IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Biofuels may be doing more harm than good if we don't plant and harvest them correctly. That's the disturbing message from two studies out in the journal Science this week that take a closer look at biofuels and their ecological impacts.
Biofuels are made from products like corn, soy beans or palm trees. The reason to shift to biofuels and away from fossil fuels was in part to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, but these two papers in Science say we might be doing just the opposite. By cutting down forests or savannahs to grow fuel we might actually be increasing the carbon we put into the air. And by using corn or palm oil for fuel, we are forcing more natural habitat to be turned into farmland.
This hour, we're going to take a look - a closer look at the debate over biofuels. Is one better or worst in terms of greenhouse gases? And should we be using food crops like corn to provide our fuel because there appear to be better alternatives that are in early stages of development that have not received much attention. For example, have you heard about algae and bacteria - bacteria that can take waste products, even garbage, and efficiently and effectively turn them into oil or alcohol.
Are these viable alternatives? Well, they apparently must be doing something right because oil giant Chevron and car giant GM have bought up pieces of some companies doing this kind of work. What do they know that we don't know? That's what we hope to find out, at least part of that, this hour.
Our number 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And you can surf over to our Web site at ScienceFriday.com or over to Second Life and find the SCIENCE FRIDAY island over there where we'll take your questions from your avatars and get a T-shirt also.
Let me introduce my guests, Daniel Kammen is the Class of '35 Distinguished Professor of Energy at UC Berkeley. He's also co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment and the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy lab there. He joins us from San Francisco.
Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dan.
Professor DANIEL KAMMEN (Energy, Goldman School of Public Policy; Co-director, Berkeley Institute of the Environment; Founding Director, Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley): Thanks so much.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
David Tilman is regents' professor and the McKnight presidential chair in ecology at the University of Minnesota. He's also director of Cedar Creek Natural History Area. He is spending a sabbatical year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and that's where he joins us today.
Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Doctor Tilman.
Doctor DAVID TILMAN (Professor; Presidential Chair in Ecology, University of Minnesota; Director of Cedar Creek Natural History Area): My pleasure to be here and actually be back again too.
FLATOW: That's good for you. Thank you.
Biofuels don't have to come from plants in the ground. We'll talk about that when we talk about algae later, but let's talk about your headline today - in The New York Times, which says studies deem biofuels a greenhouse threat. There's one from the Wall Street Journal that say biofuels may worsen emissions. Is that the takeaway message from your study?
Dr. TILMAN: Well, I think there are two messages. One, as we learn more about biofuels, it turns out there are more ways than we initially manage - imagined to do them poorly. And that's the headline news, I guess, is that there are ways to do them poorly. But we also know there are some ways to make biofuels that can give society two advantages we need: gaining new energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So I think this, in my mind, the story has two parts. I think it's a good time to have it come out because the industries for second generation biofuels are just getting off the ground. And I think our report and the other report that came out can help steer industries toward the right kind of biomass and waste product source to get us the benefits that society needs.
FLATOW: What do these new studies pick up about the use of land and the release of carbon dioxide that other studies have missed?
Dr. TILMAN: Well, the study that we were involved in looked at all of the ways that the current biofuels are causing land conversion around the world - the conversion of rainforests to grow palm, nut oil, rainforests to grow soy beans, native grasslands for corn, for corn ethanol or for sugarcane for sugarcane ethanol an so on. And what it turns out is that these native ecosystems and the vegetation and soils contain so much carbon that when they are cut down and plowed, the release of greenhouse gases exceeds greatly the benefits of those biofuels offer. It's a half a century up to four centuries before you even hit the breakeven point where you would have been better off just burning gasoline than burning those kinds of biofuels.
Now, the other study is - was to me, a very surprising and important insight. It said that even if you use existing farmland to grow biofuels, because the whole global agriculture is joined together by the markets and market prices, that when you pull fertile land out of food crops and put it into biofuels, someone else around the world has to make up for that to meet the needs of human society for food. And when they do that, they often take food out of native - land out of native ecosystems, releasing the carbon that was in the vegetation and soils to the air and causing an indirect greenhouse gas.
Dr. TILMAN: And so that the net effect of this is that for many of the ways of a sort of first-generation biofuels - a lot of them made out of food crops that we are making right now - that it seems like it's very unlikely that we get to expand biofuel production of that way and have any greenhouse gas benefit.
FLATOW: What about some of the few feedstocks that are not food crops like switchgrass or willow trees, things like that?
Dr. TILMAN: Well, those are very good feedstocks. The perennial crops like the long-life grasses and the woody plants have many advantages, but it's critically important what land we grow them on. If we grow them on very fertile land and by doing so, cause someone else to clear native ecosystems and release that carbon, we aren't ahead of the game for greenhouse gases. But there are many crops including switchgrass that can grow on less fertile land, the kind of land that farmers in the United States and farmer around the world quit farming because they just couldn't make a profit on it. But our work suggests there are 1.2 billion acres of that kind of land that's already being farmed, already had its carbon dioxide and so on released to the air, some of which - we don't know how much - some of which would be viable for growing biofuels. And we think we should use those lands first and get that greenhouse gas benefit.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. In response, the Renewable Fuels Association as reported by the AP here, which represents ethanol producers calls the research - if you have land use change, quote, simplistic and said the study, quote, fails to put the issue in context assigning the blame for rainforest deforestation and grassland conversion to agriculture solely on the renewable fuels industry, ignores key factors that play a greater role, said Bob Dinneen, the association's president.
Any reaction to that?
Dr. TILMAN: Well, I bet he didn't he read the papers because the papers aren't so naive. I din't write the indirect land use paper. That was written by a team from Princeton and Woods Hole, another institution, so, but I've read the paper. And they use a very well established, very well calibrated global economic model, which looks at how global commodity - farm commodity prices influence production around the world. And based upon that model, which is really saying, based upon the long-term trend that have been observed and recorded around the world, how these things really are linked together. There is an effect of converting rich farmland in the United States to biofuel production on the rest of the world.
FLATOW: Dan Kammen, when we're considering whether or not they use biofuels, we're considering a couple of things. There's energy independence, meaning coming up with a different source of energy than petroleum and also the carbon dioxide output. Are these the two main concerns? What if we decide, you know, one is more important than the other?
Prof. KAMMEN: Right. Well, those are two of the concerns. I also think the livelihoods of poor farmers in the U.S. and overseas are also part of the story. And I think that what Dave has told you is really the key message here. I mean, in lot of ways this is not very surprising, right? What these studies say and they do document it very well, and they use different methods, they come down to this idea of what's the carbon or ecological dent that we are extracting from the soil.
And what they come down to this to say if you have healthy, standing ecosystems whether they are rainforest or other things, it's crazy to put pressure on them, to cut them down, which is what is happening in places like the Amazon where they boom in biofuel markets is meaning they're converting rainforest area and surados(ph) - kind of mixed open fields, swampy lands and other things - into producing soy and other things. That's crazy because those ecosystems provide lots of services, one of which happens to be sucking up lots of carbon.
So, I don't think these results are surprising. What I think is nice is that they've clearly encapsulated what seems like an obvious truth. And in fact, what they lead you to say is that in the worst case, we should use no land or very little land for biofuels until we do what we can with current waste streams. And so using municipal waste, all the garbage you put in the landfills, we can develop bugs to chew that up and make biofuels. We could also use noncrops, the willows and things. We could also integrate biofuels into food production and in many parts of the developing world where the land is quite degraded and we have put very little inputs into it, the prospects with other crops - sorghum and things - to get better food yields, better biofuels and help to restore the ecosystem actually all exist.
FLATOW: But Dan, how do you turn around this juggernaut?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, that's a dual problem, and number one in this process is that the scientific community has spoken, that corn into ethanol is simply a stupid pathway for this. There's not many other ways to sugarcoat it. There's a few places where corn is grown with low fossil fuel inputs. But essentially in this country, we've optimized corn to be as fossil fuel intensive as possible because fossil fuel prices have been kept somewhat artificially low, and we reward farmers. So removing the subsidies for doing business as usual is step one.
But the broader message here is that there's a new kind of accounting we need to do which is called life cycle or cradle-to-grave and back into the cradle. And if you want to think about any new energy system whether it's solar panels or biofuels, you need to do that accounting. And the U.S. and some of the European agricultural lobbies are not. They are just looking at profit from converting lands, irrespective of what the carbon damage is or what the damage is to poor communities anywhere on earth.
FLATOW: Do you have any feelings about that, how we're going to turn this juggernaut around Dave?
Dr. TILMAN: Well, I think, I guess my normal response to biofuels is that I want us to - not us but the world - to find ways to make them that do provide energy and environmental benefits and to make them something that bright, entrepreneurial people can go out produce and get a lot of wealth from.
And I think that what we're going to see in the next generation of biofuels, the ones that aren't based upon food is that when those - that technology is made efficient and when they're using the right feedstocks - and I agree with Dan Kammen that we should be using waste products first. When that happens, I think the result in biofuels is going to be cheaper than corn ethanol. And a very simple market force will take place…
Dr. TILMAN: …and we'll quit buying corn ethanol.
FLATOW: Dave, you could not have done my lead-in better for me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: When we come back from the break, we're going to start talking about some of the other better possibly - possible sources of biofuels. We're going to talk about algae, and we're going to talk about bacteria that can turn waste into biofuels.
Stay with us, we'll be back and see what else there is besides these food sources for fuel. Don't go away, we'll be right back.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about alternatives to biofuels from growing crops. What are the other alternatives? And there's one really interesting alternative - there's a plant that grows in the ground. You can find it just about everywhere. It grows in the ocean, in the water, and I'm talking about algae. And according to algae experts, it's an almost perfect energy producer. One company says that they can yield a fuel that is 100 time more efficient than corn and use just 1 percent of the water it takes to make the same amount of fuel.
Joining me now to talk more about using algae to make fuel is Harrison Dillon. He's the president and chief technology officer of Solazyme, Incorporated. He joins us from San Francisco.
Thanks for being with us today, Mr. Dillon.
Mr. HARRISON DILLON (President and Chief Technical Officer, Solazyme, Inc.): Thank you, Ira. It's good to be here.
FLATOW: Tell us why algae - very few people have heard of using algae to make fuel. How do you do that? Why is it better?
Mr. DILLON: Well, you know, a little history, I think, is instructive. Algae were producing oil on earth billions of years ago. They're the most efficient oil producers on the planet. In fact, the last time you filled up your gas tank, you were buying what was fossilized algae. That's where oil comes from. And that process takes about, you know, roughly 100 million years, give or take.
And what we do at Solazyme is we actually use in a modern biotechnology to compress that hundred-million-year process into the course of a few days. And we do it by taking agricultural waste products, wood chips, switchgrass, cellulosic products, also industrial chemical wastes, things that are either just thrown away or burned, and we feed those to the algae and we do it in a way where it optimizes the efficiency of the oil production biochemistry inside the algae to the point where they're doing nothing but just taking what we're feeding them and turning that into oil very efficiently. And then we take that oil, and we can turn it into a number of different transportation fuels, so biodiesel, another fuel called renewable diesel, renewable jet fuel.
We turn - really, we can turn the oil into just about anything that you can use from a regular barrel of oil, so that things under your sink, the cleaning supplies, industrial chemicals. What comes out of a barrel of oil, we can make renewably by using our algae technology.
FLATOW: And how soon can you make this for us and how big can you make?
Mr. DILLON: Well, we're producing thousands of gallons of this fuel today. In fact, we were recently featured in a biofuel documentary that - it actually appeared at the Sundance Film Festival, and it won the documentary competition. And in that film, we're driving a car all over San Francisco Bay Area on fuel that we made from algae, so the fuel, at least from Solazyme, is here today. And in terms of how big it could get, it could get very, very big. We use, you know, these waste products, you know, nonfood feedstocks that are available in large quantities. So this could become a significant proportion of the transportation fuel that's out there today.
FLATOW: Well, how do you take on the big oil companies then? Or do you get bought up by them?
Mr. DILLON: Well, you know, I think, that there's a - first of all, I'll - let me tell you one thing - we just recently closed a deal with Chevron on our diesel fuel. And I'll explain why we did that. I can't talk about the details of the agreement but there's about somewhere in the neighborhood $6 trillion worth of investment in the existing energy infrastructure out there from pipelines to oil refineries to gas stations to cars. And if you want these fuels to be adopted and adopted quickly so that they'll make a real difference in our carbon emissions, you need to make fuels that are comparable with the existing infrastructure that's already out there. So you don't need to modify a car to use our fuels. And our fuels can go through that existing infrastructure.
And so, you know, these fuels, they're not going to put big oil out of business. And in fact, we actually need those companies because no one's going to finance the duplication of new energy transportation and distribution infrastructures. So these biofuels will become a real part of the solution but oil companies are not going to go away.
FLATOW: I also notice that General Motors is also buying up an ethanol-producing company. I was going to talk to them later in the program - or is taking a share not buying a big share of them.
What's to prevent like a big oil producer who's getting - you know, ExxonMobil made $50 billion in oil last year. Why should they not buy you up and put you on a shelf some place so that you don't compete with them for this kind of money?
Mr. DILLON: I know there are conspiracy theories out there. I can tell you from first hand experience that oil companies have a lot of money but they don't part with it lightly. And they expect a return on their investment. And you know, the reality - well, you know what, and let me give you an example about putting it on the shelf. We make a light, sweet crude oil from algae. It's an extremely high quality light, sweet crude oil. And as oil supplies go down, we've already burned the best, lightest oil out there. And so when you have a new incoming oil from a new oil field into a refinery that's very heavy and a lot heavier than what was being processed before, it costs literally billions of dollars to retrofit the refinery.
Now the refinery has to be taken offline and those billings get passed on to customers. So with our technology which you can place anywhere geographically, you can actually put our light, sweet crude oil technology directly at an oil refinery and produce a very high quality oil that you can then blend with a much heavier grade of crude that's coming in and avoid having to upgrade that refinery to take the heavier grade of oil. So, that's great because that expenditure doesn't have to happen. And it also starts introducing these totally renewable biofuels into the existing infrastructure for making fuels. So…
FLATOW: But how much of a dent can you make in the petroleum-based industry?
Mr. DILLON: I think it's a significant dent.
FLATOW: Give us a number.
Mr. DILLON: And there's a lot of technology where it's out here…
FLATOW: Give us a number. How much of a dent?
Mr. DILLON: I think, a very, you know, certainly, without question, you know, double digit percentages of what's being burned. Now this takes a lot money - it takes years to ramp this up, this scale on which these fuels are produced. It's gargantuan. And the biotechnology industry, you know, is used to making things on a smaller scale, so it takes time to scale up. But the oil companies know that they need solutions.
FLATOW: And how cheaply can you make a gallon of diesel fuel?
Mr. DILLON: Well, we believe that within two years, possibly three we'll be at economic parity with fossil-based transportation fuel. We've made enormous progress at bringing the cost of these fuels down.
And let me point out one other thing regarding the carbon footprint of this stuff. The fuels that we produce at Solazyme and the feedstocks that we use, these are fuels that do not compete with food sources, so we're not - our technology doesn't depend on food. And they also have a much higher energy density than, for example, ethanol. And you can take our fuels and put them into things like the tractors, and the trucks and the locomotives that move all these materials around.
So these fuels that we're producing today, next generation fuels, are really a much better alternative than, say, corn ethanol or soy bean or palm-based biodiesel. Those are the first-generation biofuels. It's great that they've been produced. Those alter land use in a big way; they compete with food prices. Our technology doesn't do that.
So you know, I want to make that point because as I understand, I haven't seen these papers but I understand that there are some new papers that have been released…
FLATOW: Yes. We've been talking about them this hour about the problems with using corn-based or palm oil or other food crops.
Mr. DILLON: I don't think, you know, I think if you talk to next-generation biofuel companies like Solazyme, I think we all know that those, you know, competing with food or doing, you know, ripping out rainforest to plant, you know, palm plantations, it's just - it's nota good idea and I think people in companies like mine recognize that.
FLATOW: And you can put your plants any place. They could be your…
Mr. DILLON: You can put our plants really anywhere on the world. There's actually - I believe there's a video that shows our production technology and how it works that's been posted on the SCIENCE FRIDAY Web site.
FLATOW: Yes, there is.
Mr. DILLON: If your listeners have, you know, some questions, they can look at that video and see how it works. You can locate this technology anywhere.
FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us. I know you have to go, Harrison, so thanks a lot for - it's very fascinating, and good luck to you.
Mr. DILLON: Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: Harrison Dillon is the chief technology officer of Solazyme, Incorporated. He was on the line from San Francisco with us.
Back with us also, Dan Kammen and David Tilman.
What do you think about algae? Dan?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, there's some issues, I mean, the idea that algae could be a player is real. Some of the benefits are you can grow a great deal more of it per unit volume and even in some cases, per unit energy input. Algae's pretty resilient; it's been around for billions of years. And so there's a real possibility here.
There are some technical hurdles. It looks like we are going to - almost certainly be genetically modifying various bacteria to make it, which brings up the GMO issue. And while a very attractive route is to put tanks of this algae right at current fossil fuel power plants and actually to use the warm carbon dioxide gas as its feedstock, which is a way to also bury - sequester- that CO2. It's very attractive.
Whether this can really ramp up to be a big player because of the infrastructure involved, because this is a system that is going to have to, as you were describing, get into our energy economy. That's going to be tricky. And so what California has done is to pass a low carbon or fuel standard that Governor Schwarzenegger signed last January. What that says is that we're going to rate all our fuels based on this greenhouse gas impact. And so these algae fuels do have a role in there. The real question is which of these get ramped up and can we also evolve this low carbon fuel standard in one that I would call a sustainable fuel standard because carbon is one of the issues but we're also talking about what demand on the water and what happens to surrounding soils and could the GM crops actually get out. There's a variety of things that are going to have to be built into a better standard. How far we can push the oil industry with high prices is I think where the conspiracy theories may actually have a little bit of footing.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. There's a company called Green Fuels, which is also another algae company, an algae-producing company. And they have experimenting with a couple of places. They did one in Phoenix, a power plant in Phoenix, a gas-powered power plant where they have shown that their algae installed basically in a greenhouse next to the plant where they feed the exhaust gas with CO2 can take out a really significant amount of CO2 out of the smokestacks.
Prof. KAMMEN: That's right. I mean, it looks very attractive. You know, the issue for all these fuels is scaling them up. And there's no question that there're going to be some companies that make a lot of money. And the question is do we just get a kind of a green chic or do we actually cut into that fossil fuel equation, which we now know everywhere is going to have to become part of our new calculus for thinking about the planet. And whether we just get the green companies or do we actually reduce fossil fuel demand, that's really unclear for these technologies yet. But it's a good start.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Taking calls and actually questions also in Second Life. Let's go to a Second Life question.
ACLIOF: Hi. This is Acliof(ph) from Second Life. I'm really from Michigan. And my question has to do - are other grasses as good as switchgrass? And I'm thinking particularly of prairie grasses. There's a lot of prairie grass in the Middle West that could be used.
FLATOW: Dave Tilman?
Dr. TILMAN: Yes. Switchgrass is a fabulous plant but other grasses, big blue stem, little blue stem, another one called the Indian grass - depending upon the soil, they're actually better than switchgrass. And what we found in a paper we published in Science just about a year ago is there's a step beyond just growing a monoculture. We found that when we put a mixture of these productive prairie grasses in with a mixture of prairie legumes and some other prairie plants, that those mixtures gave us much more energy per acre than did any one of those grasses, including switchgrass growing by itself. And they also stored more carbon in the soil than did switchgrass by itself or any of the other plants by themselves.
So it might be a route toward almost restoring prairie on degraded land to a high diversity mixture of species but biased towards these very productive grasses and legumes - that combination may prove to be a very good way both to store carbon in the soil and give a better greenhouse gas (unintelligible) for the fuel and to get a lot more energy per acre without having to fertilize and use pesticides and so on.
FLATOW: Talking about alternative fuel choices this hour at TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Dave Tilman and Dan Kammen.
These grasses lock up, you say, the CO2 in the soil because of the root system there - they're buried underground web of root system?
Dr. TILMAN: Yeah. You'll have it. You know, people used to make houses in the old days out of sod from prairie because there were such dense, strong root systems in the prairie soil. Three-fourths of the living part of a prairie plant is actually below ground. So when you see these three or five or six-foot tall grasses, think about three times more than that being below ground. And as they build roots every year, roots always die and grow and grow and die, and when they die, some of the biomass in them doesn't decay at all quickly, and it builds up through time. In fact, those plants are the plants that made these fertile soils in the prairie in the first place. They gave the land that gives us our corn, our wheat and so on, and we lose a lot of that carbon when we farm it. But if you plant this abandoned land back with the same plants that made this soil in the first place, they will build that carbon back up in the soil as they live their lives, and can give a big greenhouse gases advantage because of them.
FLATOW: Let's go to Hugh(ph) in Oakland.
HUGH (Caller): Hi. How are you? I have two questions. The first is there's an existing certification to prevent old growth forest from being used, and that's in the lumber industry, the FSC certification. Could it be piggyback or expanded it to include fuels? And I have a second question I ask now or later?
FLATOW: Later because we may run out of time.
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, you certainly could. You know, we haven't done so great in terms of protecting old growth forest when there's a real big financial incentive to cut them down. Pacific Lumber and others have a pretty difficult record. You could do this. The main worry though isn't really protecting old growth forests in the U.S. It's the much more chaotic world of all of the developing countries' settings and tracking what happens when a hectare of land goes from corn or soy in Kansas into biofuel production. It doesn't immediately pop up as another hectare of land that you can just track with sort of points on the map, the next day over in Brazil or Indonesia. It's a much more convoluted process.
And the worry is that unless we really get serious about the broader climate story installing a cost for carbon and certifying sustainable and unsustainable projects -it's a life cycle idea around carbon - that these are going to be very hard to track even if the intents of some managers are good. And so it's a very hard one to do because land use is a - there's lots of ways to disguise what's going on whether it's intentional or not. And so this life cycle assessment, evaluating and kind of quantifying our fuels is going to be - need to be part of the process. And thankfully, we do have other states in addition to California and Germany and the U.K. working towards these standards. But doing it in practice is a real challenge.
FLATOW: All right. We have to take a short break. We're going to come back and talk lots more with Dave Tilman, professor of ecology, University of Minnesota; Dan Kammen, professor of energy at the UC Berkeley. We'll also going to bring on another player in this little - about the alternative energy today. We're going to talk also with Coskata, Incorporated, another company that has - that's been using microbes to process garbage. We got a lot of waste - why not turn the garbage into fuel? They do it. We'll talk about how they do it after this break. Stay with us.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about trying to find more perfect fuels - for biofuels than corn or soy beans or any of the crops we plant that we compete with for food. And now that we're discovering from research published this week, they actually to be doing more harm than good in terms of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere instead of trying to lock more of it up.
Well, what better perfect fuel could there be than fuel that we make out of garbage - out of stuff we would throw out, things like old tires, diapers, household garbage or industrial waste.
Joining me now to talk about his company that is doing that is my guest Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of business development at Coskata, Incorporated. He joined us by phone from Illinois.
Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Bolsen.
Mr. WES BOLSEN (Chief Marketing Officer and Vice President of Business Development, Coskata, Inc.): Thank you for having me today.
FLATOW: How do you make ethanol out of all these things?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BOLSEN: Well, that's a good question. It's really a pretty simple three-step process, and that's what makes it available and viable today. The front end is called gasification, something's been around for more than a hundred years. It's what we used to do for town gas. And so whether it's trash or agriculture residues or shredded tires, really, it's just like it sounds. The first step in the process is turning it in, you know, almost decomposing it into its chemical elements, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, carbon dioxide.
And then the really special piece is these microorganisms that are able to really breath in, if you will, this synthesis gas or this carbon monoxide and hydrogen-rich stream, and then they exhale or produce ethanol. And so it's a - these are naturally occurring, nongenetically modified yet very hard to find microorganisms producing the ethanol.
FLATOW: And how good are they at doing this?
Mr. BOLSEN: I mean, it's fantastic. I think, one of our partners used the word gluttonous bugs. I mean, these things seek out almost all of the chemical energy in the carbon monoxide and hydrogen. It can make as much as a hundred gallons of fuel from one ton of dry material.
Mr. BOLSEN: So, yeah, I mean…
FLATOW: What else is left over?
Mr. BOLSEN: And so, really, once you do the front-end gasification, you're dealing with a gas all the way though and the bugs, you know, eat the chemical energy, and the remaining gas you use to - you burn and it's above the lower flammable limit to be able to do the distillation or the ethanol separation. And we have those couple of patents on the back end as well for ethanol separation. And so, really, it's, you know, it's efficient through the whole process including the bugs, so…
FLATOW: And the bugs are - are they bacteria?
Mr. BOLSEN: Yeah. They're Clostridia-based bacteria. Scientists and researchers down at University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State - very difficult to find, I mean, these are some of the best in the world that find these naturally occurring organisms.
And they're sort of like children. We've thought them to produce more ethanol and how do we feed them, what nourishment, nutrients do we give them. And since getting them out of the University of Oklahoma, we've been to get almost 50 times the production of ethanol with our microbiologist and scientist here at Coskata.
FLATOW: Now, to create the initial gas, don't you have to heat up the waste products? And does that not use energy itself?
Mr. BOLSEN: Well, there's a couple of ways of doing it. You can actually use the material putting in to heat the other materials, so it's, you could take a hit on - suppose you're putting in wood waste or something, you know, 20, 30 percent of the wood waste that you're putting in there goes to heating up the other material. The other alternative is to insert just a little bit of external energy, you know, whether it's a four, five, 6 percent of electricity to something of the total amount of energy, and then you don't have to burn the actual material. And really, that becomes an economic question - do you want to burn the material to heat it up or do you want to use a little bit of external energy to do this.
FLATOW: Well, just this week, at the Chicago auto show, General Motors announced their partnership with you, correct?
Mr. BOLSEN: That is correct. We actually had - they announced us at the centerpiece of the international auto show up in Detroit. And then GM North American president, Troy Clarke announced that, you know, GM wants to be a leader in this market.
FLATOW: They want to create ethanol.
Mr. BOLSEN: They - well, they're going to do it from two ends. They may not own the plants, what they're saying is we're going to put 50 percent of cars, you know, it's kind of the chicken and egg?
Mr. BOLSEN: GM is taking a leadership role and saying 50 percent of our vehicles will be ethanol capable, you know, flex-fuel capable, in the next five years. We're going to get cars on the road, and then what they did is they said, you know not only do we want the next-generation ethanol on the market, we believe Coskata is ready today, and we're going to make a strategic investment in this company to make sure we rapidly commercialize this technology to get ethanol on the market.
FLATOW: That's a lot of cars. Can you make enough ethanol for them, for their cars?
Mr. BOLSEN: That's the great part is, when you have this really efficient process that you uses, you know, multiple input materials, and that's one of the benefits are is the multiple input materials, the flexibility we have on the front end, you know. We hope to make billions and billions of gallons of ethanol. And it really had a true impact on our use of oil.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how much a gallon would that come to?
Mr. BOLSEN: Well, what we're looking at is the production cost of ethanol being under a dollar a gallon. And that compares to, you know, approximately $2 a gallon production cost of gasoline today. So we're approximately half the cost of gasoline production and then, you know, you have markups and transportation costs and capital recoveries and different pieces that have to be put in there. But what we're looking at is, you know, producing ethanol for under a dollar a gallon to really change the whole equation. We can do, you know, wonderful things for the environment, reducing greenhouse gases while we're also putting economical fuel on the market.
FLATOW: But you're going to have to make tens of millions of gallon.
Mr. BOLSEN: A billions would be…
Mr. BOLSEN: We have a 36 billion gallon renewable fuel standard the president has signed, and they want 21 billion of those gallons to come from nonfood-based sources, so you could say that a market opportunity for Coskata is as much as 21 billion gallons.
FLATOW: How are you going to compete with other folks like…
Mr. BOLSEN: Oh, I look at it as these are our partners. I mean, when the goal of our industry is to reduce our dependence on oil, I look them at - I look at the other people in our industry as almost partners in reducing oil dependence. It's a big enough market for a lot of different players. It'd be foolish to say Coskata can capture all of that.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we had Solazyme on and I asked them - I'm going to ask you the same question - how do you know that they're not going to just invest in your company and then put you on a shelf some place. I mean, oil is $100 a barrel. Why should they want $2 or $1 alcohol?
Mr. BOLSEN: Well, I mean, what you have, you're right. There's people out there and that's that conspiracy theory as I've heard someone call it before. But, you know, when you get partners like General Motors, you know, so the partnerships, the people who are making strategic investments for the future of Coskata are people like General Motors who are, you know, putting in the cars on the market and truly want ethanol, there's no desire to shelf this technology. The desire is to rapidly commercialize it, and you find other partners who are going to do this. And it may be and could be outside of the current oil players.
FLATOW: All right, let me bring in my other guests.
Dan Kammen, what's your reaction to this?
Prof. KAMMEN: Well, I'm really excited about these technologies. And I think that getting the waste stream to be part of our resource stream is very exciting, and I think this is actually a very promising technology.
We need to support these, in fact, we had a very large research contract with BP, a $500 million effort to do it. But I think you heard of the answer, what the worry is, and that was that while the current policy standard in this country calls for this 35 billion gallons and since this 21 billions cleaner fuel that also calls for 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol. That does compete with food, and what both Dave Tilman's paper and Tim Searchinger's paper shows is that, if you a get a reasonable benefit of these new fuels like Coskata's but you get a huge negative hit because you're converting rainforest, and this indirect land use is really making your overall biofuel mixture very ugly for the planet, that's an equation - and unless our policy tools are very strong like a low carbon fuel standard, a carbon tax, et cetera, we are going to get some neat new clean industries, and I love Coskata to be a big deal. I wish they'd offer me a spot in their board, kind of thing. But we will be also growing what's proving to be a very destructive to the climate and the local communities - corn and soy-based ethanol industry. And cutting that out is a major, major problem.
FLATOW: Dan, what do you mean by a low carbon fuel standard?
Prof. KAMMEN: So what California passed was to know the amount of carbon, not just in a gallon of gasoline when you burn it but the whole life cycle. It takes carbon, it takes energy, which we usually get from carbon to run the tractors, to distill the corn material into fuel. So what California said is we don't want to pick individual winners. We don't want to give a fixed contract to a certain company. What we want to do instead is to have a standard and everyone must beat it. And so what California has done - and again, the governor signed this back in January, last - a year ago now - was to say, by 2010, our fuel mix must be 10 percent less carbon intensive than it is today or more. And so as new technologies like Coskata and Solazyme come online, we, the policy, science policy analysis world will try to bring down those standards to drive out the environmentally and socially bad fuels and reward those like Coskata for being good environmental citizens as well as making a, you know, real business sector profit in. That's the challenge because what we talk about these green fuels, and they will have a share and I believe these companies will do well, as of last count, and Dave Tilman made a better account of the 125 or so ethanol distilleries being rapidly built in this country, 90 percent of them are corn-based. And so building out this clean sector is going to be working against just as big as incumbent as the emerging solar and wind and geothermal sectors have to contend with in terms of the big fossil fuel giants.
FLATOW: Well, let me…
Prof. KAMMEN: We got to clean that.
FLATOW: But Wes Bolsen, you have an 800-pound gorilla on your side?
Mr. BOLSEN: Well, we're happy to have General Motors as our partner, and what we want to do is continue to put this fuel out there. In fact, Argon National Labs just got an independent study saying, you know, Coskata, well-to wheel-analysis is what they call it. It's what these guys are talking about, Dan or David talking about is, you know, full cradle-to-grave or life cycle analysis. Dr. Michael Wang and his team do a fantastic job, and they said, look, Coskata reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 84 percent using this technology because it's so efficient with the organisms and the input material that we have.
FLATOW: We're talking about alternative fuels this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. So, are you envisioning, Wes, that when the recycled trucks and the garbage trucks come up to my home every week that they don't head to the dump, will they go right to your plant that they'll turn them into some sort of biofuel?
Mr. BOLSEN: Well, there's a, you know, not exactly, because there're a lot of recyclables. We don't do the best job in our houses sorting out our trash, glass bottles and metal and people throw their batteries in their and there are just some things that we could do to sort our trash a little bit better. What Coskata does is looks at the organic material. You know, if it can't turn into a gas, you think about is the heat of the real hot, and it melts, that doesn't work very well for us. What you do is, you know, we love the organic material of, you know, like we say, the diapers, rubber - shredded tires…
Mr. BOLSEN: …plastics are one wonderful. And plastics just fit in a landfill, and don't really decompose well at all. So we could reduce a large percentage of our or almost all of what goes into a landfill allowing the other stuff to be recycled.
FLATOW: Dan, we have a little bit of more couple of minutes left, but I want to ask you a philosophical question her, you know, where these - a lot of these questions were asking about biofuels - which ones emit more carbon, which ones are better for the environment - we never ever considered asking these questions of fossil fuels, did we?
Dr. TILMAN: No, we didn't. We were in a rush to industrialize and now we're discovering the downside because humans are now a significant ecological impact. There's a famous and very wonderful paper led by a group of Stanford, headed by an ecology student (unintelligible) that estimated that humans' impact directly or indirectly - 40 percent of all the biological activity called the net primary productivity - and that we appropriating use more than 10 percent. And that's not sustainable even if carbon wasn't only (unintelligible) rivers, biodiversity, et cetera. So coming up with standards that we can enforce to make sure that waste gets used first and to make sure that we don't compete with food. Sound good and you can write them down in meetings but competing them into the market, so that they become the new language is going to be a really challenge. And I think I should thankfully - we've got three presidential candidates remaining - all of whom are leaders and quite expert in this area. So I'm pretty hopeful that after eight years in the doldrums, we'll actually get this going, but it's a real, real challenge.
FLATOW: Dave Tilman, are you optimistic - I know a bunch of scientists have signed the letters sending it to Nancy Pelosi in Congress?
Dr. TILMAN: Yeah, I am optimistic. I think that the research is coming out now and the - an incredible entrepreneurial spirit that we see out there in developing new biofuels - are they good enough to find ways to greatly reduce the greenhouse gas impact of our transportation.
I want to add just one thing which I think we all know besides biofuel. Biofuels going to be maybe a 20 percent solution to our energy needs for transportation. But we can do at least that amount by increasing the efficiency of the vehicles that we have and the efficiency of our whole transportation network. So I think in the long term, we have to be looking at all aspects of this system. And one final comment, I really agree very strongly about Dan, we have to have a way that we evaluate each fuel and find out where there's true life cycle impacts are and then reward those that gives benefits. If we don't reward the companies that are doing it right and give us those fuels, we won't be able to get their products under the marketplace and have the service that we need from them.
FLATOW: So we need new kinds of measurement standards?
Dr. TILMAN: Absolutely. New measurement standards and we need to have those tied in some direct way like this little carbon fuel standard that Dan Kammen has been talking about. Have does dictate what kinds of fuels really can be sold at the gas pump. It's the easiest way to do it. And it just tells the industry ahead of time, you got to plan to make a fuel however you can that will reduce greenhouse gases by this amount in this year.
FLATOW: Well, maybe if ever get to a science debate 2008, we'll be able to actually ask the candidates where they stand on this.
Dr. TILMAN: That would be wonderful.
FLATOW: Yeah. Well, thank you all for taking time to be with us today.
Dr. TILMAN: Thank you.
Mr. BOLSEN: Thank you.
Prof. KAMMEN: Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome, Dave Tilman, professor of ecology, University of Minnesota; Dan Kammen, professor of energy, University of California, Berkeley, also co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment; and also Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of business development for Coskata, Incorporated.
That's all the time we have for this hour.
If you missed any of the stuff we talked about today, surf over to our Web site, it's ScienceFriday.com. We've got the links up there for the Web spots we talked about. Also, we're podcasting and blogging and Second Life. If you'd like to join them, you can just click on the little Second Life slur that we have up there on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Also, you can send us e-mail and leave your comments and suggestions for SCIENCE FRIDAY.
I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.