All the media coverage today about fuel for logistics and personal transportation is centred on three sources:
Diesel – being dirty and polluting, even though the industry is the cleanest it’s been for years. The issues with the VW Group have clouded that discussion.
Petrol – and fossil fuels in particular being another source of pollution and political unrest. We have seen the price of this fuel stabilise after reaching highs of around $150 a barrel a decade ago (has it really been that long since the GFC hit)?
Electric – the current wonder source, although many countries still burn a fossil fuel (coal) to produce the electricity! Strangely that isn’t lumped in with petrol and other fossil fuels. The media love this technology and see it as the darling of the industry and the fixer of all evils.
Governments have a big part to play in what fuel is used. Petrol became the main one after many governments taxed the life out of other sources. Then diesel was the way forward with European Governments providing tax incentives that encouraged buyers to ditch petrol in favour of a dirtier fuel (at the time). Now we are seeing Governments push those same tax incentives to electric power without considering the impact of generating enough energy to supply the growing fleet of vehicles that require it.
However, there is still a source of fuel that is now being overlooked and is cleaner than most other sources and I’ve written a few articles about it over the years: biofuels.
Ethanol (Sugar v Corn)
The problem with biofuels is that they are often called bio-diesels and for many journalists, that last word means that they get lumped with oil based diesel. Ironically, Rudolph Diesel’s first motors were designed to run on peanut oil.
Back in 2008, Amyris had developed a sugar cane based bio-diesel with partners in Brazil and now have used the same technology with some of the major oil companies as well as to develop plant based pharmaceuticals and personal healthcare. Sugar cane is good because it has a high cellulosic content – i.e. it can provide a base for the conversion of biomass to fuel stock after the main raw materials have been extracted.
Iogen, a Canadian company, is a specialist in cellulosic ethanol and is now looking for partners to get the products used widely in the market. The company uses feedstock or sugar cane as the base material to create the ethanol, however they also create electricity as part of a separation process. This is because the process output is a mix of solids and liquids. The solids can be burned to produce electricity whilst the liquid goes on to be refined into bio-diesel.
Mascoma is another company that is looking for ways to use plants to create sustainable ethanol and bio-diesels. They are using bio-technology to improve enzyme production which in turn speeds up the fermentation process. The faster a plant can be converted to a fuel the better and hopefully cheaper. This was a path that Universal Oil Products went down when they advanced the refining of crude oil.
Sadly several of the biofuels developers have moved away from the industry. Range Fuels were one of the first companies to get grants from the US Government to develop ethanol from biomass without the use of enzymes in the refining process. Unfortunately the costs to develop their process was higher than the grants and investment put in and after five years, they closed down in 2011. Range Fuels had signed an agreement with Ceres an energy crop company from California. Ceres have been developing grasses so that more biofuels can be extracted from the biomass. They are making grasses grow faster and thicker and want to design grasses to grow in areas that food stocks can’t grow. That way more useful grasses can be grown that can be turned into cellulosic ethanol. Range Fuels were planned to be the refining partner.
There is still a raging debate about the use of feed stocks like sugar cane and corn to produce fuel for cars. Basically, does the human species abandon a source of food just to travel to work? So some companies are looking at waste products or things that eat waste as a source of fuel. I covered the use of waste vegetable oil a while back and I have written about Algae based fuels (see above). Algae are a plant like organism that can’t get enough carbon dioxide – they thrive and grow when they consume it.
I am a great believer in biofuels – although they are not as effective, power wise, as oil based fuels, they can be developed to be more sustainable and combined with other power sources in a hybrid motor could reduce our reliance on a single source of fuel, something that Governments appear to be keen on forcing consumers to use.