How Do We Get Energy From Oil

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One of the greatest dangers of a business-as-usual mentality is that inefficiency can become a force deemed important in our daily lives. At some point, solving a problem may take more time and effort than most people would like. Our tendency to allow historical experience to become modern gospel can cause us to miss opportunities for innovation, especially when it comes to sustainability.

How Do We Get Energy From Oil

How Do We Get Energy From Oil

Take one of the pillars of energy consumption in America: our cars. Every living American remembers that gasoline is the source of energy for our mobility. Meanwhile, we’ve seen cars become more efficient over time, which strengthens our confidence in the system. As part of this thinking, much of our efficiency effort has been directed at the puzzle of how to make cars go more miles for every gallon of gas they use. But what if, instead of using more gasoline, it was actually more efficient (perhaps much more) to burn oil to generate electricity and use it to power cars? Maybe the cultural constants that we think are the best solutions don’t stand up to as much criticism as we think.

Oil And Gas

Americans used an average of 367 million gallons of gas each day in 2011, according to the EIA. This equates to approximately 16.74 quadrillion Btu of energy, or approximately 17.2% of the nation’s total annual energy consumption.

When Henry Ford first assembled his Model T, who could have imagined how far automobiles would come 100 years later. With all the glitz and glamor we can now apply to our cars, there can be a tendency to show off our cars and praise them as examples of how our innovative spirit has transformed the motorized carriage into elegant, comfortable and efficient capsules of mobility. If we needed more proof, we could point to the all-new CAFE standards that raised the efficiency limit for our fleet to at least 27.5 mpg for passenger cars. To most of us, this seems like a perfectly valid argument.

But the truth is that despite the various iterations, classes and similarities that cars have gone through, they are still not that efficient at converting latent energy into kinetic energy. It’s true that today’s cars can go much more per gallon of gas than their ancestors, but even now most of our internal combustion engines are only 25-30% efficient (actually converting energy into forward motion). Most of the energy produced during gas combustion leaves the exhaust pipe as heated exhaust gas or is lost through friction of moving parts.

This alone is a bit annoying, but it’s important to remember that gas is a by-product, not a natural resource, and the product’s long life cycle is coming to an end. When you lose 70% of your energy to gas, you’re not just throwing BTUs into your gas tank, you’re also throwing away nearly three-quarters of the total energy you put into it. A comparison of the conversion processes of oil, gasoline, and electricity reveals hidden inefficiencies that can be incorporated into our system.

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In both cases, part of the life cycle of the oil is the same. In any case, crude oil reserves must be discovered, drilled and collected. This process itself consumes a lot of energy, but in comparison it is the same amount of energy for both. Given that crude oil cannot be efficiently used for anything, it enters the refinery with 132,000 Btu/gallon of latent energy.

A key component of our oil refining process is distillation, where crude oil is evaporated to break it down into various refined components. Given the demand for gasoline in this country, approximately 40% of each barrel of crude oil is converted into gasoline, but this process also requires energy. On average, the gasoline processing process takes approx. 85% efficiency (Wang, 2008), which means 15% is lost in conversion (or about 21,000 Btu. By comparison, #4 fuel oil (fired at power plants)) has a conversion efficiency of 93%, so less energy is needed to produce each a gallon

Barrels with both products are delivered from the oil refinery to the place of their use – gas stations or power plants. For the purposes of this comparison, we can again assume that these two numbers are roughly equal.

How Do We Get Energy From Oil

As mentioned at the beginning, most of the 114,000 Btu of energy in each gallon of gas burned in the engine does not return to the car’s tires. If we take a car that meets today’s CAFE standards of 27.5 mpg, the total energy would be 4145 Btu/mile.

Energy, Utilities, Oil And Gas

In the case of electricity, the level of production is the biggest factor in the overall efficiency of the system. While a car’s internal combustion engine can still only convert 30% of its energy into useful function, even the oldest coal-fired power plants in this country can’t keep up. The latest industry developments use combined cycle power plants that drive a generator turbine (essentially a jet engine) and then collect the exhaust gas to produce steam, turning another turbine. Thanks to these combined processes, combined cycle natural gas-fired power plants can achieve efficiencies of 60%. (If the heat is used to heat adjacent buildings, the efficiency can reach 90 percent.)

It is true that we no longer build oil-fired power plants because of the availability of natural gas. In fact, most oil-fired electricity is in New England and is rarely used. However, it would be reasonable to assume that we could build an oil-based plant of similar capacity with a heat output of approximately 5,690 Btu/kWh. In fact, ±6% of this energy is lost during transmission, so we can increase this figure to 6031/kWh.

To see how far this will take us on the road, we can take the rising star of the all-electric sedan Tesla Model S. The 60 kWh battery pack has a range of 208 miles. This translates to 3.47 miles/kWh or 1738 Btu/mile. or less than half the energy per mile compared to its gasoline engine counterpart.

Before my regular readers get confused by the above plan, it is important to note that I am not trying to consume more fossil fuels. To be honest, I’m not even a car fan (read: a bit of luxury is better than commuting). Will this be a major infrastructure change? absolutely. And to succeed, it will require a complete migration of American consumers from gas cars to electric cars. Energy experts may also point out that our refining process should be changed to convert as much crude oil as possible into distillates instead of the 40% we currently convert into gasoline, which will affect energy prices. Everything is correct. When it comes to a more sustainable society, there is a difference between being more efficient and simply using less. Our planning efforts must continue to encourage developments that allow us to live comfortably without cars.

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But for now, the bottom line is that if we continue to drive cars and burn fossil fuels, questioning the status quo may lead to more efficient solutions that allow us to do more with less. Similar to our relationship with coal and electricity generation, gasoline is not necessarily the holistic “best” solution, or perhaps just the most practical. A gradual transition to more electric cars (even if that means plug-in hybrid electric cars is a big first step) could underline the transition to a smarter grid with more flexible energy distribution and use. We should work to be more proactive in rethinking, rather than waiting for problems to arise. For any technology that allows the social impulse of a cultural norm to override periodic reassessments to challenge our assumptions is dangerous and inhibits the innovation we seek to foster. We need more comparisons between “how we did it” and “how we can do it” instead of letting the former dictate our course.

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