12/29/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Simple Solutions for Our Biofuel Problem

Renewable energy will be used to provide electricity, and fuels for ground transportation and aviation. Sustainable electricity is well in hand. As the price of oil again increases, the range of alternatives will gain in prominence, starting with windpower, which is already competitive. Plug in vehicles are poised to make an impressive entry.

Liquid and gaseous biofuels are another matter. Details about this subject can be found in SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth, seen in the box on the right. The current infrastructure is liquid dominated, so, for this discussion, I will delete biomethane and hydrogen from consideration. In addition, for now, hydrogen is just too expensive to produce.

The Nation and World unfortunately went in the wrong direction when ethanol from corn (plus sugars and other starches) and biodiesel from terrestrial plants were selected for focus. The Farm Lobby no doubt should be congratulated for smartly lobbying Congress and the White House, for farmers are in great shape. Job done! Regrettably, grain prices jumped, causing a food crisis for developing countries. The knee-jerk reaction was, of course, all that fibrous cellulose, why not ferment those wastes into more ethanol? So, a second herd of white elephants is now being groomed. Why? Because there is a simpler alcohol called methanol that makes more economic sense. My HuffPo article of June 10 compares ethanol and methanol.

Regarding biodiesel, the notion is almost laughable, as only a very small percent of the plant itself is used. Biodiesel from algae, for example, is ten to twenty times more efficient in converting sunlight into usable fuel. Plus, these land plants grow relatively slowly and need irrigation water.

About the future of cars, one always hopes for nanotechnology making a difference, but it appears that the lithium battery might well be the ultimate. Per unit volume, fuel cells can provide more energy than any battery, perhaps by a factor five or more. This is why the direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) will in time replace batteries for portable electronic applications. As an aside, this defies common sense, but one gallon of methanol has more accessible hydrogen than one gallon of liquid hydrogen. Thus the logic argues for producing methanol from biomass to power a fuel cell. Whoops, there is no DMFC for vehicles. For the record, while methanol has half the energy value of gasoline, the fuel cell is at least twice the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, so there is a wash here on fuel storage. And methanol is no more toxic than gasoline. You shouldn't drink either one.

Aviation remains a great challenge. I wrote into the original Senate legislation, known as the Matsunaga Act, a section that did result in the hydrogen powered National Aerospace Plane Project in the 1980's, which later became a black Department of Defense (DOD) Program. Thus, the only option over the next few decades has to be a replacement for jetfuel. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a solicitation for a commercial jetfuel from algae, and companies are coming out of the woodwork to do the job. Is this good? Yes and no. Nice that the DOD thinks $3/gallon jetfuel is attainable, and terrific that industry is eager to comply, but the basic science and engineering has not yet been attempted. Why not?

First, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is mostly a monitor and protection agency. Second, the Department of Energy abandoned all ocean energy efforts and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory actually gave their microorganism collection to the University of Hawaii. The National Science Foundation did establish a Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center in Hawaii, but only for high value products. Energy is cheap, and that is the problem with biofuels from algae.

So what are the simple solutions to develop a progressive national biofuels program?

1. Terminate Federal support for ethanol from food.

2. Adjust the existing language for tax incentives to say, "ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels from renewable resources." This would make available future funds and permit academics to conduct research on biomethanol, biobutanol, etc., and stimulate industry involvement in these areas.

3. Quickly perfect a direct methanol fuel cell for vehicular applications. A direct ethanol fuel cell will be inherently inefficient.

4. Expand the mission of the Department of Energy to bridge the gap between research and commercialization and permit R&D for areas that link to energy. The economic potential of many renewable energy areas is enhanced with non-energy co-products.

5. As NOAA reports to the Department of Commerce, expand the current research policy to encourage oceanic research to commercialize marine products and closely partner with the USDOE to share common interests.

6. Mobilize a national program to accelerate the development of ocean energy, paying special attention to advancing biofuels production from microorganisms.

7. Accelerate the development of next generation aircraft, whether it be a hydrogen dirigible that can be engineered to travel 500 miles per hour or advancing the twenty year old National Aerospace Plane Project, or both.

The Obama energy transition team is now determining priorities for the next four years. With oil prices loitering around $50/barrel, I worry that attitudes have shifted about the seriousness of our future energy problems. We, of course, know with a high degree of certainty that oil will zoom past $100/barrel again, if not next year than certainly within five years. The development of sensible next generation biofuels will take a decade, so, in a sense, we are already too late. But the timing is perfect for change, so let's do it the right way this time.