National Geographic : 1981 Feb 28
methanol. He turned toward the distant Sierra, its snowy peaks holding a tattered white banner on the horizon. "Between here and the mountains lies a belt of hardpan and gravel that you can't plow-good only for grazing. It could grow enough eucalyptus trees to provide methanol for every car on the California highways, and the cattle could graze beneath them. But we don't need all that wood. The waste from our for est operations and our cities-these can pro vide a large chunk of our methanol. The same can happen all across America." Another methanol plan comes from Dr. Thomas B. Reed, senior scientist at the So lar Energy Research Institute in Colorado. "We're developing small plants capable of producing 30,000 gallons of methanol or ammonia a day. They could be installed al most anywhere, say by a local farm cooper ative. Farmers and others within 15 miles would bring in cornstalks and other crop residues, municipal wastes, trash thinned from forests-anything organic. A plant could produce enough ammonia in 15 days to fertilize the surrounding farmland. The rest of the year's output would be methanol to run tractors, cars, and boilers. It's a clean, manageable, self-renewing system." A small handful of gaseous fuels could also contribute to running our cars. With a few engine adjustments, cars can be converted to run on propane gas, a by product of oil refining. Methane, which oc curs as natural gas, sewer gas, and gasified coal, becomes a liquid transport fuel when stored under refrigeration. Modesto, Cali fornia, is converting its city fleet to run on methane made from municipal sewage. Hydrogen, the fuel of the sun, could be a fuel of the future. Wherever there is water H 20-there is a source of hydrogen. But freeing the hydrogen molecules by electroly sis requires costly amounts of electricity. Further, bulky hydrogen is difficult to store on board a vehicle, a problem scientists are beginning to solve. The winding down of the petroleum era could also mean the rebirth of the clean, low maintenance electric vehicle, or EV. For almost a century this appealing auto has been hobbled by the limited perfor mance of the batteries that store its electric energy: heavy, expensive, short-lived, capable of trips of only 40 or 50 miles. Last year both Gulf + Western and Gen eral Motors announced breakthroughs with batteries that may double today's driving range and greatly increase the number of recharges possible. General Motors plans to be producing EVs by the mid-eighties. The Department of Energy is encourag ing research on vehicles known as hybrids. These electrics carry a small gasoline engine to increase the EVs range. Synfuels Future Still Uncertain In an emerging industry with the almost limitless possibilities of synfuels, can anyone foretell the future? Some environmentalists fear they can, and they object. Says Kevin Markey of Friends of the Earth: "Synfuels are not a good investment, environmentally or eco nomically, compared with conservation, and should be approached cautiously." From the opposite direction, strong voices cite the nation's dollar-draining dependence on oil imports and the strategic need for greater energy independence. Others see pitfalls in too hasty a plunge. "If we go too fast," says Edward W. Mer row, an energy analyst for the Rand Corpo ration, "plants will cost more, they'll be late, and they'll have problems. And if this hap pens, we fail to signal OPEC that there's an upper limit to what it can charge for oil." As to how many barrels will be produced when, and of what, the crystal ball obvious ly is too cloudy to tell. But shale oil, coal liq uids, and alcohol seem to be on the way. In Brazil, a knowledgeable manager of the giant Volkswagen works observed that America's energy future is complicated by the confusing variety of choices that lies be fore us. It's not a bad problem to have. Q Designed to be as scary as a scarecrow can be, an apparitionsets sail on an oily tailings pond at the Athabasca tar sands. At its feet rides a propane cannon that booms twice a minute. This rig and a hundred replicas successfully deter birdsfrom alightingon water polluted by processed sand. Environmental threatspose a primary obstacle to synfuels.