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Bradley Holmes, Director of Pre-Treatment Process Development at Joint... ( D. ROSS CAMERON )

When the first Model T left the assembly line in 1908, it could run on ethanol or gas. Henry Ford, the car's manufacturer, added that flexibility because he envisioned a day when ethanol — made from crops grown on American soil — would provide the bulk of fuel for motor vehicles.

Prohibition politics stymied his efforts to make ethanol — a type of alcohol — and like scientists today, he tangled with the technical challenges of mass producing plant-based fuel. With petroleum cheap and plentiful, Ford's vision of creating a homegrown energy supply to power the nation's growing fleet faded into history.

But now Ford's dream is back in force, driven not by an affinity for farmers but by complicated Middle East politics and environmental imperatives.

Technical hurdles still loom large but researchers — bolstered by a federal mandate to produce 36 billion gallons annually by 2022 — are optimistic that this time, biofuels are going mainstream.

"It's just a matter of more time, but this will go ahead," said Harvey Blanch, chief science and technology officer with the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, a new biofuels lab backed by a $125 million federal grant to develop commercially viable alternatives to corn ethanol within five years.

The mandate for 36 billion gallons caps corn ethanol's contribution at 15 billion gallons — the rest must come from "next generation" biofuels that


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don't use valuable crop land to produce fuel, and instead use plant waste or dedicated "biofuel crops" that grow on marginal land.

These new fuels must also reduce overall greenhouse-gas emissions, when compared with petroleum, by at least 50 percent. By comparison, corn ethanol, on average, achieves a significantly smaller greenhouse-gas reduction, a range that varies by measurement tool. In 2008, 9 billion gallons of ethanol, most made from cornstarch, were produced in the United States.

In a highly debated move, the California Air Resources Board last month also factored in whether forests cleared in other countries for crop cultivation for corn ethanol added to its greenhouse-gas emissions tally. The agency reasoned that trees sequester carbon dioxide, and cutting them down releases it when the trees are burned or decay. The decision was issued under the board's new low-carbon fuel standard, which requires a 10 percent reduction in the carbon intensity of gasoline and diesel fuel by 2020. But producers of corn ethanol and other biofuels rebuked the technique as scientifically flawed, and the agency agreed to form an expert panel to assess the issue.

The federal government is backing biofuels research to the tune of $3 billion thus far, and billions more are coming from private investments. About 200 U.S. biofuels companies are racing to get to market with new types of biofuels that can compete with gasoline and diesel, including numerous Bay Area firms.

Solazyme in South San Francisco is betting on algae serving as cost-effective mini-factories producing biodiesel and jet fuel. BP Oil has provided $500 million to create a biofuels collaboration involving it. University of California-Berkeley, Stanford University and other institutions are pouring money into research; and Amyris Biotechnologies recently opened a pilot plant in Emeryville that produces renewable diesel fuel from sugar cane.

At the Emeryville biofuels institute, Blanch's team of 150 scientists seek ways to break down cellulose, a long chain of tightly bound sugar molecules that gives wood its strength and is found in all plant cells. The breakdown process yields simple sugars that provide yeast, which is needed to create ethanol. Scientists do this now in the lab, using novel enzymes and acids.

But the holy grail of biofuels research is finding ways to extract sugar locked away in huge piles of plant material now considered waste, such as corn husks, straw and wood chips. Or breaking down the cellulose in plants harvested from dedicated "biofuel crops," such as hardy grasses or shrubs that grow on marginal land, or fast-growing poplars with cellulose genetically engineered to break down more easily.

"That's really key, to get a cheap source of sugar," Blanch said.

Algae, which are rich in natural oils that can be used directly as diesel fuel, are also a hot commodity in the biofuels field. Algae grown on open ponds use only sunshine and atmospheric carbon dioxide to create its natural oils, while releasing oxygen — the ideal sustainable energy factory. But sunshine only reaches the first several inches and open ponds are easily contaminated. Still, a number of firms are pressing ahead with open pond algae biofuels, including Sapphire Energy in San Diego, which last year famously received $50 million in funding from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Solazyme has sidestepped the open-pond challenges by fermenting algae in steel vats, a process that requires the addition of sugar. Even with that requirement, algae produce more energy than other biofuels, said Harrison Dillon, co-founder and chief technology officer for Solazyme.

In the end, biofuels researchers say several strategies for producing biofuels are likely to find a market.

"All options are on the table, they're all technically feasible," said Mike Cleary, director of the National BioEnergy Center, part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. "We're going to end up with a number of different processes, creating a number of different transportation fuels."

Contact Suzanne Bohan at sbohan@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-262-2789.

  •  Conventional biofuel is ethanol derived from cornstarch, and new facilities must achieve at least 20 percent greenhouse-gas emissions reduction. 
  •  Advanced biofuels are renewable fuel not made from cornstarch, but derived from renewable plant material, including algae. These must achieve at least a 50 percent greenhouse-gas emissions reduction. 
  •  Cellulosic biofuels are a type of advanced biofuel made from materials considered waste, including husks and leaves from corn, rice straw and wood chips, or "energy crops" of fast-growing trees and grasses. These fuels must achieve at least a 60 percent greenhouse-gas emissions reduction.