Gathering of the science tribes

The American Association for the Advancement of Science meets in San Francisco, and just like everywhere else, biofuels are on the agenda

Published February 16, 2007 11:59PM (EST)

At a press conference in San Francisco on Friday, listening to four distinguished scientists discuss ambitious plans to replace one-third of annual American gasoline consumption with biofuels, it was impossible not to imagine what would have happened if Tad Patzek, the Berkeley chemical engineering professor who is one of the nation's leading critics of biofuels, had been present. Nearly every assertion he made in a lecture I attended at Berkeley in October was directly contradicted.

There is enough marginal, unused agricultural land in the United States to generate the biomass necessary to reach the one-third goal without displacing food production, said Steven Chu, the Nobel physics prize winner who runs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And the laws of thermodynamics won't need to be broken -- there is more than enough energy hitting the earth every day as sunlight to supply all of humanity's energy needs. Ethanol produced via cellulosic technology, said CalTech biologist Mel Simon, who helped develop one of the key technologies employed in DNA sequencing, was just a handful of years away from being cost-competitive with conventional gasoline. The technical problems involved "are just an engineering problem," said Chris Somerville, a Stanford plant biologist who is considered a contender to be the director of the new Energy Biosciences Institute at Berkeley. Not only that, but we can actually increase the current biodiversity and fertility of farmland by correctly introducing new feed stocks into the industrial farming landscape, said Gerry Tuskan, the leader of the team that completed the sequencing of the poplar genome last year.

Would Patzek have spontaneously combusted? Stormed the podium? Or would he have been content with the namecheck offered by Somerville, who referenced Patzek and his co-biofuel-critic-in-arms David Pimentel, right at the beginning of his remarks. Patzek and Pimentel's specific numbers had been disputed by many scientific papers, he said, but on one basic principle they were correct: The processes by which biomass is currently converted to ethanol are not very efficient.

But that will change, declared the assembled scientists. Improvement will be incremental, and there will be mistakes and failures along the way. But it will happen.

The scientists were gathered together to give the media a taste of formal presentations they would be making Saturday at a symposium titled "Domestic Bioenergy: Weaning Ourselves From Foreign Oil Addiction," itself just one of scores of presentations at the 173rd meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, currently meeting in San Francisco.

The event was something of a science journalist feeding frenzy -- the press conference room was packed. Just as was true of the creation of the Energy Biosciences Institute in Berkeley two weeks ago, you had the sense that there was a tectonic shift going on underneath everyone. Big Science is focusing its mighty resources on applying its expanding understanding of the genetic structure of life to humanity's endless craving for energy. It's a big story, and the chance to hear scientists report from the front lines of this endeavor was a hot ticket.

It was not a forum for doubts, however. Simon declared that it was "inconceivable" that scientists would develop some kind of super-microbe that would eat the world. Steven Chu talked about how excited "our best scientists" are at the challenges ahead. There wasn't a whisper of concern about corporate control over patented life forms or the problems faced in getting deregulated markets to behave responsibly toward the planet.

Ah, but why gripe? A science conference should be for scientists to talk about science, right? We should just be grateful, I suppose, at how often the word "sustainability" is showing up in the conversation. The current issue of Science magazine is a special issue devoted to "sustainability" and globalization. The AAAS's theme this year is "Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being." Hey, even Big Oil chief executives are now finding it strategic to chant the magic word "renewable."

Everyone is talking the talk. And the century is still young.

UPDATE: I mangled the name of the laboratory that Steven Chu runs -- it is the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory -- and is not connected with the Livermore Laboratory that conducts classified weapons research. I've corrected the mistake.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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