Week of June 15

We received so many announcements relating to alternative fuels last week that we were hard put to peruse them all.

Offshore Drilling and Alternative Fuels

The biggest development with significant implications for alt fuels was probably the co-ordinated push by the Republican Party to launch a comprehensive offshore oil drilling program and to throw open ANWR (Alaska National Wildlife Refuge) for development. And it's not just that the White House and the Party as a whole back this initiative. The broadcast media are completely onboard as well, and the electorate is essentially being told that unrestricted domestic drilling will bring us back to business as usual and no need to look very hard at alternatives.

It is difficult to imagine a more pernicious energy policy position than this. Assessments by Federal agencies indicate that neither extensive offshore drilling nor an assault on ANWR can produce enough additional oil to have much effect upon pricing, and those individuals mouthing these position statements must be aware of these facts, especially the President. So why are they advancing policies that will do little good, at least some environmental harm, and, if they are taken as panaceas, will delay meaningful actions toward coping with a future of constrained fossil fuel supplies?

Maybe they're figuring that the Democrats will be successful in blocking either initiative and will pay a steep political price for doing so. That would make sense from a tactical perspective. But whether or not drilling occurs, the result will be much the same if nothing else is done. Fuel prices will remain high and probably ascend further as supply and demand drift more and more out of balance.

So what do you do five years out when economic distress has grown apace and you still don't have an energy policy? You don't admit you're wrong, surely you don't do that. So can you still make hay out of pseudo issues like Reverend Wright's flag lapel? Distract the public from its daily travails by perfervid if bogus appeals to patriotism and identity? Maybe so. It's always worked in the past.

Not that the Democratic Party isn't equally fatuous for the most part. Simply increasing the budget for renewable energy research is not going to change the relatively unfavorable economics of most renewables or the difficulty of tapping renewable sources on a really massive scale. And besides, the Democrats are awfully late in developing serious energy positions of their own. The best time to change an energy regime is before you really need to. Wait until the need is acute, and you're in serious trouble.

But no politician wants to stand up and say what needs to be said. To say to the voters, "look, I failed you. I pandered and sold my vote. I frightened you with phantoms, I appealed to your worst instincts, I sowed suspicion and doubt in order to turn one group against another, and I consistently refused to discuss the real economic issues facing this nation. I did it because if I told the truth, I would have said what few wanted to hear, and I wouldn't have been elected. And besides I didn't even want to know the truth myself."

Lots of New Technology

The Gas Equipment Corporation in partnership with MIT, Avalence, and R&D Dynamic announced a new method for liquefying hydrogen that significantly reduces energy expenditure from 9.7 kilowatt hours per kilogram to 7.4 kilowatt hours.

Liquefying hydrogen seems the best way of carrying hydrogen fuel aboard a vehicle because you end up with about half the volume of compressed gas storage, and, moreover, the cryogenic tanks are cheaper than ultrahigh pressure tanks. But conversely you take a big energy hit in freezing the gas. A few weeks ago BMW announced improvements in cryogenic tanks that would reduce the boil off problem that is inherent in such systems, and this development from Gas Equipment further improves the marginal economics and energy efficiency of cryogenic hydrogen.

So does this settle the issue in favor of cryogenic hydrogen as a storage method? It's probably too soon to say that because hydrogen powered vehicles, particularly those using fuel cells present all kinds of other problems, but it is certainly an encouraging development.

W2 Energy announced that it was moving into the biofuels space. The company makes an interesting gasifier utilizing a technology known as the gliding arc tornado. The W2 is not a classic electric arc plasma converter which relies upon the plasma itself gasify the biomass, but instead combines a controlled plasma ignition utilizing a vortical flame front to increase the efficiency of the ordinary partial oxidation process used in nearly all gasifiers today. There is quite a bit of governmental and academic research supporting the validity of this approach, but apparently W2 is the only company attempting to commercialize it.

Previously the firm had focused on low grade fossil fuel resources such as peat and lignite coal, but now they're eyeing the burgeoning biofuels business. They are seeking entities who can supply bulk biomass on a reliable long term basis.

Honeywell Incorporated announced the development of computer program for determining the most cost effective renewable energy source for potential users within specific geographical regions. Many variables are included, the most important of which is amount of biomass available in the region. Honeywell has previously been engaged in providing environmental consulting services.

We are eager to peruse the program. Economics are often ignored or distorted in renewable energy projects with frequently unfortunate results for both project and the industry.

One announcement that's gotten a lot of attention this week concerns a Japanese academic researcher named Makoto Watanabe. Watanabe claims that he's been able to derive a crude oil analog from a strain of algae which he's been cultivating in the laboratory. Unfortunately, nothing is said in the reportage of the cost of cultivating this algae or the yields that it is likely to provide.

In fact petroleum analogs are already produced by a number of terrestrial plant species.

The Philippine Hanga tree produces quite a lot of light hydrocarbons, essentially gasoline, in its fruit, some 40% by volume, in fact. In toto up to several hundred gallons per acre are possible according to reports. Unfortunately, no one has been able to demonstrate that the tree will thrive anywhere outside its native habitat in the Phillipine highlands. The Philippine government is promoting its cultivation nonetheless.

In addition, the diesel tree of the Amazon rain forest produces impressive yields of middle weight hydrocarbons, essentially diesel, from its sap. Unfortunately, yields fall off after a few years of harvesting.

So maybe this oil bearing algae is the salvation we've all been waiting for. But don't count on it.

Perhaps more important is the announcement by RedOx, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, of a new technique for producing cellulosic ethanol. This is a purely physical process with no organisms or enzymes involved which produces ethanol and various byproducts directly from ligno-cellulosic feedstocks in a single stage. RedOX calls the process Metal Mediated Redox and claims that it is electro-chemical in nature. Beyond that the company supplies no specifics, nor any indication as to whether the technology will be licensed or kept in house.

Finally, a company calling itself EcoPlus announced a technology for transforming "brown grease", that is, grease recovered from traps in drainage system, into a solid fuel coal analog instead of biodiesel, the more common usage. To date only a handful of biofuel companies have focused on coal substitutes, but given the pressures upon coal fired plants to reduce their carbon footprints, this may be lucrative market.