Icy Road to Energy Independence
Dr Winston Wong

Scientists and engineers have made a major breakthrough with the development of “fracking” technology, which enables the recovery of oil and gas from rock. But this doesn’t provide a permanent solution to the world’s ever-increasing energy needs. Other new technologies are needed as well.

As part of the search for such technologies, I was pleased to sponsor the experimental “ice vehicle” that crossed the Antarctic several years ago: powered on the 2,400-mile (4,000 kilometer) trip entirely by biofuel.

The scientific expedition, led by veteran polar travelers Andrew Moon and Andrew Regan, completed the first-ever “there and back” vehicle crossing of Antarctica. The trip, which I also helped sponsor – in cooperation with Imperial College London, my alma mater – took 20 days, 12 hours, 30 minutes.

The lead, or “scout” vehicle in the expedition, was dubbed the Bio-Inspired Ice Vehicle (or BIV) and was powered by E85 ethanol fuel. Most such fuel is now made from corn and sugarcane, though companies are experimenting with fuel from other plant stock, from garbage, and from algae, which could have special significance for warm-weather maritime countries such as Taiwan.

Every country in the world faces the same challenge: They need reliable long-term supplies of affordable energy to sustain and grow their economies. This energy also should be as clean and nonpolluting as possible. The green dream and energy independence need to move in tandem and entrepreneurs and private investors must see the possibility of profits in green energy.

This process is starting to happen. For example, a growing number of entrepreneurial companies are now producing energy from what in the past would be considered waste.

Joule Unlimited Technologies produces what The Wall Street Journal has described as “genetically engineered micro-organisms that secrete ethanol, diesel fuel and other hydrocarbons from water, sunlight and carbon dioxide.” Another company, Agilyx has developed a system for converting plastic waste into synthetic crude oil. And still another, Echogen Power Systems has developed a way to convert industrial waste heat into electricity.

The point is that in order to become truly energy independent and self-sustaining we need innovative new technologies that are both practical and affordable. As a scientist this interests me; as a business owner it’s critical to me.

Vehicle fuels, of course, must perform under a variety of conditions, from extreme heat to extreme cold, without breaking down, turning into vapor or hardening. The performance of the ice vehicle in the Moon-Regan Transantarctic Expedition confirmed that bio-fuels can be part of the solution, performing well under extreme cold, with South Pole temperatures averaging minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit (-22 C) even during the Antarctic summer, which coincides with the northern hemisphere’s winter.

This is important to entrepreneurs and investors who are looking at the prospects of commercial production of alternative fuels. This is also important to Taiwan and other countries as they seek to become less dependent on imported fossil fuels.

The government can play a role as well: by identifying tropical areas suitable for growing algae and other biofuel “crops,” for example. Government cooperation and even assistance is especially important in a small country such as Taiwan, which has far less land and private-capital wealth than the United States. If investors act alone, only to have government erect environmental and financing hurdles, the process could break down.

The road to energy independence, just like the journey of the Moon-Regan expedition, will be icy. We need to know what works and doesn’t work, what is affordable and not affordable. Research, innovation and entrepreneurship must be partners.

The performance data accumulated during the Moon-Regan expedition extended our knowledge of biofuels. The next step should be to combine that accumulated knowledge with appropriate investments to make sure biofuels become part of the global energy mix.

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