Three global companies from the worlds of agriculture, petroleum and car manufacturing are lead investors in a company called Virent, which has developed a biogasoline that is practically the molecular equivalent of conventional gasoline. The milestone is significant because the feedstock consists of woody, non-food waste from pine and corn (aka corn stover), a vast improvement over corn, soybeans and other food crops. The partnership is also significant because – well, connect the dots: the three companies are Honda, Shell, and Cargill, and Virent is one of 17 members of the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium, which funded the biogasoline project through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. With global corporate support building for alternative fuels, it seems that the Obama administration is cultivating some powerful new allies to counteract pressure from the fossil fuel industry.
True Biogasoline from Corn Stover and Pine Waste
Until now, woody plant material has resisted commercialization as a biofuel crop. The culprit is lignin, the hard stuff that forms rigid cell walls in plants. Early attempts to break down lignin involved numerous, expensive steps. Virent developed a cost-effective process with help from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The result is a product the company calls Bioformate, which is a true “drop-in,” high octane fuel that can substitute directly for conventional gasoline.
Biofuels for Farmers
In addition to corn stover (leaves and stalks left over from harvest), biofuel from orange peels and other agricultural waste is also under development. As farmers face a big squeeze from rising fossil fuel prices, extracting extra value from existing croplands could be a make or break proposition. Along the same lines, the Obama adminstration is also supporting biogas production at dairy farms and other livestock operations.
Clash of the Fuel Titans
As for the pushback from the fossil fuel industry I mentioned at the beginning of this post, last year CleanTechnica predicted an epic clash between green-transitioning corporate giants and the fossil fuel industry. With Shell and some other fossil fuel companies investing in alternative energy, things are cooking up to be even more interesting this year. Add GE’s chief Jeffrey Immelt (think EVs and smart grids) to President Obama’s advisory team, and his nomination of Boeing/Disney board of directors member John Bryson (who is also a co-founder of the NRDC) to head up the Department of Commerce, and it appears that things are heading to the boiling point. Stay tuned.
Image: Pine cone on by Roberto Verzo on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.