Making the case for chocolate fuel

You may have noticed a conspicuous shortage of smiling faces at neighborhood gas stations. And that is no surprise — after all, the price of gas leaves consumers with very little to smile about.

But what serious alternatives are there for gasoline-powered automobiles? President Obama spoke grandly about putting one million electric cars on the road by 2015, but American consumers have overwhelmingly shown no interest in sharing this vision. Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells have also captured the imagination of politicians and the media, but not drivers.

There is also a strident minority that believes compressed natural-gas vehicles represent the future. But it is certainly not representative of the present, with only one car model (the $26,300 Honda Civic GX) and a mere 600 natural-gas fueling stations available in the U.S. today. Again, there is no evidence that this will ever become more than a fringe pursuit.

If Washington wants to spend billions on an alternative fuel source, there is one solution available that deserves serious consideration: chocolate. No, we’re not talking about Snickers or Reese’s Pieces, but the excess waste product that is generated by chocolate factories. Rather than dump the waste chocolate into the trash, this inedible mess can be pumped into fuel tanks.

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Back in 2006, researchers at the University of Birmingham in Great Britain were able to produce hydrogen by feeding the diluted caramel and nougat waste from a local chocolate factory to Escherichia coli bacteria (or E. coli for short). Not unlike a hyperactive kid on a sugar high, the bacteria went wild upon its contact with the chocolate waste and began to ferment sugars that generated toxic organic acids, which resulted in converting formic acid into hydrogen. The researchers used their new chocolate-into-hydrogen energy source to power a fuel cell that was able to run an electric fan.

The automotive aspect of this unlikely fuel source was tapped the following year, when a British duo drove a Ford cargo truck fueled with 8,800 pounds of waste chocolate on a 4,473-mile trip from the U.K. to Timbuktu. In 2009, another set of cocoa-mad Brits — this time, from the University of Warwick — created a Formula 3 racing car that ran on waste chocolate mixed with vegetable oil (the latter ingredient offered a biodiesel kick).

Oddly, the British have put their chocolate fuel pursuit on the proverbial back burner. But maybe it is time for the Americans to pick up the chocolate fuel crusade.

And why not? After all, Americans consume about 20 percent of the world’s cocoa output — there is clearly no shortage of waste chocolate to be found here. And because chocolate fuel is based on waste product, it will not create a disruptive force in the confectionary industry — as opposed to the spike in food prices resulting from the ethanol industry’s insatiable hunger for corn.

Should the federal government use taxpayer funds to encourage chocolate fuel? Well, it can’t be any more disastrous than other renewable energy sources. After all, more than $1 billion in federal money was funneled into the solar industry in 2010, according to data from the Energy Information Administration, which has also determined that solar power accounted for less than 0.2 percent of all American energy generation. President Obama is demanding another $1 billion in renewable energy spending in his fiscal 2014 budget, but all evidence points to this effort being a feel-good strategy rather than a serious attempt to answer the nation’s energy requirements.

Is chocolate fuel the answer to our energy needs? Well, most people might prefer utility-scale chocolate-fueled power plants to nuclear energy generators, and the therapeutic smell of chocolate is more pleasing to the senses than the creaky noise of spinning wind turbines.

And, ultimately, a new chocolate fuel environment could help shake up the competition in the energy world. Imagine the day when drivers have a choice of speeding past the Exxon and Gulf stations in favor of the fuel pumps carrying the Hershey’s or Ghirardelli brands. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be smiling when I can pour 10 gallons of dark chocolate into my Chevy!

Hall is the former senior editor of Solar Industry Magazine and the publisher and editor of Business-Superstar.com, an online entrepreneurial resource.