The race to fill your tank with wax paper, grass clippings, and wood chips
Ethanol producers, backed by major investors, say a wide range of materials soon could power your car.
Fill ’er up with Range Fuels. No, make that “soladiesel.” Better yet, I’l take 20 gallons of that BlueFire ethanol.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
While you may have never heard of any of these products, their producers hope to make them part of your vehicle’s future.
An increasing number of companies are trying to come up with replacements for unleaded regular.
Some of the efforts are relatively easy to comprehend: a car that plugs into your electric supply or runs on batteries. There are concept cars hitting the roads with hydrogen in their tanks. And, there are scores of entrepreneurs, some funded by venture capitalists or second mortgages, trying to come up with a fuel combination that ExxonMobil may not carry – at least anytime soon.
“By next year, renewable fuels will be the third contributor of motor fuels in the US, only behind Canada and Saudi Arabia,” says Doug Durante, executive director of the Bethesda, Md.-based Clean Fuels Development Coalition, which lobbies for ethanol production. “It will be ahead of Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria and Iraq.”
The major reason for the increase in renewables – mostly ethanol at this point – is government policy, which provides subsidies for corn-produced ethanol. In the future, however, the emphasis will be shifting to “advanced” renewable fuels, including ethanol made from such feedstocks as wood chips, sugar cane, or the stalks and leaves of corn.
In legislation passed last December, Congress limited ethanol made from corn to 15 billion gallons by 2015. Current production is about 9 billion gallons. After that, Congress has mandated consumption of an additional 16 billion gallons of non-corn cellulosic ethanol by 2022. All total, the US consumes about 180 billion gallons of diesel and gasoline a year.
“This could move renewables to the second largest provider of motor fuels and it could possibly be the number one source,” says Mr. Durante. “Remember, these numbers are a floor, not a ceiling and we could see these fuels attract a lot of technology and money.”
That’s the case with the push to produce ethanol from something other than corn. Some major companies such as General Motors, BP, and Shell are investing in promising non-corn technologies involving ethanol. The prospect of finding a replacement for fossil fuels has also attracted Silicon Valley investors, including Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems.
One of those investments, Verenium Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., is using a relatively new technology to break down biomass, such as grasses or sugar cane, into ethanol. The company has recently finished building a demonstration scale plant in Jennings, La., to make 1.4 million gallons of ethanol per year using the unprocessed part of sugar cane.
The Jennings facility is expected to begin production at the end of this year or early next year.