Your Mail: Fueling the Biofuel Debate

Thank you for your responses to my Oklahoma football article. It seems like I gave some OU fans a chuckle, and I’m glad to do it.

As for your responses to my Grass Gas article, I was overwhelmed by your support for alternative and renewable sources of fuel. Many of you wrote me with different reasons why we need to get off (foreign) oil, and others provided different looks on hydrogen and liquid coal.

Rob Marciello writes:

You mention that hydrogen is "expensive," but that's not really the issue. The issue is why it's expensive, and the why" is because you need a lot of energy to make it. That, plus the fact that it's far more flammable and unstable than gasoline, so you need to spend money to safe-proof it.

Nonethelees, if you really want hydrogen, you can get it... So you pour energy into, say, water (hydrolysis) and out comes the hydrogen. Then you put the hydrogen in bottles/trucks, and ship it to where you want to use it, using more energy. Then you pump it into a fuel cell, where it recombines with oxygen to generate electricity... but quite a bit less than it took to get the hydrogen in the first place.

Thus, on balance, hydrogen fuel cells will actually make the energy situation worse, not better. There are a few places on earth where electricity is so cheap that fuel-cells might make sense.

SRE: Thanks, Rob, for this helpful information. I might write more on this later as hydrogen fuel appears to ignite a controversy.

Wil Jensen of Indianapolis writes:

While I appreciate your talk about things like switch grass and such-- my understanding of your point being these types of fuels are more immediately doable-- ultimately the best outcome for all of us would be the hydrogen economy. We then propagate that technology world-wide and push oil prices down to about $5 a barrel. Why? Very low demand.

Producing hydrogen is not the intimidating thing you make it out to be. With the right equipment (read: up front investment), you only need rain water and sunlight, both of which fall out of the sky for free. Instead of all those farm fields being filled with seed to grow grass, fill those fields with catch-basins and solar panels, with an electrolysis plant on a couple of the acres. Let that process go on for months as if you were waiting on the grass to grow. You will get piles and piles of readily-usable hydrogen, vs, piles of cellulose you still then need to process.

Hydrogen can be carried by truck just like gasoline. In fact, it is already. It's just that the tanker needs to be a little more high-tech (read: up front investment). The "engines" are actually fuel cells pumping out electricity to electric motors. There is even a new "Chorus Motor" that's been invented in the field of electric technology which will help for voltage/efficiency.

The only "problem" we still have is finding a cheap way to mass produce fuel cells. At present they are like the early VCRs--- doable technology, but a key part (the membrane work in the case of fuels cells vs. the read head of the VCR back in the day) has to be done mostly by hand.

SRE: Thanks for your points. Lke Rob, above, you might be suggesting that hydrogen fuel is only efficient in certain geographies right now, although you suggest we need an investment in hydrogen technology to fix this. It will be interesting to see where the private dollars go.

Don Lester writes:

Biofuels are an important component of the plan to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. However, since they are projected to comprise only 30 percent of our oil needs, they are not the magic bullet. Just as solar power and other alternatives have a great potential to alleviate our energy woes, much more research needs to be done. But after 30-plus years of research into these areas, perhaps our money would be better spent building refineries, drilling for oil within our territories, and putting the research dollars into funding efforts to find cleaner ways to drill for and transport petroleum products-- thereby increasing supply for an oil hungry world.

SRE: But oil isn’t a renewable energy source, so what do you suggest?

Bill White writes:

Your article makes it all seem so obvious and easy. For years it has been known that plant structural material contains cellulose that is a polymer of glucose (dextrose). Glucose can be used as a foodstuff (energy source), fermented to alcohol, etc. Some animals and plants can use cellulose as an energy source because they have enzyme systems that can convert cellulose to glucose or they use bacteria in their gut to do it for them (e.g., cows).

Unfortunately, man has not been able to accomplish this economically either chemically or by using the natural enzymes, even though the promise has been there for decades and he has tried diligently. Maybe the solution is around the corner, but until then entrepreneurs will get richer than oilmen through the largesse of the federal government looking for any solution anywhere. Your article will help keep the big bucks coming.

There may be better ways to convert plant material to liquid fuels than using the fermentation (ethanol) route.

SRE: Yes, what amount of money is appropriate to fund federal research will likely fall along partisan lines.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership.

Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.