Ethanol Driving us Crazy

In Sweden there is a lowered tax on fuels considered environmentally friendly and cars that can use such fuels (or are extremely conservative with normal fuels) are considered environmentally friendly and therefore get a lot of benefits such as lower taxes. The government even pays you the equivalent of €120, $1500 when you buy that kind of car instead of a normal petrol or diesel-guzzling vehicle. You can park for free in many places in the city if you have a car like that, you don’t have to pay congestion charge for going in and out of the city in the day and so on. These things are done to stimulate people to chose more environmentally friendly cars.

Parked cars in Sundbyberg one autumn day...
Parked cars in Sundbyberg one autumn day...

For the last few years the ethyl alcohol or methanol cars have been touted as the environmental friendly personal transport for the future; and subsequently a whole chain of events started that probably could have been foreseen but was never really looked into when the decision was made. On the surface it looks like a good deal, alcohol is rather cheap, it is bio-renewable the exhausts are far cleaner than gasoline/petrol or diesel vehicles gives us and above all, most cars engines can be converted to run on alcohol without too much trouble or cost.

These days many petrol stations have designated pumps for alcohol fueled cars and more are coming. The fuel is called E85 and consists in the summertime of 15% ordinary gasoline and 85% ethanol. However most environmentally friendly alcohol cars are still driven on ordinary petrol and the reason are that the difference in price is not really encouraging people to spend the extra time finding a place where you can fill it up. Other problems are also that the energy content per liter of fuel is not that good meaning the car is a little thirstier than usual so if you add that up you don’t save a lot of money and you get a lot of extra hassle trying to find a station to fill it up with alcohol. On top of that it is also difficult to start cars that runs on pure alcohol in the north of Sweden when it is really cold meaning that in the winter time you will have to mix it with more petrol. The fuel does not burn easily when its -30 °C and so that is also a problem that is perhaps more specific to us in the north here. Therefore in the winter the mixture is not 85/15 any more but changed to contain far more gasoline than in the summer time.

What’s even worse is that the industrial alcohol used is made from sugar beets, a crop that does exist but is not wide spread here because of the climate so lots of them are from Brazil where rain forests have to give in for vast plantations of the fermentation friendly vegetable. This is madness in more than one way of course but that’s the way it is – the cheapest route to make alcohol is to ferment a sugar mash basically. It is also made from various grains – that’s basically human food – this drives up the price of wheat and other grains suitable for putting into fermentation to get alcohol, prices that we in the west may have the money to pay for our foods but certainly people in the third world can’t. So while people starve we use their food to power our vehicles. Triple madness.

So what would be a good alternative? Fuel cells are not really ready for this kind of application yet, hydrogen/oxygen is hard to store, extremely volatile, has to be kept refrigerated (or hydrogen dissipates) under high pressure – there are still ways to go here. There are of course natural gas engines and this is coming more and it could be an alternative but the whole point of the exercise is really to get away from fossil fuels, is it not?

The most successful environmentally friendly car right now over here is the petrol/electrical hybrid car. At best it cuts the petrol use by half by using an assisting electrical engine, a rather large and heavy battery bank and in most cases it still saves something like 20-30% compared to a similar all-petrol car. The most used, liked and famous car is the Toyota Prius which I think pretty much every taxi driver is using these days. Lovely car, would not mind one myself really. At least not until it is time to renovate the battery bank in it.

Filling up with E85
Filling up with E85

The fully electrical car is being talked about a lot and for many people the thought of driving into your ”gas”-station, connect an electrical cord to charge your car while you get two packs of milk and some candy for the kids is a very compelling picture. The problem here is that it won’t work. First of all the energy spent going to and from the store would require several hours of charging to replenish. For many people charge over night, go to work, charge at work, go home could work – but for longer trips it would not work. Battery chemistry is just not good enough that you can re-charge them so quickly. Not to mention that the sheer current needed is much higher than what any normal household outlet can deliver. We are now talking industry sized connectors here carying at least a hundred ampere in order to charge enough energy to drive around for a day in say ten minutes time. So not a very practical solution.

The collective transport system here in Stockholm is excellent if not even brilliant but in many parts of the country, the rural parts and in the north there aren’t as many choices as here. I get around in the city almost exclusively by collective transport these days using the underground metro, commuter trains, buses and ferries daily but in the country side you have only buses really and the need for people to transport themselves is not going to become less in the future, if anything the new economy requires people to be able to transport themselves even more than before as the job market becomes more dynamic.

I don’t really have a working solution but I know that ethanol is not the solution, instead it has pretty much stopped the Swedish car manufacturers Volvo and SAAB from continuing a sound development of hybrid cars or alternate fuels since it was so much easier to convert what was already there to alcohol fuel which we now are starting to realize actually in many ways is not at all better for the environment than ordinary petrol (which already has a 15% mix-in of ethanol if you did not know that).