Film Review: Fuel

Joshua Tickell's film, Fuel, looks at a topic that affects our entire world. Fuel heats us, cools us, and feeds us. Yet, the extraction of fossil fuels is a dirty business, affecting health and environment. It is a limited resource and it leads to political and international conflict.

Tickell's story begins with his own experiences... his childhood enjoying the outdoors in Australia, and his mother's move with him and his brother to Baton Rouge, where there are 150 petrochemical companies within a 100-mile area. From this type of industry, toxic waste is generated and it is not always disposed of properly. The area is also a cancer alley where there is a higher number of fertility issues, birth defects, and miscarriages. Josh's mother was among those who had multiple miscarriages.

From there the film looks at the auto industry and particularly the diesel car and the potential for running it on biofuels. While Japan and Germany moved toward making diesel cars and smaller cars, the American auto industry continued to try to convince Americans that the bigger the car, the better. The US government subsidizes large cars, and consequently, American cars are 30% larger than cars overseas and the US generates the most CO2. The question becomes: Why not subsidize hybrids? The idea of a diesel engine running on biofuel is not a new one. Rudolf Diesel ran his diesel engine at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 on peanut oil.

Tickell fully embraced the concept of biodiesel, getting a bio-diesel running Winnebago and driving it around the country. Others also embraced it. Singer Willie Nelson started the Willie Nelson Biodiesel Company to distribute his own blend of the fuel, getting help from his friend, Carl of Carl's Corner to distribute it. And truckers began to use it as well, saying that the trucks ran better and got better mileage. The US Navy switched to bio-diesel. And so did UPS and FedEx.

For all it's benefits however, it soon became apparent that there were issues with biodiesel. The two most common biofuels are ethanol from corn (used for gas engines) and soy beans (used for bio-diesel engines). Both come from monocultures that use a lot of oil-based pesticides and chemicals. Additionally, they are food sources that are from people's plates to fuel cars. Where an increase in prices can mean higher costs for Americans in the grocery store, it can mean starvation in other parts of the world.

So was bio-diesel over with? No. Entrepreneurs and others took it as a challenge and pressed on... coming up with better alternatives. One of the most promising alternatives involves algae. According to Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme, Inc., "Algae can double its cell mass every few hourse. It goes so quickly that we can go from cells on a plate to a flask to a large scale industrial fermenter of hundreds of thousands of liters in a matter of days..." Algae can be used to fuel cars right now. 

Bio-diesel is also a promising aviation fuel. Richard Branson, Chairman of Virgin Group, is very interested in 'sustainable fuel' and has committed $3 billion to tackling global warming. Isaac Berzin of Greenfuel Tech and Gordon LeBlanc of PetroSun spoke about how algae farms could be used with existing power plants and wastewater plants, meeting at least a fourth of the nation's fuel demand. Ten years of fuel from waste to algae farms could equal all of Alaska's oil.

And companies like HeroBX are looking at developing bio-diesel from wastes, like fats and fish oil... as well as weeds like pennyroyal.

The film made a case for other upcoming alternatives too... such as bio mass, wind, solar, plug-in hybrids and public transportation. All of these together can have an enormous impact on our future. But individual's approach toward energy efficiency is also critical. Energy efficiency involves individuals making a conscious effort to reduce their consumption.

As Joe Harberg, Partner of Current Energy in Dallas said: "It doesn't matter whether you're an indiviudal who lives in a big home or an individual who lives in a apartment or a condo. There are lots of things that you can do to take that first step... and I promise, when you make that first step you take another step and you start off walking... but almost everyone ends up running in the end because it's contagious... and you realize that you're doing great for the economy and great for yourself--your own pocketbook--but you're doing great for the earth's resources and for the future generations that have to use them."