It’s closer than most people realize. My day job is developing hydrogen generators and related technology, and today I spent some time discussing a biomass-to-diesel process. This technology is proprietary, and I don’t know all the details, but it appears that biomass–just about anything from wood chips to grass clippings to garbage–can now be economically converted under high temperature and pressure to an oily product. This oil is then hydrogenated to make synthetic diesel fuel at a fraction of the cost of diesel refined from petroleum. A pilot plant is planned for construction later this year–keep watching for further details.
Remember the abiogenic theory of petroleum formation in Unintended Consequences? In my opinion biomass to liquid fuels is the next front revolution in energy (sadly, Professor Savage and his colleagues have yet to achieve their breakthrough). Presently, with the OPEC countries controlling about 35% of oil production, it doesn’t matter how much oil we produce domestically–it has no real bearing on the pump price of gasoline. As long as OPEC can restrict production to manipulate the price of a barrel of oil, increasing domestic production will not effect commodity pricing of oil. It will take an event that changes the whole equation–an event that breaks the market manipulation power of OPEC. Using biomass as the feed stock for synthesizing gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel is that revolutionary event.