of our petroleum usage. ethanol is clean burning and with the microbe process i linked to, it could be in cheap unlimited supply. we could probably run power plants with it and only drill oil for export.

chris l | Jun 06, 2008 | 11:12PM

IMHO car manufacturers need to electrify every accessory even on non-hybrid cars. Remove all belts and other parasitical doodads from the motor itself, leaving it to spin as efficiently as possible. All that should be attached to the battery is the drivetrain and the alternator (or better yet, put the alternator in with the transmission), all the stuff like power steering, power brakes, AC, water pump, etc. should be electric.

This brings in economies of scale for those components and makes it easier to hybridize or completely electrify a car design.

I'd also be interested to see a 50-100hp turboshaft jet in use instead of Otto-cycle or even compression-ignition engines in a serial hybrid application (such as the Volt), since jets are smaller, lighter, have fewer moving parts, and are more efficient. Pass the superhot exhaust thru some sort of heat -> electricity rig (Stirling or Seebeck-effect) for even more efficiency.

Also, turboshafts (such as the one used for the Abrams tank) can be designed to be multifuel capable, so they can run on gas, diesel, kerosene, or any military jet fuel.. And who knows, maybe even LPG or CNG...

Otis Wildflower | Jun 06, 2008 | 11:40PM

Uhm lead-less and ethanol-less 100+ octane fuel for aircraft and cars that mixes with gasoline is already available... and cheap because it lacks taxed for road use, you can buy 104 race gas without lead or ethanol for about $0.89/L I dunno what that is in English units sorry.

Also using land to make fuel hrmmmmm I seem to recall a UN summit just last week on growing more food not more

Guy | Jun 07, 2008 | 12:05AM

If they can use _any_ kind of ethanol in the process, then it has a far better chance of success than current US ethanol-for-cars plans do, since the current system is basically nothing but yet another huge federal handout to the Archer Daniels Midland corporation and the Iowa agribusiness lobby they finance. Making ethanol that way is wasteful and destructive and causes food prices to skyrocket, but that's not the only way, and if this process can use other sources (as Bob says it can), then I have a lot more hope for it.

Matt | Jun 07, 2008 | 12:59AM

"The Ruseks claim that sorghum, which isn't a typical U.S. crop", are we to take Swift Fuel seriously, when statement as this are made. At least one Kansas ethanol plant was/is being built with the use of Milo (grain sorghum) in mind. Sorgum has long been a typical crop on the dry Great Plains. The Ruseks should build their swift fuels plant on the Great Plains where sorghum not corn is a viable dryland crop, instead of taking corn acres in the Midwest where corn is a dryland crop to grow sorghum. Then again common sense and who'd getting the money never where compatible where they?

doug | Jun 07, 2008 | 2:11AM

For authoritative info on the question of changing the platform, read Freedom From Oil, published last year by the Brookings Institution. Complete coverage of ethanol and alternatives, pluggable hybrids, etc.

knovak | Jun 07, 2008 | 2:43AM

Interesting that you do not mention natural gas. The U.S. has large reserves of same. The cost of retrofitting gasoline engines is not excessive, thus not necessarily a dramatic platform-changer.

Richard Sherman | Jun 07, 2008 | 3:20AM

Everyone (here, governments, the public, media) is making a huge assumption that there is a fuel replacement for oil. The assumption isn't based on energy research, it based on fear. Oil is a huge part of our life and losing oil (or an identically functioning equivalent) would literally crash both our economy and way of life. And it's the fear of that happening that prevents humans from realizing the obvious: we're screwed.

Platform is right. But the platform is cheap fuel. The platform is American wealth. It's being able to eat whatever whenever because we can ship it across the country or across continents. It's being able to fly or drive to see your family every thanksgiving. It's cheap products. It's houses with more rooms than people. It's being able to use your individualized car instead of public transport with strangers. It's getting to commute even a half hour which let's you have the job you want while living where you want. It's always living in a building between 60 and 80 degrees. It's be able to buy twice much food as we need, and of considerably higher quality, and throwing a third away because we don't feel like eating leftovers or eating on a schedule to avoid spoilage. All these things we take for granted. Compare this to the world or to history and you'll realize the platform of the 20th century was wealth fueled by oil.

The few people, mostly environmentalists, who were able to see past this knew this oil problem was coming. Call it Peak Oil or just the common sense that every non-renewable resource must run out. Yet all our expert economicists are acting as if huge oil cost rises are surprising. This is were it's better to be open-minded than to be an expert.

Every couple years there's a new so-called replacement for oil. They all sound too good to be true, so forgive me for not believing them. Take ethanol. Just a couple years ago everything was yahooing about how it would solve our problems (much of the public still thinks this) yet it was obvious from the start this was impossible. Yet those platform defenders needed a rescue idea and ethanol was the best they had. Now the rescue-fuel is SwiftFuel but it's super obvious that even at 5 or 6 times higher efficiency than ethanol, it's not nearly enough. We'd need something near 100 times greater efficency.

We're not actually cutting back on oil usage, we're cutting back on usage growth. We've been growing so constantly in the past 6 decades it's hard to see the difference. Even if we get to neutral growth, oil prices will rocket and we're screwed.

So to burst bubbles, but there's only one way this can end. Our platform will die. Americans will do what we hate most: sacrifice. It's not even needing to choose to change our lifestyle, we'll be forced to change, kicking screaming all the way out the door, no doubt. But few will believe this - so blinded by the platform are we. Those who couldn't see the demise of oil until it was too late won't see the demise of the "American way" as Bush articulated in response to energy cutbacks. The best anyone can do know is prepare themselves for the fall.

Ephilei | Jun 07, 2008 | 4:33AM

I second the natural gas point. Pakistan (population=160 million), for one, switched en mas to compressed natural gas. It has the second largest number of compressed natural gas vehicles running on its road. The air is much more cleaner now, energy costs are down (though the MNC in the gas sector lobby for the btu-based linkage between oil and gas prices but are intermittently restricted one notch below the oil prices) and the infrastructure has upgraded across the country pretty quickly to support this new platform.

Tee Emm | Jun 07, 2008 | 7:11AM

On moving to Japan, I sold or donated our 5 cars.
I can rent a nice Honda or Toyota whenever I need one. I go everywhere by walking, by bicyle or train.
After 15 years my savings are substantial. You can probably guess what I have used these savings for.

Edo River | Jun 07, 2008 | 7:32AM

So the gasoline IC engine's demise has been exaggerated! Finally a common sense look at the issue. Obviously, it's going to be much cheaper to incorporate green technology in fuel manufacturing plants than it is in the cars that we push around on wheels to everywhere we go. Hybrids are a nice idea but too expensive and don't pay their way until gas tops 5.00 a gallon. Battery technology is still way to expensive. Synthetic fuels are the answer.

mac84 | Jun 07, 2008 | 8:36AM

There's so little useful information in this article about what SwiftFuel is, that one could never evaluate whether it's worth a crap. The first part of the article provides useful introductory information. The second part reads like an Infomercial. I'm betting that, whatever data the Rusek's have, it don't scale too well.

philip | Jun 07, 2008 | 8:53AM

This overlooks the cost of the fuel used to farm whatever you use to make the ethanol. If fossil fuel costs go up, so will ethanol.

mark | Jun 07, 2008 | 9:09AM

It's time to think outside the box -- the steel box with wheels, that is. Reducing demand for fossil fuels by aggressively developing and promoting alternatives -- public transportation for local trips, trains for freight and longer trips, making our cities and work places more friendly for pedestrian and bicycle access -- would possibly be just as effective, less expensive and more sustainable in the long run, and it requires no untested or unproven technology.

For less than the cost of a year in Iraq, we could fund a "Manhattan Project" type effort to move America in that direction.

John | Jun 07, 2008 | 9:29AM

"For less than the cost of a year in Iraq"

one week in Iraq: $ 1.5 billion
52 weeks in Iraq: $78 billion

Could we fund a "Manhattan Project" type effort? Would $78 billion do the trick?

pete | Jun 07, 2008 | 9:53AM

Hi --

So what, chemically, is Snake_Oil/SwiftFuel?

Kirk B.

Batman's Byte | Jun 07, 2008 | 10:53AM

My campaign aides want to know if it will power their SwiftBoats.

John McCain | Jun 07, 2008 | 11:06AM

Bob, as a loyal Purdue alumnus, I will assume with you that these good folks in Lafayette, Indiana, hold the agricultural ethanol-based key to untying the Gordian knot which our crude-importing, ever more expensive automotive power system is bound up in. So, let's suppose that Swift Enterprises holds the key to significantly reducing the costs of production for vast quantities of fuel--liquid refreshment for our cars, pickups, SUVs, etc.

Just one question: if some mean Texas oil men, like Exxon Mobil, were to buy Swift out, what reason would they have to shut it down? Wouldn't they want to use their newly acquired process to gain advantage over those those good, green northern California-hearted Chevron people and their other competitors? Or what incentive would a GM have to close down the Ruseks' business? If we were car salesmen, wouldn't we hope that our customers would not be discouraged by high fuel costs? Some day we might even be able to tell them: just grow a little sorghum in your garden, make some alcohol with an old whiskey still, use the little included Swift fuel kit, and you can run this car all year.

Jeff Johnson | Jun 07, 2008 | 11:49AM

"At least half of the current price for crude oil is driven by speculation and market manipulation"

Back up these sorts of statements with some facts. You sound like a caller to Art Bell radio show. If the market was being squeezed, it'd be time spreads that were going nuts, or cracks, or location spreads, not flat price.

The fact is, billions moving to commodities from pension funds and money fleeing far bigger markets: rates, fx, equities, and debt.

Saying idiotic crap about dark cabals squeezing oil makes me doubt what you say about PCs and IT.

mds | Jun 07, 2008 | 1:09PM


"Sounds a lot like butanol to me. Guess we'll have to wait for the MSDS to find out what it really is."

Butanol was my first guess, also, but the FAQ on their web site seems to state otherwise:

http://www.swiftenterprises.com/FAQ.html

"Q: Is there any ethanol in the SwiftFuel?
A: No! The SwiftFuel contains no ethanol. We can use the output stream of a modified ethanol plant to produce SwiftFuel; however, there is no ethanol itself in our fuel.

Q: Is there any alcohol in the SwiftFuel?
A: No, there are no alcohols of any kind in our fuel."

Steve | Jun 07, 2008 | 1:20PM

So Bob is an expert on what? Computers, education,space travel... and now energy, markets and farming. And everything in all these subject areas is based on Moore's law. Quite a guy. Einstein was a real idiot compared to this guy. I guess the grand unified theory of physics is as simple as Moore's law too -- probably next weeks column.

Everyone has already debunked every point he's made. But I'll add one more. Historically, past oil spikes were temporary because "the pain" caused a drop in demand via conservation. Yes, there were always theories about manipulation, but demand came down and then the price did as well. This time is different because oil is priced in US dollars -- drop the dollar and oil goes up. The dollar will not return to higher levels because the government is printing it like monopoly money to pay for wars and all the corporate hand outs. That is the real reason why oil, food, metals and every other commodity is expensive an likely to stay that way.

No change (typical ups and downs of course) until the government gets it's financial house in order. In other words,after hell freezes over.

mark | Jun 07, 2008 | 1:32PM

Quick fixes include the following:

1. 55 MPH speed limit. Signs could go up today. Expect, what, 15% improvement? Can't wait for the signs? Don't have to. It's legal to drive less than the speed limit. I enjoy 550 miles per tank rather than 480 right now.

2. Engine change. My 2000 Saturn has 220,000 miles. I can get a used engine for under $500. $1000 installed. But if i go for a turbocharged engine, i'll get 20% better economy. So, instead of 44 MPG, i should get 53 MPG. $1000 into this older car should give it another 5 years. Much cheaper than buying new. Retrofits can be performed on a large scale.

3. Diesels also get 20% better economy. And, they can be combined with turbos. So, my Saturn could be getting 63 MPG.

4. Cruise control gives you 5% at the same speed. I think it's because engine drag is the same as stomping on the brake. I wish transmissions could freewheel.

5. Manual transmissions are more efficient than automatics. Learn to drive a stick. It's not THAT hard. You don't get 40 MPG with an automatic.

6. Bottoms of cars are designed to induce turbulence. This keeps cars on the road at high speed. But if you limit yourself to, say 80 MPH, your smooth bottomed car could get 5% better gas mileage. Retro kits should be easily designed, installed, marketed. After all, 5% is what drives those funny wind thingies on top of semi trucks. And, a 'car diaper' shouldn't leak oil on the driveway.

So, my 8 year old car gets 44 MPG, but should get 70 MPG.

Stephen | Jun 07, 2008 | 1:59PM

Bob has an advantage over Einstein. Einstein had to come up with his own ideas. I'm happy that Bob is a conversation starter with a big following. That's better than me, and i'm pretty smart.

Stephen | Jun 07, 2008 | 2:06PM

"The fact is, billions moving to commodities from pension funds and money fleeing far bigger markets: rates, fx, equities, and debt."

Doesn't that quote in fact reinforce what Mr. Cringely said? He didn't say it was a dark cabal, he said that the high price was at least partly because of speculation. The definition of speculation are buyers of commodities that have no interest of ever claiming the quota of the commodity note (i.e. they will resell it to someone else). I've read (another un-referenced fact.. sorry) that somewhere around 90% of the trades on the oil exchange are NOT by people who are original sellers (producers) nor end client buyers (consumers), but are by speculators. Further, the way futures are sold, is that a 'capacity' is sold. If a big mutual fund buys 5% of next month's capacity, and want to resell it for 10% profit, there is really nothing stopping them as that 5% is needed by the market (i.e. the demand curve is very inflexible). This is also partly due to the declining (since the 1980's) storage capacity for both oil, and refined products, forcing everyone from oil refineries, to the end consumer to buy 'right when they need it', allowing the inflexible demand curve to persist.

Peter | Jun 07, 2008 | 2:09PM

The big plus for liquid fuels is energy density.

The big minus is that the IC engine is around 25 - 30% efficient; with the drivetrain adding 50% loss (automatic transmission) making for around 18% efficiency.

And that's good! Because the purpose of the car is not to transport; it is to make $$ for the fuel supplier, the fuel station, the government.

Does that matter? Well,in expanding economies and plentiful times - nope. It's good for business, taxes, good for everything.

:)

But when the stuff runs out? Bad to be in that generation....

Three years ago I saw a IC / Wankel derivative engine with x3 efficiency; mid 70% mark. And went to look at the website again 6 months ago. All gone, nothing about it on the web; dead.

Wonder what happened; who knows :(

Prediction: there WILL be a change - when the "new horse" - whatever it is - makes more $$ then oil.

Which I suspect will be 1 day after all the oil is gone (captive market and all that :)

//please understand that these are not technology issues; they are economy / profit / tax issues

charlie | Jun 07, 2008 | 2:14PM

@mark:
"This time is different because oil is priced in US dollars -- drop the dollar and oil goes up."

So since the price of oil is 8 times higher than it was about ten years ago, the value of the dollar is 8 times lower? Not so, the value of the dollar has suffered mightily under President Bush (pretty much a straight line down since he was first elected), but it hasn't dropped enough to be even near to the sole cause of the price difference in oil that we see.

Here's the USD versus the Swiss Franc, for instance:

http://finance.yahoo.com/echarts?s=USDCHF=X#chart2:symbol=usdchf=x;range=my;indicator=volume;charttype=line;crosshair=on;ohlcvalues=0;logscale=on;source=undefined

neil | Jun 07, 2008 | 2:40PM

The reason Bob is wrong about the price of oil coming down:

"Was Big Oil stirring the pot, hoping Egypt and Syria would take the bait and invade Israel, prompting OPEC nations to display Arab solidarity and thereby create a major disturbance that could send gas prices sky-high? The former wasn't visible by anyone but your friend (ergo hearsay and besides, inaccurately placed in time) and the latter is just a wee bit too cynical, don't you think?"

Ever heard of Iraq, guy?

Ever read Greg Palast's articles about how the neocons wanted to use Iraqi oil to break up OPEC - and the oil companies pressured Bush to shut that down? Google for it and get an education.

Now, have you ever heard of Iran?

We will be at war with Iran by the end of this year. That war will go on for probably the next ten years, on the Vietnam model the Iranians will use - as the Iraqis are using - to bleed the US to death militarily, economically and geopolitically.

You're not seeing cheaper oil for at least the next ten years.

And anybody who thinks the US isn't going to war with Iran is a fool.

Richard Steven Hack | Jun 07, 2008 | 4:20PM

I certainly hope that SwiftFuel is the advance that it seems. However, I'd disagree with you about one point you make: That changing the fuel is the only way to make improvements without significant sacrifice.

The main reason that our vehicles get such crappy gas mileage is because they are getting heavier. Mass and air resistance (especially above about 60 mph) have the biggest impact on fuel economy.

For example, take a typical vehicle of 50 years ago, the Ford Galaxie (a huge whale of a car, right?) It weighed around 3,500 - 4,000 lb and got around 20 mpg from a 6 cylinder engine.
Compare that to the 2008 Ford Explorer (also pretty typical) which weighs in at 4,500 to 4,700 lbs and gets about 20 mpg from it's 6 cylinder engine. Not a lot of progress in half a century.

Additionally, if the oil companies are being paid more for their raw material, a barrel of oil, why do they charge more for gas? I mean the ones that get their own oil out of the ground and process it. It doesn't cost them any more to drill or pump or refine. So the extra profit from a barrel of oil could subsidize the cost of gas couldn't it? If Starbucks charged twice as much for coffee they could sell you pastries cheaper.

Chris | Jun 07, 2008 | 7:15PM

Interesting perhaps, but completely wrong on some fundamental points.

Cars are not the key to US energy consumption.

13% of total energy consumption is transportation. Of that, cars are somewhat more than half. Trucks, rail, aircraft, shipping, etc make up rest. The big fuel consumer - and CO2 producer - is coal-fired electrical generation; more than half of all carbon fuel goes to this. The remainder of fuel is used for heating and industrial and everything else.

So, a massive change in passenger car transport that reduces fuel consumption by, say, half - an incredible behavioral change for millions - billions of people, costing trillions of dollars - could at most cut fuel consumption by 6%.

But that's a false saving. "Fuel efficiency" means that driving is cheaper - lower cost per mile - and so people will inevitably drive more and consume even more gas than before. Think about it - if you had a 100mpg car - you'd drive everywhere! You'd take more trips, and you'd never ride a train or a bus. You might even drive instead of flying. Your monthly gasoline bill would go up. You'd spend much more time in your car. For a fascinating explanation of this, read "The Bottomless Well" by Huber and Mills. Prius owners do not buy less gasoline per month than other motorists - they get better mileage, but they drive more precisely because of that.

Even at today's gasoline prices, Priuses don't make economic sense.

But this stupid plug for ethanol and biomass-derived really doesn't make sense. With current and anticipated technologies, ethanol and biodiesel require more fossil fuel and water than the energy output is worth.

* * *

What's the problem? Too much money going to the Saudis? If we don't buy their oil, the Chinese will. We're not going to change that.

Too much CO2? If you believe that's a problem, lobby for nuclear electricity generation. Electricity generation produces far, far more CO2 than any other source.

But don't believe any politician on this subject - they just see the whole matter as a terrific opportunity to expand government in ways previously unimaginable. Even more brilliant than naming Tract 284B "Headwaters Forest" was naming CO2 a "greenhouse gas." Al Gore didn't invent the Internet, but he did make up global warming. He convinced suburban America that we're ruining the planet. Incredible.

(To forestall any hate mail: I live in suburban California, but I bicycle everywhere. I bought and burned just ten tanks of gas in the past year. How much gas did you burn last year?)

Jon | Jun 07, 2008 | 9:57PM

Jon says "...that's a false saving. 'Fuel efficiency' means that driving is cheaper - lower cost per mile - and so people will inevitably drive more and consume even more gas than before," and "Prius owners do not buy less gasoline per month than other motorists..."

I would like to know the research that supports this statement. I can readily accept that there is some variability of this sort, but not to the extent Jon implies. He seems to say that if I, for example, replace my 20 MPG pickup with a 40 MPG hybrid I will drive twice as much, or five times as much if I find a miracle 100-MPG vehicle. Sorry, but at least for me, that's just not going to happen.

Personally -- with the exception of my poor college days -- I don't believe I've ever driven more or less base on the gas mileage I achieved or the price I paid for fuel. When I need to drive, I drive. When I don't, I don't. Maybe I'm in a lucky minority, but that's my take on it.

Jon, if you read this, I do sincerely want to know if there is research that supports your position, so please post again with your source when you have the opportunity.

Michael | Jun 07, 2008 | 10:59PM

Bob,
GREAT article about SwiftFuel.
If I were running for President, I'd be on Sorghum like the proverbial white on rice. What a cool platform plank: "Grow Sorghum, Save our Nation".
Of course Mary Rusek is both right - and smart. Best to stay small and form BIG, protective friendships.
ps I also greatly enjoyed your 2000 article about about Homer Sarasohn building radios for MacArthur in Japan. ;-)
Best Regards,
John C. Schuler, Founder, Chief Strategy Officer
OEM Solutions Group - Portland, Oregon, USA
Optimizing Your Customer Interface to Lift Margins
Email: johnschuler@comcast.net
Web Site: http://www.johncschuler.com/
Cell: 503-709-5017


John Schuler | Jun 07, 2008 | 11:47PM

meh. so-so article, Bob.

SwiftFuel does sound like a worthwhile product to promote, but the most effective and realistic solution to the current artificial political energy crisis is to 1) procure and refine our own oil (ANWAR, coastal regions, etc.) and 2) start using nuclear energy.

Oh, and global warming is irrelevant to all of this as it is at best an extremely questionable and entirely unproven hypothesis, and in particular "man-made" global warming is nothing more than a religious scam that makes Scientology look like a PBS fund raiser.

Steve McKisic | Jun 07, 2008 | 11:47PM

OTHER fuels are a none starter. The problem is IC engines are only 25% energy efficient no mater what fuel they burn. Add a 30% energy loss between the flywheel and wheels and this gives a total 85% energy loss. A Diesel engine may be 40% efficient before transmission losses but that is hardly an huge improvement and any ICE powered by ethanol actually has TWICE the fuel consumption of gasoline. When these fact are considered in the oil debate this logically rules out ANY future that includes ICEs. These seem to be well-hidden facts in the global oil debate.

Compare a 25% efficient ICEs to electric motors that are routinely up to 95% energy efficient and have the huge added benefit of being about to regenerate 50% of the energy used to accelerate a vehicle back into reusable energy and the choice is obvious.

It’s claimed 70% of oil is consumed by transport and when you calculate 85% of that is being converted to unusable heat by ICE engines, it’s a staggering waste of human endevour. A direct comparison of energy costs between a simple Tesla Roadster and a regular ICE sedan brings costs savings in the region of 90 – 95% depending on where in the world you live. Sure today there may be a premium to pay for battery packs, but there isn’t even a mass market for these yet so with the who’s who’s of the automotive industry investing 100s of Millions to build battery manufacturing capacity prices are guaranteed to drop in the future.

It’s an enormous change for the Auto industry where the most expensive component of any car will move from being the engine / transmission to being the battery packs, electric motors and controllers. But the majors have all recognised the race is well under way and the plants are being built. As for charging points, considering the electric grid connects to every single building it’s not much of a leap to imagine some retailers will add for-profit charge points ONCE Evs are actually on the road. This would be much like corner shops added petrol bowsers to their small businesses when motors cars first started to hit the road in numbers many decades ago.

Paul | Jun 07, 2008 | 11:57PM

The major problem with BioFuels is that any land being used for these crops is no longer available for food crops - so we end up with a food shortage instead. Doh!!!

And before you say it GM is not the answer to that one as GM crop yields are lower!

And BTW Nuclear is also not the answer to the fuel crisis as it is no more renewable than Oil.

Gareth | Jun 08, 2008 | 4:28AM

Like Cringely said, you have to start some where! For those saying that biomass fuels are a non-starter, again, we have to think outside the box. Sorghum instead of corn, cellulosic alcohol instead of sorghum.

For me its B100 bio-diesel in an old VW. Perfect, hardly! But is it a start in the right direction; yes. The real key is to have continuous progress. Maybe in 10 years we'll all have super hydrogen powered cars, but what to do in the meanwhile.

Scott | Jun 08, 2008 | 10:39AM

"any land being used for these crops is no longer available for food"

When you consider that only a very small percentage of corn is actually used for human food - most going to sugar and industrial use - the "food" argument is exposed as bogus, and probably promoted by the highly subsidized corn farmers and the industries they supply.

Stu | Jun 08, 2008 | 10:05PM

Neither ethanol nor nuclear are an answer because neither one can produce any worthwhile percentage of demand. Coal, superconducting transmission lines, and rechargeable zinc air cells are the ingredients that will replace gasoline. Eventually "free" energy will be found that will end all human want, maybe cold fusion, perhaps zero-point, probably space-based solar collectors.

Grunchy | Jun 08, 2008 | 10:23PM

Mr Cringly.
Speculation [Index speculation] is definitely a part of oil prices. But Hubert peak too is a factor. Please dont ingore the data staring us in the face. Do read theoildrum.com

There exists a factor called Export Land Model that affects prices. ELM. It says that when the domestic consumption of Oil Exporting countries rises, their Exports Fall. Jeffry Brown/Matt Simmons. That too is a reason for hi oil prices.
Did you notice that Indonesia is no longer a part of OPEC ? It went from net exporter to net importer. So did UK, though it wasnt in OPEC.
The middle case of Jeffry Brown paper suggests net exports falling to zero in 2036 or so.

If you know about the oil biz as you say you do then a light bulb shud have gone off in your head with the above data. Think.

And see these URL for KSA oil production vs Texas peaking, and net export projectiosn for the top 5.
http://www.energybulletin.net/38948.html
Excellent URL
http://graphoilogy.blogspot.com/2007/09/declining-net-oil-exports-temporary.html


regards
ashvini
new delhi india

avishva | Jun 08, 2008 | 11:37PM

Mr Grunchy:
Do you realize that if mankind finds a source of infinite fee energy, then it has to also find an Infinite SINK ?

Else the planet is reduced to a cinder.

ashvini new delhi india

avishva | Jun 08, 2008 | 11:42PM

All these people happily proposing biofuels as a replacement all seem to forget one little detail about growing commercial crops... that's the massive amounts of fertilisers and pesticides that are needed to do this on a commercial scale, fertilisers that come from oil.

If you want to keep up your energy hungry western ways you'd better read up on the laws of thermodynamics!

Adrian | Jun 09, 2008 | 1:57AM

Mark Stephens (a.k.a. Robert X. Cringley), as a journalist, you really should have developed the habit of quoting (and referencing) your sources.
Otherwise, all statements you purport to have at least some vague association with fact can be rendered mere opinion on your part.

This is really, really basic stuff.

V-O-R | Jun 09, 2008 | 3:22AM

Great to hear about this development but how did you miss the world food crisis. World leaders were in session this very week talking about how we might be sparking a food crisis. I don't know if this is a truly credible cause/threat or just hype and diversion but I feel you really needed to touch on this in more detail.

Keith | Jun 09, 2008 | 3:52AM

While you argue that the production cost of swift fuel would allow a $3 per gallon price at the pump, the principle of fungibility would dictate that the price would at best match that of regular gasoline, and given the octane, probably premium gas.

Alex S | Jun 09, 2008 | 4:15AM

Robert X. Cringley, (a.k.a Mark Stephens) as a weekly technology writer keep up the good work. If I want to ready the WSJ, which I do, then I will. If I want to read the NYT, which I don't, then I will ready the WSJ. When I want the "Inside" scoop on IT, which I do, then I will ready www.pbs.org/cringely.

Finkster | Jun 09, 2008 | 7:55AM

Has anyone here worked out how much land would have to be turned over to biomass to support the *existing* US demand for gasoline? Outside the USA, some people have done that calculation and found that the world can either eat, or drive.
Also, biofuel crops are heavily subsidised in the US, to the point where UK importers can undercut local producers by a crushing margin. How do the numbers stack up with the subsidy withdrawn?

Trev | Jun 09, 2008 | 8:07AM

Dear everyone in America, look at the price of fuel in Europe: we already pay over US$10 a gallon for our fuel, the price isn't coming down, and we don't have reserves like you do. Look at the research on oil exploration (they know where the oil isn't) and you will see that the world is running out. Sorry, mate, but the price isn't going to drop soon.

Already, developing countries are growing fuel crops instead of food - so their own populations are starting to starve. The world price of rice has doubled in the last year. Now THAT's a serious problem! I hope we don't have to wait till the entire planet is covered in concrete and fuel crops before we realise we can't eat either of them.

justin | Jun 09, 2008 | 8:22AM

A couple of problems with the price of oil going down. It won't. All China has to do is decouple the Yuan from the USD letting the Yuan get 5 times stronger and getting cheap gas while the USD topples as other countries peg their currency to the Yuan or the Euro raising the price of oil in the USA. $40/gal gas is not far off.

Bio-fuel is not the answer either. All you need is one or more years of drought and the price will skyrocket as people compete for food. Droughts happen.

A different solution is necessary or we're in deep trouble.

alex | Jun 09, 2008 | 10:42AM


Great article.
One thing to note... yes, alcohol has less intrinsic BTU's, but it has a much higher octane and due to the way it burns seems to have a more recoverable mechanical component than gasoline per weight or volume when burned at an optimum operating point (not as done in a Flex Fuel engine). I say 'seems' since I read a lot of conflicting things and am no expert.
I think the fuel you wrote about has great potential. If we also had an engine that was able to burn various fuels at their optimum operating point, I think there could be some sweeping changes WRT the world's energy needs/demands.

Jim | Jun 09, 2008 | 11:05AM

Too bad it requires crops which could be used as food (for us or livestock).

Maybe they could come up with a version that is made from lawn clippings and left-overs from Las Vegas buffets.

twh | Jun 09, 2008 | 12:17PM

Government tax accounts for most of the high cost of fuel in Europe.

V8 Nut | Jun 09, 2008 | 12:24PM

Actually a lot of the old airplanes (like the J-3 Cub) will happily run on regular auto-fuel. I own a share of a '46 PA-12 and we have the auto-fuel STC, so we can use auto-gas to fly.

Richie | Jun 09, 2008 | 2:00PM

Whether it is sorghum, corn, sugar cane or dandelions, growing crops for fuel drives up the price of food. Every acre placed into fuel production is an acre taken out of food production. That sorghum produces six times the ethanol as corn does not mean that it will not crowd out food production, in fact it means the opposite. Farmers will be six times more likely to replace food production with fuel production because the profits will be six times higher.

Michael | Jun 09, 2008 | 2:05PM

The current price of oil is artifically inflated for American consumers by the weakness of the dollar. With the dollar trading at record lows, more than a third of the price of a barrel of oil is lost to the exchange rate. Bring the dollar back to parity with the Euro and the price of oil falls from @$130 a barrel to $80 a barrel. That would bring the retail price back to the $2.50 - $2.75 range per gallon before taking any other actions in fuel economy, oil discovery, or gasoline production.

Michael | Jun 09, 2008 | 2:13PM

Michael,

There is a food crisis going on, yes, but the USA still has an enormously wasteful agricultural system where farmers are compensated for growing the wrong crops or even no crops at all. With six times the ethanol yield of corn, I'll bet if you crunched the numbers, you could switch huge swaths of US (and possibly Canadian, but we don't have the same level of subsidies) farmland to sorghum production and not affect the food supply one iota.

And, of course, in a pinch you could eat the sorghum too. It's a staple food crop across much of Africa.

Mark | Jun 09, 2008 | 3:32PM

Attention big oil companies:

I have developed an amazing new fuel which can be created for pennies. The details of this fuel are secret. However, let it be known this fuel will save the world and put you out of business. Also, I will generate wildly speculative press or for $50M I will fade into the background. Your choice.

Sincerely,
VeryFastFuel

wagdog | Jun 09, 2008 | 4:52PM

90% of these posts are from people who neither read the article nor any of the other posts.

chris l | Jun 10, 2008 | 4:33AM

The 30 fold performance increase of PC in 10 years is done with more or less same power envelope, which means 30 times increase in efficiency per watt.

With cars we have 0 or even negative efficiency increase in 100 years...
After hundreds of billions of $ spent on development, cars are still made of iron (steel is mostly iron), mass of the car is about 20 times the mass of (mostly) single passenger/driver, ICE efficiency (although diesels have top efficiency of 40+%) in city traffic is 5% or so, governments (at least US and Germany) give tax deductions to buyers of road tanks, etc.

As for efficiency, European car of the year 1988 Peugeot 405 (also sold in US) released in July 1987 had Aerodynamic Drag Coefficient Cd of 0.29, Opel (European GM) Calibra had Cd of 0.26 in 1989!
Only rivaled 10 years(!) later by Honda Insight with Cd of 0.25.
For comparison, current Prius achieved the Cd of 0.26 in 2004 (15 years after GM/Opel); the 2000 model Prius had Cd of 0.29 (same as Peugeot 13 years earlier)...
As for experimental vehicles, GM Sunraycer had Cd of 0.125 in 1987, today Nuna (TU Delft, Netherlands) has Cd of 0.07(!) - both are solar powered World Solar Challenge (Australia) racers, but show what can be done with Cd.

With huge increase in computer power and widespread use of computational fluid dynamics, Cd of modern cars could and should be much better than 0.29 - 0.35 Cd range most cars achieve today.

With current technology, cars could have 100+ MPG, oil could be 5 times more expensive and everybody would be happy - you would pay the same at gas station as you do now for your 20MPG car, government would get same amount of tax, big oil would get same (increased even) profit for 5 times less work, oil reserves would last 5 times longer, environment would be less polluted, etc.

Hope for the sake of our children the Automotive X-prize will show 100+MPG cars are a reality...

Roni Leben | Jun 10, 2008 | 6:00AM

On the surface, swiftfuel looks good but, how much agricultural production will be diverted to making it? Please check out http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/ for a full analysis of what we are facing. Yes the site seems a bit extreme but a full reading will show just how much trouble we are in.

Let's say the world switches to sorghum to grow our fuel, would it not be devastating if a virus wiped out the crop?

How much will food prices go up, just so we can drive? Right now, a loaf of bread costs $3. Last year it cost me $2. How far can you cut your grocery list without starving?

60% of the worlds oil production goes to transportation.
Every thing you own or eat either comes from or depends on oil to be produced. That includes the sorghum!

The tipping point will come when gas costs $7 per gallon. Truck drivers will no longer be able to afford the fuel to deliver food, manufactured goods and parts to our just in time economy. You will no longer be able to afford to drive to work.

The world really has no idea what to do. Basically, we have 3 years to figure it out or we are screwed.

shane murphy | Jun 10, 2008 | 1:19PM

Ethanol gasolines aren't a silver bullet since in the current situation, demand on ethanol raises food prices for the poor -- it's not the whole story at the current time, but until ethanol comes from non-food sources that do not compete with food-growing space for places to grow, no ethanol-based solution is all-good-all-good.

Places to go instead: re-engineer car and other fuel-to-motion and fuel-to-work transfers to be more energy efficient, generally; harness freely available "waste work" (foot-steps powering streetlights? braking?) more creatively; massive adoption of solar generation (illegal to build a building without including solar power collection of some kind in the plans?) and geothermal heat/cooling sources; pursue the edges of what Tesla was working on; pursue micro- and non-Tokamak fusion ideas.

Those will all do more good than adopting some cool ethanol based fuel without making more people starve.

Arthur Klassen | Jun 10, 2008 | 3:57PM

The idea here is that by growing fuel, you don't have to replace ANY of the infrastructure we have. That's huge. There is no way that manufacturing a new car is going to be "greener" than using the car you already have. If you can use a fuel that doesn't involve fossil carbon but use it in existing cars, you'll save a HUGE amount of money and energy and resources on manufacturing and distributing those new cars. Any guesses as to what's involved in transporting and processing the thousands of pounds of raw materials that goes into a new car?

Chad | Jun 10, 2008 | 5:20PM

For now, we don't have to replace fossil fuel en masse. We just have to replace enough fossil fuel to drive down the cost/barrel. Freeing ourselves from foreign dependency would be great. If they can perfect the algae > ethanol process, it would take about a tenth of the land mass that traditional ethanol crops would take.

GL | Jun 10, 2008 | 5:46PM


Eat a lot of soregum, Mr. Klassen?


Bog | Jun 10, 2008 | 9:18PM

For those without a science background, I'll spell it out:

  1. Cars in the USA are currently built far heavier than they should be.
  2. Cars in the USA are currently built with much higher wind drag than they could be.
  3. Cars in the USA are currently built with far more gagetry than necessary.
  4. Running a car by burning a combustible inside an engine block is nuts. Electric motors make way more sense.
  5. Using biomass for the sole purpose of turning it into fuel to burn it is crazy.
  6. Battery technology has already arrived. It's called Lithium-Ion.
  7. There's plenty of electricity available for charging EV's: solar, wind, hydro, nuclear.
  8. You don't need to wait to charge EV batteries -- just swap out the discharged ones at the service station and swap in the fully-charged ones. So, long charging-times is a non-argument.
  9. There are enormous financial and political forces at work in the USA keeping things exactly as Big Oil and the auto industry wants them.
John | Jun 11, 2008 | 12:13AM

Have a look at Robert Zubrin's google talk about using Flex-Fuelled cars. According to him, the cost of building new cars that can run on conventional petroleum AND ethanol at the same time is very low. They can run on any mixture of the two - 100% gasoline or 100% ethanol. This is already happening in Brasil, and reduces dependency on OPEC's oil:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=NLRuGUPkyh4

tomh | Jun 11, 2008 | 5:02AM

On my recent and first visit to the US (Mountain View)I was struck by the sheer number of cars and trucks on the roads,very square non aerodynamic design and lots of huge engined pickup style cars. I assume most if not all have aircon. Make these a little more efficient and that would save a hell of a lot of fuel! Also public transport was severely lacking bus wise, i saw bus stops but no buses anywhere so this forces people to drive everywhere, I was the only pedestrian for miles! The trains were superbly run though!

Thurstan Johnston | Jun 11, 2008 | 5:48AM

The poll shows 65% of respondents believe that SwiftFuel will be a success in the market and lead to lower cost, lower pollution, and higher mileage; this lets me know why scam artists do such a thriving business. This fuel may work just fine; however, when it is considered in the framework of your ‘total platform change,’ I don’t see it as a long term solution, but just another Band-Aid. The need to discover new types of fuel is important, but so is the need to increase efficiency and teach conservation.

Lewis Mazanti | Jun 11, 2008 | 11:30AM

A quick search shows that we use about 146 billion gallons of gasoline a day. We produce about 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year.

We would need to increase ethanol production by a factor of nearly 10,000. Good luck.

Jon Strayer | Jun 11, 2008 | 3:53PM

I can't really support anything that takes away agriculture from feeding people - we're already feeling the crunch, growing more fuel would just make it worse.

max inglis | Jun 11, 2008 | 7:37PM

Boosting octane doesn't do anything for fuel economy in engines as currently designed.

Vehicle engines that require high-octane gasoline are designed for performance, and get *worse* mpg than lower-compression engines running on regular unleaded.

Ethanol was never meant to be a fuel, but rather to replace the poisonous MTBE as an oxygenator.

Bill | Jun 12, 2008 | 12:10AM

Energy independence can also be achieved through the use of decentralised energy.

According to the World Alliance for Decentralized Energy, Decentralized Energy is the high efficiency production of electricity (and heating/cooling where possible) near the point of use, irrespective of size or technology.

Sweden and Denmark have been using decentralised energy widely for over 30 years.

andrew | Jun 12, 2008 | 1:29AM

It cannot work.

Sure, there is an extreme amount of left over food which could be utiliced. But that amount is dwarfed compaired to the gigantic amounts of what you would need to fuel a car. There just isn't enought space for that.


Using solar panels to convert light into electricity and then storing that in batteries might not be extremely efficient, but you always need to consider that the efficiency of biofuel also is in the sub-percent area.


The only reasonable choice would be to abandon the concept of cars all together. There is no way a society can sustain wasting so many resources on individual transport.

Casandro | Jun 12, 2008 | 3:05AM

Higher octain raitings simply mean a higher activation energy for combustion which prevents the ignition of the fuel before the pistion has reached the optimal position. So no, for the average car the higher octane raiting would not make a difference, it would, however, mean premium gas and regular gas would have a closer price range.

Stating that there is not enough biomass to produce the fuel required shows very little understanding for the numbers behind all of this. When one consideres how much farm land is not being used because of govrenment subsudey it becomes quite clear where this whole thing would go.

Besides, most citys would cease to exist without the individual car. Urban sprawl has locked our society into dependacy on the automobile, like it or not.

Will | Jun 12, 2008 | 4:23AM

No mention of emissions, carbon or otherwise, produced by Swiftfuel. Certainly price is a motivator for consumers but so is, at least for growing numbers, what we're doing to the environment with our cars.

Rene | Jun 12, 2008 | 6:27AM

To earlier posters, THERE IS NO PANACEA!

We're going to have to accept incremental progress if we want to make any progress at all. Try telling everyone that they need to give up their cars, and they'll transform into stubborn mules right before your eyes. I think this SwiftFuel sounds promising and could be a step in the right direction, although as someone in the animal production industry I'm still concerned about the effect of the ethanol from food part of the equation.

Joshua | Jun 12, 2008 | 6:47AM

Back in the early 1980s, PCs were brand new, stupidly slow, and mindblowing; for the first time, you had some real computing power on the desk. (On the IBM side,) Floppy disks, an Intel 8088 with 640k RAM and a 4-bit screen for $5000, and we ate it up. Why? Visicalc and Lotus 123. We could run calculations, any calculations we wanted. It was the equivalent owning your own car. You could go anywhere.

Before you pillory Cringely's argument here, I think he has a very good point. What we don't have at the moment in automobiles is open architecture It's like we have about 650 different VAXs running around. Sure, a few things work in most cars, like 10-30 motor oil, battery terminals (watch out for dimensions though); but most things are non-standard. There are a dozen different windshield wiper designs. Engine mounts? Forget it. Is there a standard transmission interface? No. A standard ignition/control interface? Not really. Protocols *are* getting standardized over the last ten years. I think car design is in the equivalent of where computers were in the 1970s, all custom/proprietary, nothing out there yet like the ISA platform.

So, the one common denominator now, as Cringely points out, is gasoline. However, I'm not sure making gas out of sorghum solves anything, however. Maybe the platform IS the issue. Apple turned the computer design world on its head by rejecting the Mainframe and Mini designs and cobbling up a brand new, tiny design in a garage. You can do that with coimputers. Can you do that with cars? You could if the local interfaces in cars, the engine mounts, the electrical, fuel delivery, transmission dimensions, if those were standardized, I mean really standardized, like the ISA spec was for the IBM pc platform, then, you could see some very interesting developments. But it won't come from the Big 4. They are too welded into Big Oil, their designs are based on inefficient use of gasoline, and Big Oil's profits are based in large part on inefficiency. The existing network is too complacent, but at $4/gal, the average consumer now has to pay attention.

In Spain right now (according to my brother who lives over there most of the year), there is no meat in the grocery markets, almost no produce, no eggs or milk. Gas is so expensive now that the delivery trucks stopped running, they lose money being in business. This will hit the US sooner or later, and when it does, we will have to rethink our entire, complacent approach to using gasoline the way we have for a century.

Maybe federally mandated standardized components is one way to loosen up the gridlock between Big Oil and Big Auto. I won't hold my breath.

Rob | Jun 12, 2008 | 7:15AM

I think Cringely's idea is not that great because we're still going to run into the ethanol versus food production issue.

People should have taken notice in 2006 of MIT's work on using carbon nanotubes to create advanced supercapacitor batteries with far more electrical storage capacity than previous supercapcitor designs. And MIT is not the only company working on this: there are several other companies pursuing this new technology. The benefits of this new type of battery is obvious: potentially way more electrical storage capacity than even Li-On batteries of the same physical size, the ability to withstand millions of recharge cycles, and most importantly recharge times a very small fraction of Li-On batteries.

I can see by 2011-2015 time frame an electric car about the size of a Honda Fit that:

1) Seats four adults comfortably

2) Tops out at 150 km/h (93 mph)

3) Goes 400 km (248 miles) between recharges

4) Recharges in about 10-15 minutes from a commercial recharging station

1) Seats four

Raymond | Jun 12, 2008 | 7:58AM

So how many years until this would scale to the mass market vs. how many years until we have an electric car? How does it get distributed? Sell it to the oil companies and they leave their oil in the ground or have to establish a corporation to build a national franchise of competing "gas" stations? Is this just a "bubble" or "transitional" technology with a relatively narrow window of exploitation like 8-track tapes?

Seems to me if you need a new car in the next five years, I'd still recommend that Prius rather than wait for this to appear in your neighborhood.

smchris | Jun 12, 2008 | 8:04AM

"It is made entirely from biomass, which means it has a net zero carbon footprint and does nothing to increase global warming. Its emission of other polluting byproducts of burning gasoline are significantly lower, too."

These two sentences seem to contradict one another. Oil doesn't affect global warming, either--until you burn it. Precisely the same is true of this Swift Fuel.

Joe | Jun 12, 2008 | 8:22AM

Actually, there is an even more viable solution than sorghum. Right now, a company in Illinois called Coskata is able to produce 99.7% pure ethanol from ANY organic material. All of that food waste that gets thrown out at home, in restaurants..all the grass clippings, tree trimmings; anything organic can be made into Ethanol. Coskata uses an existing gassification techonology, coupled with a bacteria than consumes the gas and makes ethanol; all at a cost of about a $1/gallon. Combine these two entities, and you have whole new economic market involving restaurant and home waste pickup. You would now have three levels--recyclable inorganic, recyclable organic, and non-recyclable--which would probably account for a small pittiance. Even the plastic garbage bags could be recycled. This could conceivably create new economic markets. Think about all of the organic material we toss out every day. Diapers? Plastic bags? Buy it up by the ton and produce fuel!

OH..Coskata is backed by GM and other investors, and plans to have a 100MG/year plant online by 2011.

Dwayne Sudduth | Jun 12, 2008 | 8:44AM

> sorghum, which isn't a typical U.S. crop

The US and India are are roughly tied as the #1/#2 growers of sorghum and sorghum is the second or third most valuable feed grain grown in the US (corn is #1 and barley is #2/#3). The US is the dominant exporter, most going to Mexico.

Andy Freeman | Jun 12, 2008 | 9:14AM

Correction - Nigeria is the #1 producer by a small margin and India is #3 by a fairly large margin.

As of 06, about 12% of US sorghum production went to ethanol.

Andy Freeman | Jun 12, 2008 | 9:31AM

The first comment by Dwayne Sudduth is right on the money. I have been shouting this fact in comments on several blogs. The Coskata solution is brilliant and a true revolution in bio fuels. The cost numbers have been verified by Argonne National Laboratories.

When used with food crops, such as corn, the food crop stays in the food distribution system, making a lie of the line that ethanol production competes with food production. The Coskata process turns the cellulose "agricultural waste" into ethanol. GM is the first "sugar daddy" for Coskata. GM will develop engine technology to use the ethanol fuel.

There is another firm like Coskata in Denmark. I do not know the name of the company, but their big "sugar daddy" is Dupont. They appear to have similar capabilities and will compete with Coskata.

One problem with getting out the facts of this breakthrough is that some interests would rather bash their political opponents, blaming them for starving the world's population, rather than admitting the reality that the problem–cheap ethanol production not competing with food production–has been solved.

Peter Koren | Jun 12, 2008 | 10:27AM

The first comment by Dwayne Sudduth is right on the money. I have been shouting this fact in comments on several blogs. The Coskata solution is brilliant and a true revolution in bio fuels. The cost numbers have been verified by Argonne National Laboratories.

When used with food crops, such as corn, the food crop stays in the food distribution system, making a lie of the line that ethanol production competes with food production. The Coskata process turns the cellulose "agricultural waste" into ethanol. GM is the first "sugar daddy" for Coskata. GM will develop engine technology to use the ethanol fuel.

There is another firm like Coskata in Denmark. I do not know the name of the company, but their big "sugar daddy" is Dupont. They appear to have similar capabilities and will compete with Coskata.

One problem with getting out the facts of this breakthrough is that some interests would rather bash their political opponents, blaming them for starving the world's population, rather than admitting the reality that the problem–cheap ethanol production not competing with food production–has been solved.

Peter Koren | Jun 12, 2008 | 10:28AM

The first comment by Dwayne Sudduth is right on the money. I have been shouting this fact in comments on several blogs. The Coskata solution is brilliant and a true revolution in bio fuels. The cost numbers have been verified by Argonne National Laboratories.

When used with food crops, such as corn, the food crop stays in the food distribution system, making a lie of the line that ethanol production competes with food production. The Coskata process turns the cellulose "agricultural waste" into ethanol. GM is the first "sugar daddy" for Coskata. GM will develop engine technology to use the ethanol fuel.

There is another firm like Coskata in Denmark. I do not know the name of the company, but their big "sugar daddy" is Dupont. They appear to have similar capabilities and will compete with Coskata.

One problem with getting out the facts of this breakthrough is that some interests would rather bash their political opponents, blaming them for starving the world's population, rather than admitting the reality that the problem–cheap ethanol production not competing with food production–has been solved.

Peter Koren | Jun 12, 2008 | 10:30AM

The first comment by Dwayne Sudduth is right on the money. I have been shouting this fact in comments on several blogs. The Coskata solution is brilliant and a true revolution in bio fuels. The cost numbers have been verified by Argonne National Laboratories.

When used with food crops, such as corn, the food crop stays in the food distribution system, making a lie of the line that ethanol production competes with food production. The Coskata process turns the cellulose "agricultural waste" into ethanol. GM is the first "sugar daddy" for Coskata. GM will develop engine technology to use the ethanol fuel.

There is another firm like Coskata in Denmark. I do not know the name of the company, but their big "sugar daddy" is Dupont. They appear to have similar capabilities and will compete with Coskata.

One problem with getting out the facts of this breakthrough is that some interests would rather bash their political opponents, blaming them for starving the world's population, rather than admitting the reality that the problem–cheap ethanol production not competing with food production–has been solved.

Peter Koren | Jun 12, 2008 | 10:31AM

Cringely is showing that he is steeped in Detroit-think on this topic and is spewing forth last-gasp ideas to keep alive demand for automobiles. He says, "A better solution would be to leave the platform alone and find a single variable that could be changed for everyone practically overnight."

I disagree whole heartedly. The world's future transportation needs (as predicted by extrapolating growing automobile use and growing population) cannot be met in a sustainable way. This dilemma requires attacking the problem from every side, not just a single variable. It shall require sacrifice: americans will have to sacrifice long-mileage commutes in favor of living closer to work, school and the grocery market. It shall require increased use of public transit. And it shall require a significant halt to the way suburban neighborhoods have been designed for the last 40 years.

Cringely, I recommend reading Amory Lovins' "Winning the Oil Endgame" (free online copy) or at least watching his TED video of the same title. Follow that with google searches for "new urbanism" and "traditional neighborhood design" and you will soon know there are much better alternatives than keeping the automobile as a requirement in daily american life.

Dean | Jun 12, 2008 | 10:58AM

But isn't ethanol still energy-negative? And if this takes extra refinement AFTER ethanol, then it's gotta be even more energy-negative. So we're ultimately stuck in the same problem--we've gotta feed the refinement process from somewhere, and with a large chunk of the U.S.'s energy coming from oil, that basically means that we're just loading in the oil an extra step up the line.

Sure, yes, we could replace oil with nuclear (which everybody hates) and solar (which also costs too much) and hydro (which destroys our waterways) and wind (which only works where you don't need it). But isn't infrastructure change even tougher than platform change?

Bob | Jun 12, 2008 | 11:06AM

What about Butanol? Some excerpts from the Wiki:

... may be used as a fuel in an internal combustion engine ... more similar to gasoline than is ethanol ... demonstrated to work in some vehicles ... without any modification ... can be produced from biomass ... the difference from ethanol production is ... in the fermentation of the feedstock and minor changes in distillation. The feedstocks are the same as for ethanol ... existing bioethanol plants can cost-effectively be retrofitted to biobutanol production ... better tolerates water contamination ... less corrosive than ethanol and more suitable for distribution through existing pipelines for gasolines.

James Clements | Jun 12, 2008 | 11:11AM

I still find it amazing that when people talk about biofuel that they either choose to ignore or are ignorant about ethanol production using other methods than corn or sorgum, for example switch grass. UNL (University of Nebraska) did a 5 year study on the production and use of Switch Grass as a means for bio-fuel production across 3 states and showed it produces a 95% higher energy efficiency than say corn does....this isn't new news either as this study was conducted quite a few years ago. The findings are discussed here:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080109110629.htm

Dan K. | Jun 12, 2008 | 11:41AM

Switchgrass, rather than sorghum, may be the answer. Native to North America, switchgrass needs little more than rainfall to grow. Minimal if any, herbicide, pesticide, or fertilizer. You get 10 harvests per sowing,and it puts nutrients into the soil. It could heal the land depleted by King Cotton.

Lori | Jun 12, 2008 | 12:19PM

"Electric, fuel cells, hydrogen, and ethanol are more expensive, too, but they also require infrastructure changes like finding new ways to manufacture, transport, store, and sell fuel. You won't go on a long road trip in your electric car until there are reliable places to plug in and recharge, for example."

We already have an electrical infrastructure here in the US. I'd wager there's more electrical outlets than gas stations.

Cars powered by gasoline or ethanol pollute. Electricity can be generated by solar or wind power which don't pollute.

Eric Iverson | Jun 12, 2008 | 12:27PM

This is probably a marginally better step than switching to ethanol, as long as it's used as part of a plan to get rid of internal combustion engines alltogether. I'd imagine this should be possible over a 35 year span.

The fundamental problem with all biofuels is land-use. biofuels require a *lot* of land, so much that they can and will compete with land use for food crops and especially livestock. Personally, given that electric cars have far more performance potential than gasoline cars, I'd rather drive and electric in a silent city and eat steak than continue on with business as usual, no steak, and expensive corn.

So many people still don't see the 'big' big picture.

Sratus Mizer | Jun 12, 2008 | 12:50PM

This is one of your more sensible articles. That SwiftFuel sounds better than th 10% ethanol. My manual says my car will run fine up to 10% ethanol. That make me rather avoid ethanol all together in my car.

I also notice there is no upgrading of cars. Very few modify their cars for fuel efficiency. The mod market is far larger, but it doesn't address fuel economy. I haven't seen LED retrofit kits for my car at the dealership, not to mention drop in engine replacement or hybrid conversion. BestBuy and Circuit City offer after market upgrades for computers. Because I am particular about my car so it'll last way past ten years, only the dealership handles it. I can buy a LOT of gas for the price of a new car.

Lyndell | Jun 12, 2008 | 1:00PM

Eric - you miss the point. I don't think that Cringley is saying that we should do SwiftFuel, or whatever, instead of Electric/Hydrogen or whatever other options are out there. His comments were aimed at the platforms that will be with us for a LONG time. Such as existing motor vehicle stock, planes (I haven't seen anyone talking about electric planes at this point, so they will be on petrol for quite some time).

If we can convert to something like SwiftFuel and BioDiesel for the existing platforms, we reduce our dependence on petroleum based fuels and move to a more carbon neutral footprint for those engines that will continue to require a carbon fuel cycle (such as planes or existing road vehicles).

It's not an either or. To consider it such is simplistic. We need to do both, find a better fuel stock for what we have in the field today, and a new propulsion system(s) going forward.

For the other comments about switchgrass vs. sorgum, vs. corn, if you read the commentary, they are using sorgum for their trial plant. The fuel requires Ethanol, any Ethanol source should work (be it celulostic, switchgrass, sorgum, etc.) The fact that they aren't using corn is a good start. At the end of the day, whatever Ethanol source is used will produce the same fuel.


Chris LILJENSTOLPE | Jun 12, 2008 | 1:08PM

Eric - you miss the point. I don't think that Cringley is saying that we should do SwiftFuel, or whatever, instead of Electric/Hydrogen or whatever other options are out there. His comments were aimed at the platforms that will be with us for a LONG time. Such as existing motor vehicle stock, planes (I haven't seen anyone talking about electric planes at this point, so they will be on petrol for quite some time).

If we can convert to something like SwiftFuel and BioDiesel for the existing platforms, we reduce our dependence on petroleum based fuels and move to a more carbon neutral footprint for those engines that will continue to require a carbon fuel cycle (such as planes or existing road vehicles).

It's not an either or. To consider it such is simplistic. We need to do both, find a better fuel stock for what we have in the field today, and a new propulsion system(s) going forward.

For the other comments about switchgrass vs. sorgum, vs. corn, if you read the commentary, they are using sorgum for their trial plant. The fuel requires Ethanol, any Ethanol source should work (be it celulostic, switchgrass, sorgum, etc.) The fact that they aren't using corn is a good start. At the end of the day, whatever Ethanol source is used will produce the same fuel.


Chris LILJENSTOLPE | Jun 12, 2008 | 1:09PM

Eric - you miss the point. I don't think that Cringley is saying that we should do SwiftFuel, or whatever, instead of Electric/Hydrogen or whatever other options are out there. His comments were aimed at the platforms that will be with us for a LONG time. Such as existing motor vehicle stock, planes (I haven't seen anyone talking about electric planes at this point, so they will be on petrol for quite some time).

If we can convert to something like SwiftFuel and BioDiesel for the existing platforms, we reduce our dependence on petroleum based fuels and move to a more carbon neutral footprint for those engines that will continue to require a carbon fuel cycle (such as planes or existing road vehicles).

It's not an either or. To consider it such is simplistic. We need to do both, find a better fuel stock for what we have in the field today, and a new propulsion system(s) going forward.

For the other comments about switchgrass vs. sorgum, vs. corn, if you read the commentary, they are using sorgum for their trial plant. The fuel requires Ethanol, any Ethanol source should work (be it celulostic, switchgrass, sorgum, etc.) The fact that they aren't using corn is a good start. At the end of the day, whatever Ethanol source is used will produce the same fuel.


Chris LILJENSTOLPE | Jun 12, 2008 | 1:11PM

Electric cars don't have emissions, until you have to pull out the batteries and replace them. Kind of like a big nasty chemical/heavy metal turd - certainly nasty for the environment!!!

Eric | Jun 12, 2008 | 1:11PM

If your prediction about oil prices is correct, then that alone will probably kill the market for SwiftFuel. However, as someone actually IN the oil business, I don't know anyone who agrees with your premise about oil prices dropping that dramatically. Simple supply and demand is the problem, not speculation. As mentioned, it doesn't matter if you switch crops, because agricultural land will still be diverted from food production, and there just isn't enough of it available, unless of course you burn down the rainforests. The realistic alternative is natural gas, which has growing supply, can be used in existing engines, and doesn't compete with food supply. Many high volume fuel consumers such as airports and commercial transport business are switching already.

carbonates | Jun 12, 2008 | 1:11PM

Eric - you miss the point. I don't think that Cringley is saying that we should do SwiftFuel, or whatever, instead of Electric/Hydrogen or whatever other options are out there. His comments were aimed at the platforms that will be with us for a LONG time. Such as existing motor vehicle stock, planes (I haven't seen anyone talking about electric planes at this point, so they will be on petrol for quite some time).

If we can convert to something like SwiftFuel and BioDiesel for the existing platforms, we reduce our dependence on petroleum based fuels and move to a more carbon neutral footprint for those engines that will continue to require a carbon fuel cycle (such as planes or existing road vehicles).

It's not an either or. To consider it such is simplistic. We need to do both, find a better fuel stock for what we have in the field today, and a new propulsion system(s) going forward.

For the other comments about switchgrass vs. sorgum, vs. corn, if you read the commentary, they are using sorgum for their trial plant. The fuel requires Ethanol, any Ethanol source should work (be it celulostic, switchgrass, sorgum, etc.) The fact that they aren't using corn is a good start. At the end of the day, whatever Ethanol source is used will produce the same fuel.


Chris LILJENSTOLPE | Jun 12, 2008 | 1:15PM

Your prices for SwiftFuel don't add up. Current quotes for ethanol are about $2.68, not $1.42. So the cost for SwiftFuel will be about $3.50, not $1.80.

More importantly, I don't see how one gallon of ethanol (which has about 70% of the energy content of gasoline) can be made into one gallon of SwiftFuel which allegedly has 115-120% of the energy content of gasoline.

Who repealed the First Law of Thermodynamics?

c65hsk | Jun 12, 2008 | 1:50PM

Chris is correct. There is no free lunch. What a poor piece of journalism, but not a bad advertisement.

Blake | Jun 12, 2008 | 2:14PM

I read your article with interest, expecting you to point to butanol (C4-H10-O). In 2005, as a demonstration of his ButylFuel™ process, David Ramey drove an unmodified 1992 Buick Park Avenue from Blacklick, Ohio to San Diego, California using 100% butanol. The ’92 Buick Park Avenue got 24 miles per gallon on butanol with no modifications - normally gas is 22 mpg. That is a 9 % increase. In ten states Butanol was tested at State Smog facilities and reduced Hydrocarbons by 95%, Carbon Monoxide to 0.01%, Oxides of Nitrogen by 37%. This in a 13 year old car with 60,000 original miles on it. Check out http://www.butanol.com/ for info on his biobutanol process.



The big issue with both SwitFuel and BioButanol is scaling up production. The cost of building production will require a return on investment (ROI) that may likely push the cost of product higher than gas. If there were capital sources for this where long term return was provided for (simialr to bonds for building hydroelectric or nuclear sites, for example), so that ROI was less of a factor, then large scale production, shipment and distribution could occur. I don't see this happening in a year or two, even if funded today. It's still going to take 5 to 10 years to get production capacity and distribution agreements in place. Let's face it, your local Chevron or Shell station ISN'T going to want to convert one of it's storage takes and pump islands to BioButanol or SwiftFuel any time soon. There's no incentive - unless Chevron or Shell owns the process, production and bulk transportation systems needed to get these new fuels to market. And they are making a good profit off the escalating oil price so there's little short term justification for them moving big into biofuel production.



This leaves entrepreneurial development, which again suffers from capital investment pressure. Adding the cost of buying or building a nationwide chain of service stations to the cost of building the production plans makes for a very challenging business plan. It's the sort of thing that someone like Bill Gates could do - but wouldn't see the need. It's the sort of thing a group of Silicon Valley billionaires (or a larger group of millionaires) could do, but I don't have the contacts or know the people to get them interested and involved.



The benefits to the planet, not to mention the financial rewards of cornering the market on the new fuel for the entire world, would be substantial. The risks and costs involve would be likewise. The question is ... who out there, with the resources, is willing to change the world?

Michael | Jun 12, 2008 | 2:36PM

Regarding the price of Ethanol, I don't know if either, though I suspect Chris might have.

Is the quoted pricing for ethanol before or after Government subsidies?

Also look at the price of Corn and Ethanol over time. While they aren't doing what oil has done, they are on a signifigant increase, about 2X the price in 2 years.

And that is with a much smaller demand than oil. Change the demand for ethanol or ethanol based products to the current demand for gasoline and your going to see a signifigant increase in price.

SidViscous | Jun 12, 2008 | 2:46PM

Actually, the price can't be too far below the price of gasoline.

I've seen the same thing happen with the price of biodiesel in Houston. Since biodiesel is totally compatible with diesel, it *has* to trail the price of petro-diesel by 40 to 60 cents, or else the "diesel-sluts" (what we call them) will come around and buy up all the biodiesel. Last time I was in line at Houston Biodiesel, there was a guy with a flatbed trailer with two big honking tanks mounted on it, pumping from two nozzles at once.

That's how it works. You come up with the cheaper alternative, you sell it for a *huge* markup which is still cheaper and get filthy rich in the process. Then everyone else starts making it too and the price goes down.

You can't beat market forces. This cuold be good news for SwiftFuel's makers. They might well end up rich.

StCredZero | Jun 12, 2008 | 3:34PM

Since I work in agriculture, normally I'm not qualified to comment on this site...but here I actually know something. I'm not going into the the electric vs. liquid fuel debate other than to say it IS a platform issue. Liquid fuels are very convenient to store. Many comments here puzzle me. Clearly some posters have some homework to do. Both sides of the energy balance debate confuse the issue by using different methodology in their calculations. Fertilizer production does use a lot of energy. Work needs to be done to replace the Haber-Bosch process with something carbon-neutral. Bacteria do it.

There have been a few postings questioning how Bob came up with $1.42. This is the price of the feedstock to make ethanol, not wholesale ethanol itself. Corn yields 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel. $1.42 is a little low. Most estimates have corn around $4.25 / bu for 2008 crop (current weather woes may raise that). I get $1.57 for feedstock. Ethanol itself is closer to $2.80. When cellulosic ethanol scales to industrial size production, the feedstock price will drop dramatically. Most land-grant schools are working feverishly on this on the biology and engineering ends of the problem.

Almost all corn raised in US is not destined for direct consumption by people. Most is used in animal agriculture and industrial processes like corn syrup. (USDA has stats on this.) You could (in theory) make a much bigger dent in the current food price by eliminating confinement agriculture (feedlots, etc) and ate pasture raised meat, but it's not as cheap, distribution is a headache...and it's not going to happen. The world likes cheap meat. I know I do.

Dustin | Jun 12, 2008 | 3:45PM

Seen Zubrin's Energy Victory? It's brilliant - mandate flex fuel vehicles.

It’s how to break OPEC, lower fuel costs, and allow others into the energy production game.

Truly Brilliant.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAUmFjHxI1c
Robert Zubrin: Energy Victory and Winning the War on Terror

or the talk at google:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLRuGUPkyh4
Authors@Google: Dr. Robert Zubrin

This needs to be passed on to gain mindshare.

james carter | Jun 12, 2008 | 5:49PM

What is SwiftFuel? That is, what is its chemical structure? At least give us a patent number so we can go look it up!

The articles of SwiftFuel never mention what it is, and that is not a good sign.

Rick | Jun 12, 2008 | 6:07PM

What is SwiftFuel? That is, what is its chemical structure? At least give us a patent number so we can go look it up!

The articles on SwiftFuel never mention what it is, and that is not a good sign.

Rick | Jun 12, 2008 | 6:08PM

If we had invested the 3 trillion that we are currently spending to defend oil pipelines for the freeloading oil companies; If we had spent that money on Research & Development for alternative energy sources, we would now be leading the world in alternative energy production, having created new jobs and new industries in the U.S. Instead we're watching it all blow up, with some of our citizens, in a wasteland on the other side of the world. Thanks, Bush & Cheney!

jake taylor | Jun 12, 2008 | 6:17PM

While I agree with your analysis on the challenges of a platform replacement, I think you're overly optimistic that technology will come to our rescue.

Oil prices are rising because demand is beginning to outrun supply. Much of the demand comes from newly-developing nations like China and India who want the automobile-centric lifestyle we have here in the US - and their consumption is growing at near double-digit rates. Much of the supply problem comes from declining output from existing oil fields and the decades long absence of any significant new oil field discoveries.

This is Peak Oil in a nutshell - the point at which we attain maximum sustainable production of conventional oil.

Now when we talk about alternatives - everything from coal-to-liquids, to shale oil, to "SwiftFuel" - what we really need to answer are two questions:

1. What is the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) for the new fuel.

2. What is the realistic production rate for the new fuel.

For #1 above, most of the biofuels have turned out to be either net losers or only slightly positive. Compare that to the EROEI for oil which is huge.

By huge, I mean that a 55 gallon barrel of oil will produce the same amount of work as 8 strong men working 8 hours a day all year long. And it takes only a few dollars to pump that oil out of the ground. So oil is a phenomenally DENSE source of energy compared to any of the envisioned alternatives.

For #2, we've already seen what has happened to the price of food with our ethanol experiments of the last 2 years. If our technological solution forces us to choose between fueling cars and feeding people, there's going to be widespread famine in many parts of the world.

If we as citizens are to have a clear discussion on the true nature of our oil dependence and it's (near-term) future implications, we must understand those factors, i.e.

- The impacts of exponential growth
- The EROEI for each possible fuel
- The difference between production rates and reserves.

While we've grown accustomed to whiz-bang technology solving every problem and providing for our every need over the last 50 years, I'm afraid the Peak Oil problem may be considerably more challenging for us to solve....

Scott Drumm | Jun 12, 2008 | 7:01PM

Eric, you don't just throw out EV batteries (when they no longer will hold a charge) -- you recycle them. They are very readily recyclable. You'd also very likely get a deposit back when you go to get new ones.

John | Jun 13, 2008 | 12:50AM

The splendor of such idealism is like the revolutionary troops
fighting the red coats. Except this time around, all money is
going to arming police centers at miitary high budgets.
The missing money for that and other psy-ops black folder
programs will thrwart this ideal. The Swift Group will be the
participants of the Thunderdome Survivalists as far as I can see.
The globalists will be sending oil to record highs this year.
It will not go backwards as analysts forecast based on their
graphs and charts. It's hideous and relentless what the PTB
is going to release on this world.

Hunter 1 | Jun 13, 2008 | 1:04AM

The splendor of such idealism is like the revolutionary troops
fighting the red coats. Except this time around, all money is
going to arming police centers at miitary high budgets.
The missing money for that and other psy-ops black folder
programs will thrwart this ideal. The Swift Group will be the
participants of the Thunderdome Survivalists as far as I can see.
The globalists will be sending oil to record highs this year.
It will not go backwards as analysts forecast based on their
graphs and charts. It's hideous and relentless what the PTB
is going to release on this world.

Hunter 1 | Jun 13, 2008 | 1:05AM

The splendor of such idealism is like the revolutionary troops
fighting the red coats. Except this time around, all money is
going to arming police centers at miitary high budgets.
The missing money for that and other psy-ops black folder
programs will thrwart this ideal. The Swift Group will be the
participants of the Thunderdome Survivalists as far as I can see.
The globalists will be sending oil to record highs this year.
It will not go backwards as analysts forecast based on their
graphs and charts. It's hideous and relentless what the PTB
is going to release on this world.

Hunter One | Jun 13, 2008 | 1:05AM

The splendor of such idealism is like the revolutionary troops
fighting the red coats. Except this time around, all money is
going to arming police centers at miitary high budgets.
The missing money for that and other psy-ops black folder
programs will thrwart this ideal. The Swift Group will be the
participants of the Thunderdome Survivalists as far as I can see.
The globalists will be sending oil to record highs this year.
It will not go backwards as analysts forecast based on their
graphs and charts. It's hideous and relentless what the PTB
is going to release on this world.

Hunter One | Jun 13, 2008 | 1:06AM

@Scott Drumm,
You have stated:
"Oil prices are rising because demand is beginning to outrun supply. Much of the demand comes from newly-developing nations like China and India who want the automobile-centric lifestyle we have here in the US - and their consumption is growing at near double-digit rates. Much of the supply problem comes from declining output from existing oil fields and the decades long absence of any significant new oil field discoveries."

This is not true.
Rise in demand for fossil fuel is not due to increase in cars and other vehicles as you are envisioning. It is due to fast Industrialization of these nations and not due to rise in number of cars or other vehicles (which amount to only 18-21% of the total demand for fossil fuel).

For your information. All those CAR 'Grand pix' that are constantly being conducted around the world are using more high quality fuel. I read somewhere a year or so back that the total high quality Petrol used in such 'Grand pix' around the world is equivalent to about 50% of the total consumption of conventional petrol in the US.

So such 'Grand pix' and other car rallies are the culprit also banning them itself will help save more petrol than one can easily imagine.

The number of industries are increasing by leaps and bounce in the third world countries and these industries require more energy. Where does energy come from? Well from Fossil Fuel. I read on a web site (www.radhegroup.com) about how fossil fuel consumption can be reduced in industries by adopting alternative renewable fuels and how they have helped their nation in saving costly fossil fuels. Do check the site for more info.

Lastly I have to say (as you have rightly pointed) that it is due to the 'Drive for Ethanol' and the drive to make all edible food items from Corn only (almost 72% of all packaged food consumed in the US contains corn in one form or other) as that is more cheaper to manufacture and is always sold at high price (as compared to other foods) in the western world that has lead to scarcity in other edible foods.

I think one way to go is to enhance PV (photo voltic) output as this source of energy is the least productive compared to is price and is totally free as it is dependent only on SUN and its radiation which are totally free in all ways.

No other alternates are viable and usable over the long run.

Regards,

Yogi Yang | Jun 13, 2008 | 2:12AM

"I read somewhere a year or so back that the total high quality Petrol used in such 'Grand pix' around the world is equivalent to about 50% of the total consumption of conventional petrol in the US."

I don't know where you read this but I don't see any way it can possibly be true. I would be surprised if auto racing worldwide used even 0.5% of US fuel consumption.

Special Fishy | Jun 13, 2008 | 5:59AM

"But if SwiftFuel doesn't succeed, I also hope that isn't because entrenched oil interests kill it. Yet I don't think many of us would be surprised if that is exactly what happens."

What paranoid, unsubstantiated, leftist propagandistic bullshit.

Joe | Jun 13, 2008 | 8:01AM

I have to disagree with the distribution issues stated in previous comments. I heard you can blend these new fuels with current gasoline. Since that is the case, it's easy to ship a tanker of 90% gas and 10% alternative at first, then up the percentage of alternate until you are shipping 100% alternate. As long as it burns in unmodified engines and you can blend it with gas, where is the problem? Start with the independent gas stations first. I think more than logistics and technical issues, you have political and financial obstacles in place. But money rules all. Make the alternative fuels cheaper and everyone will want them.

Keith | Jun 13, 2008 | 9:42AM

This fuel should be tested on NASCAR racing cars. This would prove its feasability and is a great way to promote the product.

Robert Schwinn | Jun 13, 2008 | 12:12PM

"But if SwiftFuel doesn't succeed, I also hope that isn't because entrenched oil interests kill it. Yet I don't think many of us would be surprised if that is exactly what happens."

That always happens, but don't worry, there are now operations at work to combat against this.

ozone | Jun 13, 2008 | 2:26PM

"But if SwiftFuel doesn't succeed, I also hope that isn't because entrenched oil interests kill it. Yet I don't think many of us would be surprised if that is exactly what happens."

That always happens, but don't worry, there are now operations at work to combat against this.

ozone | Jun 13, 2008 | 2:27PM

how about dropping SU from SUV and maintaining the V for what it is, vehicle. lets call this "downsizing"

biofuel sounds good/cool, but its side effect is that is rises the food prices worldwide (which farmer is willing to cultivate crops for food when (s)he can get a better return from crops for biofuel)

the PC won over the MF (mainframe) for about the same reasons: smaller, cheaper, (not necessarily faster), lighter

Life Tester | Jun 13, 2008 | 5:48PM

Interesting, but the energy requirements for current energy usage would use all our arable land... Better to consider alternatives, like rail and bus and bike.

Biking especially is good. Not only is it more efficient and less polluting than anything else on land, with no fossil fuel needs, it's also much healthier. In the city, it's also usually faster for trips up to 10k, with easy nearby parking.

Cars cost $7,000+/year. Biking, about $100/year.

tOM

TomTrottier | Jun 14, 2008 | 4:43PM

Ummm. Your numbers are screwy.

One gallon of ethanol has about 66% of the energy content of a gallon of gasoline. You are claiming that these folks can make a gallon of fuel containing fifteen percent more energy than a gallon of gas with a $1.40 gallon of ethanol and 40 cents worth of processing.

LJR | Jun 14, 2008 | 7:29PM

We need to become independent from OPEC. Alternative Renewable Fuels such as Solar Energy is available now.

Diana | Jun 15, 2008 | 1:02AM

yes, straight alky has less calories, but believe the ole shine runners, it can mooove ya. Basically because the heads can be shaved and the compression raised without "deadly knock" also note that the gizmag article gives away the secret,..... formulated with hydrogen peroxide, h2o2, same stuff you burn (with lowly kerosene) in a V2 rocket to bomb britan , if you were von Braun and hitlers army! Its a tried and true formula, some contestants propose peroxide and rubber (hydrocarbon donor) to take the X prize for space flight. look it up under "oxidizer."

walt | Jun 15, 2008 | 5:43PM

There are a lot of people looking at using yeast for biomass conversion, and there are processes which can produce butanol from corn stalks, which probably could be tuned to produce ethanol.
The real candidate for "next fuel" is methane (natural gas), since we have all the tech to use it for power generation, heating, and vehicle operation. Even though estimates of methane ice recoverable reserves have declined, they could provide enough relatively clean fuel to carry us until fusion is commercialized.

bill.d | Jun 18, 2008 | 7:01PM