Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ethanol Plants Lower Costs and Save On CO2 Emissions

As the ethanol industry continues to establish itself, ethanol plants are improving their efficiency as well as their carbon dioxide emissions. This is not a totally selfless act, but it is done so that the ethanol plants are both able to survive in a climate where it can at times be hard to make a profit as well as a way to improve the overall efficiency of their process.
With the spike earlier this summer in corn prices, ethanol plants struggled to even make a penny on a gallon of ethanol sold, even with oil prices as high as they were. Now that corn has retreated and oil has remained comparatively high, ethanol plants have begun to breath a small sigh of relief. However, they are no where near out of the woods yet. Ethanol plants face dangers from possible rises in grain prices to the very volatile natural gas market that is most commonly used to power the large heaters used in an ethanol plant to boil off the ethanol from the water.
Two ethanol plants are leading the way in establishing a more sustainable process towards ethanol production. The first is an ethanol plant in Johnson County, Missouri that is teaming up with a local landfill to help make its process more efficient. Mid-Missouri Energy's ethanol plant will team up with the landfill to supply enough natural gas to offset 90% of the natural gas needed to power the plant. This is an amazing amount of renewable energy that, if calculated specifically for this ethanol plant, would make ethanol's benefit in GHG-emission reductions much greater than the 16% reductions seen in conventional plants. This is not only good because of the decrease in green-house gas emissions, but one of the biggest expenses for an ethanol plant is the energy needed to drive its distillation, (which can amount to 60% of the entire plant's energy requirements). So by establishing a reliable, cheaper source of natural gas, the ethanol plant, which is owned by a local farming cooperative, should become much more competitive in its industry.
The second ethanol plant to mention is located in Superior, Iowa. The local ethanol plant has won approval to install three wind turbines on site to generate electric power for the plant. This will not speak to the power needed to drive the distillation process but it should go a long way in providing renewable power to the ethanol plant at a cheaper cost as well as driving down some of the GHG emissions.
Both of these two plants are using unique ideas in an effort to improve the production of ethanol. From an innovative standpoint as well as a practical financial standpoint these improvements make sense if ethanol plants are to move forward in producing an environmentally friendly product at a price that competes for consumers.

Sources for the information above can be found at:

Monday, July 28, 2008

Nuclear "Deep-Burn" Technology

I've said in the past that my mission is to focus these posts on matters directly related to ethanol. However, the current evolution of our energy situation has made the entire field complex and interdependent. For this reason, this post is about nuclear energy and, while not speaking directly to an ethanol issue, I think it is connected in that if we are to have flex-fueled cars with PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) technology included, we better have an efficient, reliable, and clean source of energy to power the electric side of these vehicles.

The Department of Energy recently announced grant money going towards two labs, the Argonne National Labs, and the Idaho National Labs for the study of "Deep-Burn" nuclear reactors. These designs are slated to go into the technology for the next generation of nuclear power plants, known as Generation IV nuclear reactors, which may be put into electrical production sometime around the year 2020. The idea of a Deep-Burn is to coat the outside of the plutonium or other nuclear fuel particles with a ceramic shell. This allows the nuclear fission process to occur at much higher temperatures, thus dramatically increasing the efficiency of the electricity generation as well as eleminating almost all of the nuclear waste produced in the process. In fact, in preliminary studies, the process is so efficient that it makes reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods from LWR (light water reactors) economically feasible for nuclear power plants.

What this means is that if the process of the Deep-Burn nuclear reactor can be implemented correctly, we could enjoy efficient, cheap, nuclear power with much less nuclear waste. Of course, the problems of the plant over-heating resulting in a nuclear meltdown would still exist, and since the process would still result in some nuclear waste, it is by no means perfect. It is however, a great step forward. One last thing to keep in mind is that with this event horizon (at least 10 years away), the technology for a fusion-style nuclear reactor may be perfected in that time frame and allow for much more efficient fuel burning with little or no nuclear waste. We will just have to wait and see on that one.

For more detailed information, go to: