08 April 2008

Showin' My Ignorance?

Photo credit: Allen Tannenbaum

Pouring steel...
One of these days I'd like to tour a steel mill and watch them actually doing that. I can only imagine how noisy and hot it would be, and I'm sure there would be interesting smells involved too... sensory overload!

When we approach "BigTown" from the right direction, we pass near a steel mill. When they are pouring steel at night, the bright orange glow can be seen from tens of miles away. The roof of the mill is open, I suspect to allow heat to escape. An area two city blocks around the structure is bathed in the golden light. There's a lot of energy there.
It always sets me to thinking... that energy is wasted.

Ethanol is the subject of much discussion these days. Now that we've had a chance to study the ethanol production process, it's beginning to sink in that there are some negative consequences to using it as a motor fuel... the resources we use to make ethanol result in less food being produced to put on dinner tables around the world, and the process to produce ethanol requires as much or more energy than it will return at it's end use.

So my question-
What if we located ethanol production facilities near steel mills, and used the heat now being vented to the atmosphere in the ethanol production process? And I wonder if the same could apply at electric production facilities... those cooling towers we see venting steam at nuclear and coal-fired powerplants?

I'm ignorant. I know absolutely nothing about what it takes to produce a gallon of ethanol.
But if one of the big problems truly is the energy used to produce versus energy available in the end product, it sure seems to me there is energy now being wasted that could be used to reduce the "energy to produce" side of the equation.

Anyone out there know enough about ethanonl production to educate us all?


nec Timide said...

Some of these heat recovery projects do happen but it has to be cheaper to capture the waste heat, transport it to where it is needed (even if just across the street), and convert it to a form that can be used.

There are some ethanol production processes that are better than unity and use "waste" material like husks and twigs. Though what effect taking the energy bearing elements out of that does to the soil nutrient availability I'm not sure.

I'm not entirely convinced of the whole "the climate is changing with devastating speed, and its our fault" philosophy. IMHO using food instead of sequestered hydrocarbons for fuel just so you can feel good about driving a Lincoln Navigator to pick up one kid at soccer is evil. I'm all for reducing carbon emissions and renewable energy, because that is good stewardship, but not if it is going to drive up the cost of food.

Rodolfo said...

I'm ignorant of ethanol as well. From what I've gathered it's not practical. But asking these questions is the first step. There's no denying the fact that we need to reduce our oil consumption. I just learned about Diesels in class and how general aviation is finding ways of easing our dependence on AVGAS. You can see the new engines in the the Diamond aircraft and also as retrofits in Pipers and Cessna. It's kinda off topic but I have a new appreciation for kerosene nowadays. I't be great for the aviation industry to be the leaders in modernization. Let the auto manufacturers take our cue for a change.

Anonymous said...

This has been done in the past. Carnegie Mellon University (at least in the 80's when I attended) obtained steam from a steel plant across the ravine to heat all buildings. Made for a nice wide swath of green grass in the middle of 1 foot deep snow during the summer.

However, there is a fundamental problem. Steel plants are located either where steel ore is found (mountains) or where steel is obtained for recycling (near a port). Ethanol plants are found where the corn is (flat lands). I'd venture to guess that the savings obtained by colocation are outweighed by the raw material transportation costs.

cary said...

Not an expert, but I agree with anonymous, as far as co-location.

I also agree that we need to reduce our overall dependence on hydrocarbons for energy, without impacting the food equation, but as long as humans demand V-8 performance the conversion to whatever the next major fuel source is going to be will be slow and painful, not to mention costly.

The existing infrastructure for efficient delivery of hydrocarbon fuels can be converted to other fuel types, but for the most part they probably won't be able to "share" pipeline time, as cross-contamination would be detrimental.

The biggest obstacle, as I see it, is the environmentalists' objection to drilling our own oil and building our own refineries. However, in the long run, by forcing us not to use our own resources, they are creating higher prices in a round about way, thus ensuing that any alternative will eventually be cheaper (but still more expensive than the cheap gas we all remember with fondness) than the then-current price of gasoline or diesel.

The Old Man said...

As my children learned at my knee and lib-ruls never learn: If you ask why or why not, the answer is always money. Any way to squeeze a buck out recycling waste heat is pretty much in use at current cost levels. As the cost of energy goes up, marginal sources are then profitable to a degree. (Riots in Tortillastan due to ethanol production are not a way to keep them at home. Shipping cheap corn meal there helps.)

The weather this year is said to be trending cooler due to La Nina (which even AlGore admits is driven by solar cycles). But the warmies can only offer bs excuses why CO levels are increasing while the temperature drops

Andrea Shea King said...

Hey, Greybeard...

Looks like your question brought out the scientists! Great question and even more interesting comments.


Rodolfo said...

the old man wrote: If you ask why or why not, the answer is always money.

I guess I'm the lib around here. Is there any subject that we can talk about without injection of our political prejudices? Oh well.

With all due respect old man maybe that's the wrong answer to be giving. The reason God (in my opinion) gave humans the ability to reason and ask questions is to help ensure our survival. What makes you get up every morning? Is it because you have to go to work to earn money? The reason we all get up is because we will DIE if we don't. Humans invented tools and continue to make them to survive. Money is nothing more than a tool. A tool to help us survive. And like any tool they need to evolve. Plain and simple.

Our need to ask and answer questions regarding alternative energy is born out of the necessity for our species continued existence. We can't pretend that putting all our eggs in one basket (oil) is the most effective way of sustaining our way of life for generations to come. We see the negative impact of this mentality more and more everyday. If Americans don't lead the world in developing these technologies then we are destined for mediocrity.