Taking inspiration from a cow’s digestive tract, bacteria from a South American catfish and raw material from pretty much any plant that grows, Tifton scientist J.C. Bell may have come up with an ingenious way to make gasoline and other fuels.
His formula is simple. Basically: Biomass (such as grass clippings or wood chips) plus the right bacteria equals gasoline or diesel fuel.
And if you need a metaphor, Bell is happy to provide one.
“Have you ever stood downwind from a herd of cows?” he asks.
Cows eat grass. Bacteria in their digestive tracts break down that biomass and produce methane. The methane passes from the cows’ bodies. Methane is CH4, the simplest of the hydrocarbons. Crude oil, gasoline and diesel fuel are made of hydrocarbons.
So if you get the right bacteria, you can turn biomass into any of these hydrocarbons, Bell said. Use bacteria from the guts of Amazonian catfish that eat wood and, boom, you’ve got a way to make oil – roughly 2 barrels of it for every ton of biomass, Bell said.
Given a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that shows that there’s 1.1 billion tons a year of “easily recoverable biomass” created in the United States each year with the potential to produce twice that much, Bell is predicting that he can make a dent in the country’s energy needs.
He said he plans to have a pilot manufacturing plant set up in the next few months to generate the data he needs to design a full-scale production plant over the next year and a half.
“What we are doing is the ultimate recycling,” he said.
The details will have to be checked, but Jim McMillan, a research manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, said the science itself sounds reasonable.
“Absolutely these micro-organisms – you can make all kinds of things,” McMillan said. “The trick is making it economical.”
Producing it in bulk and at a price people will pay has been a stumbling block for many alternative energies. Alternative energy has been a growing industry in Georgia, with particular attention being paid to ethanol production.
Jill Stuckey, as the state government’s director of alternative fuels, works with groups doing research in this emerging field. Stuckey said she hadn’t heard of Bell’s work on hydrocarbon fuels until an article appeared in his hometown Tifton Gazette and received e-mails from across the state. Neither had Bill Boone, director of the Agriculture Innovation Center in Tifton.
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t viable and promising,” Stuckey said. “But it’s just new to me. I sure hope it’s viable and promising. And I hope it stays in Georgia.”
Since the news hit, there’s been lots of interest. Bell, already something of a science celebrity for his invention of powdered peanut butter (aka “PB2”), was on the G. Gordon Liddy Show on March 20. He was written about by WorldNetDaily.com and said he’s been interviewed on several radio programs in the Southeast.
Bell, who never finished college and built a computer as a teenage, is not alone in his research. Two California companies reported similar research last year, saying they are pushing to build manufacturing facilities this year and bring fuels to the market within the next several years. And Bell’s work has generated interest at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Deputy Undersecretary Floyd Gaibler helped point him through the layers of bureaucracy in an effort to get government support, though so far no funding has been approved.
“I’m not an expert in this area at all,” Gaibler said. “(But) I think he’s probably got one of the technologies that’s going to bear fruit. There’s a lot of them competing right now and some of them are going to take off and become commercially viable.
“He’s an innovative guy,” Gaibler said. “He really thinks outside of the box. I wouldn’t say he’s eccentric. He’s a very down to earth guy, but he thinks differently than most people.”
Though Bell doesn’t like to see himself as competing with other alternative energies – particularly plans to use biomass to produce ethanol – it’s easy to cast the two technologies at odds. They use some of the same sources, or feedstocks, to make fuel. And ethanol efforts were first out of the gate.
State, local and federal tax incentives already have been approved to build a $225 million ethanol production plant in Soperton. The plant would use discarded pine tree tops and limbs from the timber industry to produce ethanol, officials have said. Through a spokeswoman, the company behind that plant, Range Fuels Inc., declined to comment on Bell’s technology.
Bell said there are “brilliant researchers” working on a wealth of alternative energy ideas.
“All of the alternative energy has a use, he said. “It’s just that we took a slightly different track.”
To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.