Researchers zero in on oil-free driving

Riza Kizilel, a researcher at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, rides a scooter powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and lithium-ion batteries across campus. The scooter is just one of IIT's alternative energy projects that testify to the war on oil that's proceeding quietly at laboratories and research centers across the country. M. Spencer Green / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The future of energy is bright in Said Al-Hallaj’s invention lab at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and not just because of the solar window that lies in development on a table.

All around the lab are advanced alternative energy projects that testify to the war on oil that’s proceeding quietly at laboratories and research centers across the country.

A tiny two-passenger electric car stands ready to drive 25 miles on one charge of its custom-designed pack of lithium-ion batteries, not unlike the ones that power laptops. A research assistant who’s working out the kinks on an electric bicycle motors down a hallway at 20 mph, triple the speed of the hybrid fuel-cell scooter developed here.

Elsewhere, Al-Hallaj and another professor are converting an SUV into a plug-in hybrid vehicle using lithium-ion cells to double the fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. And a team of students is converting a gasoline-powered lawnmower to use hydrogen as fuel.

Some of the projects could be manufactured commercially right now, said Al-Hallaj, research associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering and coordinator of IIT’s renewable energy program. The problem is cost, which keeps them from competing with oil — for now.

“The implications if we succeed are unbelievable,” Al-Hallaj said. “You’re coming up with a solution that is clean and advanced — (good for) energy, the environment and people who are burdened by high prices.”

Solutions for high gasoline prices might seem painfully far off to drivers as summer travel season begins, but experts say the skyrocketing costs of oil and gas have given new momentum to the push to develop alternative fuels and alternative energy sources.

The efforts are readily apparent in the nation’s heartland, where a boom in ethanol is expanding and scientists at laboratories far and wide are working to turn agricultural waste or “biomass” such as switchgrass, wheat straw, cornstalks and miscanthus into a fuel called cellulosic ethanol that could be produced commercially to reduce U.S. dependence on oil.

In a separate burst of alternative energy developments unrelated to transportation fuels, wind farms are sprouting up across the country thanks to larger, more efficient turbines, and nascent coal-to-energy technology holds promise for pollution-free power plants in the future.

The driving force for most of the energy efforts, though, is oil. And researchers are thrilled about the impetus that soaring prices have given their work.

“With petroleum prices being as high as they are, the stars are aligning for looking seriously at alternative fuels and chemicals,” said Hans Blaschek, a University of Illinois microbiology professor working on the conversion of corn into butanol, a promising alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

Ethanol and limits to corn
The highest-profile existing oil alternative is ethanol. The corn-based fuel might not hold the key to an oil-free future, but it is providing at least a stopgap remedy while scientists look beyond corn for an answer.

The runup in gas prices has softened for now the argument that ethanol isn’t economically competitive without federal subsidies, and it has accelerated plans for ethanol plants by farmers’ cooperatives and Archer Daniels Midland Co., the Decatur, Ill.-based agribusiness, among others.

Still, ethanol’s potential is limited by cost and transport issues and the fact that even those seemingly endless fields of corn in the Midwest are finite. Experts say corn-based ethanol isn’t ever likely to displace more than 10 percent of the gasoline supply.

“We just don’t have enough corn,” said Dan Basse, an analyst for Chicago-based AgResource Co. “If you turned every corn plant in the country into ethanol, there still wouldn’t be enough.”

That’s where biomass comes in. By using other crops and forest waste along with the entire corn plant, not just the kernels, the Department of Energy says enough cellulosic ethanol could be produced by 2030 to lower U.S. gasoline consumption 30 percent.

Scientists at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria are among those on a mission to expand ethanol beyond a grain-based fuel, working intensely on how best to break down the cellulose of biomass into sugars and complex chemicals in order to produce ethanol economically. An optimal solution might still be a decade away.

Mike Cotta, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture-run center in Peoria, says many technical challenges remain to be overcome. Researchers must come up with more inexpensive and environmentally viable ways of converting the polymers that the bulky biomass materials are made of into simple sugars.

But a lot has happened in recent years to move them closer to their goal, including great progress cited by Cotta in developing cheaper, more efficient enzymes to break the materials down.

“We’re going to need some major breakthroughs, but once these things get in place ... it’s going to happen,” he said.

At Argonne National Laboratory, 25 miles southwest of Chicago, a variety of biomass-related projects are being carried out with close involvement of not only the Energy Department but large corporations such as ADM and energy group BP PLC. Teams immersed in biofuels research there for years have had their efforts not only validated but given new life by the intensified focus on high energy prices and by President Bush’s call in this year’s State of the Union Address for America to break its “addiction” to oil by developing alternative fuels.

“It’s just been totally crazy,” Seth Snyder, section leader for chemical and biological technology, said of the stepped-up demand for workshops and research information. “Everybody’s interested now. ... We’ve been saying all along we can make a big impact, and suddenly people are saying ’Maybe these people are right.”’

Easier first steps?
Environmentalists and scientists alike applaud the fact that alternative fuels and alternative energy sources are in the spotlight more than ever, but they say energy efficiency is still being neglected.

“There are many people who believe that biomass has the power to replace our appetite for gasoline,” said Kimberly Gray, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University. “But that will only occur with significant improvements in energy efficiency and smart growth.”

Without a trend toward more and smaller hybrid vehicles combined with high-density, walkable communities, Gray said, the suggestion by some experts that biofuels could virtually eliminate Americans’ demand for gasoline by 2050 is unrealistic.

Another biofuel with promise is biodiesel, which uses vegetable oil and other nontoxic ingredients and can be blended with conventional diesel fuel. The trucking industry in particular has interest, and the Department of Agriculture says it can reduce carbon emissions by 78 percent.

But despite growing use in some areas of B11 — an 11 percent biodiesel fuel — overall consumption is still relatively tiny and biodiesel is not likely to be an everyday alternative for motorists in the near future. Only a handful of large biodiesel plants exist nationwide.

“It’s a small interest, pretty much where ethanol was back in the ’80s, but it’s growing,” Basse said.

Garage effort
Dayton Keyes of the central Illinois town of Maroa decided not to wait. Angry about prices spiraling ever higher, the 37-year-old police officer built a small biodiesel reactor in his garage last year and now tanks up his Volkswagen Golf with a homemade fuel concocted from used cooking oil.

“It just ticks me off to no end to see that even a 10-cent change in the average fuel price kills us and our politicians are doing nothing to solve it,” said Keyes, who commutes 105 miles round-trip daily to his job in Springfield. “I thought, ’Shoot, I’m going to try to do something about this.”’

Inspired by media reports about a cross-country excursion using cooking oil as fuel, he found information on the Internet, ordered a how-to book and invested close to $1,000 in constructing a reactor — plus a few hours every week brewing up batches of biodiesel.

The result is a fuel that costs him only about 70 cents a gallon, gets 45 miles per gallon and has converted him to a biodiesel proselyte who hopes to hasten the time when biofuels abound. He is trying to get a full-fledged biodiesel plant up and running.

“Renewable resources is a buzzword right now, but you don’t see evidence of it,” he said. “I’m trying to get a biodiesel revolution going where people will start making their own fuel.”

Those now in labs trying to devise cheaper energy solutions applaud federal and state government support but emphasize that more will be needed if they are to succeed.

“A lot of people in government who ridiculed energy conservation and alternative energies ... are now investors,” said Al-Hallaj. “The people who are funding these projects are the same ones who said, ‘Drill and spend and forget about it.”’

Rather than a single breakthrough, experts say it will likely take a combination of energy developments to help break free of oil’s grip.

“There are a lot of people out there who think there’s a silver bullet to answer the energy challenge facing this country — one technology that will answer everything,” said Gerald Groenewold, director of the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D. “Some people say wind’s the answer to electricity generation, ethanol’s the answer to vehicle generation. We think it will be a mix of a lot of things.”