Fuels of the Future: How Far Down the Road? Corn-based ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol — they're all ways to try to reduce our dependence on oil. But how close are we to growing enough fuel to make a difference? Guests discuss the future of alternative energy and biofuels.
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Fuels of the Future: How Far Down the Road?

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Fuels of the Future: How Far Down the Road?

Fuels of the Future: How Far Down the Road?

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Wouldn't it be great if we could grow almost all the energy we need instead of relying on oil? Farmers in this country certainly know how to grow big crops and we certainly know how to turn corn into ethanol or soybeans into biodiesel. But there's many a slip between the plant and the pump. Corn is not an ideal plant for ethanol. It takes too much energy to grow and harvest it. And some say using corn for ethanol oil is driving up the price of food.

On the other hand, woody plants like switch grass or willow are ideal sources for biofuels but the process for producing alcohol from these plants is not ready for primetime. So where is biofuels research headed? Where are we today? That's what we're going to be talking about to start of the hour.

And if you'd like to join in, our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. And as always, you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com. Also, you can go over to the Science School area of "Second Life" and ask an avatar for a question and give us your question here for SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Let me introduce my guests. Dan Kammen is the co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment and professor in the energy and resources group at the University of California at Berkeley. He joins us from a studio on the campus there. Welcome back to the program, Dan.

Dr. DAN KAMMEN (Co-Director, Berkeley Institute of the Environment; Professor, Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley): Thanks so much for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Evan Ratliff is a freelance journalist. He wrote the article, "One Molecule Could Cure our Addiction to Oil" in the current issue of Wired magazine. He's at KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program, Evan.

Mr. EVAN RATLIFF (Freelance Journalist; Author, "One Molecule Could Cure Our Addiction to Oil"): Thanks. Good morning.

FLATOW: Good morning. Tim Appenzeller is the executive editor at the National Geographic magazine. He edited the cover story, "Green Dreams" in the October issue of National Geographic. He joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to the program, Tim.

Mr. TIM APPENZELLER (Executive Editor, National Geographic Magazine): Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Tim, let me start with you. The article that you edited gives a big overview of the different types of biofuels available. Is there any one take home message in that whole magazine?

Mr. APPENZELLER: Well, I think that the bottom line right now is that biofuels have a lot of promise, but we're not doing them right so far.

FLATOW: And what do you mean we're not doing them right?

Mr. APPENZELLER: Well, as you said in your intro, we're relying on corn ethanol, at least in this country, and corn is really a very bad feedstock for ethanol. I mean, it's easy to make up an ethanol corn but it has very large environmental cost and is also rather expensive when you take out the subsidies.

FLATOW: Evan, would you agree?

Mr. RATLIFF: Yeah, absolutely. Corn - there's a lot of dispute right now about whether corn is energy - actually, producing more energy than goes into it than food prices, but there's not much doubt that it's not ideal when it comes to the source of a biofuel.

FLATOW: And what's wrong with it, Dan?

Dr. KAMMEN: Well, a number of things, you sort of heard bits of it coming in. One is that we've sort of optimized corn to be fossil fuel intensive and that we've tried to maximize yields for food, which makes sense. But we've done so by maximizing the amount of fertilizers, the amount of irrigation that we do in many parts of the country.

And that means that if you're concerned not just about offsetting oil, which is a good thing in itself, but you're also concerned about the environmental impacts and the greenhouse gas signature of that corn. Corn is a crop that is going the wrong direction. And, in fact, the range of cellulosic materials of woodier things as well as some other things like algae that we'll talk about today, all have the potential to be ones that have much lower fossil fuel inputs. And if we can grow them in large amounts, then they could actually make a very big dent.

But we certainly don't want to take a crop that we've optimized for something else for food and just assume right off the bat that it happens to be good for biofuels, which is in fact not the case.

FLATOW: We have been talking about the cellulosic process. Can you describe it for us and tell us why it's taking a while to get going?

Dr. KAMMEN: Well, it's probably - I mean, you know, a best example is one that a colleague of mine, Alex Farrell, likes to say. And that is if you take a piece of bread and a 2-by-4 and leave it out in the rain, what happens? The piece of bread breaks down. You get the sugars. And you can actually put that bread in your mouth and you can taste those sugars right in your tongue. So the process to break down the carbohydrates in bread to make sugar and then make ethanol is quite simple.

But obviously, that 2-by-4 remains that way for a long time. And that's because the longer and so tougher molecule change in the cellulosic. The woodier materials have a lot of energy in them. They're a very, very promising stock. But to break that down requires a set of processes - some using enzymes, some using thermal cycling, thermal processing - and that takes adaptation, we need to build the right process to get the ethanol out of it. And it's not even clear in the end that ethanol is the ideal fuel to be using.

There are people who are equally excited or even more excited proponents of other types of these short organic change components(ph). One is called butenol. There's a variety of them. And so where we're going isn't exactly clear. But it is clear that if we were to do this process right, then there is the potential to, in fact, improve food production and get biofuels out. But that's asking us to really project down the road.

And what range of innovations we get over the coming years from programs like the very large partnership we have here at Berkley with BP. It's a half a billion-dollar project and some others that the Department of Energy has set up, other universities like MIT are embarking on. Those efforts are going to be critical to really get that wider range of fuels. So I would suspect the same. And it isn't that - it's one molecule will save the world, but it's a diversity of food-friendly biofuels that actually could make a big dent on our fossil fuel needs.

FLATOW: Let me go back to that in a little bit. Let me talk to Evan about his article in Wired magazine, which really does focus on finding the better enzymes and the techniques to produce ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks. Are we making progress there or is it - or we're just sort of stumped and looking for things?

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, we're certainly making progress. And there are a larger number of people working in this area right now than have been probably ever in at least in decades. It's not - this is not new science in the sense that cellulosic ethanol is a concept that dates back to the, you know, '60s and '70s and the oil crisis in the '70s when some money started to go into it. And there were even some demonstration plants where cellulosic ethanol was produced.

But as soon as the oil crisis sort of faded away, then all the money went with it, and a lot of the researchers went with it as well. So now, we're going through sort of a new renaissance with cellulosic ethanol. And now, there's not only government money going into it. So you have, you know, new bio energy centers, each three of them - $125 million that were announced this year. You also have a lot of companies, small companies and then larger ethanol companies who are getting venture money and investing private money in it.

So, you know, there's much bigger push now when it comes to the resources that are available to do the science. And that's definitely pushing the science further than it's ever gone in the past.

FLATOW: But Dan seems to be saying that ethanol may not be the right product to wind up with, yet all these money is going into the ethanol solution.

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, that's certainly under dispute right now, whether or not ethanol is the way to go. I mean, there are different ways to look at it. One of them would be that ethanol is sort of transitional and that if we - once we develop the cellulosic processes or once we develop enzymes that can break down cellulose into sugar, then - into simple sugar, then you can take that sugar and you can actually make any fuel out of it. Now, the easiest thing that we can make out of it right now is ethanol.

And there are scientists working at Berkley and at private companies who are working to make other fuels out of that sugar. So butenol, may be even something closer to gasoline. But in the interim, sort of the quickest solution appears to be to go to ethanol. Now, ethanol has a lot of drawbacks as a fuel. But given that corn ethanol is starting to spread and the infrastructure is starting to develop, you know, ethanol could be the shorter term solution and then there could be a longer term solution after that.

FLATOW: Tim, what about biodisel? All these people, you know, all the diesel engines that are out there, why not push toward more biodiesel products?

Mr. APPENZELLER: Well, the problem with biodiesel is it's very expensive. Vegetable oils are valuable and the yield is pretty low. You can get 300 gallons of ethanol from an acre of corn, but only about 60 gallons of biodiesel from an acre of soybeans. So the math just doesn't work out very well. Although the environmental advantages of biodiesel are maybe more pronounced than the advantages of ethanol, which is small.

FLATOW: Are we going to have to choose between energy independence versus lower CO2 levels for by the fuel we choose? I mean - or is there a compromise, Dan?

Dr. KAMMEN: Well, I actually think that we don't fully know the answer. I don't - I think my assumption going in on this is we actually don't need to make that choice. And the reason is that as both Evan and Tim have said, we've really only begun to research biofuels in kind of the new era. And so the tools are so-called synthetic biology, being able to really recreate exactly the processes, for example, using yeast - I mean, using E. coli and things that could produce the fuels that we want look very, very promising.

And the ability to use wood waste - municipal solid waste, the whole variety of things, as fuels can solve other problems as well than just getting off of gasoline. And so my estimates, and the estimates are by a number of research groups, is that if we're reasonably successful at developing these range of fuels - it might be ethanol, it might be butanol, we might have biodiesel for our trucks as well as biodiesel made into jet fuel for planes and ethanol and cars - it's a wide range, but that that upside is actually very large.

And my favorite example is really that a few years ago, the real concern was that if we took every single bit of corn and soy in this country, something we would never want to do, and made it into ethanol, we could offset maybe 10 percent of the demand and that obviously, isn't enough of the hit to sacrifice all of our eating, which just makes no sense.

But in fact, when you start to look at the ability to go to crops like some of these switch grasses and there's one called miscanthus, which is very popular, but there's some others that have much higher yields and to do better, more efficient processing of those materials, you start to say, well, it's not actually we could get 10 percent of our liquid fuel needs by sacrificing all of our food, which would be a complete disaster. But in fact, we could think about crops that in fact help to repair soil, that put nitrogen back into the soil. And that at a very small amount of land, start to meet a very large amount of our current liquid fuel needs.

So the upside isn't one where I think that tradeoff is really going to be the question we are going to want to ask, it's do we have enough of research base and can we translate enough of those very promising initial crops into products and companies that really take it to market so we can explore this upside. That's really where we're going.

But it's - like California, for example, already use a 5 percent ethanol blend in our gasoline today, and what we're talking about it overtime is potentially reversing that. So instead of E5, ethanol 5 percent, to go towards ethanol 85 percent and really switch that equation but still not have the flexibility of using a range of different feedstocks, including keeping some of the gasoline in the mix, too.

So we've got a large range of options and it's going to be a function of how quickly we make the market for these fuels more attractive and how quickly the research in these programs, that Evan I know has mentioned, can really take off. That's where we are right now.

FLATOW: All right. We'll go back and talk lots more about this situation in the future with Dan Kammen, Tim Appenzeller and Evan Ratliff so stay with us, we'll be right back after the short break, your questions. Don't go away.


(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about biofuels, alternative energies, with my guest Dan Kammen, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment. Evan Ratliff, a journalist who wrote the article, "One Molecule Could Cure Our Addiction to Oil," that's in the current issue of Wired magazine. Tim Appenzeller is executive editor at National Geographic, where he edited the cover story, "Green Dreams," in the October issue of National Geographic. Our number 1-800-989-8255.

Let's get a caller. And if we can, let's go to John(ph) in Reno, Nevada. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

JOHN: I actually have a comment for you. I'm a PhD chemist who actually did some of my thesis work on the (unintelligible), which is a polymer that makes up a lot of plants. And all these talk about cellulosic ethanol has me really concerned because it seems to me if you have a lot of hype. I mean, let's face it, plants have, what, 350 or 400 million years head start on us, but in protect themselves. I mean, they don't want those molecules broken down. That's their whole reason to exist and what not. And this idea that we'll just magically find some enzyme that happen to have (unintelligible) million years seems really a stretch to me. I just can't see it happening. It's really been tried. I mean, there's been a lot of research done on cellulosic ethanol and what paper people say, you know, you can make anything out of lignin except money. So I don't know what your guests would have to say about that.

FLATOW: Well, we'll find out. Anybody want to comment on that?

Mr. APPENZELLER: Sure. Yeah, this is Tim Appenzeller. Our writer, Joel Bourne, actually included that quote in his story, in his October story. And lignin is a big problem, but I'm sure the other guests know more about this than I do. But there are efforts underway to genetically engineer plants for - to have lower lignin to make them easier to convert, and that's one step that might help.


Dr. KAMMEN: Yeah, I guess I would add in. And, in fact, I certainly agree that plants have done their best to protect themselves that's why they develop these hard stalks to keep themselves upright. But in fact, this is really what has been explored in dramatic new ways over the last decade or so, the whole field of synthetic biology is really about getting organisms to express their own traits that we want.

And in fact, one of those is to make them more biofuel friendly. And to think that - because we couldn't do this in the '70s when the technology was dramatically different then today seems to fly in the face of what, I think we're learning in the IT field, in the medical field and in fact, in the energy area where, when I was in graduate in school, I was literally told that we would never be able to get more than a few percent of our energy from solar power and from wind power because these were sources that just did not scale.

And in fact, we're seeing countries like Germany and parts of the U.S. dramatically changing that. And I actually believe that what we have not seen much of until now is really bringing the force of other fields like synthetic biology, like chemical engineering to bear on energy questions. And so my starting point, the same as the caller, is that this it a tough challenge, but in fact, I'm far more optimistic. In fact, I think we're already seeing some significant progress in this area and we've really just begun.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Mr. RATLIFF: I'm sorry. I want to just one other thing, which is that, of course, you have to avoid, you know, succumbing to hype when it comes to this kind of technology. But the caller was exactly right in the sense that the problem is actually not that you're looking for a magical enzyme that will do something that's never been done before, you're just looking for an enzyme that will make making cellulosic ethanol profitable. So we can make cellulosic ethanol right now - it happens in the lab, it actually happens at small demonstration plants in the U.S. and Canada. But the question is can you make it at a price per gallon that will compete with other forms of ethanol, with gasoline, and there are, you know, a dozen or more demonstration plants of tens of millions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol that are in the process of being developed and built over the next year or two.

So, I mean, that's a question that still remains open but it's not - they're searching for better enzymes, each better enzyme makes the process a little bit cheaper. But they're not exactly looking for a magic bullet that will definitely solve the entire problem.

FLATOW: Question here from Gita(ph) in "Second Life," who says is there any effort to partner with countries who have large sugarcane production or strategies to find ways to develop alternative ways to grow sugarcane for our use? I guess Brazil is the biggest example of it.

Dr. KAMMEN: They are the biggest today. There is more coming, though.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Sugar - why…

Dr. KAMMEN: That's why I guess that…

FLATOW: Why is sugarcane so good, Dan?

Dr. KAMMEN: Well, sugarcane is very attractive because it grows in very large amounts, you get a lot of yield per acre and it is the simplest form. It produces sugar, that's why we call sugarcane. And sugar is the thing that's the easiest to make - essentially easier than starches to make into ethanol. And so it's very attractive on that basis.

The issues are that sugarcane grows in hot tropical areas generally with lots of rainfall. And we - except for parts of Florida and Hawaii, don't have many of those places in the United States. Brazil certainly does, and Indonesia is actually right now ramping up to essentially out-compete Brazil at Brazil's sugarcane to ethanol game. And in fact some of the big companies in Indonesia are right now looking at doubling and tripling their landholdings to compete exactly in this area.

And so depending what we do in terms of the sustainability question, which I think is the underlying one here and that is sugarcane can be grown in many places, we could ship it to ourselves in the U.S. very easily. If that happens at the expense of Amazonian rainforest or other endangered areas, it's not a good equation. But if we can develop standards that don't just say we want to get low carbon fuels, which is what California's adopted - the governor signed a very historic piece of legislation in January called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

But if we can broaden that out now to express these sustainability concerns, crops that do not compete with poor people for food, in fact, maybe enhance the productivity of poor farms in Mexico, in East Africa, et cetera, as well as reflecting crops that don't require massive amounts of water or fertilizer. We could actually build out the policy framework to support just the sort of fuels that we want that do allow trade between countries like Brazil and Indonesia, but also reflect a higher degree of environmental management that I think we all are looking for in the end.

FLATOW: Don't some of these cellulosic crops, the switch grass crops, which basically look like giant weeds, things like that, would they not grow in some of the poor farmland that some of the poor farmers have and turn them into energy producers?

Mr. APPENZELLER: I hope. That makes sense.

FLATOW: I mean, then you can - that's how they would make some money and increase well, you know, their living. Would that work?

Mr. APPENZELLER: You're exactly right.

Dr. KAMMEN: It certainly does work.


Dr. KAMMEN: In fact, one of the crops that's very attractive is called miscanthus, and it's an elephant grass, it's a weedy grass that grows in China and it not only grows on many marginal lands, in fact, it's not one that you irrigate, it's sort of a rain-fed crop. It grows at two or three times the volume of material per acre of corn - in fact, maybe in higher amounts. And so far, it's not shown to have particularly significant pests.

So there's a crop that you would probably grow on the degraded or marginal lands in the first place. It would add to farmers' income. And one of the ironies of poor farmers in many parts of the world is that when they have a bad year, when there was a drought, they obviously suffer. And when they have a good year, the price of the crop, which they have grown, is actually lower than it might be because all their neighbors have done relatively well, too, and that's due to the perishable nature of many food crops.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. KAMMEN: A potential solution is if on marginal and degraded land, they could also be growing these bio-energy crops that maybe even put nutrients back into the soil. Once you make it into your biofuel, whether it's ethanol or something else, that's not perishable. And so a real attractive feature is that contrary to some of this discussion, there is the prospect to have our biofuels aid in the sustainability in livelihoods and in cultures of many of the areas that we're worried to be the most threatened today. So that's also going to require research, but it certainly one of the more exciting aspects of the current biofuel revolution.

FLATOW: Tim Appenzeller, in the National Geographic article, they show - I'll just read the caption under a photo of these bags of green algae growing. It says, high hopes hang on bags of algae outside the Redhawk Power Plant near Phoenix. Researchers say the fast-growing green scum, fed by a power plant exhaust could soak up CO2 while cracking out 5,000 gallons of biodiesel an acre each year, at least in theory. How close are we to seeing that happen?

Mr. APPENZELLER: Well, I think that's a ways off. I mean, this is a small demonstration plant that, by the way, had to be shut down for a while because of technical problems during the summer. But, you know, scaling off from what they've seen so far, yeah, these algae could be enormously productive and its environmentally attractive because it's taking carbon dioxide out of the exhaust of the power plant and turning it into organic material, into oils or sugars and so basically keeping it from growing into the atmosphere at least until it's burned in somebody's engine.

FLATOW: Dan, you were talking about research to produce better fuels than alcohol. Tell us about what some of those fuels might be.

Dr. KAMMEN: Well certainly, this fuel, butanol, is one that's very attractive at the moment. And it's attractive largely because it is more similar to gasoline. It's got an energy content that's closer to gasoline. So when you have a gallon of gasoline and of ethanol side by side, the ethanol has about 30 percent less energy in it. So you would need to fill up more often. I don't regret that as a big problem, but I've heard people in Detroit saying it certainly is. And fuels like butanol have other advantages. They have the same sort of solubility or insolubility with water that gasoline does, whereas, ethanol has a problem with the - when it gets in contact with water. And almost all pipes tend to have water in it, so if you're going to develop a big industry and then pipe this stuff around, there are issues there as well.

So there are these other fuels. I actually would tend to agree a little more with what I think Evan was implying earlier on and that is that despite some of these issues, ethanol is still quite attractive. It's a fuel that we can use in blends. It's a fuel that doesn't, for example, have a really noxious, not just a mildly distasteful, but a really seriously a noxious odor as butanol does when it's being produced.

And the ability to ramp up a biofuel industry by growing the fraction of ethanol mixed-ins - so we're at E5 in California right now, they are about E10 in Minnesota in most places - and ramp those numbers up with a larger fractions of the vehicles so called flex fuel. And there's been bills proposed in Congress to ask for or you require a larger fraction of our vehicles be flex-fueled - meaning they could take either gasoline or this ethanol-gasoline mixes. That strikes me as a fairly attractive way to not require us to discard lots of current infrastructure and to build up a known working biofuel as we develop these new ones.

And that's quite attractive to me. And that's why Governor Schwarzenegger, again, supported this Low Carbon Fuel Standard, not trying to pick the winning fuel or combination, but to go for a whole range, including taking fuels and making them into electricity, so you can gasify biofuels. You can then burn them in a power plant to make electricity or you can use renewable energy, wind or solar, and charge up your plug-in hybrid car and run off of that, and then you have zero urban emissions at all. And so the opportunities here are really quite impressive.

FLATOW: Evan Ratliff, tells us about your article about some of the efforts to break down the cellulose and increase the fermentation process. Are there new techniques that we haven't heard about yet that are, you know, still trying to be developed? I mean, it seems to me that what you have - Dan talked about it, the (unintelligible) the loaf - a slice of bread and a 2-by-4 outside, that sounds like it's one heck of a challenge to break down that woody substance we're talking about here.

Mr. RATLIFF: It certainly is and the caller earlier was correct in the sense that the challenge is created by millions of years of evolution, where plants, you know, when they evolved and left water and became, you know, lived on land. They've developed these defensive mechanisms, basically, they developed structural woodier parts in order to defend themselves and that's what we're trying to now break down, we're trying to reverse all of these millions of years of evolution.

But there are some new, I wouldn't say techniques, but, you know, we've had -for decades, we've had these enzymes that's exist in nature and, you know, they exist actually almost anywhere that you find plants. So if a tree falls in the forest, it will get broken down. It may take 10 years. It may take a hundred years. But they are bacteria in the forest that produced enzymes, which digest cellulose. So we've actually been using degrade cellulosic ethanol. Scientists have been using the same microbe that was actually discovered in World War II with the bacteria who are eating tents of U.S. soldiers in the Pacific. And they discovered that it was these bacteria and it created enzymes that could break down cellulose. So they've been using that.

But in the last 10 years, the developments have started to move much more quickly. On one end, scientists are sort of scouring the world, looking for new enzymes. So one place that shows a lot of promise is in actually in the gut of termites. So termites in Costa Rica, which are some of the best in the world in terms of creatures that breakdown cellulose, they have microbes in their stomachs. Those microbes create enzymes. So scientists have gone to find those enzymes, sequence the DNA of the enzymes, and then try to produce them in the lab.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RATLIFF: And then on the other end, improving the enzymes that we already have by swapping in genes and doing directed evolution. So, you know, seeing which enzymes break down cellulose better, swapping in new genes to make those enzymes - the proteins more efficient in doing so, and then evolving them in the lab to make them better than anything you could find in nature.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking about cellulosic alcohol this hour. Let's go to John(ph) in Boston. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

JOHN: I was hoping you could comment on the political influence of the Farm Bill on overproduction of corn. And perhaps how - if corn isn't quite the right product to make ethanol, are we're just encouraging more production of corn and, you know, related to our food system as well.

FLATOW: Dan, you want to take that?

Dr. KAMMEN: There's no easy way around this…

FLATOW: You can pass that potato around. We're all beginning to run out of time, so…

Dr. KAMMEN: Yeah. So - I mean, there's a real issue here, and that is that we subsidize corn production heavily in that States. And in fact right now, we're subsidizing corn to ethanol production very heavily. A number of people think that removing that subsidy, while politically real, the problem is really the way to level this out.

Right now, about 23 percent of our corn production goes ethanol. And to put that in perspective, if we - instead of growing that corn on the exact same acreage - were go to grow one of these grasses, like the miscanthus or switch grass, those things, the analysis is that we could actually meet a much, much larger fraction of our energy - of our liquid fuel needs. In fact, we could meet the president's 35 billion gallon target, which is, you know, stalled almost a decade off in terms of wanting just to meet it - by simply, no new crop land, but swapping one of these more promising crops for the other. That goes against the whole range of subsidies, but also a whole range of experience that farmers and distributors have built up around corn and soy.

Now, transitions in crops that we grow do happen. But they are ones that take a lot more than just better lab science. They require an outreach network. They require congressmen and women and senators from farm states to get behind that kind of more - a broad package. And in my view, that's something that we could and I think could do profitably, but it's likely to happen, only if we really got behind a lower carbon economy in general where we saw this fitting in to efforts to also develop more use of wind and tidal power and potentially nuclear, and a variety of things.

And although we did see a climate conference in the White House last week, most observers are very skeptical that it was really about actions.

FLATOW: That's why we'll have…

Dr. KAMMEN: That's a hard, hard question.

FLATOW: And we'll have to continue with that discussion. Dan Kammen is the co-director of the Berkeley Institute if the Environment. Evan Ratliff is a freelance journalist, wrote the article "One Molecule Could Cure Our Addiction to Oil," in Wired magazine. And Tim Appenzeller is executive editor at National Geographic. The cover this month is a "Green Dreams." Thank you gentlemen for taking time to be with us.

We're going to take a short break and when we come back, we're going to look at a new office software for your computer system. So stay with us, we'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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