Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
 
Four suggestions for 1000 miles per gallon
by Colin


I went to one of those anthropologically curious Washington events last night that involve lots of people in suits (and a few in uniform) who show up with business cards on quickdraw and looking for a free drink. Usually these are really just an extension of working hours: pols mingle, staffers gossip, and everybody tries to talk to somebody more important than themselves. But this one ended up very differently. The 200-odd bureaucrats, military officers, embassy officials and scientists (yes, scientists!) who showed up were actually interested in hearing the principal speaker, and it turned out that he had something to say.

The issue at hand was energy, and the session was put together by the Defense Department, where a surprising number of people are thinking intelligently about the national security implications of America's dependence on oil. The speaker was James Woolsey, former CIA director under Clinton, ambassador to the Negotiation on Convetional Armed Forces in Europe under Bush I, army officer, and many other impressive things. Woolsey has been thinking about oil, and practical ways to reduce our oil use.

He started out by giving us some sobering stats on oil and the "Long War", the new name/concept for the Global War on Terror. America's annual trade imbalance is about $800 billion, one-third of which is for oil -- in other words, we spend ~$1 billion a working day for foreign oil with no return. Saudi Arabia's annual profit from oil is around $160 billion, of which several billion a year ends up in the hands of Wahabi fundamentalists, and almost certainly from there some goes into terrorist hands. As Woolsey says, this Long War is the only war other than the Civil where we've bankrolled both sides.

Woolsey then gave four very practical suggestions. Number one is to start making plug-in hybrid cars, that will charge their batteries from the grid overnight, when demand is low and power is cheap. This takes bigger batteries, but conversion kits to make a regular hybrid into a plug-in are going to be publically available in the next year. Building hybrids to be plug-in would currently add $7-$10k to their price, but that number could be slashed if car companies decided to begin production.

Suggestion two is to move from using corn ethanol to cellulosic ethanol. It's easy to turn corn into ethanol, but hard to ferment other biomatter. However, using genetically engineered yeast it is possible to break down cellulose and thereby use cheap feedstocks like the famous switchgrass of SOTU fame. This is already being done in Canada.

Number three is something Scotto pointed out to me just last week: the chemical conversion of animal waste (usually chicken or turkey offal) into crude oil. This is going on right now in the US, and (given subsidies similar to other alternative fuels) is becoming economically competitive.

Finally, Woolsey enouraged the use of carbon composite materials in private car construction. These composites are already used in race cars, and are the reason (along with seatbelts) that drivers can walk away from rolling crashes on the track. Composites are lighter and much stronger than steel, and can make cars much more fuel efficient by making them lighter. They can also "divorce survivability and size" so that the suburban mom who wants to keep the kids safe no longer feels compelled to buy an Excursion or a Suburban.

Given these budding technologies, all of which are very real (unlike hydrogen) Woolsey says that we could quite realistically push fuel efficiencies way over 100 mpg, perhaps approaching the 1000 mpg mark (although he didn't give a timetable for that). He emphasized that "the Wright Brothers have flown" on each one of the four, and what was needed was not lab coats but crescent wrenches to put these technologies into wider practice and spread them. I was impressed and couldn't agree more.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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