Friday, July 29, 2005

San Diego firm pushes for biofuels

Although alternative energy sources remain cost-uneffective, businesses are cropping up to try to make the breakthrough that changes all that.

At San Diego's Diversa Corp., scientists are working with a $38 million government-and industry-funded consortium to develop a "biorefinery" for making fuel ethanol out of corn and the crop's debris, such as the leaves, cobs and stalks that are usually discarded.

Diversa's task within the consortium, which is lead by DuPont, is to engineer enzymes that can break down the corn and crop matter into sugars, which are converted through a fermentation process into fuel ethanol. Other members of the consortium include Deere & Co., the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Michigan State University.

The consortium received a backhanded boost this week as Congress finalized a national energy plan for President Bush to sign into law. The House passed the legislation yesterday, and the Senate is expected to approve it as early as today. The proposed law includes tax incentives and credits to encourage the production and use of renewable fuels such as ethanol.

Environmental and alternative-energy advocates have clamored for renewable energy and fuels for years, but the economic incentives and political will to make it happen lagged.

Yet recent events – crude-oil prices that top $59 a barrel and fear of excessive reliance on foreign oil – have helped reinvigorate the renewable-energy movement and win it broad support from business and political leaders.