If you've been watching in awe as ethanol, the renewable fuel adored by environmentalists and endorsed by politicians including Al Gore, has raised prices on food and done nothing to combat emissions, you may be skeptical about new claims of green gasoline.

Not so fast.   Biomass may still be the answer, say University of Oklahoma researchers, and they won't require changes to current fuel infrastructure systems. Lance Lobban, director of the School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering, says "green" fuels can still be an important part of our energy future. 

Lobban and his research group are using catalysts (solids that accelerate certain chemical reactions) and chemical reactors to convert biomass into new fuels.   They use principles of molecular engineering to identify the best fuel molecules that might be produced from biomass, and then they develop the catalysts to produce those molecules. "An initial step we're investigating is pryolsis, which converts the solid biomass to liquids through a high-temperature, non-combustion process that breaks large, solid molecules into smaller liquid ones without breaking them up too far," says Lobban. 

This "bio oil" looks like crude oil, but its chemical composition is very different. The same catalysts used in traditional petroleum refineries cannot be used to convert bio oil to fuels, but the same ideas apply.

"The best fuels are the ones that closely duplicate gasoline, diesel and jet fuel so automakers aren't forced to adapt to new fuels," says Lobban. "That would add expense and slow adoption of new fuels. We have to design processes to convert biomass so the product works with the current system." 

Biomass-based fuels can't compete economically with $50 per barrel oil but if oil becomes more expensive again, and as it becomes more important to limit greenhouse gas emissions, alternate fuels such as these will become increasingly desirable.

Suspiciously, their claim is that "green" gasoline would be essentially carbon-neutral since its source is plants, which remove CO2 from the atmosphere - handily ignoring the manufacturing and growing process.   Even more suspiciously, is Lobban's claim that, "Basing new fuels on energy crops would greatly benefit rural America, where the crops would grow." 

This was the roadmap that got us into the ethanol mess.  For 15 years Senator and then Vice-President Gore insisted ethanol was the renewable energy that would free us from foreign oil and now we're stuck with  mandatory quotas of the stuff thta require its use and subsidies to make it cheap enough to compete with oil.   In a lousy economy, no government boondoggle has to take the blame.

What is the goal?   'Incentives'  to spur investments in new processes and fuels - that means more tax money.