WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.—Sitting in a cluttered, windowless office here surrounded by pictures of her three grandchildren, Nancy W.Y. Ho did her best on a recent afternoon to show why everything you thought you knew about ethanol is wrong.
It's not just about distilling auto fuel from corn, explained the 71-year-old molecular biologist from China. It's about weaning America from its self-destructive oil habit by tapping the energy in everything else that grows--and rots--all around us.
Now, if you stir her creation into a beaker filled with the sugars derived from throwaway organic materials like wheat straw, switch grass, orange peels, even municipal garbage, it will gradually convert most of them into high-octane auto fuel.
"Everybody knows that [corn] is not enough," Ho said. "We have to use all the resources we can."
As the combines roll across fields throughout the Corn Belt this harvest season, the debate over ethanol has never been hotter. On Wednesday, President Bush reiterated his support for ethanol funding at a conference on renewable energy in St. Louis. But critics bemoaning the folly of hefty government subsidies over the years continue to insist that ethanol is a wasteful, extravagant boondoggle.
Producing ethanol from corn in any real volume, they say, threatens the food supply, uses too much land and creates a litany of messy environmental issues. The U.S. burns through 140 billion gallons of gasoline a year. Replacing that with ethanol is pipe dream.
Changing the game
For a growing number of scientists, entrepreneurs and policymakers, however, the constant grumbling about corn ethanol entirely misses the point. While they don't disagree that the corn-based fuel has major limitations, they insist that obsessing over them is like disparaging first-generation personal computers for being slow and unwieldy.
Breakthroughs in genetic and industrial engineering, they insist, are changing the game. Not only is technology making corn ethanol more efficient, but researchers like Ho are making striking progress toward tapping what scientists call cellulosic biomass, the vast store of non-food plant matter that grows and renews itself daily.
If they succeed, many experts believe, cellulosic ethanol could be a plentiful, cheap and easily renewable oil alternative, with few of the negatives that plague the corn-based variety.
"It's the holy grail ... if you can make it work," said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute.
The question is, can you really make it work?
On a sun-baked plateau in Golden, Colo., scientists at the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory have been working on that question for three decades. James McMillan, a top biochemical engineer at the lab, said the outlook has never been brighter.
One measure of that promise is the unprecedented investment pouring into the industry. Most recently, British transportation magnate Richard Branson has pledged $3 billion over 10 years for research into cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels. BP PLC, the world's second-largest oil company, has earmarked $1 billion to be split evenly between research and venture financing.
Even Bush has surprised his allies in the oil business by pushing the Energy Department to dole out more than $400 million in fresh funding for ethanol-related research and development.
"This country's got to use its talent and its wealth to get us off oil," Bush said on Wednesday. "I believe, and Congress agrees, that the proper use of tax credits will help stimulate a new industry that will help our economy and help us with national security."
Strolling through a state-of-the-art test facility in Golden devoted to distilling cellulosic ethanol, however, McMillan makes it clear that the future isn't here yet. The building is a welter of pipes, tanks and valves, and as he points out the different phases of the production process he notes that crucial improvements must be made to each if cellulosic ethanol is ever going to truly compete with oil.
Looming stubbornly in front of researchers is a masterpiece of evolution: the rigid cell walls that give plants their strength and resiliency. Developed over the eons, these walls allow a slender stalk of prairie grass to bend like a ballerina in the wind yet snap back to attention to fend off cold, heat and pestilence. They help explain why a field of corn can grow over a man's head in a matter of a few short months.