Fossil fuels have helped transform the economy by providing cheap energy.
The problems with such fuels, however, are legend. They are dirty, polluting the air and water and contributing to global climate change. They are getting harder to find, more difficult to bring out of the ground, and more expensive to bring to market.
So enter clean, alternative fuels.
But many of them have problems as well. They need a new infrastructure, for instance - try finding a roadside generator for your electric car. They need conversions for modern uses - a wind generator, for instance, isn't likely to work for your new car. And biofuels are not necessarily pollution free - all that corn being used for fuel has helped jack up food prices and is partly to blame for a massive dead zone in the Gulf because of runoff that travels from farm to and down the Mississippi River.
"The whole name of the game is to create a renewable, drop-in source of fuel," said Sam Huttenbauer, the founder of the Great Plains Oil & Exploration company in Greenhills.
"What we're doing is finding ways to replicate the process that is renewable, because once (fossil fuels) are gone, that's it."
What Great Plains does is convert camelina, an oilseed crop similar to canola and in the same family as the mustard seed, into a biodiesel fuel that can be used in cars, trucks and jets. The plant, which also can be used as animal feed, requires little water or fertilizer, and has a short growing period. Thus, it can be used as a rotation crop, helping the land renew itself.
Huttenbauer said camelina is native to northern Europe, and is currently grown in 12 states - mostly in the western United States - four provinces in Canada, and several countries around the world. The company contracts with farmers to grow the plant, and then processes the seeds into oil.
"We're basically duplicating the fuel industry," he said.
But it's doing so at a lower cost to the environment. The entire process - from growth to market - consumes 75 percent fewer greenhouse gases than a comparable fossil fuel, Huttenbauer said.
Camelina's best future appears to be in use as jet fuel. It's currently used extensively in testing, by both the military and commercial airlines. In 2009, the Dutch airline KLM had the first camelina-based biofuel flight with passengers on board. The German airline Lufthansa will be using biojet in commercial test flights this year. An analysis by the Michigan Technological University showed jet fuel made from camelina could lower emissions by 84 percent compared to conventional jet fuel. It meets or exceeds performance specifications of conventional fuel.
The company also is opening its own facility this year in the west to crush the seeds into oil. That will employ about 25 people, Huttenbauer said, almost doubling current employment at the Cincinnati-based company. Much of the remainder of its work is done on a contract basis, he said.
Writer: Paul A. Long
Source: Sam Huttenbauer, found and CEO, Great Plains Oil & Exploration