Fuel for Thought

By Rona Johnson
Given adequate space, we could have produced a catalog-sized magazine full of articles about this month's theme "Commercializing Biomass-Based Fuels: Cellulosic Ethanol Renewable Diesel, Bio-Oil and More." It was difficult to choose which of the many technologies to cover but we opted for biobutanol and methyl halides because we haven't done many stories on them.

What frustrates me in these stories is that although most of the technologies used to make second-generation biofuels work- the tricky part is commercialization. However, when I read an article such as the column by the Energy & Environmental Research Center, which appears on page 53, and I am reassured that second-generation biofuels will happen, and perhaps sooner than we think. With all the attention and money currently directed at renewable energy and biofuels, economically viable technologies should be on the horizon.

It's hard to envision what life will be like when these new biomass-based fuels become available, which brings me to a discussion I had with a person who was freaking out about the possibility of having to choose among several kinds of fuels. She was worried that customers would accidentally fill their gas tanks with the wrong fuel. I thought back to the days when we switched from leaded to unleaded gasoline. I was working at a convenience store at the time, and it wasn't uncommon for people to try to fill their unleaded-fuel-only vehicles with leaded gasoline, though I believe, the pump nozzle for the leaded gas pump was larger than the tank opening on the unleaded vehicle.

I am not worried about using the wrong fuel. People make these types of decisions every day. We already choose ink for our printers from among several different types of ink, and although batteries come in all shapes and sizes, we manage to figure out which ones go where. I think it's just knowing what kind of a vehicle we have and then learning which fuel is appropriate. It's probably just a simple matter of the vehicle manufacturer attaching a sticker to the gas cap that indicates which kind of fuel we need. Or, if there is no gas cap, finding the plug-in.

What concerns me is that if we are closing the commercialization gap, issues such as getting the fuel to the consumer need to be addressed. In fact, in the latest issue of EERC's publication "The Edge" there is an article titled "EERC Foundation receives patent application approval for on-demand hydrogen-fueling system." Researchers and engineers at the EERC firmly endorse using hydrogen for transportation fuels and certainly want to make sure that when hydrogen's time comes, it will be easily accessible to the driving public.

For those of you who don't have enough to worry about already, this is some fuel for thought.

Rona Johnson