There are many advantages of not having to depend on oil for fuel needs. For a nation like India, energy independence will remove the need to bow before the middle-east dictators and remove this competition with China to grab all oil wells in the world. With this freedom, United States could ignore the lunatic statements from Hugo Chavez and we all could live to see the day when Saudi Arabia’s major business is exporting camels. The problem though is in finding a cost effective alternative.
The market for alternative energies is huge and Venture Capitalists in the Bay Area like Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures have invested in biofuels companies like Altra and Cilion. With companies like VeraSun and Aventine going IPO, ethanol is getting focus as that major alternative. Using E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) could also revive the slumping American car industry and give a boost to farmers. Going by market trends, Ethanol seems to be the silver bullet as even Wal-Mart is planning to pump ethanol based fuel in gas stations around the country.
But corn based ethanol is not without problems. Ethanol is expensive to make. The fuel efficiency for E85 based vehicles are less compared to the ones running on gas. Besides this ethanol has to be carried in trucks or trains (as there are no pipelines) which requires more fuel to be spent.
In Back To The Future II or III, Dr. Emmet Brown comes back from the future , flying in his time machine and is seen scavenging the garbage carts for fuel. He find some soda cans and other pieces of garbage and stuffs it into the fuel tank. This future is near and soon we will all be doing the same , if we are going to use cellulosic ethanol as fuel.
In corn based ethanol, the corn is ground and mixed with water. The enzymes convert the starch to sugar and sugar eating micro-organisms excrete ethanol, which is distilled and used. With cellulosic ethanol, we don’t have to depend entirely on corn. Farm waste like corn kennel, wheat and barley straw, leaves and stalks of plants can also be used as the source of ethanol.
Finally the cost of cellulosic ethanol is expected to be $1.35/gallon compared to $3.20/gallon right now for regular gasoline. This should be a big boost to consumers who can then buy Ford Explorers and H3s without guilt. Since cellulosic ethanol depends on farm waste, these giant SUV owners can claim that they are clearing waste instead of creating it. In Kerala where we stay, throwing garbage over the wall to the road is considered good civic sense. If it turns out that this garbage can be used as fuel, then my neighborhood will be the cleanest place in India.