The electric vehicle revolution is under way, but let's be honest.
It's happening in slo-mo and even starry-eyed EV optimists (like President Obama) would if pressed have to admit that electrics aren't going to transform the transportation sector anytime soon. So is renewable gasoline and diesel the answer? Is there even such a thing?
Research presented at the American Chemical Society's annual national meeting this week in Philadelphia suggests the answer might be yes, to both questions, although anyone who follows biofuels knows these early-stage developments are best viewed with some skepticism.
We're not talking about the familiar biofuels here (either the old standbys like ethanol or the newer-generation algae-oil formulations). Instead, scientists from the Gas Technology Institute in Des Plaines, Ill., said pilot plants using a technology called integrated hydropyrolysis plus hydroconversion – helpfully abbreviated as IH2 – are confirming laboratory-scale tests that suggested the process could cheaply produce a finished, ready-to-use liquid hydrocarbon fuel with 90 percent less greenhouse gases per gallon than fossil fuels.
A key point here is that "virtually any nonfood biomass" could be used to make the gasoline, jet fuel or diesel fuel, the researchers said. Some examples of virtually anything: wood, cornstalks and cobs, algae, aquatic plants and municipal solid waste.
With the inclusion of corn stover, this has overtones of cellulosic ethanol, which has been counted on – but so far has failed – to deliver a cleaner transportation fuel.
But there's a difference, the GTI teams points out: IH2 yields "a finished, ready-to-use liquid hydrocarbon fuel, rather than crude intermediate substances or substances that contain unwanted oxygen, which must be further processed and upgraded to meet specifications for transportation fuels."
While the process requires hydrogen, which is most often produced from natural gas or coal, the IH2 process produces its own hydrogen, GTI said.
The U.S. Department of Energy has backed GTI's research and the technology is licensed to Texas-based CRI Catalyst Company in Texas.
"We are moving steadily toward having multiple demonstration-scale facilities in operation by 2014, with each facility producing a range of 3,500-17,500 gallons of fuel a day from non-food plant material," GTI scientist Martin Linck said in a statement. "We will be designing commercial-scale facilities that could produce as much as 300,000 gallons per day from the same kinds of feedstocks."
If it works out as well as billed, IH2 could have significant advantages over leading biofuels like ethanol. This year's U.S. drought has raised again the issue of the use of food crops to make fuel. And even absent that issue, studies have frequently shown the environmental benefit from ethanol to be scant at best, despite tremendous policy support.
One competitor to IH2 might be H2Bioil, an innovative process for creating biofuels from non-food sources developed at Purdue University. The researchers there say their catalytic hydrodeoxygenation process can triple yields over conventional methods. One challenge it faces however is that like IH2 it requires hydrogen, but unlike IH2 it does not produce its own. A low-cost, low-CO2 process for hydrogen is thus required to make the fuel truly attractive.