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Biofuel pioneer Lee Lynd points the way toward a “carbohydrate economy”

Well before cellulosic ethanol became the hot new fuel, Lee Lynd was immersed in it. Since 1987, the engineering professor has been leading a major academic study group on cellulosic ethanol from his perch at Dartmouth. Before that, he even wrote his undergraduate honors thesis on it. Lee Lynd. Photo: Joseph Mehling/Dartmouth More recently, Lynd has been putting his technical expertise to the test in the marketplace. In 2005, he cofounded Mascoma, a cellulosic biomass-to-ethanol company that has just completed its second round of venture funding with support from Vinod Khosla and other investors. (Lynd serves as chief scientific officer.) …

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Grains become fuel at the world’s first cellulosic ethanol demo plant

Our plant supplants your plant: a real-life cellulosic ethanol refinery. Photo: Iogen Sometimes it seems virtually anything can be made into fuel. As though, if we had the right technology, we could throw together old T-shirts, bumper stickers, and pine cones to make a magical elixir to run the millions of cars on North America's highways. That's not an entirely far-fetched scenario. The days of filling up our cars on dead dinosaur goo are likely coming to an end. Instead, we'll be using fuel made from plants and plant waste. (Don't hold your breath for the bumper stickers.) The great …

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Top ten breakthroughs that could help cool the greenhouse

Read and be dazzled by the techno-futurism

David asked contributors for end-of-year lists. Since I normally focus on conservative assumptions, I thought I'd use it as an excuse to look at future breakthroughs and cost improvements. I was going to weasel by calling these "possibilities," but instead I decided to use the time-tested technique of public psychics: I'll call them predictions, crow over any that come true, and pretend the rest never happened. 1. Power storage that will make electric cars cheaper than gasoline cars. Ultracapacitors, various lithium systems, lead carbon foam (PDF), and aluminum are among the candidates. The first storage device with a price per …

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Santa’s Gonna Be Pissed

Arctic summer ice could melt nearly completely by mid-century, study says The Arctic Ocean could lose nearly all of its summer ice by 2040, says a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Research suggests that Arctic ice will begin retreating rapidly around 2024; by mid-century, far northern Canada and Greenland may claim the summer's only ice, while the North Pole will be ocean. A different study, from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, finds that the Arctic refroze slooowly this fall, with November's average ice cover the lowest since satellite measurements began in 1979. "It's becoming increasingly …

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An environmental-justice advocate responds to the biofuels boom

I am very excited to see this Grist series, because I am a biodiesel user. I am also very worried about the growth of the biofuels industry, because I am an environmental-justice advocate, and I see this industry rapidly leaving my community behind. What happens after the photo shoot? Photo: house.gov The growth of the biofuels industry creates significant economic benefits and downsides, economic winners and losers. Today, my words are a request that we ask hard questions about those winners and losers, about who is poised to benefit from this nascent industry. Let's start with some recent history. Did …

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Energy security: worthless on a cinder

Alternatives to oil must take climate change into account

Let me engage in a piece of meta-wonkerific self-reference and quote myself: "Energy security" is a lopsided way of framing our energy problem, and left un-balanced, will do more harm than good. I said that in the context of talking about coal -- the enemy of the human race -- but this week brought another piece of evidence from a different quarter. Lots of energy types think the most readily available, cheapest substitutes for conventional (imported) petroleum are unconventional sources like oil shale, heavy oil, and synthetic fuel via Fischer-Tropsch (i.e., coal-to-liquid). They may be right that these sources can …

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An interview with Greasecar founder Justin Carven

Justin Carven. In the span of just two years, Justin Carven invented the first waste-oil conversion kit for diesel engines, graduated from Hampshire College, drove a vegetable-oil-fueled van across the country, and started his very own company. Six years later, Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems is selling so many conversion kits that Carven is talking about setting up franchises in India and Brazil. Grist talked to him about the etiquette of snagging free waste oil, Iraq vets' conversion to veggie oil, the economics of environmental goodness, and more.   How did you first get interested in biofuels? I went to Hampshire …

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Toward a community-owned, decentralized biofuel future

President Bush visits the Virginia Biodiesel Refinery in 2005. Photo: whitehouse.gov Biofuels won't single-handedly solve the climate crisis, nor will they deliver energy independence. But a base of widely dispersed, farmer- and citizen-owned biofuel plants can displace significant amounts of fossil fuels -- while also building local economies. What follows is a strategy for tweaking existing federal energy and farm policy to create such an energy landscape. Before getting to that, though, given the scorn heaped on biofuels by many well-intentioned and not so well-intentioned commentators, I'll make the case that biofuels have an important role to play in any …

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To fulfill its environmental promises, biofuel policy needs a kick in the pants

As war simmers in the Middle East and oil prices rise along with global temperatures, Midwestern farmers and politicians aren't the only ones banging the drums for biofuels. Now big-time investors, security hawks, environmentalists, and even George W. Bush have joined their ranks. But is environmentally responsible bioenergy a real possibility, or are we bio-fooling ourselves? How green is your biofuel? Photo: gov.mb.ca The question is key, because current U.S. public policy is pushing biofuel production without giving much evident thought to sustainability. If present trends continue, the public could find itself funding environmentally ruinous projects in the name of …

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Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla chats about the promise of ethanol

Venture capitalist and ethanol booster Vinod Khosla. Billionaires are piling onto the biofuels bandwagon. Bill Gates is doing it. Richard Branson is doing it. The Google guys are doing it. Less well-known is the billionaire who kicked off the whole trend: Vinod Khosla, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems and former partner with Kleiner Perkins, the venture-capital firm that helped give rise to Google, AOL, Amazon, and Compaq. In 2004, he founded his own firm, Khosla Ventures, which has come to be known as a rainmaker in the ethanol world. To hear Khosla tell it, the burgeoning revolution in oil alternatives …