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The Dyson Mazda Lola coupe, which runs on biobutanol, won the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge in Lexington, Ohio, setting a race record. (Rick Dole/Getty Images)
The Dyson Mazda Lola coupe, which runs on biobutanol, won the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge in Lexington, Ohio, setting a race record. (Rick Dole/Getty Images)

Green Highway

A victory for alt fuel; Cessna goes green Add to ...

It's been another big month for bio-fuels on the Green Highway and on the Green Race Track (if you accept there is such a thing).

The American Le Mans Series (ALMS) takes the green thing pretty seriously. It gives race teams four fuel options: low-sulphur clean diesel, ethanol blends of 10 per cent and 85 per cent (the latter a cellulosic blend) and biobutanol. There is one car (Dyson) running biobutanol this season and it won the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge two Sundays ago.

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The winning car, a Mazda Lola coupe with a 2.0 litre, linline-four-cylinder, turbocharged, 500-hp Mazda AER (Advanced Engine Research), set a new race record.

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Butanol is an alcohol that can be used as a fuel. It's produced by a microbial fermentation, similar to the way ethanol is produced, and can be made from the same range of sugar, starch or cellulosic feedstocks. Biobutanol refers to butanol that has been produced from biomass. Biobutanol is more expensive than ethanol so you don't see much of it around. But it packs more energy than ethanol and blends more easily in gasoline. Like ethanol, biobutanol combustion produces no carbon monoxide, no nitrous oxide and no sulphur dioxide, three of the major pollutants from gasoline.

It will be more difficult to knock racing as a dirty, anti-environmental, resource-wasting pastime when the cars are whistling around the track pollution-free, fuelled on stuff from a garbage dump.

ALGAE MANIA

It's not exactly like tulip mania, the famous speculative bubble in tulip prices of 1637, but the interest in transforming algae into fuel is going sky high at the moment.

There have been a number of news reports lately about the U.S. military's green targets suggesting that the Defence Department could be the first major breakout customer for biofuels. It was reported that the U.S. Air Force has ordered 400,000 gallons of renewable biofuels from three companies for testing as a military aviation fuel. The Navy has apparently ordered another 190,000 gallons of fuel made from camelina, another inedible plant.

PetroAlgae, a company not involved in supplying military and so far without sales revenue, claims that it has found the cheapest way to convert algae into fuel and just filed for a $200-million initial public offering of stock. Hundreds of companies are chasing the dream of algae as fuel, but very few have produced any commercial product yet. But when the biggest customer in the world shows it's interested in buying what you might some day be able to produce - look out. Anyone still remember the dotcom bubble?

ELECTRIC AIRPLANES

The most popular general aviation aircraft in history is the Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Cessna has built more than 43,000 of them since 1955 and every last one of them came out of the factory with a big engine burning lots of aviation fuel (avgas). Most of that avgas was the good old heavily leaded stuff which was slurped through the carburetor at about 10 U.S. gallons an hour.

Cessna wants to go green too and announced at the big Oshkosh, Wis., fly-in a couple of weeks ago that it is teaming up with another company to put an electric 172 in the air later this year.

I've driven all electric battery powered cars (as well as 172s) and I find it hard to believe the venerable Cessna could drag enough heavy batteries into the air to go very far.

Cessna claims the electric 172 will have a four-hour range. It seems likely, although not announced, that this will be a plug-in hybrid plane rather than an all-electric. Airplane buffs have speculated that there will be some battery power on board but also an auxiliary power unit perhaps running on bio-fuel.

Clyde Cessna might be pleased. After the depression closed the company he had created, Clyde returned to farming in Kansas. Maybe the airplanes with his name on them will soon be flying with a little corn-based ethanol in those wing tanks and a big battery in the back seat.

Michael Vaughan is co-host with Jeremy Cato of Car/Business, which appears Fridays at 8 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 2 p.m. on CTV.

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