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.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/ap
Charity DeLuca of LiveFuels in San Carlos, Calif., examines samples. Fuel from algae may work in commercial jets.

Fill ’er up with Range Fuels. No, make that “soladiesel.” Better yet, I’l take 20 gallons of that BlueFire ethanol.

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.

“Our business plan, based on the results of the demonstration project, is to move forward and close on financing a first commercial scale facility in late 2009,” says John Howe, vice president of public affairs for the company.

BlueFire Ethanol, based in Irvine, Calif., will use landfill material, such as lawn trimmings, wax paper, or cardboard to make ethanol. The company is building its first plant, a 3.2 million gallon-per-year facility, at a landfill in Lancaster, Calif. By September of next year it expects to be producing ethanol.

“Our business plan fits the majority of small communities around the US,” says Arnold Klann, chairman of BlueFire. “We’re also planning to do everything in modular form so there can be field construction of the plants in less than six months.”

Yet another cellulosic producer, Range Fuels, Inc. is building a cellulosic ethanol plant that will turn out 20 million gallons a year in Soperton, Ga. by the end of next year.

The new plant’s feedstock will be biomass such as wood waste.

“We have off-take agreements for all the ethanol we can produce,” says Mitch Mandich, the CEO of the Broomfield, Colo. company. “We are going to sell it to blenders who are in Macon and Savannah about 100 miles away so it keeps transportation costs very low.”

Mr. Mandich says his plant will employ about 100 people. “We have plans to build dozens of plants throughout Georgia and the Southeast and help reinvigorate the rural economy.”

Some new entrants are trying to replicate the way earth has created oil, only in days instead of millennia. One of those companies, Solazyme, is using microalgae to break down feedstocks such as beet pulp or switchgrass into fuel. “We use a standard fermentation process to speed up the process from millions of years to a few days,” says Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of the south San Francisco-based company.

“What happened is that in 2003 and 2004 some guys were working out of a garage with several strains of algae,” says Mr. Wolfson. “Every single oil company and executive said, ‘Don’t tell us you can make this ideal molecule for $1.50 a gallon, show us you are going to do it to scale.’ ”

Wolfson says his company is producing commercial amounts of oil, some for cosmetics and soap, some food quality and some fuel grade. “We’ve made many thousands of gallons of fuel,” he says. “Now, we’re driving hard on fuel economics and we think we’re within 24 months of being on parity with fossil fuel costs.”

And, when it comes to renewable fuels, what can beat cow manure? For the past two years, students at the University of Western Washington’s Vehicle Research Institute in Bellingham have been making manure into a biomethane that can be used as a vehicle fuel.

First, they have to remove heavy metals that could corrode the inside of the car. “We have a scrubber that takes out the bad stuff,” says institute director Eric Leonhardt. “And, the beauty of all this cow poop is that it is constantly available.”

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