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Somewhere in American academia a grad student seeks energy answers

I recently had an interesting chat with a gentleman during one of those non-descript, chicken-over-something-gooey, seminar lunches. My luncheon companion and I were both attending a biofuels conference in Houston and struck up a conversation while waiting for the lunch speaker, Oklahoma’s energy secretary. (He did a good job, by the way, and we’ll cover his remarks in another article.)

We didn’t exchange business cards and I didn’t write down the gentleman’s name, but we exchanged pleasantries and then volunteered information as to our interest in the subject of renewable fuels.

I write about them. He’s a bit more involved, working on transgenic grain hybrids, corn and soon grain sorghum — that will include the enzymes necessary to make cellulosic ethanol conversion a bit easier.

I mentioned the term “energy independence” as a goal of U.S. energy policy. He took a bit of exception to that terminology. He insisted, politely, that we will never be truly energy independent and will always require a goodly amount of oil, much of it foreign, to heat our homes, cool our offices and power our vehicles.

I have to agree with him — up to a point.

Given our current addiction to petroleum fuels, our adoration of large cars, and our tendency to keep thermostats a bit higher than necessary in the winter and a bit lower then we need in summer — we are in thrall to foreign oil.

Add to that our long-term reluctance to look anywhere but below ground for most of our fuel supply, and the gentleman’s argument makes perfect sense.

But I can’t agree that just because we are currently hooked on oil, coal, and natural gas, that we can’t break the habit. As I’ve mentioned before, grain-based ethanol may not and probably will not provide the answer to our energy needs. But it could be part of a comprehensive solution; a good first step toward what could become energy independence — real independence, not just security.

I remember the long lines at service stations back in the 1970s and recall how perturbed we were at how fast gasoline prices rose — I think they may have gotten close to $1 a gallon. This was, after all, not far removed from gasoline at 29 cents, when you could pull into a gas station, ask the attendant (remember those?) for $5 worth of regular and get enough gas to drive to work all week. And you got your windshield cleaned, your oil checked and a handful of Green Stamps. But I digress.

For a few months following the Arab oil embargo, we got serious about the need to cut back, drive smaller cars, and search for alternative fuels. Then the embargo ended, gas prices came down and we went back to gas-guzzlers, then mini-vans and SUVs. We lost the incentive.

Perhaps we’ll be smarter this time. Technology, in the few years since the 1970s, has blossomed. Other forms of energy — solar, wind, and renewable fuels — are replacing fossil fuels a gallon here and a kilowatt there. And we have increased upside potential to build more wind turbines, solar panels, and ethanol and biofuel plants (along with identifying new feedstocks for raw materials).

We just sent a robot to Mars, and instructed it to dig a hole and tell us what it found. I can’t imagine the minds that figured out how to do that will be stumped by devising alternative fuel sources.

I suspect that somewhere in the country, in a deserted physics, chemistry or engineering laboratory at MIT, Cal Tech, or possibly some lesser know institution, an overworked and underpaid grad student is right now working on a system, a formula or a device that will revolutionize energy production, probably from something we haven’t even thought of yet.

I wish him Godspeed. Please hurry, my tank’s almost empty.


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