Biofuels are big business, but investors shouldn't expect biofuels to replace petroleum-based fuels on a large scale anytime soon, despite efforts from both large corporations like ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and DuPont (NYSE:DD), as well as smaller companies like KiOR (NASDAQ: KIOR) and Solazyme (NASDAQ:TVIA). Top biofuel researchers and industry leaders have alluded to the need for a renewable energy initiative comparable to the Manhattan Project to properly address the nation's energy needs in the near future. Could such an initiative ever feasibly take place in the United States?
Magnitude of the effort
The Manhattan Project was a roughly five-year research and development project that resulted in the eventual production of the first atomic bombs. $2.4 billion was invested into the development effort, which equates to over $30 billion today when adjusted for inflation. To put things in perspective, ExxonMobil's 2013 shareholder distributions amounted to $25.9 billion.
While the monetary effort of the original Manhattan Project was substantive, it is vastly outweighed in significance by the national support that the project received (although the nation was ironically largely unaware of the activities at the time). This is the greatest obstacle to the implementation of a Manhattan Project for biofuels, but is likewise where such a project would produce its greatest influence. If the leaders of our country embraced the need for renewable fuels in the same fashion that the leaders in the early twentieth century embraced the need to develop weapons of mass destruction, the true monetary component would be mostly unnecessary.
What a biofuel Manhattan Project might look like
The closest that biofuels have come to their own Manhattan Project was the establishment of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) under the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005, and the subsequent expansion of the RFS under the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. While not a direct monetary investment by the U.S. government, both the original and the revised RFS established a foundation for reaching the goal of a widespread reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs). The difference between the RFS and an initiative matching the scale of the Manhattan Project is the end goal: the RFS was established to create a foundation for a gradual transition from the existing fuel paradigm, while a Manhattan Project-scale biofuel effort would commit to a complete shift to a new petroleum-independent fuel paradigm.
The original Manhattan Project brought government agencies, academia, and industry together working toward a common goal. DuPont and Monsanto (NYSE:MON) contributed to the research and development efforts for the original Manhattan Project, and both could feasibly make great contributions to a similar effort devoted to biofuels. A biofuel-focused effort would require the same level of cooperation and commitment from government agencies, academia and industry as did the development of an atomic bomb. A huge investment in University research on the fundamental science, engineering and environmental impact paired with Big Oil infrastructure, massive production facilities, and support and use of government resources are just a scattering of the pieces needing compilation for the widespread development and implementation of biofuels. As is, these pieces are slowly being assembled in a mostly disjointed effort that may take decades before any monumental progress toward reducing GHG emissions is realized.
A more realistic view
If the powers that be wanted to demonstrate their commitment to American biofuels, the easiest way to show their commitment would be to build upon the already-established RFS. Unfortunately, one of the stated goals of the RFS is to reduce GHG emissions by "encouraging the development and expansion of our nation's renewable fuels sector." 'Encouraging' is not the level of emphasis needed for a revolutionary change in the way the United States views its energy and economic security. America needs more than encouragement to transition away from petroleum-based fuels. What America needs are biofuel and renewable energy initiatives that match the scale of the Manhattan Project.