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Discovering Fire:
The Coming Revolution in Energy

An interview with John Petersen
by Carter Phipps

WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT: There is a lot of talk in the news these days about “peak oil”—the idea that we will soon hit or may already be hitting the worldwide limit of our oil production capacity. This milestone has numerous and far-reaching implications for the future of life on the planet. Do you think that we're reaching peak oil? And if so, what can we do about it in terms of shifting our energy use over the next decades?

JOHN PETERSEN: Inevitably the economical discovery and extraction of oil will peak. The only question is when. Some people think it's happened already; some people think it will happen thirty years from now, but we do know, at least, that it won't be as long as a hundred years from now. When the peak does happen, it will begin to usher in a new world for all of us that could evolve in a number of directions; perhaps a couple of them could exist in parallel.

I believe we're moving toward an all-electric world, where everything—transportation, heating, communications, etcetera—is run on electricity. The only question then becomes: How do you produce the electricity? Right now, we are on the verge of a revolution in solid-state chips, heating and cooling chips. If you want to produce cool air, you blow air across some highly efficient, electronic cool devices, and to produce heat all you do is to reverse the polarity of the electricity going through these devices. In laboratories, these devices are far more efficient in heating and cooling than the current mechanical systems with compressors and pumps, and they are many times more efficient than the present solid-state devices that are used for cooling. It's a technology that has ramifications for managing the climate in buildings, vehicles, and many other devices. Soon we'll be in a situation with no pumps and no belts—we'll have fans and that's about it.

So first, in terms of space heating and cooling, we're on our way to an electric world. And second, in terms of large-scale transportation, almost everything is electric now. The United States Navy has said that all of their future ships will be electric. They'll produce the electricity with jet engines driving generators. The same is the case for modern railroad locomotives, of course.

WIE: But that still uses oil.

PETERSEN: Yes, they use jet and diesel fuels. But in time you can potentially swap to different kinds of fuel sources quite easily—like biodiesel for diesel engines, which is derived from biological feed stocks, for example. Couple this with hybrid and perhaps fuel-cell-powered cars and you can see that in the transportation sector we're already going toward electricity.

Two major sectors—transportation and heating—consume most of our energy, to the tune of at least eighty or ninety percent of all the petroleum products that are used in this country. The rest of the petroleum is used for high-valued things like plastics.

For transportation, the shift to an alternative fuel should be one that works with the same kind of infrastructure that we have now—the tanks, cars, trucks, pumps, gas stations, etc. We need a liquid fuel that can be handled in much the same way that gasoline is now. But before we choose one, there are a few other considerations that should be in the mix. First, let's make it clean, so it doesn't negatively affect the environment. Second, let's do it for national security. What I mean is that we're doing this in part because of the problems that we've got in the Middle East and we want to get ourselves extracted from there. Third, let's make sure the change has positive economic implications. And finally, we'd like the fuel not to be toxic. If you go through all of those considerations, what you end up with is ethanol.

WIE: Ethanol? That's the one fuel that meets all of those criteria?

PETERSEN: Yes. Ethanol, which is wood alcohol, is the best choice. That's what we said in the national energy strategy that the Arlington Institute put together for the Secretary of Defense. Interesting little side note—do you know why all cars are not burning alcohol right now?

WIE: No. Why not?

PETERSEN: Henry Ford wanted all cars to run on alcohol. But it was during prohibition, and the government didn't want a bunch of stills all over the place producing alcohol. So with the influence of, I'm sure, Mr. Rockefeller and some other folks, they decided that the fuel would be oil-based gasoline. But the fact of the matter is that every automobile on the road today, every automobile, can burn up to fifteen percent alcohol or ethanol in a mixture with gasoline. And for a minimal manufacturing cost—something like thirty dollars per car—every new vehicle could operate burning up to eighty-five percent ethanol.

So what you have is a potential instantaneous market. Every new car could become a flexible fuel vehicle, an FFV, as they're called. Ford already has a fleet of seven or eight FFV vehicles, and they don't cost any more than the regular ones. This is easy to do. This could be one decision by the President of the United States: from now on, if you're going to sell a car in this country, it has to be a flexible fuel vehicle. I think the manufacturers would all step up and say, “Yes, sir,” because it wouldn't cost anything. So you could produce a real market right away. Already there are more than four million flexible fuel vehicles on the road.

WIE: How is ethanol produced?

PETERSEN: You can produce ethanol through distillation, but right now that uses a lot of energy and electricity because it's heated up during the distillation process. So it can't compete with gasoline, and therefore ethanol production is subsidized. The farm states love that because they can get subsidies for growing a lot of corn.

WIE: It's made from corn now?

PETERSEN: Yes, corn and sugar beets and sugar cane waste. But it could be made from almost anything, any cellulosic biomass. Do you know what the largest volume export is that the United States produces? Old corrugated cardboard cartons. And we send all of that wood fiber offshore, because we don't have anything else to do with it. All of that cardboard can be turned into alcohol. In the future, we can use biotech bugs that will chew this stuff and turn it into alcohol as a byproduct without all of the expensive costs that are now part of the distillation process.

WIE: These would be live biotech bugs?

PETERSEN: They're biological catalysts called enzymes. It's a clean process because it doesn't produce the effluents and other things that have come out of the refining process. More than that, ethanol burns clean. The only thing you get is a little water out of the tailpipe of the car. From an economic point of view it's a wonderful thing. Even in the short term, suddenly you're creating immense numbers of new jobs for people in the farm areas, because they have something to grow that takes the place of what is otherwise a huge import. From a security point of view, you domesticize your fuel production, and you do it in a renewable form. We've got the numbers to show that this is completely doable, and over a period of around seven to ten years, we could carve a really big chunk out of our energy production.

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