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Pump — Reflecting on the documentary

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Last night we watched the 2014 documentary PUMP on Netflix.  PUMP tells the story of the US addiction to oil.  (Yes, once again it is a US focused info fest.  Tied to our conjoined twin, the elephant with 10x our population, it’s not easy getting an accurate view of ourselves as Canadians  =P.  However, we as Canadians can make extrapolations in figuring out our own situation.  And we are, like our big sister, addicted to oil.)

In addition to the history of how we became addicted to oil as a transportation fuel, Pump advocates for the freedom to choose among the following fuels:

Electricity (featuring Tesla Motors as a pioneer)

Ethanol (featuring Brazil’s cane-based ethanol as a model of success)

Methanol (suggesting production from Natural Gas surpluses that are currently being ‘flared off’ at the field)

Compressed Natural Gas (CNS)

And conventional ‘e10’ gasoline (10% ethanol gasoline)

One fuel that did not figure in the movie is bio – diesel.

The film highlights that there was a campaign to discredit corn-based ethanol founded on the argument that it diverts from supplies needed to feed a hungry world, thus increasing food prices (beginning around minute 47).  The documentary argues that the reverse is true:  that the “….bi-product of the ethanol fuel process is food, lot’s of food…..” (Pump 51m 45s) because the corn used to produce fuel is not for humans.  It is animal feed.  One of the “… best animal feeds is not corn-on-the-cob, but it’s distillers grains….”  (Pump 52m 48s) (Distillers grain is the residue of the corn after the fermentation process that produces ethanol.)  Thus, corn based ethanol is a supposed win – win situation producing both fuel & cattle feed.  (The reference to corn-on-the-cob is disingenuous, ground corn is regularly used to feed cattle and pigs.  Corn is good for pigs & chickens, but arguably it makes cattle seriously ill.)

However, there are some serious questions about finishing cattle on corn products.  Ruminant biology is designed for grass not corn.  People like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, Inc.(please click HERE to link to his website)  are  opposed to feeding corn to cattle due to the ill health effects of the diet on bovines. (Also click HERE for a summary of a Canadian beef industry study comparing the use of corn distillers grains to unprocessed corn in finishing beef steers.)

Perhaps the net effect of corn-based ethanol does not remove the corn from the food chain.  However, there are, nevertheless, good reasons to be concerned about the use of crop – based bio-fuel feedstock such as corn, wheat, rape seed *  and soy-beans including the following:

1.  vast mono-cultures covering hectares in ecologically brittle uniformity

2. the fossil fuel inputs in terms of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and machinery for cultivation, harvest & transportation

3. net energy.  IF the energy invested in creating the fuel is less than the energy harnessed through burning the fuel then it is a net economic waste, whatever the financials.

(* aka Canola though Canola (Canadian Oil, Low Acid) technically refers to the oil, not the crop used to produce it.  Rape is such a harsh word it’s often avoided.  Except by Tisdale’s town council.)

Brazil’s use of sugar-cane raises similar questions.  Although, if I understand correctly, the feed stock used for fuel is the waste material remaining after the primary product, sugar, has been extracted from the cane.

The best thinking I’ve been able to muster thus far would indicate that the use of waste material as feedstock for bio-fuels is key.  If we use the primary produce of a crop as feedstock, I don’t see how we are ahead of the energy game based on issues 1. & 2. above.  However, if we use materials that are bi – products from other industrial process, materials that would otherwise go to waste, as feedstock for ethanol, methanol, ethane, methane or diesel fuels, then I believe we have found a true win – win situation that minimizes the concerns expressed in 1. & 2. above.

Methane, and therefore, Methanol, can be produced from the carbon dioxide exhaust from coal or any other fuel.  Click HERE to view video footage and read about the University of Kentucky’s projects in carbon capture and recycling through the production of algae.  This raises the question:  Instead of spending billions on the geological sequestration of carbon dioxide in places like Estevan, SK why not simply capture C02 from the stack and reprocess it as fuel using photosynthesis?

According to the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association most of the fuel ethanol produced in Canada comes from corn & wheat.  A notable exception is an Enerkem, Inc. facility under construction in Edmonton which is projected to produce 38 million litres of ethanol from post -sorted municipal wastes.  (Please Click HERE to see source map showing Canadian biodiesel and ethanol plants.)

A second innovation in waste to fuels in Canada is JBI’s plastic to oil technology, operational in the Niagara area of Ontario.  Please Click HERE to find out more from their corporate website.

Canada lags behind the United States in the commercial availability of retail bio – fuels.  I have not managed to find a nation wide map though individual fuel companies do have search help (eg click HERE for Esso, or HERE for Petro Canada)

One intriguing factoid that comes out of the documentary PUMP is that in modern fuel injected gasoline vehicles, it is a simple, intentional software issue that prevents e10 vehicles from operating as e85 (15% gasoline 85% ethanol).  As the film shows, this intentional impediment can be hacked.  However, such a work around is illegal unless certified at great financial expense and through mounds of paper work.

Conversely there are simple conversion kits available that communicate with the computer and the fuel injection of late model autos to allow them to run on any blend of methanol, ethanol and / or gasoline.  With methanol one has to be careful about corrosion issues in the Vyton artificial rubber seals that will eventually cause fuel pump failure. Buna – N artificial rubber will work with all three fuels.  So with the right rubber and the right electronics one is good to go with all three fuels. (Click HERE for FAQ source on methanol and sealing rubber types)

As featured in the movie PUMP, for the leading e85, m85 capable if the rubber is right, conversion kit check out by clicking HERE.  I am seriously considering getting one for our 15 year old Toyota Highlander if e85 is available in our area and if our  model year has the proper interface.

Unfortunately I don’ t think there is a reliable source of e85 near where we live, so this, like many of my renewable energy desires, is likely to be deferred.  And here is an issue, the supply networks just are not there for the average consumer to break away from the oil monopoly.  There’s no readily available choice of fuel.  The market players, the regulators and the government policies have us bound to a cartel that limits our freedom and our innovation for the sake of maximizing the profits of relatively few.

In summary I believe that even crop – based ethanol, methanol and bio – diesel have a legitimate role in breaking the monopoly that currently binds us.  Ultimately I do not believe that crop based bio fuels are sustainable.  The best future lies rather in waste – based feed stocks for bio fuels and in renew-ably generated electricity to charge vehicle batteries.  (Extensive networks of vehicle batteries would also form a fine distributed storage system for smart – grids to assist in evening out the supply and demand peaks for solar and wind generators.)

Despite the fact that PUMP seems to have a propaganda interest in furthering the agenda of profits from natural gas and corn, this documentary serves to enliven our imaginations to the very real possibility of breaking free from our addiction to oil.  This freedom is just within our grasp.  If we find the political and entrepreneurial will to overturn oil, we will reduce energy insecurity, and armed conflict over access global oil supplies.

Follow up Links on Canadian Perspectives:

For a link to a 2014 Alberta Oil Magazine article on Methanol fuels in Canada Please CLICK HERE.

For Methanex’s price on Methanol in North America Please CLICK HERE.

For a link to a 2012 Financial Post story on the effect of ethanol fuel on the Canadian economy Please CLICK HERE.

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