Top US engineer in piss-off-everybody car fuel solution
Farmers, oil barons, terrorists, Honda: All bastards
An American aerospace engineer and tech author has written a book suggesting that America - and with it the rich West - should free itself from dependence on oil, as oil money is the primary driver behind jihadi extremism.
Robert Zubrin has an impressive panoply of technical credentials. His first degree was in maths and he holds an aerospace masters degree, plus another masters and a doctorate in nuclear engineering. He spent seven years working on space propulsion at Lockheed, and now runs his own company, Pioneer Astronautics, which does tech studies for the US space programme.
In his time off from designing spacecraft, Zubrin has written many books and articles promoting space exploration and industries. He also wrote a satire on the Israeli/Palestinian/Arab problem of the Middle East, called The Holy Land. In Zubrin's nominally sci-fi setting, an interstellar Western Galactic Empire decides to resettle a group of aliens in their long-lost homeland, which is in fact on Earth, in America. The US government attempts to wipe out the Minervans by force, but is defeated.
Frustrated, Washington deliberately mistreats the American refugees displaced by the Minervans, forcing them to live in camps near the Minervan enclave as a propaganda opportunity. Then the President sponsors deniable terrorist attacks on both the Minervan aliens and the offworld Western Galactic Empire. The American terror campaign is funded largely by offworld revenue from an advanced energy source - much prized by the aliens - which has been discovered elsewhere in the States. (Geddit?)
Now Dr Zubrin has expanded on the themes addressed in The Holy Land in his new book, Energy Victory . He has already written up his thoughts around the issue in articles at The New Atlantis, an online tech-issues mag put out by the Ethics and Public Policy Center - "Washington DC's premier institute dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy".
In essence, Zubrin says that the OPEC oil cartel - and in particular its heaviest hitters, the Saudi royal house - are no friends of the wealthy liberal West, nor the downtrodden poor of the Third World. He argues that OPEC's production quotas keep the price of oil far higher than the free-market price and far and away higher than the costs of production. This channels colossal sums of hard currency into the hands of inimical governments...
Saudi Arabia is the primary global financier of the Islamist terror cult. Until the Saudis started racking up billions in inflated oil revenues in the 1970s, the Wahhabi movement was regarded by Muslims the world over as little more than primitive insanity... it is the Saudis’ unlimited funds — over $200 billion in foreign exchange earnings in 2006 — that have allowed them to buy up the faculties of the Islamic world’s leading intellectual centers; to build or take over thousands of mosques; to establish thousands of radical madrassas, pay their instructors, and provide the free daily meals necessary to entice legions of poor village boys to attend. Those boys are indoctrinated with the idea that the way to get into paradise is to murder Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, and Hindus (not to mention moderate Muslims)... We have been subsidizing a war against ourselves.
Iran is now using its petroleum lucre to fund its nuclear program and to insulate itself from economic sanctions imposed on it... This is one of the gravest threats to international peace and stability — and, again, we are paying for it ourselves with oil revenue.
So us Westerners need to kick the oil habit, not particularly because of global warming or pollution, but for the simple reason that 90 per cent or better of the money we pay for it gets skimmed by unpleasant zealots and used to radicalise peaceable Muslims into a war on the free West. The high prices that allow this massive skim, meanwhile, serve to cripple Third World economies as they are unable to afford the transport and energy which would let them grow.
Zubrin's solution, perhaps strangely for an engineer with a deep background in nuclear power systems*, does not involve hydrogen. Indeed he pours scorn  on "new energy charlatans" who peddle the "hydrogen hoax".
It’s all pure bunk. To get serious about energy policy, America needs to abandon, once and for all, the false promise of the hydrogen age... Hydrogen, therefore, is not a source of energy. It simply is a carrier of energy... an extremely poor one.
OK then, no hydrogen cars. (Honda will be really cheesed off .) So what does Zubrin advocate?
In short, alcohol fuel. Bio-fuel, then?
Some reviewers of Energy Victory think so. Economics prof Louis Putterman says that Zubrin "argues provocatively for a bio-fuel based approach".
In fact Zubrin doesn't, quite; or not bio-fuel as currently understood anyway. He certainly isn't in favour of powering American transport on corn ethanol produced by (1) heavily subsidised and protected Midwestern farmers, or (2) robbing food from starving foreigners.
Zubrin notes that making ethanol - booze alcohol - out of human-edible food is expensive and problematic, becuase people like to eat and drink it. He thinks that one day we'll learn how to make fuel out of inedible (to us) biomass cellulose, but freely admits that it can't be done yet.
Should the price of oil drop... some combination of tariffs, subsidies, or preferential taxes would be required to keep crop-fermentation ethanol competitive... research is currently underway... to transform cellulose into a starch or sugar, which would thus be fermentable... this should be possible, because grazing animals such as horses, deer, and cattle perform this trick in their stomachs all the time... cellulosic ethanol technology appears highly probable, but we don’t have it yet.
Instead, Zubrin holds up the idea of using methanol - wood alcohol. As its traditional name implies, you can make it out of the inedible bits of plants. You can also, of course, make it from coal - and America has an awful lot of coal. According to Zubrin, you can make methanol out of "used candy wrappers, plastic forks, or Styrofoam coffee cups" too.
Why aren't we doing it already, then?
Well, methanol only gets you about half as far on a normal-size car tankful as petrol. This means that you need lots of refuelling stations right away to make it practical, and you get into a chicken and egg situation.
The answer, according to Zubrin, is to introduce "flex-fuel vehicles" (FFVs) which can run on methanol, ethanol, gasoline or any mixture of the three. In such a car, you could fill up using existing stations - but as cheap methanol and perhaps ethanol became available, drivers would be able to use them easily. You could gaily top off a half-tank of petrol with Styrofoam-cup methanol or corn ethanol with no ill effects.
Flex-fuel cars have already been developed, according to Zubrin, by pioneering Ford engineer Roberta Nichols. They're great, apparently, and large-scale trials took place in California during the 1990s.
Over 14,000 methanol/gasoline FFVs demonstrated “seamless vehicle operation on methanol, gasoline, and all combination of these fuels"... FFV engines were as durable as standard gas engines ... there were incremental improvements in emissions fuel efficiency.
FFVs are also better for the environment than gas-powered cars... mitigating the immediately pressing problems of air pollution and toxic spills, both on land and on water. Unlike oil, gasoline, kerosene, and virtually all other petroleum fuels, alcohol fuels can mix with water. They dissolve and are readily consumed by common bacteria, which averts long-term environmental degradation.
No more tanker-spill disasters as a fringe benefit. Nice. So why doesn't everyone use FFVs already?
If you believe Zubrin, it's mainly the fault of the US farm/biofuel/corn-ethanol lobby. Seemingly they don't much fancy an upstart rival which could actually undermine the case for corn subsidies, though Zubrin mostly avoids saying this. Nonetheless, his position is fairly clear.
Beyond the CEC’s successful pilot program, there has been very little interest in FFVs. The farm lobby has pushed for them as a means to expand ethanol sales, which is why, for the past decade or so, FFVs have been designed primarily for ethanol use.
Zubrin is definitely not your common or garden farm-lobby, protectionist biofuel advocate, no indeed.
Congress should require that all future vehicles sold in the United States be flexible-fueled, capable of using mixtures of methanol, ethanol, and gasoline... thereby creating a huge global market and infrastructure for alcohol fuels... we could end our current tariffs against ethanol from Latin America. Europe and Japan, too, would likely drop their protectionist measures... Not only would Third World farmers have new markets for their products, but they would also benefit from the collapse of petroleum prices.
One might suspect that actually rather a lot of fuel would get made out of coal or gas rather than plants, as long as those things stayed cheap anyway. But at least that would still serve to break the OPEC monopoly and end the funnelling of the developed world's surplus money into Saudi (and Iranian) hands. Conceivably, Zubrin hints, it would also end the need for the developed world to maintain costly military dominance so as to secure oil supplies.
Only in this way can we destroy the vertical monopoly which will otherwise continue to give the Islamists the ability to loot humanity... Only in this way can we transfer control of the future from those who take their wealth, pre-made, from the ground, to those who make their wealth through hard work, skill, and creativity... We will then be in a position to dictate terms to the terror bankers.
In a game of chess, the struggle ends not with the taking of the enemy king, but with his entrapment. If we could engineer a liberation from oil... the oil-for-terror game will be finished.
Call it checkmate. Call it victory.
So to sum up, Zubrin plans to piss off the farm lobby, Honda, Prius drivers, al-Qaeda and the oil cartels, and then finish up by taking away much of the military-industrial complex's raison d'etre**. No wonder it hasn't happened.
Zubrin also adds a personal agenda, noting that Roberta Nichols - the engineer who developed the FFV tech he advocates, who died in 2005 - came from a generation where almost no women at all went into engineering - rather than merely very few, as we see nowadays.
Personally, I find especially delightful the historical irony that fundamentalist Islam, which detests uppity women, nonconformists, innovators, and liquor, should ultimately face its comeuppance from the brainchild of a gutsy mold-breaking inventress with unshakeable faith in the power of alcohol.
Interesting stuff, at any rate. ®
*A hydrogen-based transport system, if it were not to use fossil hydrocarbon to produce the fuel, would require colossal amounts of additional electrical power for cracking water. One of the more feasible ways for the human race to hugely increase its electricity production while simultaneously dispensing with fossil fuels is nuclear power. People who favour nuclear power often like the idea of hydrogen transport systems, as they would probably require a lot of nuke plants.
**Though some of the military-industrial complex might rather approve of Zubrin's plans .