Posts Tagged ‘ethanol’

For the second time in a month, it’s very popular among my friends and co-workers that they know a BYU Cougar (the first, of course, after the football game against Oklahoma, exciting my Longhorn-lovin friends and officemates, but I digress…)

From the Edmunds Green Car blog:

Brigham Young University Scientist: Sugar + Weed Killer = Direct Carbohydrate Fuel Cell

BYU-Professor-Gerald-Watt.jpgResearchers at Brigham Young University claim to have developed a fuel cell that harvests electricity from glucose and other sugars known as carbohydrates using a common weed killer as a catalyst.

Lead researcher and BYU chemistry professor Gerald Watt (pictured) said in an article published in the August issue of the Journal of the Electrochemical Society that carbohydrates are very energy rich and that he and his colleagues sought a catalyst that would extract the electrons from the carbs and transfer them to an electrode.

Watt said he and his colleagues discovered a solution in the form of a cheap and abundant weed killer. He described the effectiveness of the herbicide as a boon to carbohydrate-based fuel cells.

By contrast, hydrogen-based fuel cells such as those developed by General Motors require costly platinum as a catalyst.

The study conducted experiments that yielded a 29 percent conversion rate, or the transfer of 7 of the 24 available electrons per glucose molecule, Watt reported.

“We showed you can get a lot more out of glucose than other people have done before,” said Dean Wheeler, who was part of the research team. “Now we’re trying to get the power density higher so the technology will be more commercially attractive.”

This isn’t the first time that a glucose-based fuel cell has been reported. In 2007, Japanese scientists announced they had invented a device that used sunlight to convert glucose into hydrogen to power a fuel cell.

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Letting Go of Ethanol

I’ve been wanting to write a piece arguing that just because ethanol isn’t a complete solution to global warming and oil prices, it is still an alternative to oil and therefore good. Unfortunately, I can’t honestly say that because ethanol isn’t even a partial solution; it’s just a bigger problem.

I really wanted to like ethanol because corn is good.  And I really wanted to quote Hardin from his 1968 article in Science magazine where he said: “. . .we can make a rational decision which will not involve the unworkable assumption that only perfect systems are tolerable.” I love the quotation, however, I sadly cannot honestly say that it applies to ethanol. In my mind I hear that blind Native American in the Oliver Stone film U-turn.

I’m generally wary of arguments purely rooted in economics, so I wanted to address some of those. But it turns out there’s pretty much no good argument in favor of ethanol and if there were one, I wouldn’t want to make it.  Turns out, according to Nobel prize winners and writers for Science and world news sources, ethanol has a pretty big carbon footprint when you take into account the carbon emissions released from burning forests to plant crops for use as diesel fuel. Turns out the amount of nitrogen needed to grow corn or switchgrass for fuel emits atmospheric nitrous oxide in levels that are worse for the planet than ozone. Turns out that the production of corn-based ethanol results in “dead zones” in our water sources, like a huge swath of the Mississippi. Turns out that people starve in-part because selling the crops for fuel rather than food reaps more profit. Turns out that hungry people are rioting around the world. Turns out that the nitrogen reaction used to grow the corn is produced using natural gas, which is not only a non-renewable carbon-based resource but which, in Texas, dictates prices on the energy markets. Yes, ethanol from sugarcane works for Brazil, but who knows what the lasting effects of massive deforestation will be and should we encourage the potential loss of more?

I asked a friend of mine why U.S. and E.U. legislators aren’t doing less to prop up the crop-fuel industry, like halting the subsidies and mandates, and doing more to find real solutions to global problems in the face of the evidence. He said, “They don’t want to find solutions. They want to sell corn for high prices.”


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