Renewable Gasoline, Diesel: Right Around The Corner?

The electric vehicle revolution is under way, but let’s be honest: It’s happening in slo-mo and even starry-eyed EV optimists (like President Obama) would if pressed have to admit that electrics aren’t going to transform the transportation sector anytime soon.

So is renewable gasoline and diesel the answer? Is there even such a thing?

image via Gas Technology Institute

Research presented at the American Chemical Society’s annual national meeting this week in Philadelphia suggests the answer might be yes, to both questions, although anyone who follows biofuels knows these early-stage developments are best viewed with some skepticism.

We’re not talking about the familiar biofuels here (either the old standbys like ethanol or the newer-generation algae-oil formulations). Instead, scientists from the Gas Technology Institute in Des Plaines, Ill., said pilot plants using a technology called integrated hydropyrolysis plus hydroconversion – helpfully abbreviated as IH2 – are confirming laboratory-scale tests that suggested the process could cheaply produce a finished, ready-to-use liquid hydrocarbon fuel with 90 percent less greenhouse gases per gallon than fossil fuels.

A key point here is that “virtually any nonfood biomass” could be used to make the gasoline, jet fuel or diesel fuel, the researchers said. Some examples of virtually anything: wood, cornstalks and cobs, algae, aquatic plants and municipal solid waste.

With the inclusion of corn stover, this has overtones of cellulosic ethanol, which has been counted on – but so far has failed – to deliver a cleaner transportation fuel.

But there are big differences here, as the GTI team points out. IH2 yields “a finished, ready-to-use liquid hydrocarbon fuel,” not an alcohol additive like ethanol. And unlike with pyrolysis oils, or “bio-oils” — “crude intermediate substances or substances that contain unwanted oxygen, which must be further processed and upgraded to meet specifications for transportation fuels,” as GTI puts it — the IH2 process finishes the job.

While the process requires hydrogen, which is most often produced from natural gas or coal, the IH2 process produces its own hydrogen, GTI said.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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