Breaking bonds with oil won’t be easy or quick

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U.S. energy consumption is based on oil — a multi-billion dollar industry — and changing that is going to take investments in technology, as well as a change in consumers’ attitudes.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden has been charged with replacing 20 percent of gasoline consumption with an alternative source by 2017. NREL says the lab is on track to meet that goal — using ethanol.

“It’s the big, big, big thing right now,” said George Douglas, NREL spokesman. “We’re also working on biodiesel and other fuels, but ethanol research is ahead of them by leaps and bounds.”

Ethanol isn’t as efficient as gasoline, Douglas said, but if it’s considered in dollars per mile instead of miles per gallon, it comes out ahead — especially when gasoline prices reach $3 a gallon and beyond.

Scientists are attempting to engineer corn that will be used specifically for ethanol.

Currently, 6 billion gallons of ethanol are available in the U.S. market. That figure is expected to double during the next decade.

Research is centered on cellulosic ethanol and sugar chemistry — releasing the sugar particles from the stem and other parts of a plant, instead of just the seeds. Using sugar chemistry — a science still in its infancy — researchers can use plants to replace everything that oil products are used for, Douglas said.

“We can turn oil into plastics, into other products just by cracking the molecules open and rearranging them,” Douglas said. “You can do that with sugar as well. In fact, Whole Foods uses plastics made from sugar instead of from oil.”

Cellulosic ethanol is necessary because the U.S. capacity to create ethanol from soybeans or corn is limited to about 15 billion gallons a year.

Researchers also are seeking ways to create the biomass used for ethanol. Corn and soybeans are currently being used, but there is growing concern that using them for fuel could spell trouble for the nation’s feedstock and food needs. The group is focusing on using other parts of the plants, such as stems, as well as using non-food plants such as switch grass.

“The challenge is getting the sugars out and turning them into alcohol,” Douglas said. “The plants don’t give up the sugars that easily, so we’re researching ways to release the sugar from the plants. We use heat, pressure and acid to break it down, and we’re trying to find ways to do that quickly.”

Everything is on track to meet the deadline — manufacturing facilities are being built and car companies are selling vehicles that can use ethanol and gasoline.

Hydrogen fuel cells

Using hydrogen fuel cells to replace gasoline or ethanol won’t happen in the near future, Douglas said. The cells are still too expensive and there are too many problems for widespread use.

“The hydrogen fuel cells use exotic materials that are very expensive; it’s difficult to store the hydrogen because it has to be under pressure and storage units have to be very heavy,” he said. “Right now, fuel cells are made by Ph.Ds. They have to get to the point where they can be made on an assembly line before they can be used nationally.”

Researchers at NREL are attempting to unlock glucose compounds to create more sugar for ethanol. Sugar chemistry is a new science, but can be used to create the same kinds of products that are now made using a petroleum base.

Design problems, coupled with lack of infrastructure to transport hydrogen make them a long-term goal, he said. Ethanol, on the other hand, is dispensed the same way gasoline is, and can be delivered via trains or trucks.

But the cells could prove to be the long-term solution, he said.

“I see a progression over the next 20 to 30 years,” Douglas said. “Starting in 10 years, we’ll move ethanol into the marketplace, replacing 20 percent of gasoline. At the 30 year stage, we might see hydrogen or some other totally benign alternative energy start to come into the marketplace. Of course, it’s impossible to predict the science, but that’s the progression analysts see.”

The important aspect of both hydrogen and ethanol is that they can be produced domestically.

“It’s important to energy security that we make our energy supply here,” Douglas said. “Currently, we rely on energy resources from countries that aren’t as stable as we would like.”

The marketplace

But the switch to ethanol — or another source — has to be driven by consumers, said Meg Thams, professor of business at Regis University.

And despite legislation and a directive from President George W. Bush, consumers aren’t responding to the alternative sources that are available. Nor are they demanding changes from an oil-based economy.

“There’s just not been that big push,” Thams said. “In order for the technology to reach the marketplace, there needs to be someone leading that bandwagon. It’s just not happening yet.”

Soybeans, switch grass and forest wastes are also being used to create ethanol.

During the energy crisis in the 1970s, Japanese auto makers saw an opportunity to enter the U.S. market with small, fuel-efficient cars. Consumers started buying them — and that led U.S. automakers to follow suit.

“That kind of thing needs to happen here,” Thams said. “Some company is going to have to seize the opportunity left open in the market. You don’t see the major oil companies doing that, not really. But if we don’t do it here, some other country will seize that opportunity.”

Consumers also will have to be educated, she said. They need to know that hybrid or flex-fuel vehicles will be as easy to maintain as gasoline-powered vehicles.

That’s the advantage of ethanol, Douglas said. Because it is dispensed in the same way as gasoline it does not require the same amount of consumer education.

But in order for ethanol to become as successful as gasoline, it needs to reach beyond the 2 percent of the consumer market considered to be “innovators,” people who invest in new technology because it interests them.

“The message isn’t out there yet, it hasn’t reached that next group in the marketplace — beyond the innovators, the early adopters,” Thams said. “Most of the marketplace is going to need that push to show the value.”

Ethanol will overtake gasoline in the marketplace when two factors are met: it’s the right price with the right level of perceived value.

“It’s going to happen, whether its ethanol or hydrogen fuel cells,” Thams said. “But that market push has got to come — either from an innovative company or from consumers. And if we don’t create that push here, some other company in some other country is going to come in and do it for us.”