STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
When we're talking about ethanol - I mean, here is the fundamental question I want to begin with, can there be too much of this good thing?
IRA FLATOW: Well, if you are going to take away crops to feed people and substitute, you know, the food that we would be getting and sticking it into the gas tanks or the ethanol tanks of automobiles, then people would say yes, you know - that you going to drive up the price of corn, the price of food. And maybe that's not the right way to go.
INSKEEP: Is that already happening?
FLATOW: Sure is. And a lot of farmers, who might be selling their corn to the food companies, are now holding back and selling it to the ethanol companies.
INSKEEP: Okay, exciting thing, then. You can grow more corn and meet that market.
FLATOW: Well, there's just so much corn that you can grow. And, in fact, corn is not the best thing you can use and not the best plant source to make ethanol. It's not very good at returning bang for your buck. And people say, let's grow something else.
INSKEEP: When you talk about bang for the buck, what do you mean?
FLATOW: Well, let's say you put - when you put energy into growing corn - now, the ethanol that you get out of it, it only produces, let's say, one in a quarter units back. So you're only getting like a 25 percent return.
INSKEEP: When you talk about putting energy into growing corn, what do you mean? You mean that there has to be some gasoline in the combine and the farm machinery and so forth?
FLATOW: Well, and more than that, corn is very labor intensive, as you say, but you also have to fertilize it. And it takes energy to do that. You have to harvest it, you have to transport it. You have to do everything that sinks more energy in and subtracts from the amount of energy you get out.
INSKEEP: And so it might be smarter if we are growing something else for purposes of making fuel?
FLATOW: We haven't developed, fully, something called cellulosic-ethanol procedures, where the cellulose inside these woody plants can be broken down easily. And we'll need to find a much more efficient way of doing that. But it seems more like an engineering problem than a really basic science problem.
INSKEEP: Woody plants - you mean, trees?
FLATOW: Trees like the switchgrass, the willow trees. If we create more acres of those kinds of plants, and harvest those kinds of plants, we can get out a lot more ethanol from those kinds of plant than we can from corn.
INSKEEP: Well, now, let's talk about what the best scientific way is. You're job seem to think that we're going to grow our way out of our energy problems with corn or our global warming problems with corn. Let's say we start with that switchgrass...
INSKEEP: ...or some other material - willow trees or some such thing - figure out a way to turn that into gasoline or something that can substitute for gasoline. Does that solve our problem?
FLATOW: States are deciding on their own to set their own energy policies. Just three states have enough wind right now. They're - that if we set up wind turbines on a large scale, those three states can supply enough electricity to power the whole country. We have the equivalent of the Saudi Arabia of electricity of wind right in our, you know, our central plain states. We just don't have a way to get the wind out.
INSKEEP: Could you end up powering your cars by wind power - by which, I suppose - I mean, the wind generates electricity; the electricity goes to an electric car somehow?
FLATOW: Well, you can take the electrodes coming out of a wind turbine and stick it into water, just that you find around you and of hydrogen bubble out of one end. Put that hydrogen into a tank or into a pipeline and ship it. So now you have converted the electricity into hydrogen. And now, maybe in fuel cells, a fuel cell technology that's linked to our cars, we now have a way, a second way of using the wind.
INSKEEP: Thanks very much.
FLATOW: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you can plug-in to a little more of Ira's energy by reading an excerpt from "Present at the Future" and learn how the brain generates electricity by going to npr.org.
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