Okay, I admit I am confused, not that a state of confusion is all that unusual for me, but my head is swimming a bit trying to figure out if “history is about to repeat itself” or “yesterday was a lost weekend that lasted a week.” If that didn´t clarify the situation much for you, welcome to my world, today, at least.The events to which I am referring involve a gentleman who seems to have no difficulty setting heads to spinning. Indeed depending on your age and gender, his good looks alone I am sure have set many a heart aflutter. Combine that with his long standing success and even relatively longstanding billionaire status, and the man is doubtless the dream date of billions of people around the world. I am talking about Virgin Group chairman and CEO, Richard Branson.Pardon me, more properly that would be “Sir Richard Branson”, which also is not a recent development in his astounding career and accomplishments. It doesn´t hurt that his first major successes were in the music industry where a string of hits is practically a license to print money, but he has spread his success across the globe and all kinds of industries such that now one of his most visible assets is Virgin Atlantic Airlines. I mentioned recently that he had successfully flown a 747, or rather his company, in cooperation with Boeing flew a B5 biofuel blend in one engine of this test flight. Meanwhile he also announced that he made a deal with Rolls Royce (the British company that makes beautiful cars, but also makes powerful jet engines) that he would use those engines in the 787´s he had ordered from Boeing, provided that they continue to research biofuels for those “Trent 1000” engines. (The size of his order, US$2.6 billion, no doubt set some hearts aflutter at the Rolls Royce company, while his loyalty to British industry probably gave Queen Elizabeth another reason to be proud that she had recognized him with a knighthood for prior acts of national economic significance.)Now, if you are one of those “glass half-empty” people, you could see him and all of his commercial, manufacturing and transportation ventures as one of the great [evil] pollution contributors of our times. The half-full glass people should be able to also recognize that the man is practically a one-man army against the forces of global warming. He keeps making appearances in my column because he is not merely “hedging his bets”, (though no doubt he is doing that too) but he is diligently seeking solutions to the problems of green fuels and clean, or at least cleaner, transportation. In addition to his deals with Boeing and Rolls Royce, he has invested in biobutanol research and development (a far more attractive candidate because of its compatibility with existing vehicle fueling infrastructure, than ethanol) and has committed all the profits from his transportation businesses for the next several years to R&D on clean fuels.While I am not, myself, swooning over Sir Richard´s good looks, or even his bank account, he was at the center of my dizziness recently because it was just a couple of days ago that I read somewhere that a distant acquaintance had been invited to attend some sort of “retreat” with Sir Richard on his (private) island in the Caribbean, along with some other people with whom I have at least a passing familiarity as prominent figures in Internet marketing circles. Since that person and I have a mutual friend (okay, my “friend” is more of an acquaintance, too, really) I wrote my “friend” a note yesterday about bringing up some issues of green energy and biofuels in particular if he too was going to be attending this little party. I was prompted to write because yesterday I came across an article which mentioned that Sir Richard is also interested in yet another aspect of “green” fuels that is a particular interest of mine.

Today, however, my head is doing a Linda Blair impression (in The Exorcist for those of your not old enough to recognize the reference, her head appeared to turn a complete 360 degrees or more because her character was “possessed”).

The reason is simple, either I did not recognize that the “retreat” on Sir Richard´s island (actually he owns two, one called “Mosquito” for its tiny size, and another called “Necker Island”, although I don´t know the origin of the second name ;o) ) would happen so soon, or I failed to notice that the mention of the gathering was not as fresh an entry as I had assumed at the time that it was mentioned. In any case, it does almost seem incumbent upon me to tell you that the meeting did, apparently already take place, and that those in attendance were, indeed, the glitterati of the Internet. The International Herald Tribune covered the event in a brief story. Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote, “What he [Branson] wanted to know was whether his high-powered visitors, among them Larry Page of Google, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, thought global warming threatened the planet.” Also in attendance was Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal, and current backer of Tesla Motors, maker of the sexy US$100,000 all electric sports car (a bargain by Ferrari pricing standards, with similar performance some reports say).

Also attending was D. Hunt Ramsbottom, CEO of Rentech, a company specializing in Fischer-Tropsch conversion of conventional fossil derived hydrocarbon sources into jet fuel. They are, apparently, trying to adapt to the way the economic “wind” is blowing by adding biomass to the various feedstocks they currently use, but the commonality is that they aim to output fuels suitable for jet engines by upgrading the output of the F-T with a further differentiation (presumably differential distillation, though their website was not explicit on this point). Also in attendance was venture capitalist extraordinaire, Vinod Khosla, still singing the praises of ethanol (cellulosic, of course) but the reporter also noted that Mr. Khosla´s investments now encompass some 33 different ventures in the green technology field. Talk about bold and adventurous venture capital lending! Mr. Khosla definitely deserves highest marks for being open to the possibilities and is very likely to be a major influence in shaping the future, whatever that may bring. Good luck to him, as always.

BTW, Rentech says it prefers iron as the F-T catalyst because it isn´t prone to “poisoning” as is cobalt if impurities are contained in the feedstock.

But that is not what I wanted to talk about with respect to Sir Richard. What I found fascinating this week was a note in an article highlighting the initiation of fuel-cell shuttles in an experiment with ferrying Virgin Atlantic´s first class passengers to their planes in Los Angeles and later New York and Washington, D.C. Putting a few hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road these days is barely newsworthy, were it not for Sir Richard´s high public profile. Nope, what caught my eye was that Sir Richard, like me, and a few others, is a poop fan.

<!–Yes, Sir Richard spoke of negotiations near and dear to my own perspective on future green fuels. “We’re talking to a lot of sewage plants about setting up algae plants above and using a lot of the CO2 coming off those sewage plants” to feed the algae. The creation of less CO2 output from sewage as well as creating biodiesel feedstock (and biomass, if it were to be a well integrated operation) is as Andrew Ross Sorkin reports Mr. Branson called it, a “double-whammy”.What I wanted my friend to point out to Sir Richard was that his “double whammy” is good, but that the paradigm for this century is not just, “Don´t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but recycle the bathwater too!” In this case, of course, the figurative bathwater is the sewage itself. While I prefer the thermal depolymerization route, I recognize that there clearly are several methods that could be employed to turn the actual sewage sludge into energy in general and to liquid fuels in particular. It also seemed like, with Sir Richard´s strong advocacy of “greening” the transportation business that he would be a potentially strong ally in a plan to spread this technology worldwide. I remain hopeful that the conference that has already taken place was just the first in a series and that more discussions with other “netrepreneurs” will still happen in the next few weeks. I certainly hope that someone will pass along my story to him. Babies, bathwater and sewage are all precious resources, and two of them even smell alike a good deal of the time.Credit where credit is due, the “Project Driveway” (the shuttles for Virgin Airlines) is actually planning on putting a total of 100 Chevy Equinox fuel cells cars into the pilot project, not just “a few”.

Also, new to the “scene” of green energy and biofuels is a new website that is still relatively unknown and not much trafficked, but that may have some potential. Fillmorefuels.com is aiming, it seems, to become the eBay of biofuels. Perhaps more of “Craig´s List”, (on a smaller scale at the present time, but who knows what the future may hold for them), they offer buyers and sellers of biofuels (biodiesel and ethanol, at least), feedstocks, acids, catalysts, processors, and algae (and equipment) and even glycerol and educational products to list their items in an auction style listing section. They also have a small community forum area, and have seeded from early participants, some interesting topics including a discussion of a homegrown algae bioreactor. Take a look and see for yourself.

The news of the week comes Augsberg College, possibly the one thing with the most immediate potential impact is the announcement from Augsberg College that a student there inspired the creation of an improved conversion process from vegetable oil into biodiesel. What began as a summer project and curiosity on the part of Brian Krohn (now 21 and a senior at the college) turned up some fundamental research that led to the discovery of a process that uses heat and pressure and an innovative solid catalyst to quickly (extremely quickly, just 6 seconds in this pressure cooker) turn raw vegetable oil into biodiesel.

The project was taken over by senior researchers and commercialized as the McGyan process (a combination of the letters of the entrepreneur and scientists names). Unlike the platinum catalyst used in some petroleum distillation columns, this solid catalyst is fairly cheap and almost as plentiful as glass (which, coincidentally it resembles in appearance). The developers, Augsburg College Science Professor Arlin Gyberg, Ben Yan and Clayton McNeff, say it lowers the cost of production by about US$2 per gallon compared to conventional processing, and will accept feedstock with high levels of free fatty acids (they say, up to 20%, too high for conventional processing) yet processes it 100% into biodiesel. Because it is a “dry” process it needs no “wash” to remove water and the glycerol and fuel are relatively easily separated. They estimate that their 4 inch by 24 inch reaction chamber can produce up to about 3 million gallons per year because of the extremely short resident time, and as if all of that good news wasn´t enough, they say the process will also convert glycerin into dimethyl ester (DME). With just 6 seconds residence time, the process could easily be virtually (or with paralleling, even actually) continuous flow, rather than mere batch. The half gallon chamber capacity is even large enough that by designing for multiple processors could keep both capital cost and maintenance to a minimum with little or no down time should repairs be required. Even Rumblestiltskin would probably be impressed.

Candidate Senator Barack Obama´s speech this week was a triumph, but perhaps not enough to triumph over the shortcoming it attempted to address. Far too many Americans are reluctant to forgive people for making “un-American” remarks. Back in the day, as they say, Senator Joseph McCarthy didn´t “sell” the witch-hunt he was conducting as, “The Congressional Committee on Communist Activities”, he used the phrase, “Un-American Activities”. It is a side effect of being steeped in such a strong tradition of national pride that borders on hubris that it could even be the leak that bursts the dam on the rising tide of pro-Obama sentiment in the country.

The media, meanwhile, though reluctant to give up on what they have perceived as a very saleable set of controversies and battles between the Democratic Candidates, are all but burying Senator Clinton´s chances of ever achieving the front runner position in the race again. They talk about how a 60-40% win for the Clinton campaign in Pennsylvania would barely make any difference in the delegate count. I have to concede that the chances are fast becoming mathematically slim, but slim is not none, and even if Senator Clinton´s campaign is forced to accept a 50-50 split in delegates from Michigan and Florida, it is not impossible (despite the pundits´ predictions) that an overwhelming majority may reject Senator Obama, just because he has had this, and potentially other vulnerabilities to attack from a far less charitable Republican Presidential campaign. The possibility is not as remote as a lightning strike, or an earth destroying meteor, because it is possible that Senator Clinton could emerge with spectacular victories, unimaginable to the media, like a series of 80-20% wins in all the remaining primary contests.

I am not predicting it, but counting the Clinton campaign out before the counting is done, is clearly premature.


Stafford “Doc” Williamson

p.s. Get the latest biofuels videos and news at http://winfotech.com/energy/