Honda Hits the Gas on Cellulosic Ethanol R&D

Honda Motor Co. (s HMC) has been toiling away at ethanol research since before hybrids moved in from the fringe of autoshows and well before deriving the stuff from corn ignited a heated debate over food vs. fuel. Today the company said it will build a large-scale plant to test the viability of its cellulosic ethanol production technology in “practical applications” — something it’s had in the works for more than two years.

In September of 2006, the automaker touted a major breakthrough in its ethanol production and said it aimed to build a pilot biorefinery in 2008, at the earliest. As MSNBC reported at the time, Honda said it had developed (in partnership with Japan’s RITE, a public-private research institution) “a way to use discarded plant material to make abundant quantities of the fuel.” Honda said it plans to start building the project announced today (possibly the one envisioned back in 2006) in April and begin operations by November of this year.

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Sanyo, Nippon Oil Team Up for Thin-film Solar Cells

nippon-oil-logosanyo-logoTeaming up with fellow electronics powerhouse Panasonic wasn’t enough for Sanyo Electric (s SANYY). And for Nippon Oil Corp.(s NPOIY), a toe-dip into solar for propelling cargo ships was only the beginning. Today the Japan-based photovoltaic maker and oil distributor launched a 50-50 joint venture to manufacture thin-film solar cells for large-scale power generation.

The companies plan to invest 20 billion yen (about $225 million) building a factory for the venture, called Sanyo Eneos, and begin production by early 2011. They have slated annual production capacity to go from an initial 80 megawatts to 1 gigawatt within five years. Sanyo and Nippon said they plan to double that within a decade.

“We believe thin-film solar panels meet the needs of countries with significant land mass or deserts,” Nippon Oil president Shinji Nishio told AFP today. In other words:¬†Asia, the Middle East, Oceania and — if President Barack Obama’s promised stimulus projects get under way — the United States.

Solar Takes to the Seas in First Sun-Propelled Cargo Ship

Japanese shipping giant Nippon Yusen K.K. and oil distributor Nippon Oil Corp. today launched the first-ever cargo ship with a propulsion system powered, in part, by solar energy. The freighter, which left a port in Kobe carrying vehicles by Toyota (s TM), sports $1.68 million worth of solar panels — enough to provide only 0.2 percent of the energy needed for propulsion, AFP reports.

Even that small percentage represents a significant first step for the shipping industry, which accounts for 1.4-4.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Historically subject to few controls because it operates on international waters, the industry may soon face tighter emissions standards closer to shore if regulators follow the lead of California’s Air Resources Board. The board’s new strategy for reducing emissions, adopted earlier this month, includes requiring ships to turn off engines and use cleaner power systems while docked at port. California air regulators also adopted a rule this summer prohibiting the use of “bunker fuel” within 24 nautical miles of the state’s coastline beginning in 2009.

Already, the 168 member countries of the UN International Maritime Organization have agreed to a series of sulphur dioxide emissions cuts to be phased in along protected shorelines by 2015 and at sea by 2025. In October, when that agreement was reached, International Chamber of Shipping Secretary Simon Bennett told Reuters, “The big question will be whether or not the oil refining industry will be able to deliver this new demand for distillate [a less-polluting type of fuel] that is going to be created for shipping.” Now the question may be whether or not the shipping industry will adopt a renewable alternative.