That old cornstalk's worth money. And so is that dead tree stump.
Known as biomass, such plant materials can be converted into an alternative fuel source. And eventually that will mean savings for drivers at the pump.
Des Plaines-based Gas Technology Institute (GTI) is starting production of biomass fuel at a Chicago plant as part of a pilot project with the aim of selling it in conventional gas stations starting in 2014.
"It's an aggressive timeline but it's not unrealistic," said Vann Bush, GTI managing director of energy conversion.
GTI, a not-for-profit research organization, held an open house Tuesday to demonstrate the technology behind its plants-to-fuel process.
"We take biomass material and chemically transform it with heat and pressure into gasoline and diesel ... it's a biomass refinery," Bush said. Cornstalks, algae, wood and solid waste are among the raw materials GTI will use for its new fuel.
In the next two years, GTI anticipates obtaining necessary federal certification to begin wide-scale distribution of its fuel across the country. This involves establishing additional manufacturing plants near sources of biomass.
The organization anticipates its biomass fuel will cost less than $2 a gallon to produce. It then gets blended with conventional gasoline, similar to the process used in creating ethanol. The final cost will depend on the selling price of conventional gasoline.
GTI, however, isn't the only biomass kid on the block. A number of other biotech companies are working on producing biomass fuel, which should be available in a limited supply this year, said Seth Snyder, Argonne National Laboratory biofuels expert.
"The short-term goal is to make it competitive. The long-term goal is to make it cheaper," Snyder said.
Americans already use a corn-based fuel -- ethanol -- on a daily basis. "Right now 10 percent of the fuel supply is from biofuels," Snyder noted.
For more information on biomass, check out http://www1.eere.energy.gov/biomass/index.html.