Cargill, Shell and Honda — giants in the worlds of agriculture, petroleum and automotive manufacturing — have teamed up to fund a company called Virent that has developed an inexpensive process to turn woody plant waste into gasoline. The process can start with anything from corn stalks to pine waste — think pine cones and needles — and turn it into what they call Bioformate, a type of oil that can be used in current vehicle gas tanks. It is a non-food crop option for turning plants into biofuel, and will be a major cornerstone for three powerhouse companies.
Virent is one of 17 members of the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium, which funded the project that produced Bioformate through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Prior to the development of Bioformate the process of turning hardy plant matter — like corn husks and pine needles — into biofuel was cost prohibitive because numerous steps were needed to break down the structure of the matter. The problem was the lignin in the plant walls — which is what makes them stiff — and the Virent team came up with a way to make the breaking of lignin economically viable.
The research was conducted with help from of National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and with the investments from Cargill, Shell and Honda it seems this process is looking viable not just to the scientists, but to the industry. It is heartening to see even a petroleum giant like Shell jump on board the biofuel train, because as we all know, they’re going to run out of gasoline some day.