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The World After Oil

As the planet warms up, eco-friendly fuels can't get here fast enough

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On a calm, chilly morning in late March, the four challengers pulled up to the first leg of the 3,500-mile pilgrimage that would, at best, rally awareness for alternative fuels between Washington, D.C. and Costa Rica and, at worst, leave them stranded somewhere in between. Already they were an hour behind schedule. Emily Horgan, the leader of this renewable rat pack, this carbon-neutral crew, inspected her entry: a 1976 mustard-colored Mercedes Benz, splotched with equal parts rust and bumper stickers, that had not been running days earlier. Another Benz, a cargo van and a Volkswagen Rabbit—each flashing bumper stickers of the same quality and quantity—parked behind Horgan. (There was supposed to be a biofuel bus, but it broke down.) A line of elementary school students, dressed uniformly in blue fleece, don't-lose-me fashion and waiting to tour Ford's Theatre, read the stickers' drive-by literature: "This car is powered by fast food grease."

For this pilot run of the Greaseball Challenge, the energetic, dark-eyed Horgan, originally from Reading, England, had gathered some biofuel experts, a Norwegian film crew and a few general adventurers. "There's a lot of awareness about biofuel, but not a lot of knowledge," Horgan, an environmental consultant for the International Finance Corporation, told me that morning. "We want to get a sense of good local projects." This itinerant quest for knowledge will bring the teams to Guatemala to meet biofuel developers running the company Combustibles Ecologicos, or Ecological Fuels; Costa Rica to learn about fuel made from banana waste; Willie Neslon's ranch in Austin, Texas, to fill up at Nelson's onsite biodiesel pump (and listen to his upcoming album); and possibly any number of auto-shops along the way.

Someone had handed the school students additional bumper stickers, and they began placing them on the white 1984 Mercedes with haphazard abandon. "How many are we putting on there?" Ben Shaw, the car's driver, asked the children. "Not too many, I hope. Let's keep it down to five or six." Horgan later explained how the grease cars worked: A simple black switch on the center console allows the driver to toggle between biodiesel, which must be used to start the car, and grease, which powers it. "Flip it to this side, you get biodiesel," she said. "Flip it here, veggie power." A button off to the side purges the grease right before parking the car, a task that also requires diesel. The change doesn't affect the car's performance or how many miles it gets per gallon.

In the larger scheme, grease isn't a very practical alternative fuel. These crews are using it because it will be easier to acquire and store. (Just the afternoon before, someone had whipped up for Horgan an emergency batch of papadum and samosa grease.) Biofuel, which refers to fuel made mostly from plants, is practical, however, and a lot closer to mainstream than the average person might believe.

"Biofuel could be produced in substantial quantities," Suzanne Hunt, director of research on the subject for the World Watch Institute in Washington, D.C. and driver of the Rabbit, told me. Alternative fuels have shown early promise that they can reduce harmful carbon emissions on a global scale, but creating a large enough supply and getting the world to accept life after oil remain tasks-in-progress. Scientists, policy makers and fuel producers "are working on the next generation," Hunt says. "The challenge is to make it sustainable."

Entering the Ethanol Era
A month before, President George W. Bush had convened some of these experts to discuss the future of alternative fuel, a few blocks away from where Horgan's biofuel brigade stocked up for its grassroots reconnaissance. "He started by saying he knew the country needed to reduce its dependence on petroleum, and he didn't know if that was technically feasible," one of the scientists in attendance, Bruce Dale of Michigan State University, told me recently. "The answer is, yes, it is technically feasible."

Lately, the White House has been holding its own biofuel challenge: a two-track race driven by the desire to depend less on the Middle East for petroleum and by the need to reduce carbon emissions in response to global warming. In his 2007 State of the Union address, Bush called for the country to use 35 billion gallons of biofuel by the end of the next decade—about 7 times what's being used right now. By 2030, the Department of Energy would like 30 percent of transportation fuels to come from biomass. Achieving these goals will require producing renewable and alternative fuels more efficiently, and stockpiling loads of them.

Given global political tensions, it's clear why the United States would prefer not to rely on Middle Eastern nations for its transportation fuel supply. What might be less clear is the role alternative fuels play in global warming. "The driver for all biofuel is climate change," says Chris Somerville, a Stanford University biochemist and director of plant biology at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. "We wouldn't be bothering with biofuel if there wasn't this problem with climate change."

If people wish to control the greenhouse gases that harm the environment they must reduce the amount of carbon they release when producing energy. Biofuel does just that. As plants grow, they collect energy from the sun. Sugars from these plants can then be converted into heat energy. Burning this energy as fuel releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but the gas is soaked up by plants at the beginning of the growing cycle. This give-and-take cancels out harmful carbon emissions, which is why biofuel is often referred to as a "carbon neutral" form of energy.

Right now, the most widely used biofuel is ethanol produced from corn—a process that involves breaking down sugars in the plant's grain and fermenting them into ethanol. Nearly all five or six billion gallons of the fuel made in 2006 were made this way. Perhaps unknown to the East Coast urbanites paying $3 a gallon for petroleum, some 150 corn-to-ethanol factories are already in operation in the United States, mostly in the Midwest.

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