Stanlow, England—While thundering along the highways in our diesel-powered van, I've been noticing fields of bright yellow-flowered plants, waving in the wind and glowing during those rare moments the sun comes out.
The plant is rape, and its seed is used to produce a bio-derived diesel fuel, explains Adrian Groves, a chemist at the Shell Oil plant just outside of Stanlow. Methyl alcohol is added to rapeseed oil in a process called transesterification. The technical term for the fuel is "rapeseed oil methyl ester," or RME.
"In the United States, it's SME because they use soybeans," Groves explains. "You have to grow what the farmers know."
Groves's research at Shell is on automotive fuels for the future. While hydrogen might be "the next big thing," he says, biofuels are a logical solution now because most diesel engines do not need to be modified to use them. In fact, biodiesel can be used as a substitute for conventional diesel, or it can be added in any proportion. However, because biodiesel has a lower energy content than regular diesel, the fuel mileage is not as good.
"The auto manufacturers have come up with a range of technologies for gas and diesel engines to help reduce emissions," says Groves. "Now it's up to the fuel suppliers to follow suit."
The European Union has proposed a biofuels directive that includes two target goals: all gasoline and diesel fuel produced and sold in its member states must contain at least 2% biofuels by 2005, 5.75% by 2010.
"This is a little unrealistic, perhaps," says Groves. "There are 300 millions tons of gas and diesel used in Europe each year. We're going to replace two percent of this with biofuels? It takes a year for the crops to grow, another year of two to build the fuel processing plants, and you have to install new pumps at fueling stations throughout the country. I'm not sure we can do all of this in two years.
Back home, several days after I returned from the UK, Harold Schobert, director of the Energy Institute, tells me about biofuels research at Penn State.
"Pennsylvania is an important agricultural and forestry state," he says. "Certainly there is a huge opportunity for biofuels."
"We're focusing on two areas: the combustion of biomass fuels in boilers, and bio-derived liquid fuels for internal combustions engines in cars and trucks."
Alternative fuel and energy research is a growing area in the Energy Institute, with researchers focusing on bio-diesel, fuel cells, and hydrogen.
"Basically our mantra is that Pennsylvania and the nation need to have a balanced energy portfolio," Schobert says. "In other words, we should not be relying on only one or two energy sources."
He continues, "Any energy source you can think of has certain technological and economic advantages and certain technological disadvantages and economic disincentives. What we need to figure out is how to strike a reasonable, sensible balance."
Schobert expects some alternative energy technologies to become niche technologies. "Some people believe that east of the Mississippi River, Pennsylvania has the greatest potential for wind power development," he says. "Geothermal power plants, on the other hand, wouldn't work very well for Pennsylvania, and neither would solar panels. "We'd freeze in the dark," he says, chuckling as points out his window at dark rain clouds on a stormy UK-reminiscent day. "But solar in Tucson? You bet."