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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sake May Power Cars of the Future

SHINANOMACHI, Japan -- Japanese motorists may one day pump their cars full of sake, the fermented rice wine that is Japan's national drink, if a pilot project to create sake fuel is a hit with locals in this mountain resort.

The government-funded project at Shinanomachi, 200 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, will produce cheap rice-based ethanol brew with the help of local farmers, who will donate farm waste such as rice hulls to be turned into ethanol.

If the project catches on with locals then it could pave the way for similar endeavors across Japan that would see Japanese cars running on Japanese-made biofuels in the future, he added.

Japan, the world's second-largest gasoline consumer after the United States, is entirely dependent on crude oil imports and it has been hit by the recent surge in oil prices.

With hefty carbon emissions reduction targets to meet under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan is turning to biofuels. Yet motorists in Japan are still far behind drivers in Europe and the United States in their consumption of green fuels.

Some analysts say Japan is at a major disadvantage as high prices for local farm produce mean locally made green fuels are exorbitantly expensive.

Added to that is a lack of support from the country's oil distributors and the government's failure to provide policy incentives.

That is where Igarashi and his team come in. They hope to show that biofuels are feasible and inexpensive by developing a low-cost fuel and encouraging a local community of about 10,000 people to take part in producing that fuel.

Production has just begun at the facility at a former high school field in Shinanomachi and a sweet, sour aroma, similar to that of unfiltered sake, wafts into the air.

"We like the idea," said Shigehiro Matsuki, the mayor of Shinanomachi. "The new fuels are renewable ... instead of fossil fuels, which are running out."

Unlike spacious sugar cane plantations in the No. 1 ethanol exporter, Brazil, family farming is dominant in Japan, with a majority of farmers working regular jobs and growing rice, the staple food, on their weekends.

There is plenty of potential to develop biofuels from agriculture waste and abandoned farmland, Igarashi said.

The project will test its biofuel on a "flex-fuel vehicle," which can run on any mixture of gasoline and green fuels and which is gaining popularity in the rest of the world as the battle against global warming heats up.