Mr. Green Car: Flying on beans: More from Sept. 26-28 Bioenergy Days

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

Among the programs at the International Bioenergy Days (IBED) Sept. 26-28 at the Coronado Performing Arts Center was one called “The Carbon Conundrum: An honest look at the energy fabric of our lives,” presented by Alex Major of the Green Flight Foundation. Major also later gave a presentation, “Can We Still Fly Jets and Save the Planet?”. They both had a common thread, so I’ll just put them together here.

Major’s main point was that all our efforts to produce biodiesel should be aimed at providing an alternative fuel for the world’s passenger jet aircraft fleet. Today’s fleet of aircraft produce only 3 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions; however, they must use a combustible fuel to operate. There will unlikely be any electric-fusion powered aircraft in the foreseeable future, although all ground-based vehicles can be designed to run on electricity or compressed natural gas. Major said as we approach declining availability of oil, if we still want to fly, we’ll have to develop highly efficient, low-land use ways of generating biofuel to keep flying. While biofuel production ramps up, the bulk of what is available should go to aviation needs since the supply will barely make a dent in the motor vehicle needs of the world. (Another program at IBED indicated it would take 326 percent of our land to produce 50 percent of our oil needs with biofuels.)

Major told the audience about the current status of aviation biofuels. He anticipates there will be a $10 million “X Prize” to spur development for an alternative to jet fuel (the latest environmental X Prize was for developing a car that can attain 100 mpg). He talked about different plants, like Jatropa and Camelina (that needs little water) as being high oil-yielding plants as well as halophytes (that will grow in salt or brackish water). Some research is going into converting sugars into biodiesel (and I also learned at IBED that a byproduct of biodiesel production, glycerin, can be converted into oil and biodiesel as well).

Boeing Company, among others, is in development of the first approved blend of biofuel/Jet A—Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene, or “Bio-SPK” is the aviation industry term for bio-jet fuel. Altair in Annacortes, Wash., has a 100-million-gallon-capacity biodiesel operation that is looking to create bio-jet fuel, and a company called Amaris is working on making bio-jet from sugar cane. Two companies, Bio-Jet and E85, have announced a contract to purchase 4 million gallons of Bio-SPK in the face of what they estimate will be a 280-million-gallon market. Jatropa is expected to be the short-term source of the oil stock.

Major also talked about where the electricity would come from to power the ground vehicles. He pointed out that photovoltaic production is doubling every two years and is the most expensive per megawatt of power. The sun is our best supply of energy. An overabundance strikes the planet every day, but storage while the sun is not shining is a problem. Wind is somewhat unreliable as a source of power, but should be part of the energy mix. Coal is responsible for 21 percent of our greenhouse gases, and “clean coal” is far from reality at this time (don’t believe the coal industry ads about “clean coal” for a minute—it does not exist). That leaves nuclear power.

To replace coal power and other sources that burn fuel and emit carbon into the atmosphere, nuclear power’s ability to provide consistent power day and night, wind or calm, looks to be the short-term answer. France gets 78 percent of their energy from nuclear. They use one standard powerplant at all their locations and reprocess the spent fuel on site—avoiding transportation problems. But building conventional nuclear powerplants is obscenely expensive—especially considering how many we need and how soon we need them. Major suggested we build on production lines (hear that, Rockford?) small nuclear powerplants, similar to what has been used on ships and submarines for decades without incident. Installed underground, these mini-nukes would be able to produce power for seven to 10 years without refueling and would need minimal attention and maintenance. A large city might have several of these—and with this diversified power, the risk from the attack on or failure of any one plant would be minimized.

So, if you want to see the future now, come to the Green Ball organic dinner/dance at Cliffbreakers in Rockford, Friday, Oct. 22 (search “Green Ball” on Facebook for details). Several electric and hybrid vehicles will be on display, as well as the opportunity to win a test drive of an awesome Tesla Roadster (very fast electric car). I agree with Majors on his point, bio-fuel for jets, electricity for cars. Look for me at the Green Ball, and we’ll talk about it.

From the Oct. 20-26, 2010 issue