- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The future of flight could be nourished easily on a diet of smashed nuts and refined algae if start-up ventures using bio-fuels prove their worth in the coming decade.

During a two-hour test flight last week, Continental Airlines became the first American carrier to prove that takeoff could be achieved by mixing traditional jet fuel with fuel from algae and jatropha nuts. A number of foreign airlines already have tested similar mixes in their jets.

The pond-scum-turned-pond-hopping-fuel is one of the almost-mainstream advanced bio-fuels, defined broadly as renewable sources that do not impinge on food supplies and do not contribute to carbon pollution. Jatropha, a scrub plant native to Central America, grows around the world and is touted by experts as the most promising plant source for bio-diesel oil.

On the ground, U.S. automakers have invested millions of dollars in bio-fuel start-ups - including Coskata Inc. and Mascoma, which turn wood and plant waste into ethanol - as part of the effort to retool their product lines.

But ethanol producers have had trouble selling their products in the face of federal limits on how much can be blended with gasoline and skepticism from some carmakers worried about what the new fuels could do to their cars already on the road.

Also, alternative and bio-fuels, including the “green crude” being mixed with jet fuel on test flights, are still seeking the kind of federal support equal to what has been heaped upon corn growers, who have dominated first-generation bio-fuels.

“I would absolutely think that now that we’ve developed a series of second-gen fuels, parity needs to be the top priority in the next energy bill,” said Tim Jenk, vice president of corporate affairs for Sapphire Energy, which converted the algae used by Continental last week.

Mr. Jenk said Sapphire’s green crude should be on the market in five years and easily could be sold to refiners for $60 to $80 a barrel.

“Second-gen” bio-fuels have become popular as environmentalists increasingly have questioned the reliance on subsidized corn to reduce the nation’s need for oil.

“I think there’s kind of a re-evaluation of corn ethanol, taking into the account the full economic and environmental impact of using corn to fuel our cars as opposed to feeding people,” said Josh Dorner, spokesman for the Sierra Club.

A report by the Environmental Working Group highlighted federal data showing the corn-ethanol industry secured about 75 percent of renewable energy subsidies included in the 2007 energy bill.

But corn ethanol supporters say the goal was never to settle only for grain-based fuels but to use them as a starting point to break into the market.

“You’ve got to move to cellulosic and other fuels. That has always been the objective not just of policymakers, but of the industry,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association.

Mr. Dinneen, who has been advocating for corn ethanol and other renewable fuels, said it is short-sighted to bash corn because that was the crop that opened the door for renewable fuels.

“Corn ethanol is going to be a darn sight better than gasoline,” he said.

Ethanol accounts for about 7 percent of fuel use already and could reach close to 40 percent in the coming decades, Mr. Dinneen said.

Advanced bio-fuel producers say the key to their success is making a product that can be distributed using the existing oil-distribution systems and can run in the same engines as oil-based fuels.

JetBlue Airways has partnered with Airbus in hopes of testing the algae-jatropha jet-fuel mix by the end of the year.

“We really want to look at a ‘drop-in’ replacement for jet fuel, one that could be used without modifications to aircraft engines,” said JetBlue spokesman Bryan Baldwin.

In the 2007 energy bill, Congress mandated that the nation produce or import 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels annually by 2022 — including a requirement that 15 billion gallons a year come from corn. Americans consumed 318 billion gallons of oil in 2007.

But industry analysts have noted that despite the thousands of innovative companies making ethanol out of everything from wood chips to trash, none is ready to meet the ambitious requirements for bio-fuel consumption set by Congress.

Corn growers still have broad support on Congress, particularly among lawmakers from Midwestern farm states where corn crops dominate.

The $825 billion stimulus plan introduced in the House includes $13 billion in tax credits for renewable energy sources, including an increased break for gas stations that pump “E-85,” or 85 percent ethanol-gas blends.

Senate leaders expect to begin debating a new energy bill early this year but are unlikely to include new credits for bio-fuels.

“We’re seeing how the provisions enacted in 2005 and 2007, how those bio-fuel provisions work out before they start doing more,” said Bill Wicker, spokesman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat.

President Obama’s new energy secretary, physicist Steven Chu, declined during a Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month to say whether the administration would support one fuel source over another, preferring instead to talk about the next step in bio-fuels: “fourth generation.”

Fourth-generation fuels would be considered “carbon negative” by capturing more carbon than they release into the air or making the fuel from the carbon emissions themselves.

“This is something we can produce, I think, to get it testing, in a few years,” Mr. Chu said.

Mr. Dinneen said he would be shocked to see any fourth-generation fuels on the market anytime soon but added that the bio-fuels market has changed immensely in the past five years.

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