Today's date:
Summer 2006

Farms for Fuel?

Alan MacDiarmid, a native of New Zealand, was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 2000. He is a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia—As we deplete oil, coal and natural gas reserves globally, the recovery of the remaining fossil fuel may be technologically feasible, but it will not be “economically recoverable.” It will simply cost too much. We see that clearly today with the price of oil at $70 a barrel and rising.

This reality enhances the financial viability of any alternate form of renewable energy because that viability is hitched to the price of oil per barrel on the international market. If the price of oil falls, which is unlikely, the economic feasibility of alternate forms of energy decreases. If the price of oil continues to rise, which seems likely, then so does the economic viability of alternative energy.

The most promising source of alternate energy comes from nature’s own solar cells—the leaves of trees, bushes and grass. They absorb sunlight and convert it into various organic materials—stored energy from the sun.

In past eras, people hunted for fish, animals, berries and roots. Then we learned to grow them through farming. But we are still hunting for energy from forests that grew millions of years ago—that is, coal, petroleum and natural gas.

Now that we are more enlightened, we will surely do the same for energy as we have done for food and begin to farm our energy needs. Like “farms for food” long ago invented by humans, now the time has come to create “farms for fuel.”

In the future, we will get most of our energy from the growth of plants instead of waiting for them to decay over millennia and then using expensive and complex technology to get that energy out of the ground.

The most prevalent type of fuel that can be grown is bio-ethyl alcohol, or ethanol as it is commonly called, which we are already putting into gasoline in significant quantities. It is made primarily from the fermentation of sugar and certain parts of corn.

Bio-diesel, which is oil obtained from soybeans, sunflower seeds or the like, is another form of biofuel. In this case, the oil is extracted and no fermentation is involved.

Since a given country may be limited by its climate or soil conditions in the growing of sugar or corn for fermentation into bio-alcohol, of great interest at the moment are advances in creating fuels out of cellulosic materials such as are found in wood-chip waste or dry waste from farm products.

If this cellulose can be broken down by enzymes into sugars that can be easily fermented into ethanol, then there will be few limits to widespread use of biofuels. Pilot projects on this have been implemented, and the results are promising. Every day the costs are being reduced because the cost of the cellulose enzyme is becoming cheaper and cheaper with active research.

In time, the fuel of the world will be derived from trees, shrubs and grasses that can grow in essentially any climate in the world, as well as from corn and sugarcane in certain climates. Instead of a petroleum economy, we will live in a bio-alcohol economy.

The beauty of using fuel obtained from living plants is that any carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when a biofuel is used is then reabsorbed by the leaves of plants. So we get a cycle in which the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air is neither increased nor decreased. Therefore, if we use biofuels of any type, we do not add to global warming by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide into the air, as the burning of fossil fuels does.

Of course, no one form of renewable energy, whether biofuels, wind or solar, can cover all the energy needs of a given country. Necessarily, there will have to be a mix of fuels according to the local conditions of climate, soil and terrain. We will no doubt see wind and hydroelectric powers in one part of the country and biofuels in another. And still some “economically recoverable” fossil fuels in another.

What I’m describing has already happened in Brazil, which today is essentially independent of any imported petroleum. It has already produced 6 million automobiles that run either on pure ethyl alcohol or some combination with gasoline. These are know as flex-fuel cars. You can drive into any gas station and you will see two types of pumps—one labeled alcohol and the other labeled gasoline, although the gasoline already has about 22 percent ethanol mixed in. Sensors in the gas tanks sense the relative amounts of ethanol and gasoline, and the engine adjusts accordingly. At the moment, a gallon of ethanol is cheaper than a gallon of gasoline.

One wonders: If Brazil can convert so thoroughly to biofuels, why can’t the sole superpower now trapped in its dependence on Middle East oil with all the attendant conflicts that involves and the contribution to global warming that entails?

Unless the US wakes up, other countries are going to overtake it in this new bio-alcohol economy. Unfortunately, the US considers itself to be the leader in everything, and that all we do is teach other countries. But we can indeed learn from others, too.