Rethinking Our Gas Tank


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By Bryan Mellage

An electric hybrid car charging up at an EV quick charging station. (martinplkang/iStockPhoto)Ever since the invention of the horseless carriage, there has been the need for transportation fuel. From the very beginning, the construction of motorized vehicles required certain items, such as an engine, tires, a steering wheel, and some kind of drivetrain. Early models did not even have windshields or brakes; they came later. But you had to have a gas tank to make the engine run. Now that you had a gas tank, you needed to fill it up with some kind of fuel to propel your motor vehicle.

Henry Ford was a farmer who promoted the idea of using ethanol as the means to fuel the engines of the cars and trucks he was building. The marketplace made the decision, and gasoline became the transportation fuel of choice. We now have over a hundred years of building the infrastructure to find, supply, deliver, and subsidize the systems needed so that we can drive to our local gas station and, without any regard to how the fuel got there, fill up our gas tanks with relatively low-cost premium ethyl.

If you know what ethyl gasoline is, you have revealed your age. I have fond memories of working in my uncle’s gas station in the early ’70s and having people pull up to the pump and say, “Fill’r up with ethyl.” In the early years of the 1900s, car engines would ping or knock. It was not only annoying but also potentially harmful to the engine. Researchers from General Motors discovered adding tetraethyl lead to gas eliminated the problem. The term “ethyl gasoline” for fuel that had this additive was coined, and the label stuck. The first gasoline with lead additive in it was sold at a roadside station in Dayton, Ohio, on February 2, 1923.

The problem was that lead is extremely toxic and bad for the environment and people. This might have been the first documented report of Big Oil companies manipulating government policies. Beginning in the mid-1930s, a collaboration among General Motors and oil companies, led by Standard Oil, managed to suppress government research about the dangers of the product, and tetraethyl lead was added to 90 percent of all the gasoline used in the United States. It was not until the 1970s and the environmental movement that the additive was phased out and unleaded gas became the norm.

When you pull into a gas station today, you have multiple choices of transportation fuels to pick from: straight gas, ethanol mix, high octane, regular, diesel, and biodiesel. There are even fuels you may not be aware of. The different oil companies have recipes for their own fuels. There are also fuel formulas for winter and summer and northern and southern fuel formulations. Ethanol mixed with the gasoline helps to eliminate engine pinging as the lead additive once did.

The gas stations of the future will be even more varied. Not only will you be able to satisfy all your snacking needs and purchase a can of soda and a pick six ticket, but you also will be able to charge up the batteries of your electric car or fill up with liquid natural gas or recharge the O2 tank on your compressed-air-propelled car.

No matter what technology we consider for our future cars to use as a fuel to put into our gas tanks, it is clear—there are no bad ideas. We need all of them. One thing is certain: The fuel of old is not going to be the fuel of the future. Old carbon fossilized solar energy that has been the fuel of choice since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution worked well for our grandparents and us, but it is not going to be the fuel for our grandchildren. It is our job, for our grandchildren’s and their children’s sake, to begin considering all the ideas for new transportation fuels and exploring these technologies to see which ones the marketplace will want to use.

There has been a lot of discussion about whether the changing of our Earth’s climate has something to do with the burning of old carbon fossil fuels. I would like to suggest that might not be the issue for liquid transportation fuels. The real issue of the future of gasoline is supply and demand. Few people will argue that the last 150 years of Earth’s history, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, have seen the largest growth of human population to date. The United States and the developed world have grown into a population of people who enjoy a lifestyle that would have been the envy of those who lived before us. The exploding populations of underdeveloped countries are eyeing this modern lifestyle and Earth’s limited resources. This new era of increased usage of Earth’s old carbon fuel assets will weigh heavily on how long before supply and demand make them cost prohibitive to use, even forgetting about the environmental damages it will cause. The reason for this growth and our materialistic lifestyle is the easy availability of old carbon fossil fuels and their apparently low cost. The era of cheap oil has come and gone. Old carbon fossil fuels are a finite resource. The stores of fossil fuels are becoming harder to find and access and, consequently, will continue to be more and more expensive. These finite fossil fuel resources have spawned wars, deaths, and environmental disasters. This trend will continue and will even escalate as these dwindling resources become more and more controlled by fewer and fewer people. The simple rules of supply and demand dictate this happening.

There has been a recent upturn of new ways to mine stored solar energy through fracking oil and gas, but the fossil fuels lying beneath our feet are still a very finite resource. Whether we run out of these supplies in ten, twenty, fifty, or two hundred years, it is not something we should experiment with. Former Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheikh Zaki Yamani expressed his thoughts as, “The Stone Age did not end for a lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” The point to be taken from this is that we, as a nation and the world population as a whole, should not try to see how close to the end of oil supplies we can get.

As we rethink transportation fuels, we need to start with the word sustainable. We need a sustainable transportation fuel to propel future cars. Will it be a liquid fuel in an internal combustion engine? Probably not. Because of today’s already-built infrastructure, we will need a sustainable transportation fuel now, for today’s cars. Even if a hydrogen fuel cell or solar-powered car was invented tomorrow, how long is it going to take to ramp up the factories to build such a vehicle and replace all the cars currently on the road today?

As a stepping-stone, we need a sustainable liquid transportation fuel to power our internal combustion engine cars as we get ready for the next big evolution in car engine technology. Biofuels can be one of those stepping-stones. Here in Nebraska and the Midwest in general we are well situated to benefit from biofuels being used as a transportation fuel. The first attempt at this was starch-based ethanol derived from corn. Ethanol is currently used mainly as an additive to gas. Ethanol does not have the same equivalent of energy per unit as gasoline. Ethanol also has the problem of being hygroscopic, meaning it can absorb moisture from the atmosphere. Ethanol put into a pipeline in the Midwest would have enough moisture in it to make it unusable unless it went through a moisture sieve at the other end, adding additional costs. Corn-derived, starch-based ethanol was a good first step, but it will never become a drop-in fuel replacement for gasoline. Another idea, using the cellulosic portions of biomass to produce ethanol, has yet to be proven as a viable economical commercial business strategy.

There are many people in companies and universities across the US and around the world working in the many disciplines required to make biofuels a part of our liquid transportation fuel future. This is good, but the downside is there has been little regard to communication between all the players involved.

The USDA is one of the groups working on the biofuels promise, and it is investing heavily into making biofuels a reality. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture within the USDA issued grant money to several projects around the US to look into making biofuels part of our transportation fuel future.

CenUSA Bioenergy was the recipient of one of the Agriculture Food Research Initiative Competitive Grants (AFRI-CAP Grant # 2011-68005-30411) at the $25 million level. The CenUSA project will run from 2011 through 2016. CenUSA is made up of Iowa State University (lead); Purdue University; University of Wisconsin; University of Minnesota; University of Nebraska, Lincoln; University of Illinois, Champaign; University of Vermont; and the USDA Agriculture Research Service, all working to develop a holistic approach in taking biofuels to the marketplace.

CenUSA is one of seven AFRI-CAP grants but the only one working in the Corn Belt region. Led by Iowa State University, CenUSA is investigating the creation of a Midwestern sustainable biofuels system using perennial grasses. The system will improve agricultural sustainability, as the perennial grasses reduce runoff of nutrients and soil from corn and soybean production and increase carbon sequestration.

CenUSA’s mission is to create a Midwestern regional system for producing advanced transportation fuels and bio products derived from perennial grasses grown on land that is either unsuitable or marginal for row-crop production. In addition to producing advanced biofuels and bio products, the proposed system will improve the sustainability of existing cropping systems by reducing agricultural runoff of nutrients and soil and increasing carbon sequestration.

CenUSA’s project emphasis is an agro-ecosystem approach to sustainable biofuels production via pyrolysis-biochar with native grasses being used as a feedstock for biofuels production. CenUSA has ten initiatives that cover all aspects and activities that will have to be accomplished for sustainable biofuels to move forward. This holistic approach to research is paving the way to make biofuels marketplace-ready. One-third of total funding is required to be spent in extension, outreach, and education activities.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska-based ARS scientists are in charge of plant genetic research in growing the feedstock varieties as part one of the ten initiatives. Recently, the team from USDA’s Agriculture Research Service based at UNL has released its latest development, a new cultivar named Liberty. Liberty switchgrass was introduced to local producers in field days across southeast Nebraska. Rob Mitchell of the ARS says that Liberty is the first switchgrass variety developed specifically for bioenergy use in the Great Plains and the Midwest, and it will help make switchgrass a much more feasible option for bioenergy use.

CenUSA is focusing on pyrolysis as the conversion approach in making drop-in biofuel from native grasses, such as switchgrass. Pyrolysis is the thermochemical decomposition of organic matter at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. This change occurs at a molecular level. There are several downstream products that can be derived from taking native grass biomass through the pyrolysis conversion process. Of these, biochar can be used as a soil amendment. Bio-oil is another, and it has the potential to be refined into a type of drop-in fuel that could go directly into your gas tank.

CenUSA is looking at all the steps that are going to be needed. These steps include:

  • The genetics of new varieties of grass;
  • Growing of the biomass;
  • Logistics of harvesting, hauling, preprocessing, and handling the enormous amounts of biomass;
  • Building the brick-and-mortar energy plants that would house the pyrolysis processing facility;
  • Exploring the feasibility of on-site pyrolysis using a mobile pyrolyizer;
  • Laboratory work to produce the science of pyrolysis and the streams of inputs and outputs at the energy factory;
  • Education and outreach to producers and their bankers that this is a real scenario of a potentially profitable farming operation;
  • Training the bioenergy workforce of tomorrow through undergraduate internships and graduate student support;
  • Collaboration of corporate America so the product could be produced and delivered to your local gas station.

Producing liquid transportation fuels in this manner would eliminate issues like the blend wall and the volatile Renewable Fuel Standard that corn-based ethanol contends with.

The eventual plan is to take all the research and help get the technologies to the companies that will move on to the next level. At the 2014 CenUSA annual meeting ADM announced a research partnership with CenUSA, as did Renmatix, to move the commercial use of sustainable, renewable bioenergy from perennial grasses.

Using native grasses grown locally in the Midwest region and putting them through the pyrolysis process to produce a drop-in biofuel will benefit the Midwest in several ways. This will bring an income stream to producers by selling a renewable product and engaging in sustainable farming, strengthening local economies. Native grasses are a perennial crop, so there is no need to work the ground each spring like in row-crop corn and soybean farming. This will reduce the erosion and runoff from farm fields, improving our water quality and helping to reduce the contaminants going down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers that contribute to the hypoxia problem in the Gulf of Mexico. Increasing Midwest farm operations growing perennial energy crops will reduce oil dependency that is the norm in current farming operations.

Ever since Henry Ford figured out how to make our cars on the assembly line and mass-produce them, we have been in love with our personal automobiles. To be able to get in our cars and go where we want, when we want, is a privilege none of us is going to want to let go. Cars are here to stay.

Rethinking our gas tank will eventually take us to a new type of fuel altogether, but for now it can help us see through to a new type of liquid transportation fuel we can use today so we can be ready for the next step in gas tank development and be an economical and environmental win-win for Nebraska and the Midwest.


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