BP sows the seeds of hope

This week’s announcement by BP chief executive Lord Browne that the energy behemoth will plough almost £300m into biofuels technology research is a big boost for this emerging field.

The words plough and field are apt, because biofuels represent a virtuous collaboration between the worlds of agriculture, bioscience and advanced engineering.

Lord Browne outlined BP’s plans to create the world’s first dedicated biosciences energy research laboratory attached to a university in the UK or the US (and let’s hope it is the former).This will investigate the possibility of creating species of plants that yield high levels of energy and which could be grown on land unsuitable for food production.

What an intriguing possibility that is. The idea of turning barren areas of the countryside into fertile ground for new species of energy-giving crops and using that energy to power efficient, clean car engines has a utopian ring to it.

But let’s not get carried away. Suffice to say for now that BP’s investment is welcome, because if anyone has it within their power to kick-start progress in this area it is the world’s energy majors.

BP stresses that the world is not going to run out of oil in the immediate future, especially as new discovery and extraction technologies make it easier to find and barrel the black stuff.

Of more immediate concern to governments, as BP acknowledges, is the local availability of sources of energy. Here in the UK, Tony Blair is flagging up the importance of security of energy supply in his early forays into the nuclear debate.

Nuclear power, of course, could help heat and light our homes and factories but it won’t fuel our cars and lorries. Nor will wind or wave power. Provision of locally available, sustainable transport fuels will be an important factor in our future energy economy, especially if oil supplies continue to shift towards more unstable regions.

Biofuels could help, but only if the transport and energy industries, government and academia collaborate effectively. This is why BP’s decision to work with the university sector is so significant.

On a more downbeat note, it was dispiriting to hear the first dissenting voices in some sections of the environmental lobby. The crops needed for mass-production of biofuels could, it was pointed out, become an environmental hazard themselves. Well, let’s hope the researchers take that into account when undertaking their development work. But for all our sakes spare this important new technology from the half-baked scare stories and nimby-ism that has plagued, among others, nanotechnology, GM crops and even windfarms.

Talking of collaboration, there is still time to reserve a place at The Engineer Summit to be held at ImperialCollege, London on June 27, on the theme of Commercialising Innovation. This unique event places in context the many opportunities and challenges surrounding the creation of successful products from technical innovation, from collaborating with partners to funding and intellectual property issues. It features speakers from blue-chip companies including Rolls-Royce, Vodafone and Qinetiq. For information visit www.theengineerconferences.com

Andrew Lee,