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Plug It In Or Fill It Up?: Boiseans Look to Alternative Fuels

From electric cars to compressed natural gas, more alt fuels mean more choices


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"If you can break a speed record with vegetable oil in its unrefined form, what more is it capable of?" asked Rothenbuhler.

For Dave Schenker, the club's president, questions like these are part of the reason Greenspeed was founded: to raise awareness of alternative fuels and instill in people a greater appreciation of the technologies that may someday replace petroleum.

"Vegetable oil needs to be looked at in the same way crude oil is looked at--as more of an energy source than a fuel source," Schenker wrote in an email.

Running Greenspeed on raw vegetable oil is like running a diesel truck on oil fresh out of the ground and would be a far more efficient fuel if it were processed the way oil is processed into gasoline, but for Team Greenspeed, working around that problem is part of the challenge.

The crude vegetable oil that powers the truck contains 95 percent of the raw energy found in diesel fuel you can buy at the pump, and that means the remaining 5 percent gap must be compensated for with ingenuity and premium components in order for Greenspeed to meet the team's goals.

"Vegetable oil isn't very good by itself," Rothenbuhler said.

Greenspeed is on the road to show people what bio-fuels can do and dispel myths about green technologies. Gardner said it has had a tremendous symbolic impact, but he sees it representing the potential of bio-fuels in general more than the latest and most scientifically interesting technologies.

"I don't see Greenspeed being really closely connected to bio-fuel," he said.

Rothenbuhler sees things a little differently: "Hopefully, down the road, we can use algae oils from Boise State," he said.

Those algae oils are being developed nearby in the laboratory of professor Kevin Feris at the Boise State biology department and University of Idaho master's candidate Maxine Prior. While looking for a phosphate removal system for dairy waste, they stumbled upon a Chlorella strain and two other as-yet unidentified algae strains that, when fed phosphorous and denied nitrogen, produce lipids that can be refined into bio-crude.

Idaho is the fourth-largest producer of dairy products--and dairy waste--in America, and Feris and Prior's discovery won them and their colleagues a $400,000 Center for Advanced Energy Studies grant to develop a system for converting dairy waste into an energy source.

Though processing bio-crude is different from processing bio-fuel, they both perform comparably in diesel engines. But bio-crude produced by algae has a distinct advantage over its vegetable-based counterparts: Algae are seven- to 10-times more efficient at creating biomass. An acre of algae can grow more oil than corn, soy or canola.

The trouble, Feris says, is that while America is well versed in growing terrestrial sources of bio-fuel like corn, canola and soy, algae is an aquatic plant that has never been farmed en masse.

"We need to develop some novel technologies to harvest it," he said.

And while there is serious discussion about producing significant quantities of bio-fuel from plants, nobody's talking about repurposing desert and cattle grazing lands in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico (where sunlight and heat are optimal for algae growth) for some new-fangled farming operation.

Making bio-crude a player in America's fuel portfolio would be such a huge undertaking that Feris says getting fuel to market would become a logistical nightmare that would undercut much of the benefit of using an otherwise environmentally friendly fuel. Bio-crude is carbon neutral, which means it absorbs as much carbon from the atmosphere as is released when it's burned, but when it comes to alternative fuels, nothing's ever that simple.

"There's no net increase with greenhouse gasses, but that gets a little more complicated when it comes to shipping and transporting fuel," Feris said.

Completely supplanting fossil fuels nationwide is a daunting project. The United States burns through just less than 20 million barrels of oil every day, and no single alternative fuel can possibly make a transition away from petroleum tenable, but Boise may be a place where alternative fuels can gain a foothold.

Gardner said what Boise has going for it are educational institutions, high-tech industries and civil society that house people with the intelligence and drive to make that transition possible--even exciting.

"We have a whole lot of educated, forward-thinking people," he said.

What these forward-thinking people seem to agree upon is the future of the electric car. Even Rothenbuhler, who has high hopes for Greenspeed, says EVs will one day supplant bio-fuels.

"We see it as a segue fuel. I'm convinced electrical cars are the future, but we're not there yet," he said.

Feris agrees. In the short term, alternative fuels will bridge the gap between petroleum and an end-stage technology, though that gap may be very wide.

"In the end, it's all going to be electric," he said.