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FILL ‘ER UP…WITH CORN OIL?

In a few days, my second grandson, Ryder, will be sliding (hopefully headlong) into this cold, cruel world. And of all the vagaries of life, of one thing I am certain: when he becomes old enough to carry a motor vehicle license, life as we know it will have undergone drastic change. This change will relate mostly to that black liquid layered in the earth’s crust. I’ll refer to the latest news that there are an estimated 3 to 15 billion gallons of it some 27,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico ostensibly awaiting the drill bits. I won’t be holding my breath that the Gulf oil fields will save us, only that it will postpone the inevitable a few more years. On its own, this country needs roughly 5.7 billion gallons of crude to run on every year.

The coalition that the U.S. had established with the oil-rich Saudis came to an end in 1979, right along with details and plans to extract it. We don’t know squat about how much of it is still in the Ghawar (producing 5 million barrels per day) under Saudi Arabian feet. Though speculation is that the mid-east reserves are frightfully lower than previously estimated, it does not account for the reserves estimated in large tracts of Siberia, Iraq, Alaska, and even Saudi Arabia.

So it’s very likely that Ryder’s daily driver could well be fueled by something other than stuff from the fossil seas despite the prediction by the United States Geological Survey that there was something like 3 trillion barrels of recoverable conventional oil in the ground and one-third of it has already been produced. It took roughly 150 years to use the first trillion, but worldwide consumption will likely blow the second trillion in only 30.   

Undoubtedly, Ryder won’t feel the same way about gasoline as I do now, though. He could well be used to a car that’s powered by something else entirely. I’m not talking the hybrid combination of gasoline/diesel and electricity or a hydrogen cell, the hardware for which would cost 10 times that of a conventional piston engine. Although heralded as the shining path to the future a mere five years ago, hydrogen has been purposely shelved by the automakers because there are no plans to abandon the internal combustion engine. We’ll be working that sucker to death to the very end, fueling it with ethanol, cow manure, vegetable oil, cheap perfume, biodiesel, or any other fluid that can be ignited by compression (read diesel).

Believe it or not, the same oil companies that are screwing us at the pump now are working just as hard to transform themselves from exploration businesses to tech-intensive manufacturing businesses and in extending the life of the remaining reserves. The two things that would exacerbate the change-over are an oil war (we’re in the thick of that now aren’t we?) or the more logical scenario of an OPEC-orchestrated price collapse like those of 1985 and 1998. Regardless, these humps are behind the times.

There are more concrete and attainable short-run solutions based on diesel technology already in practice, but since we’re still stuck on the amount of BTUs produced by a gallon of gasoline, we’ve patently neglected the obvious. Where the Europeans have been active in this arena producing lightweight, odorless, smokeless diesels that perform as well as a gas-fired engine and can exploit the energy in a gallon of bottom distillate, Detroit has buried its big, fat head in the sand, eschewing compression-ignition engine technology for the passenger car and limiting it to the truck market.

Of the Big Three automakers only DaimlerChrysler has a firm foot in the passenger car door through its Mercedes-Benz parent company’s long and successful affair with Rudolf Diesel’s confounded contraption. Can’t imagine it in a performance car? Six thousand pound diesel-powered trucks running 10-second quarter-miles should shut your mouth. The Sebring and Le Mans-winning twin turbo V12 diesel-powered Audi R10 TDI should open your eyes. These engines are real, they’re here, and they can no longer be denied.

I can see Ryder now, filling the tank on his quiet-running, stink-less, smokeless, twin-turbo, all-aluminum diesel V8 with the splooge that once bubbled in McDonald’s deep-fat fryers…and then smoking his ol’ grand dad’s gas-burning pig.   

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