A Solution In Motion
No matter how fast and guilt-free this Audi feels, revolutions aren't guaranteed and they don't happen overnight: A lot of the technology that is required to scale up the production of green fuel is still in development, and green fuels in general need statutory mandates to attain popular use. Oil is becoming increasingly difficult to find and extract, but it's still much more profitable than developing alternate fuels. Strong legislation and tax incentives are necessary to encourage investment in biofuels if they are to be produced widely and efficiently.
But there's some big money behind green fuel so far: UOP, a division of energy company Honeywell, is one company researching the new fuel. It's one of the world's largest petroleum research companies, with its technologies at work in the production of over 60 percent of the world's gasoline. Even though it's currently entrenched in the oil industry—it's one of the world's largest petroleum research companies—UOP created an renewable energy unit dedicated to green fuels in 2006.
UOP has already licensed green diesel technology to two European refiners, one of which, Eni S.p.A., intends to have a plant operational in Livorno, Italy, by 2009. It is UOP's research and development folks who've lent me the Audi full of green diesel in the hopes of demonstrating that it is indeed possible to make a biofuel that results in lower emissions, lower carbon footprint, and lower cost—all while behaving like a wild explosive inside your engine.
According to UOP's timeline, refiners will start out using conventional vegetable oils as raw materials, called "feedstocks" in fuel jargon. Within three to five years, they hope to move to more sustainable and efficient feedstocks like forest waste, crop residuals, and municipal solid waste before transitioning finally to inedible plant oils like camelina, jatropha, and algae oil. As the collection methods for these feedstocks improve, production will grow.
The production process of green diesel was developed ahead of green gasoline—which would be more useful in the US—but UOP is presently in licensing talks with several unnamed North American refiners, too.
Other big names like BP and ConocoPhilips are also investing in the conversion of cellulosic material to fuel, and venture capital firms are lining up to put money into research and development, according to Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, and the co-author of a forthcoming book about the future offuels, cars, and energy policy. Sperling says Congress' most recent biofuels mandate requires 36 billion gallons of non-petroleum fuel to be in our gas tanks by 2022, 15 billion gallons of which must be advanced, non-ethanol biofuels like green diesel.
Not So Fast…
Despite the high hopes, there are still factors that could bring down biofuel's resurgence. "Algae looks promising, but the volumes of fuel we'd need to produce are just huge," says Sperling. "None of these fuels are obvious winners yet, on a largescale. They'll all certainly be produced in the future, but it's unclear just how successful they'll be." That's thanks to a laundry list of variables that could vitiate their progress: hitches in the collection of cellulosic material, trouble converting land to agricultural development, or ineffectual government support.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren is the director of UOP's Renewable Energy and Chemicals division. While she's optimistic about the benefits of their green fuel technology, she concedes that our national energy demand is growing faster than any one solution. "I don't believe in a future without petroleum, honestly," she says. "The demand for fuel is just growing too fast. I think we'll need to make a transition to a point where our fuel is coming from other feedstocks in combination with petroleum." That means that despite the promise of biomass as a petroleum substitute, demand will require not simply petro-fuel or biofuel or electriccars, but all three.
So with green fuel on the three-to-five-year horizon, what will our transportation energy look like in a decade? "It will depend on where you live," says Sperling. Midwesterners, for example, might use more cellulosic waste-based green fuel because of their abundance of farm land, while Southwesterners use algae-based green fuel. People in Texas will plug in electric vehicles to their wind-powered grid, while Northeasterners might rely on nuclear-generated electricity. A multifaceted solution isn't as exciting as a silver-bullet concept car, but luckily it doesn't have to be—it just needs to work.
At present, however, the stars seem to be aligning for green fuel, even if consumers are busy drooling over new fangled hybrids and EVs.
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