Frequent readers, if any, of this column will be familiar with my enthusiasm for advanced biofuels – liquid transportation fuels made from the biomass of non-food plants and various forms of organic waste. Before I tell you about some significant new progress in that area, let me give you an update from the dark side – Big Oil is doing just fine.
North American production of crude oil is expected to hit an all-time high within the next five years. So much for all the talk of “peak oil” which many believe occurred 40 years ago. Given the current rate of drilling in Canada and the United States it looks like crude production will hit the record by 2016. It's a huge turnaround from the steady decline in production that started in 1971.
You can give most of the credit (if that’s what you want to call it) for this recent oil boom to the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Fracking, as it’s called, blasts chemically laced water under high pressure to break open shale deposits and release gas. It’s banned in some places because of fears of groundwater contamination but is going ahead in Canada.
Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and a former journalist, has ordered up a scientific review of fracking. His boss, Calgary MP and a former oil company employee Stephen Harper, will undoubtedly have the last word on whether the report sees the light of day if unfavourable.
While the deep drilling renaissance is gathering momentum there is considerable scientific effort going into producing clean bio-fuels that avoid the dangers of fracking and off-shore drilling.
I’ve written about U.S. President Barack Obama’s appointment of Steven Chu as U.S. Secretary of Energy. He’s the Nobel Prize winner who is a champion for research into alternative energy. Last spring, Chu made an announcement about progress in producing isobutanol which could possibly be a direct one-for-one substitute for petroleum-based gasoline.
Last week, Department of Energy-sponsored scientists announced they have identified a potential biofuel made from microbes that could replace today’s standard diesel fuel. “This is the first report of bisabolane as a biosynthetic alternative to D2 diesel,” said Taek Soon Lee, who directs a metabolic engineering program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“This work is also a proof-of-principle for advanced biofuels research in that we’ve shown that we can design a biofuel target, evaluate this fuel target, and produce the fuel with microbes that we’ve engineered.”
There’s no room for the details here but if you’re interested check out the Berkeley Lab website.
In spite of the political damage done by the Department of Energy’s $535-million loan guarantee to the now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, there has been no stopping the flow of cash to alternate energy research. Nearly $5-billion in new DOE loan guarantees were announced last week. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also continues to sponsor alt energy R&D as well.
And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
The U.S. military has taken a particular interest in advanced biofuel research. A study, just released that was led by retired Republican Senator John Warner, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, former Secretary of the Navy, identified the U.S. Department of Defence as one of the world's largest consumers of fossil fuels, spending $11-billion a year on liquid petroleum fuels. Aside from cost, the report worries about the impact of fossil fuel availability on the effectiveness of military operations.
As a result, the DOD has set the goal of getting 25 per cent of its energy needs from renewables by 2025. The U.S. Air Force plans to be on 50 per cent biofuels for all its domestic needs by 2016. The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines both plan to get 50 per cent of their energy from alternative energy sources by 2020.
“In fact, the Department of Defence has created a far-reaching memorandum of understanding with the Department of Energy to help accelerate the innovation process in service of the nation's energy and national security goals,” said the report.
John Warner added, “The Department of Defence fostered the Internet, GPS, computer software, and other economically important innovations. Today, [we] are committed to transforming the way the department uses energy through efficiency and technology development.”
So the drilling and fracking boom carries on like never before; but so does U.S. government scientific research into alternatives.