While high-powered lobbyists clashed, seduced, and debated their way to a House energy bill last Wednesday that called for drilling Arctic preserves and left renewable fuel by the wayside, the dialogue at the helm of one alternative-fuel program went something like this:
"Where are we parking? I don't see any place to park."
"I dunno. Where are you looking?"
"Are we parking here?"
Such was the chatter inside the confusedly circling Hemp Car, a 1983 Mercedes station wagon powered by oil squeezed from cannabis seeds and converted into biodiesel, a cleaner vegetable substitute for the petroleum product. Its passengers were activists from Virginia on a U.S. tour, who eventually pulled up and parked on a sidewalk for a pit stop in Minneapolis. The situation in Bush's Washington is much the same: If you're looking for far-out energy resources that blow smoke in the face of Big Oil, you have to roll your own opportunities. Though the Hemp Car is trundling across the wilds of America, D.C. is never far out of mindthat's where the tour began on July 4 and will conclude at the start of October.
"We're promoting biomass for fuel instead of drilling in the Arctic or taking a new look at nuclear power," explains Hemp Car spokesperson Scott Fur. The adventure began with Grayson and Kellie Sigler, the eco-activist couple at the heart of the Hemp Car effort, who were itching to take a cross-country trip without choking the scenery. Research led them to industrial hemp. That's right, the industrial stuffyou won't get a buzz from tailgating the Hemp Car. Not that the crew would mind.
"We see nothing wrong with responsible people using marijuana. We're frankly sick of nonviolent drug offenders being thrown in jail," Fur fumes.
But mixing those issues may prove a bit too combustible for biofuel allies on Capitol Hill. Just ask South Dakota senator Tim Johnson, who introduced a bill to his chamber's energy committee in July requiring that renewables like biodiesel and ethanol, an alcohol additive made from cellulose, compose 2 percent of transportation fuel by 2008 and 5 percent by 2016. Johnson is girding for a fight with hardline conservatives in the pocket of Big Oil. "I would guess," notes spokesperson Bob Martin dryly, "that industrial hemp would be a little harder to sell than biodiesel based on soybeans."
If hemp is too taboo for Washington, there have been enough other demonstration vehicles to stage a Cannonball Run. Best known among them are the Veggie Van, the Grease Car, and Greasy Gretta the Volkswagen Jetta. They can all trace their ancestry to the diesel engine showcased at the 1900 World's Fair, which ran on straight peanut oil. Today's Grease Car also runs on pure vegetable oil and used grease, but needs to be warmed first by burning dieselcoventional or bio. And it broke down on the return leg of its tour. Justin Carven, the 24-year-old who invented it as a college project, now sells conversion kits for $795.
Oddly enough, for the pilots of the Hemp Car, one of the bedrock rules is abstinence. "In the car we're trying to keep everything by the book, everything above board, so nothing bad happens," Fur says. He figures a station wagon emblazoned "This Car Powered by Hemp" and "Make It Hempen" is already a traveling KICK ME sign. Even industrial hemp, with THC levels so low you'd have to smoke a doobie the size of a telephone pole to get high, is illegal to grow (but not use in finished form) in America. It doesn't help that most Canadian farmers who started growing hemp plantswhose fiber can also produce paper and cloth and strengthen plasticsin a federal experiment in 1998 have already abandoned it. Officials there say processing it was uneconomical and teenagers raided fields to sell the drug-free clippings, misrepresented as kind bud to naive classmates. The Hemp Car gets most of its stash from China; it's processed by Apple Energy in Virginia and shipped to points along the route.
So far, so good with American authorities, Fur reports. "Actually, our only experience was positive," he says. "When we pulled into Detroit from Canada, the border cops said, 'You know, there's no way we can let you in with a car like that without being searched.' And so they took us into this room and through the window we could see the dog just laying there with his head on his paws and all the border cops stood around the car and got their pictures taken with it. Their only questions were like, 'How is the tour going?' and 'How many miles per gallon do you get?'
"They know the difference between marijuana and hemp," adds Fur, whose uncle is a New York City cop. But that doesn't spare the crew some ribbing. "One of the most frequent questions I get is, if we leave a trail of nachos behind us."
Free from the typical belching of a car on fossil fuels, biodiesel engines put out a fragrance likened to French fries or doughnuts. More importantly, the Hemp Car and its kin deliver an immediate 80 percent cut in emissions of the "greenhouse gas" carbon dioxide, advocates of farmed fuel say, a small amount the next crop of plants-for-fuel readily absorbs to grow. In theory, it's a closed loop of renewable energy low on smog-causing pollutants and free of sulfur and hydrocarbons. Biodiesel doesn't yet cut back on nitric oxides, or NOx, but the emerging generation of technology promises to mop that up.
A huge part of biodiesel's appeal is that it can be made from any plant or animal fat, even Soylent Green. Procter & Gamble's baby-food division is a big supplier. Refiners use an alcohol to break fatty acids away from glycerin, resulting in a fuel that's slightly goopy, with the same viscosity and power density as petrodiesel but with greater lubricity. Biodiesel is also more biodegradable, and safer to handle and transport. And because diesel engines are inherently more efficient than gasoline engines, even an old warhorse like the 5000-pound Hemp Car gets 27 miles per gallon.
But when it comes to passenger cars, Americans are still wed to the gasoline-fired, internal combustion engine. Diesels do the heavy lifting, with trucks, buses, earthmovers, tractors, generators, and mining equipment usually powered by the cheaper fuel. That's why, when Washington seeks biofuels, the pols think first of ethanol.
One Hail Mary pass at alternative energy would be biogasolineas opposed to biodieselwhich could run most current cars. The late Nobel laureate chemist Melvin Calvin started the quest at the University of California. Now Purdue University researcher Bernard Tao has taken up the search, with hopes of genetically engineering a plant that could produce clean, efficient gas.
Still, Volkswagen is keeping a toe in the diesel market on a gamble that America might swing Germany's way, where about half the cars carry that kind of engine. If biodiesel hits the mainstream, it'll most likely be in the tanks of Volkswagens. No other major company is selling diesel passenger cars here. "We're fighting an uphill battle in the United States because diesel has a bad rap," complains company spokesperson Tony Fouladpour. Despite the Volkswagen's quiet, clean-burning engine, American consumers still imagine stinking, knocking old clunkers.
Though diesel sales are up sharply in the U.S., they account for just 10 percent of Volkswagen's market. The industry and its regulators set 2007 as the year diesels will run cleaner than today's natural-gas engines. By then, the fuel of choice may not be pumped from the earth, but grown. "The cars will perform perfectly fine on biodiesel," Fouladpour says. "And we would welcome that."
Another lead Germany has over America is in biodiesel distribution. There are 900 public filling stations vending biodiesel in Germany, which has an area smaller than California. The continental U.S. just started installing public biodiesel pumps in May. Olympian, the proprietor of a pump in San Francisco, is thrilled. "I am tickled to death with the results of this one," says company executive Tom Burke. "We had another alternative fuel before, E85 gasoline [85 percent ethanol] in a four-thousand-gallon tank that sat for five years. We decided to put biodiesel in that tank, and since May we've sold over 5000 gallons. We think the success has been phenomenal."
There are plans for biodiesel pumps in a dozen states before 2002.
For a traditional petroleum company like Olympian, the novel venture is an "easy in, easy out," Burke observes, because the pumps work the same as ones for standard diesel. The per-gallon price remains 50 cents higher, he adds, but once the gap closes, biodiesel "will be a very common fuel."
Homemade brews already seem hokey now that the government has biodiesel vehicles plying the highways of California, Minnesota, and Florida, as part of complying with a 1992 law mandating greener fleets. The Pentagon and National Parks Service have also taken biodiesel to heart. As demand grows, new sources beyond cooking grease will have to be found, but the answer isn't likely to be hemp.
"Hippy-dippy" projects don't use the full power value of fats and don't reward the processor enough to be financial viable, says Dr. K. Shaine Tyson, renewable-diesel project manager at the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. Her own idea is nearly as exotic though: the lowly mustard seed. Tyson says its oil would make inexpensive biodiesel, and the remains could pull a profit as organic pesticide instead of being pushed off as animal feed, as happens with soybeans once they've been mashed.
But don't look for miracles, she cautions. "We're never going to replace all diesel in America. We'd be lucky if we made a 10 percent dent," she predicts. As for passenger cars, biofuels won't even make the radar unless Americans radically change their auto buying habits.
Olympian's supplier, World Energy, is working overtime to promote biodiesel, but company president Gene Gebolys agrees with Tyson. He described biodiesel as "an existing intermediate-wedge technology unparalleled in its ability to have quick impact." But as he drove through California's behemoth Tehachapi Pass wind farm, he commented, "We don't expect it to be the end-all, be-all. Years ago everybody wanted to find the quick fix, a pill we could take to make fossil-fuel ills go away. Well, it's going to take a buffet of technologies."
That explains some of the resistance World Energy, based in Massachusetts, has gotten from Northeastern states, including New York. Environmentalists here have committed themselves to compressed natural gas and view biodiesel as a threat, he says. Even California, while pioneering public access to biodiesel limits the sale of diesel cars, a remnant of how diesel was perceived in decades past.
In the end, that battle might be moot, with arguing over combustible fuels at the start of this century like arguing over superior horse feeds at the start of the last. Even Olympian's Burke argues that hydrogen fuel cells may be poised to supplant the lot of them in a generation or two. Some biodiesel enthusiasts cite Dr. Rudolf Diesel's prediction that vegetable oils may seem insignificant today, but over time may become "as important as petroleum and the coal tar products." Others recall his French contemporary, Jules Verne, who prophesized that "water is the coal of the future. The energy of tomorrow is water broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, using electricity. These elements will secure the earth's power supply for an indefinite period." Then again, experts suggest that biodiesel could reposition itself as a source of hydrogen.
Regardless of the outcome, the trippy Hemp Car will be a burnout. "We all have gasoline automobiles. After this, it's back to gasoline, unfortunately," admits Fur. But will the crew still find use for cannabis? "Well," he says, revealing everything and nothing, "y'know. . . . "
Research assistance: Taron Flood
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