Bad things can sometimes yield good. Loss of the Saudi Arabian oil-producing contract and the rise in the price of oil from $10 to $30 a barrel in the past year should therefore be a wakeup call to Japan to follow the United States’ lead in investing in research and development of alternatives to petroleum-based fuels.

One promising alternative is cellulosic biomass ethanol. Recent advances in biotechnology have opened the way for this environment-friendly fuel. In fact, the first commercial biomass ethanol plant opens this month in the U.S. Japan’s auto industry, troubled petroleum business and stagnating economy could all benefit from timely investment in CBE.

Makoto Uranaga, of Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, has already published a feasibility study on the topic, but it has been largely ignored by the media. The public is thus not in a position to discuss the issue and possibly encourage government and business to use tax dollars for development of this “new petroleum.”

In 1998, Japan, the largest G7 importer of oil, spent almost 3 trillion yen on approximately 1.6 billion barrels of oil. Almost 60 percent of this was used for transportation, i.e. cars and trucks. But Henry Ford, for one, predicted that ethanol, not gasoline, would be the “fuel of choice for automobiles.”

Recent advances in biotechnology have created catalysts that can break down cellulose and new enzymes that can ferment virtually any plant or plant product (known as cellulosic biomass) to produce ethanol. Although ethanol is still more expensive to produce than gasoline, the industry is only in its infancy. Studies cited in the journal of Applied Biochemistry and Biotechnology project a selling price for ethanol of 13.2 cents per liter in the near future.

Virtually anything that grows or has grown — dead leaves, pine needles, weeds and agricultural residue, even paper — could all be converted to ethanol. A new industry of fuel farming will come into existence.

Perhaps the greatest benefit from developing CBE is environmental. Richard G. Lugar and R. James Woolsey, writing in the Spring 1999 issue of Foreign Affairs, explain that “a shift to biomass fuels (biofuels) stands out as an excellent way to introduce an environmentally friendly energy technology that has a chance of both enjoying widespread political and economic support and having a decisive impact on the risk of climate change.” Scientific studies show that burning ethanol contributes essentially no net carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Although a couple of Japan’s auto giants are weathering globalization and the slowdown in world economic growth, others are having a difficult time. This is an opportunity to take the lead and set the direction for future transportation methods.

Technically, there are three key criteria in comparing gasoline and ethanol. Ethanol has a higher octane count, and it doesn’t evaporate as easily. However, its molecular structure — the third criterion — is much less complex, meaning that ethanol contains only about 69 percent of the energy of gasoline per liter. This would necessitate larger gas tanks in cars. But the modifications to existing internal-combustion engines would be minimal, and there would be no need to retool factories or existing domestic fuel distribution networks — pipelines, gas stations and so on. This is not true of other alternative fuels such as hydrogen and liquefied natural gas.

The brewery industry is already positioned to enter areas involving genetic engineering. It possesses the facilities and technology needed for fermentation processes. Furthermore, everyone agrees that there are too many players in the Japanese petroleum industry; a major shakeout is occurring. The best scenario would be an alliance among the petroleum, brewery and auto industries, backed by government investment, to develop this remarkable alternative-fuel industry.

Instead of using government stimulus money for pork-barrel projects such as roads to nowhere or bridges that go unused, MITI should help coordinate this long-term and visionary enterprise. This is an investment in the future that can resuscitate the economy, employ idle workers and place Japan at the leading edge of environmentally responsible nations. Of greatest importance is that it is home-grown and removes the political factor from Japan’s highly vulnerable energy equation.

This is a golden opportunity with green benefits for Japan; it should be seized.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.