As Louis Basenese pointed out this morning, the oil situation is improving in the United States – a development that inches us one step closer to energy independence.
So now I’d like to introduce a company that could help us reach this lofty goal even faster: Wisconsin-based, Virent.
In short, the company is “using catalytic chemistry to manipulate the carbon-oxygen bonds of sugars and other bio-derived materials to turn them into hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals.”
That’s how Virent’s VP of plant operations, Mary Tilton, puts it, anyway.
In plain English, they’re turning plants – like sugar beets, corn, sugar cane, even wood chips – into crude oil to make fuel.
Why make oil from plants? Sustainability.
Unlike oil, which has a limited supply, plant life can be grown constantly. So by implementing its “Bio-Forming” technique, Virent’s oil is essentially a renewable resource.
The company’s proven that it’s scalable, too, with a demo plant in Wisconsin that pumps out 100 liters per day.
It’s also partnered with agricultural services company, Cargill, to make sure it has the feedstock necessary to produce the oil on a bigger scale. And its partnership with Shell (NYSE: RDS.A) ensures that it has an open distribution channel once the biofuel goes into production.
The process cuts down on carbon emissions, too. According to the company’s website, “The utilization of renewable feedstocks in conjunction with efficient processing allows for Virent’s gasoline to reduce greenhouse gases versus petroleum-based fuels.”
And amazingly, the fuel made using this technique boasts an even higher energy content than premium gasoline.
But that’s not even the best part…
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Virent’s fuel doesn’t require advanced vehicle technology and infrastructure. This “biogas” is actually compatible with current technology. No new gas station or engine parts required!
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As the company says, it’s “exactly like what you burn in a vehicle, which is an advantage because it can go right into the distribution pipeline. The advantage of drop-in fuel is you don’t have to make a lot of change to the infrastructure. Our product is just like what you’re using, except it has a lower carbon footprint. It can go into the distribution pipeline and be put in pumps right now without changing tanks.”
Sounds unreal, I know. But this claim has already been proven in the real world.
In 2010, Virent and Shell tested the biogas in Europe. During the trial, five standard cars ran on regular gasoline. Another five were topped off with a blend of gasoline and Virent’s biogas. And after driving 6,000 miles, they closely inspected the cars and found no differences in the engine condition.
That means once this biogas goes into production, fuel trucks can simply deliver it to stations and mix it right into the gas that’s already in the tanks. So for once, we don’t need to wait for the world to catch up with a breakthrough technology.
Better yet, Virent’s oil components aren’t limited to producing gasoline. Since it’s so similar to crude oil, it can be used to replace over 90% of the products that are currently derived from petroleum. For example, diesel, jet fuel and chemicals for plastics. In fact, the company just teamed up with Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) to develop a natural resin to manufacture 100% renewable and recyclable soda bottles.
There are a couple of roadblocks to getting biogas to the market, however.
It still needs to work out a few kinks in the process and it requires additional funding to create a facility capable of mass-producing the components. And, as Tilton told Fast Company, one of their main objectives is to make it “competitive with the price of consumer fuel.”
But once that happens, Virent is setting itself up to lead the oil boom of the next generation.
Heck, as long as it can save the United States from breaking the $5 a gallon threshold, I’m in.