August is typically the slowest news month, and as Covid-19 has left us with more time on our hands, now is as good a time as any to get caught up on some more unusual energy-related observations.
Most of the contents below are fact-based, although some numbers I’ve estimated by the author when I couldn’t find precise figures. The basic point seems to be that ignorance of economics can be very useful, although as Elvis Costello Keynes would say, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and economics?”
“Oil is cheap—-by the pint.” When the price of oil was over $120 a barrel a few years ago, some argued that it was actually cheap, if you looked at the price per pint instead of per barrel. And indeed, oil was only $0.40/pint which certainly is affordable to nearly everyone. Of course, you can also say that caviar is cheap—if you buy it by the egg. (A tablespoon of the top rated black caviar, which costs about $100, works out to less than $1 per egg.)
“Oil is cheap—compared to Coca-Cola” Again, a common refrain when oil was over $100 per barrel, which was largely true, given that Coca-Cola is, even today, over $90 per barrel. And as some have pointed out, there have been times when a steel barrel costs more than the oil contained in it—if anyone still put oil in barrels.
Similarly, balsamic vinegar is roughly 116 times as expensive as crude oil, so try making your vinaigrette with ½ cup olive oil, ¼ cup crude oil, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, one minced shallot, one minced clove of garlic, and a teaspoon of honey. If you normally make your dressing with lemon juice, omit the honey and use a sour crude such as Mars or Poseidon.
Free energy—after a fashion. Back in the 1990s, there was a news story about an engine that ran on nitrogen which, the reporter noted, was free—it’s the primary component of the atmosphere. What he didn’t quite understand was that the engine ran using the evaporation of liquid nitrogen, which admittedly is a component of the atmosphere—of Pluto (at least historically). Delivery might be expensive, but if you’re an Amazon Prime member, the shipping fee would be waived.
I thought of this when I came across this 2014 story about using alligator fat to make biodiesel. The alligator fat is renewable and basically free—although getting it requires some effort, albeit less than retrieving liquid nitrogen from Pluto. Kind of like the joke about getting a selfie with a bear—it’s easy to get one, but not two. Still, the large scale harvesting of alligator fat could reduce the human population (at least amongst the harvesters), easing environmental pressure on the planet, so, win-win.
At the risk of creating a lobbying boom, you should know that it is possible to convert urine into usable energy. Researchers at Bristol University, in work that the BBC describes as flush with possibility, have used a microbial fuel cell to convert urine into electricity by way of hydrogen. One can only imagine that the lobbyists for corn-based ethanol fuel will be pounding on the doors of the major brewers, suggesting a subsidy for beer consumption will reduce America’s oil imports.
Speaking of lobbying, there is plenty of room for more biodiesel in the American transportation sector. At present, McDonald’s uses recycled fat from its French fry machines, enough to power 80% of its truck fleet in Europe, for example.
Applying some reasonable assumptions, it would only be necessary to increase the amount of frying done at McDonald’s by a factor of 300 in order to meet U.S. distillate demand. That is assuming that no additional diesel will be needed to deliver the oil and potatoes. (I haven’t adjusted for the amount used to fry chicken or make my favorite, the Filet O’Fish.)
Of course, McDonald’s is hardly the only producer of fried food and using total American potato consumption, assuming only a portion is fried and that a portion of that oil is not cleaned as reused as is sometimes done commercially, Americans would only have to increase their consumption of potatoes by a factor of 25. Needless to say, America’s potato farmers would need to emulate the lobbying practices of the corn/ethanol industry, but perhaps vodka makers could also get into the act, although the subsidy needed to make potato-based alcohol fuels could be, well, Herculean. (And don’t email me that Hercules drank wine.)
Advocates often point to the amount of solar energy hitting the earth every day, which is 10,000 times the world’s energy usage, implying that relying on solar power is a sensible solution to our environmental problems. In that vein, I calculated how much energy the earth contains, using Einstein’s formula E=mc2 and it is 7.5 times 10 to the 25th power the global daily energy usage. So, all the power you need is in your own backyard.
And finally, since economics doesn’t factor into so many proposals for new energy technologies and fuels, I revisited the earlier argument about the relative cost of oil and checked on the energy content of caviar. It’s roughly 42 calories per gram, meaning you could substitute good caviar for gasoline at a cost equal to about $250,000. Harvesting caviar is a lot safer than producing alligator fat, and the number of jobs created would be phenomenal!