By Tom Still
MADISON – At last month’s international biotech convention in San Diego, one of the seminars focused on the work underway at three U.S. Department of Energy laboratories – including the lab in Madison that will be funded with $135-million over five years. With good reason, a description of the seminar included cautionary phrases such as “overcoming cost barriers” and “formidable scientific and technological challenges.”
Replacing or even supplementing fossil fuels such as petroleum won’t happen overnight. It will take years of research, testing and perhaps constructing new infrastructure before oil becomes a less-than-dominant part of our energy portfolio.
“The first kerosene distilled from oil was used in 1853 to replace whale oil to light American homes,” said Brent Erickson, who leads the Industrial and Environmental section of BIO, which hosted the San Diego convention. “It took 125 years for the oil industry to develop oil refineries to what they are today – highly complex and technologically advanced enough to take a barrel of oil and turn it into myriad products.
“We need to think about biofuels in the same light: Ethanol from corn is just the beginning. The second- and third-generation biofuels are coming,” Erickson said.
Of course, we all hope it doesn’t take 150 years – and it won’t, thanks to today’s scientists and what they now know about the laws of chemistry, biology and physics. It won’t likely happen overnight, either, despite the economic impetus brought on by $4 per gallon gasoline.
The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in Madison is a prime example. Its scientists will work on developing biofuels from cellulose, which is the long linear molecule of plants consisting entirely of glucose. It can be found in trees, wood waste, corn stover, plants such as switchgrass and many other sources of biomass. But plants don’t give up the sugars in their cellulose easily. That’s why scientists at the Madison lab and elsewhere will focus on screening feedstocks, discovering more potent enzymes, and re-engineering microbes to revolutionize biomass processing.
Corn is the current choice for ethanol production in the United States because it surrenders its sugar easily during the fermentation process. In nations such as Brazil, sugar cane is the ethanol crop of choice. But most scientists see those ethanol sources as transitional to one degree or another – and they agree research should continue along a broad front.
That includes cellulosic ethanol but also growing algae to produce gasoline, which a California company claims to have done with substantial success. In a recent column on biofuels, two University of California-San Diego researchers noted that “oil can be produced by microalgae living in shallow ponds using the nutrients in municipal wastewater.” They noted that Sapphire Energy of La Jolla, Calif., can produce 91-octane gasoline from algae grown in harsh environments, such as the desert, using saline aquifers or wastewater, sunshine and carbon dioxide.
Other companies are pursuing production of biobutanol, which can be derived from plants and mixed with gasoline. Others are developing biodiesel, a fuel source for diesel engines derived from natural oils such as soybeans. Still other researchers and companies are working with alkanes, which are sugars that can be fermented directly into gasoline-like molecules. Virent Energy Systems Inc. of Madison is an early leader in carbon-neutral technology surrounding production of these types of alkanes.
The federal government has accelerated R&D spending on in recent years, as have private investors and state governments such as Wisconsin’s. Still, more investment is needed and much more work is required before there’s a tangible payoff for energy consumers.
The renewable fuel standard provisions of the 2007 Energy Act were hailed by environmentalists, congressional leaders and the White House for being a careful blend of incentives and mandates. Already, there are 29 next-generation biofuels refineries planned or under construction.
Listen carefully to what the candidates for president and other public offices, state and federal, have to say about biofuels during the fall elections. Those who make corn-based ethanol a whipping boy without pointing to the future are failing to do their own research. Next-generation biofuels are coming. It won’t be tomorrow – but soon enough to make a difference to our economy and our environment.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. To learn more about biofuels, watch an interview from the July 6 edition of WISN-TV’s “Upfront” show at http://www.wisn.com/video/16802473/index.html