RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Barry Raleigh is doing research into making diesel fuel out of algae. Here, he poses with salt water-based algae being grown under controlled conditions on the UH Manoa campus.
Running on algae
Finding a viable way to replace petroleum will be a major topic at a biotech summit in Waikiki
On April 2, Hawaii intends to reduce its use of petroleum-based gasoline by nearly 9 percent, as a state law will take effect requiring the use of fuel made from corn, sugar cane and other plants.
The law requires that 85 percent of the gas sold in the state be a blend containing 10 percent ethanol, which is compatible with virtually all cars and commonly used in gas on the mainland.
Although state officials are bracing for potential bumps during the transition, the overarching goal of the policy is simple: to make Hawaii less reliant on fossil fuels and more reliant on fuel that can be produced here.
"It's fairly significant progress," said Maria Tome, an alternative energy engineer with the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. "It's a step in the right direction."
This week Hawaii will be a forum for discussions of alternative bioenergy technologies far beyond ethanol. The three-day Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy will gather experts from private industry, governments and academia to discuss a variety of emerging technologies. These include "bio-plastics" made with biodegradable material instead of petroleum, biological fuel cells, nanobiotechnology in electronics manufacturing and industrial biotechnology in cosmetics.
But perhaps most relevant to Hawaii in the near future is a series of talks about ethanol production. Made by fermenting and processing grains, corn and sugar cane, ethanol is another name for the alcohol in alcoholic beverages. It's also been used as a fuel for more than a decade in 41 states. In fact, Tome takes pains to describe the ethanol blend gas proposed for Hawaii as E10 to avoid confusion with E85, a blend containing 85 percent ethanol that can be used only in special cars.
One challenge of large-scale production of ethanol involves how to produce enough starchy food products to feed the ethanol refineries. But scientists are creating enzymes that they say can break down the starches in sugar-cane stalks, corn husks and other parts of crop plants that contain fairly small concentrations of sugars.
"The technology is just reaching production capacity," said Paul Winters, a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which is organizing the conference with the state of Hawaii, the University of Hawaii, the Hawaii Life Sciences Council, Enterprise Honolulu and the Oceanic Institute.
Among the companies and institutions registered to attend are Bayer CropScience Inc., Cargill Inc., Diversa Corp., DuPont Corp., ExxonMobil Research & Engineering Co. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Corn and sugar cane aren't the only locally produced plants being eyeballed as a source of fuel. C. Barry Raleigh, a researcher with the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, is studying the use of algae as a source of fuel. Raleigh said there are varieties of algae composed of 30 percent to 40 percent oil, which can be refined into a biodiesel fuel much like regular diesel engine fuel.
Scientists have mostly figured out how to grow the oil-rich algae, Raleigh said. The challenges involve "farmer problems," such as how to harvest the algae efficiently and process it to extract the most oil.
But Raleigh said federal research money has been deplorably scant.
"We're looking at $100-a-barrel oil in five years," he said. "There should be a Manhattan Project to find an alternative (to oil), and instead it's just a few tens of millions of dollars."
Six ethanol refineries are in development in the state, although Tome said she was not aware of any that plan to use bioengineered enzymes to make the fuel. The facilities are expected to open in 2007. In the meantime, Tome said, the state's gasoline producers will import ethanol.
"You cannot require that only Hawaii ethanol be used," she said. "There's a set start date, and they'll get the ethanol from wherever they get it from."