Sir Richard Branson puts riches behind green fuels

Richard Branson, founder and supreme ruler-lover of the Virgin Group, has started a $400 million (U.S.) investment fund — called Virgin Fuels — dedicated over the next three years to green fuel ventures. Yet another rich-white-guy-with-money-to-burn hopping on the cleantech bandwagon. By all means, Sir, hop on…

Actually, this itself isn’t really news — the news is an announcement by Virgin Fuels that it has invested $60 million in ethanol company Cilion, which also counts Vinod Khosla as a major backer. Fact is, Branson has been talking about Virgin Fuels since last year.

Check out this January 2006 Q&A with Fortune magazine, and note the following comment from Sir Richard from that interview: “With Virgin Fuels, we will be investing in ordinary ethanol plants, in cellulosic-ethanol plants, in other kinds of alternative energy — and there’s a possibility of a Virgin hybrid car at some point. We want to be able to say that we’re producing more friendly fuels than we’re using normal fuels. Hopefully we will build a fuel company that is a major competitor to oil companies.”

A Virgin hybrid car… can’t wait for that one.

BMW eases us into hydrogen with 7-Series sedans

If there is ever going to be a hydrogen economy with fuel-cell powered cars at its core, then it’s been said many times that the best transitionary vehicle for getting us there may be ICE-based cars that burn hydrogen instead of gasoline. Not quite as clean as fuel cells, but a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

BMW is taking this path. The company said this week it will begin distributing hydrogen-powered cars to a limited number of customers in the United States and Europe next year under no-charge lease arrangements. Up to 30 cars will be put on U.S. roads, and it’s my guess they’ll mostly be driven by celebrities and politicians.

Knowning that the lack of a hydrogen-fuelling infrastructure is a major problem, BMW has designed the car to accept both gasoline and hydrogen. When hydrogen runs out the car can automatically switch over to a gasoline tank. It should be noted that both Ford and Mazda are both working on ICE-based hydrogen cars, operating on the belief that such vehicles can help spur development of a hydrogen infrastructure that could eventually support fuel-cell cars.

I still think it’s a better idea to plug a car into a wall socket and charge it up. Why are the automakers spending so much on hydrogen R&D when they could be using that money to design a kickass battery for plug-in hybrid-electric or all-electric cars?