Green Update–>New Fuels, “Real Science Fiction Stuff”

Flint biogas truck

News on the green car front is often about small startup companies touting breakthrough cars, like the Coda, whose future is at best problematic. The real breakthroughs are going to occur in labs and R&D facilities engaged in “what the energy secretary, Steven Chu, calls the hunt for miracles.” They are looking for new fuels to replace petroleum.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy has a piddling $400-million-over-two-year budget and is in fact modeled on the Pentagon’s DARPA (now with a $3.2 billion budget), which created the technological miracles that gave us the Internet and stealth aircraft.

ARPA-E has some wild projects going in new fuel sources, batteries, and gasoline substitutes. The agency puts seed money into startups like Agrivida, a company developing ways to break down cellulose with enzymes and make cheap fuel on a grand scale.

The goal of this agency, whose budget is $400 million for two years, is to realize profound results—such as tens of millions of motor vehicles that would run 300 miles a day on electricity from clean sources or on liquid fuels from trees and garbage.

In the same way that DARPA developed breakthrough projects to counter threats like Sputnik, ARPA-E attempts high-risk/high-reward programs to transform our horrific dependence on oil. This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff, and results will not happen overnight. But it is the right way to cultivate the science of new fuels.

One study, reported in Science and summarized here, used an enzyme found in soybeans that U-Cal-Irvine researchers tweaked to transform carbon monoxide (the gas found in internal combustion engine exhaust) into propane. Yes, propane—and possibly even gasoline later on, says Discovery News.

If it’s perfected, the technique could lead to cars partially powered by their own fumes or by the air around them.

Bio-BugDon’t hold your breath, as it were. Extracting, growing, and storing the enzyme on a large scale will be “very, very difficult,” said one of the lead researchers. In the meantime, other kinds of alternative fuel vehicles keep popping up.

One that we like best is the poop-powered Bio-Bug in England (right), running on “byproducts of sewage processing” in Wessex. The byproduct is methane gas, which wasn’t cheap or easy to produce. But bio-methane doesn’t stink, and its use is growing.

The city of Flint, Michigan, formed a partnership with Swedish Biogas International and has agreed to use methane power (from wastewater treatment) in all its cars and trucks (photo, top of story). Volvo has also developed bio-methane trucks as a viable alternative to diesel, since it works in both diesel and gasoline engines and is easily renewable.

Would you buy a methane-powered vehicle—if and when they become readily available?

—jgoods

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