BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Another green read ...

As regular readers of this space know, I've often been “confused” when books that I've picked up at the dollar store have been sitting over on Amazon at full price. Well, this one is clearly a “dollar store buy” that's out of print (and hardcover copies available for very little). This may be due to it being a bit “old” (it came out in February of 2006) and much of the specific info (politically, etc.) being out of date at this point.

That said, I found Josh Tickell's Biodiesel America: How to Achieve Energy Security, Free America from Middle-east Oil Dependence And Make Money Growing Fuel a very informative read, which filled in the details on a lot of the background on this “green tech” fuel.

Obviously, the parts which were “historical” at the time of the book's writing are, perhaps, the most useful, as they remain constant, while a lot of the “current info” in the book is well into the rear-view mirror. Among the subjects covered is a very interesting look at Diesel in general, how it was developed, spread, and became a niche product in the U.S. vs. its acceptance elsewhere in the world (at the time of writing, some EU countries had as much as 65% diesel penetration). This is, of course, framed in the context of the American oil industry, and the author paints a very grim picture of both U.S. and global oil supplies … frankly, from his “the sky is falling” prognostications, I'm surprised that more of this hasn't been daily headline material, as this presents an immediate threat, eight years ago … perhaps nobody is talking about key Saudi oil fields failing, or maybe the emergency that Tickell outlines was a bit over-blown.

There are several interesting sections here, breaking down the various elements of assorted factors of the energy industry – largely set out in chapter called “Alternative Fuels 101”. Among the highlights of this are the following lists:
The Three Principles of Good Energy:
        I. Energy Balance Ratio
        II. The Cost of Externalities
        III. Ease of Integration with Existing Infrastructure

Six Engines that Move Our World:
        I. Gasoline
        II. Diesel
        III. Electric
        IV. Gasoline-Electric Hybrids
        V. Diesel-Electric Hybrids
        VI. The Air Car

The Fossil-Based Alternatives:
        I. Natural Gas (Methane)
        II. Liquified Natural Gas (NLG)
        III. Propane (LPG – Liquified Petroleum Gas)
        IV. Methanol
        V. Hydrogen
        VI. Gas to Liquid Fuel (GTL) or Fischer Tropsch (FT)

The Renewables:
        I. Biomass
        II. Methane (from digestion)
        III. Ethanol
        IV. Biodiesel

Alternative Electricity:
        I. Nuclear
        II. Geothermal
        III. Hydro
        IV. Solar
        V. Wind
Each of these is discussed (in varying detail), with many fascinating data points, such as “In an area equivalent to a 45-mile radius (6,600 square miles), the United States could produce 100% of its daily 10 billion kilowatt hours electricity demand using photovoltaic panels.” - this accompanied by a map of the U.S. with a fairly small black circle on the California-Nevada border.

After this the book swings into the politics and business of farming, the info here no doubt being somewhat stale by now, as a lot of stuff that's being featured here has either worked itself out (NAFTA, GATT), or have been likely superseded by other legislation. What's particularly interesting in this chapter is a look at various crops and their applicability to fuel. These are Soybeans (of which the U.S. Produces 45% of the world's crop), Rapeseed & Canola (which are widely grown in Northern Europe), Mustard, Peanut, Sunflower, and Corn (Maize). Of these the most fascinating was Mustard … which I'd not heard of before as a potential fuel source. The seed is between 25% and 40% oil by weight, and has very high yields. A Department of Energy report outlines 14 criteria for potential oil crops, and Mustard fits all of them … including the ability (in #1) to “supply 6-12 billion gallons of feedstock oil”. It struck me that the plant can be used for both human and animal food (“mustard greens”), that having wide-spread production would be useful for both that and fuel. Another intriguing possibility is Algae, the type studied for this being approximately 50% oil by weight. However, here are some serious complications on how to efficiently grow Algae in sufficiently large scale (as it needs both a lot of water and sunlight, and typically a place that has plenty one is pretty short on the other).

The next chapter deals with Biodiesel itself, going back to Rudolf Diesel's experiments with various vegetable oils to run his engines. Interest in this fuel source had a spike in the oil crisis of the 1970s, but the bulk of the research on it, in the U.S. at least, has only been since the 90's. The author goes into the chemistry of producing Biodiesel, and looks at various aspects of it in relation to other fuels, from efficiency in the engine to the sorts of air pollution it may produce. He also looks at challenges to its use, including its viscosity in cold condition, its tendency to degrade rubber parts, and its slow acceptance in terms of engine warranty rules.

After this the book turns to the efforts to get Biodiesel accepted in various levels of the government … and how many locations – even despite it costing significantly more than standard fuels – have switched their vehicle fleets to using some portion of Biodiesl fuel. The author is evidently quite enthused about this, but the data from a decade ago is not terribly pertinent today. He does take a look at how Biodiesel could be integrated into the existing fuel distribution channels … how big to make plants, where to locate them, how to transport it, etc., which are no doubt questions that still need to have answers. An interesting angle is that of “National Energy Security”: “... it is not just our dependence on foreign oil, but our dependence on oil itself, that puts the United States in a vulnerable position.”

Biodiesel America has an extensive bibliography, running 16 pages of listings, so there's plenty of stuff there to follow up on, and there are endnotes which largely focus on giving the source materials for the assorted referenced materials (such as the DOE report noted above). If you are interested in learning more about Biodiesel, this might be a good place to start. It's a fascinating read, made a bit uneven by the “dated” nature of much of the political/trend material. While it does appear to be out of print, the on-line guys have it for as little as a penny (plus shipping) for a used copy, and 15¢ for a new one … so it won't cost you much to get it.

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Tags: book review
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