Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ethanol from Sugar

Picked up the tail end of an interview with Richard Branson on Charlie rose last night in which the discussions turned to what options are available to us in terms of displacing some part of the oil trade. Richard came down quite strongly on the short term use of ethanol from sugar as a replacement fuel. His first suggestion was to immediately eliminate the import duties on sugar into the USA. This would immediately put all the sugar producing areas back into competition and encourage rapid expansion of supply. Follow this with a rapid build out of sugar based ethanol production and we will have created a major competitive transportation fuel source.

Importantly, the Brazilians have already shown us that it is very doable. A pleasant surprise was to discover that the residual bagasse makes a highly efficient power plant fuel. So we do not have to wait for a cellulose conversion technology to use the rest of the feedstock.

I do not think that it is possible to displace all of our fuel needs by the use of sugar based ethanol, but it is certainly possible to replace some and it can be done quickly. It also directly supports tropical populations throughout the world were sugar production has been deeply depressed for decades. This produces many social benefits.

We now live in a world in which a loss of a million barrels of oil production per day will not be easy to replace from other sources and this is now becoming visibly more precarious with each passing month. Having the equivalent of that production on tap as soon as possible from an alternative source would go a long way to giving us a little elbow room.

The real difficulty is that we simply do not have enough potential sugar cane fields to make a large difference in the long haul. Once oil production has slipped by a few million barrels we will quickly run out of sugar cane fields. At least the yield is apparently several times greater than corn which is a boon. It may be even possible to replace a serious fraction of fuel demand in this manner, although my instincts are suggesting that even several million barrels equivalent would be a remarkable feat. I have not ground through the calculations yet.

The hard reality is that the great oil crisis is upon us, and there are few available options open to us to cover the gap until other fuel sources are made to work. Producing sugar everywhere possible while employing millions is rather a good idea and will keep everyone busy while the problem really gets solved.

I also cannot say this more strongly. The decline in conventional global oil production is essentially under way but this is still hidden from public consciousness. It cannot be so for much longer. The replacements that are available need lead times that are normally not experienced in this industry which means when the storm hits, everyone will be caught flatfooted. It is tragic that we are simultaneously dealing with a grave credit crisis within the US banking system and by proxy the global financial system.

It would be a relief in these conditions if there was enough room through ethanol to hold us over.

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