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March 11, 2005

The Golden Age of Garbage

Chris Charuhas

On January 17, 1991, I saw my mother crying as she watched the green-tinted television images of anti-aircraft shells fired against U.S. bombers above Baghdad. It was the start of the Gulf War. She thought I'd be sent to fight in that war, because I had graduated from Army Officer Basic Course a week before.

It was a war for oil. Everyone knew that. Turning back Saddam Hussein's aggression was a worthy goal, but the war's main purpose was to protect our oil supplies. Just as importantly, it protected the oil supplies of Germany and Japan, our deadly opponents of 50 years before. If they had to protect their own oil, they might feel the need to rearm.

Although I didn't particularly like the idea of going to war for oil, I knew it was in our nation's interest, so I did my duty. The next morning, I put on my uniform, went down to the local Reserve unit here in Frederick, and asked if they needed any help. Fortunately, President George H. W. Bush and his generals planned the war brilliantly, it ended quickly, and I was never deployed to Iraq.

But even then I wondered why isn't our government doing anything to reduce or eliminate the central importance of oil in the world's economy? Worldwide demand for it creates kleptocratic regimes wherever it's plentiful, and leaves us vulnerable to the whims of bandits.

Back in 1991, it was because no alternative fuel system could be developed. Fortunately, that's no longer true. A Canadian biotech firm called Iogen has developed a genetically-engineered microbe that turns agricultural waste into ethanol. This is revolutionary: it means that our country - and others - no longer must depend on foreign oil.

Here's how it might work.

It costs about $50 to convert a car to run on ethanol. If we Americans converted our cars to run on ethanol, they could run on the waste of the crops we grow - what's left over after we've shucked our corn, de-podded our peas, and separated the wheat from the chaff.

If our country converted its agricultural waste products into ethanol, this would provide the same amount of fuel we import from Venezuela and all the Middle East - at $.60 to $.80 cents per gallon.

It gets even better: Lanny Schmidt, a chemical engineer at the University of Minnesota, has developed a way to suck hydrogen from ethanol and feed it into a fuel cell. It costs about $5. This makes cars even more efficient: with fuel cells, we might be able to fuel ALL our cars and trucks on ethanol made from good old agricultural garbage.

The best part of an ethanol-fuel infrastructure: there's a company here in Frederick called Atlantic Biomass that aims to make this new waste conversion process cheap and widespread. Also, there's no reason that Maryland biotech companies can't do the Canadians one better and develop even better microbes for turning garbage into fuel.

So, call your congressman, lobby your legislators, and tell them that you want your government spending your tax money to develop a new ethanol fuel infrastructure that will benefit Frederick County startup companies, Frederick County farmers, and Maryland biotech firms.

Tell them you don't think that corn- and cotton-growing conglomerates should get billions in subsidies. Instead, you want that money sent to farmers growing crops like beets that can be easily converted to ethanol.

Let's run America on ethanol, and stick it to the Saudi royal family. With an ethanol fuel system, no more Americans need die in Iraq. Let's take that $200 billion we're spending to keep our troops where they're not wanted, and invest it in development of an ethanol-based fuel infrastructure.

Not only will that save us money and make our country stronger, it will be profitable as well: we can make a killing selling ethanol fuel and technology to Europeans tired of spending $5 a gallon for gas.

Who knows, maybe we can make enough fuel from agricultural garbage that the next OPEC-style potentates will be named Reifsnider, Keilholtz, and Crum! It could bring in - for Frederick County and our nation - a Golden Age of Garbage.

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