A Future Without Oil?

Times Staff Writer

Jon Spallino drives a $1-million car to work.

Banish any thought of a flashy red Ferrari. Since June, the Redondo Beach resident has been tooling around in a rather pedestrian-looking, two-door Honda FCX.

What matters is on the inside: hope for a future without oil. The Honda runs on electricity from a hydrogen-powered fuel cell tucked under the seats.

"I was sure I would be giving up something in terms of utility or comfort or performance," Spallino said. "As it turns out, I haven't given up anything."

Spallino is part of an accelerating push toward alternative forms of energy. Researchers and investors -- and President Bush -- are talking hopefully about powering cars and trucks with hydrogen and fuels made from corn, prairie grass, even French fry grease. Despite scientific advances, increased investment and unprecedented political backing, plenty of potholes remain.

The most daunting of those is the magnitude of the task. Cars, trucks, trains, planes and other vehicles account for 7 of every 10 barrels of oil consumed in the U.S.

With such a deep reliance on oil, the transportation world has been nearly impervious to change. Electric-hybrid vehicles are barely a blip, alternative fuels have made only tiny inroads, and a push for more fuel-efficient cars has stalled under the Bush administration.

"In the transportation sector, we've essentially made no progress in the last 25 years," said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative, which he promoted in a February tour of research sites, would inject badly needed money into alternative-fuel programs.

Critics say the commitment is paltry. Bush's fiscal 2007 budget seeks about $150 million for biofuels and $290 million for hydrogen-related research. By comparison, the government spends an estimated $150 million a day in Iraq.

But proponents believe the decades of inertia could be broken by a rare convergence of technology, money, political will and motivated motorists.

"I see a broader base of interest and support now than ever before," said James Boyd, a member of the California Energy Commission.

Even the president, a onetime oilman, shifted his stance by declaring in January's State of the Union speech that the country was "addicted to oil" and that it should "move beyond a petroleum-based economy."

Renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel hold the greatest promise of immediately reducing oil consumption because they are available today for use in existing vehicles.

Ethanol is made from organic material such as grain crops, wood chips and agricultural waste. A distillation and fermentation process, similar to what goes on in a brewery, converts corn kernels and the like into ethanol.

The fuel is made from renewable sources, boosts octane levels and pollutes the air less than gasoline does. Regular vehicles can run on gasoline blends of as much as 10% ethanol without changing anything, and the nation's more than 5 million so-called flex-fuel vehicles can use gasoline blends with as much as 85% ethanol.

Government subsidies help keep the cost of ethanol close to that of gasoline, and last year, oil companies blended ethanol into about one-third of the nation's car fuel. In California, ethanol has been widely used as a component of cleaner-burning gasoline since 2004, when the state banned the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether because it contaminates groundwater.

About 4 billion gallons of ethanol were used last year, replacing 170 million barrels of oil. Under a federal mandate, ethanol consumption could almost double by 2012.

"It is the only option we have today in terms of a liquid fuel alternative to gasoline that can be used in the existing distribution system," said Neil Koehler, who has spent half of his 48 years pushing ethanol as a way to loosen crude oil's hold on cars.

Fresno-based Pacific Ethanol Inc., where Koehler is chief executive, recently won an $84-million pledge from Microsoft chief Bill Gates' investment firm. The company plans to open the first of five ethanol plants this year in Madera County.

Still, ethanol is no silver bullet.

Growing corn consumes oil products -- fertilizers and tractor diesel -- and processing equipment runs on natural gas or coal. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, so vehicles won't go as far on a gallon of fuel. And ethanol comes with its own air pollution headache -- although much smaller than gasoline's -- because ethanol makes gasoline evaporate more easily, releasing volatile organic compounds, a component of smog.

Today, fuel ethanol is made mostly from corn and other grains in the United States and from sugar in Brazil. But because farm land is limited and those source crops are arguably more valuable as food, experts say the long-term value of ethanol is that it can also be made from plant fibers of all kinds.

Researchers are experimenting with making ethanol from agricultural waste, wood chips and common prairie grasses using enzymes and bacteria. They also are probing termite innards to tap the insect's ability to digest wood. Experts say producing ethanol through those means would use less energy than current methods. But perfecting the process and making it affordable could take as long as six years.

Biodiesel is another alternative fuel gaining momentum.

It is most commonly produced from animal fats or natural oils such as those found in corn and soybeans. Some biodiesel is made from used vegetable oil tossed out by restaurants, giving a vehicle's exhaust the faint smell of fried food.

Production of biodiesel requires simple chemical reactions, which can be carried out in a good-sized refinery or a backyard contraption. The finished product can be sold as is to motorists, but it's more commonly blended into regular petroleum-based diesel in concentrations of 2% to 20% biodiesel. A company backed by country singer Willie Nelson has drawn attention to the fuel by selling BioWillie, a 20% biodiesel blend.

Stephen Flynn is among the converts. More than a year ago, the Valencia resident dumped his gasoline car for a 1996 Chevy Suburban diesel he found on EBay, and he's been filling up with 99% biodiesel ever since. Flynn, a prop master for television commercials, says he goes as much as 500 miles before refueling.

Any diesel engine can operate normally on a low concentration of biodiesel; a high concentration can require minor modifications.

"It runs great and clean," Flynn said. "I don't see any cons."

Biodiesel not only reduces consumption of petroleum-based diesel, thereby cutting harmful vehicle emissions, but also boosts the diesel equivalent of octane and improves lubrication in the engine.

The principal drawback is its expense compared with that of traditional diesel, though the gap has closed substantially with government incentives, tax breaks and the recent rise in diesel prices. In addition, biodiesel can be difficult to find because it is sold at only about 600 filling stations nationwide.

Flynn solved the problem by joining a co-op in West Los Angeles, where members fill up with 99% biodiesel from a self-serve dispensing trailer set up in a leased section of a parking lot. The group's 40 members pay an average of $3.40 a gallon for the fuel, a slightly inflated price to help offset overhead costs, according to co-op founder Colette Brooks.

"I'm not going back, even if I have to make it myself," Flynn said of biodiesel.

The most tantalizing alternative fuel of all is hydrogen. It's abundant, packed with energy, doesn't pollute and can be burned by itself or used to power battery-like devices known as fuel cells.

Hydrogen "has the potential of completely eliminating oil use and drastically reducing greenhouse gases," said Sperling of UC Davis. "It's also the most complex in terms of needing to transform both the energy industry and the automotive industry."

Thanks to a proliferation of experimental programs, there are more than 100 vehicles on U.S. roads powered by hydrogen fuel cells or liquid hydrogen, according to the National Hydrogen Assn.

The Spallinos got one of them because they owned a natural-gas-fueled Honda, demonstrating to the car company that the family's members were adventurous and environmentally conscious. When a Honda representative called to offer them the chance to become "the world's first fuel cell family," Spallino said, they promptly signed up.

"I was interested because it's an alternative to oil ... but also because the environmental benefits of a car that emits just a few drops of water were intriguing to me," Spallino said. Hydrogen gas, stored aboard the car in tanks, flows to a stack of fuel cells that create electricity to drive the engine. Unused water drips from the exhaust.

The family leases the car for $500 a month and must supply critiques of its performance. Spallino uses the FCX to commute to his job as chief financial officer of Southland Industries, an Irvine engineering and construction company.

The roadblocks to the hoped-for hydrogen heyday are considerable. Producers must find cheap and environmentally benign ways to extract hydrogen, and a whole new fleet of cars and fueling stations must be built.

Nearly all of the hydrogen in use today is separated from natural gas using steam and a catalyst. It's the cheapest method but emits some carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas believed to cause global warming. In addition, using natural gas as a hydrogen source doesn't cut the nation's ties to finite fossil fuels.

Once the hydrogen's captured, there's the challenge of transporting and storing it. And people need places to fill up.

Honda handles refueling for the Spallinos with two hydrogen-making test units in Torrance. One strips hydrogen from water, using electricity collected through solar panels. The other collects hydrogen from natural gas. The Spallinos' car goes about 190 miles before it needs a hydrogen refill. Honda estimates that the price of each fill-up could range from less than 10 cents to 39 cents a mile depending on the process used.

"We should place some bets on hydrogen," said Peter Smith, chairman of the National Assn. of State Energy Officials. But, he added, not at the expense of funding near-term solutions.

"Right now we have the best opportunity we've had in a while," Smith said. "Energy is on the news every day."

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Fueling transport

Cars, trucks, planes and trains consume most of the nation's oil. Sales of alternative vehicles are projected to remain relatively small.

U.S. use of petroleum products by sector

Transportation -- 70%

Industrial -- 24%

Residential -- 4 %

Commercial -- 2%

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