Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Interview: Bob Zubrin on Alternative Fuel

zubrincov.jpgToday, we interview aerospace engineer and author, Bob Zubrin, about his new book, Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil. Zubrin has a surprisingly simple plan for reducing the power of OPEC and keeping dollars out of the hands of terrorists and their supporters, all while reducing greenhouse emissions. He discusses whether or not Congress will pass flexfuel legislation, why dependence on foreign oil puts America at risk, and why he is a critic of hydrogen fuel. You can read more about his work at

You can listen directly -- no downloads needed -- by going here and clicking on the gray Flash player. You can download the file and listen at your leisure at by clicking right here. You can get a lo-fi version suitable for cellphones, Treos, and dialup connections by going here and clicking "lo fi." And, of course, you can always get a free subscription via iTunes. Free! Show archives are at Zubrin's website is at

This podcast brought to you by Volvo Automobiles. Music is "Indistinguishable from Magic" by Mobius Dick.



Blogger Cham said...

So everyone wonders why I am so pro-Hillary. This is the way things work....People who wear tablecloths and toilet paper on their heads give vast amounts of dollars to American political candidates. The political candidates spend those dollars on expensive TV air time convincing voters that they are good and their opponents are evil. If elected those candidates cum politicians will refuse to change energy policy so that the tablecloths and toilet paper heads can continue to oppress their own people, bomb Americans and earn vast sums of money.

Currently we have in power a man with big ties to the oil industry and wants to keep it happy. One of the favorite platforms of the Republican party is that they don't ever wish to tell businesses how to run their business. However, if we continue to turn a blind eye to the automotive industry as they produce one fossil fuel powered vehicle after another then we will continue to have to suck at the tit of the tablecloth heads.

Brasil turned this around years ago by simply demanding that the little cars be altered to handle ethanol made from sugar cane. Brasil has much sugar cane but not much oil. You can stand in the middle of Rio which is jammed with cars and buses and it doesn't smell too bad.

Allow me to continue on. With the current corn subsidies it costs $3 to create $2 worth of corn, not to mention the pesticide damage to the environment. I have a flex fuel vehicle and will stick E85 in it every chance I get. I've run the numbers and usually the E85 gives me identical bang for the buck as gasoline. However, I do like the idea of making ethanol and methanol from sugar cane. Maybe we can do it from sugar beets as well. I know we can make methane easily from doody and trash. Americans creates a huge amount of doody and trash already.

With alternative fueled vehicles we can solve so many of our current national issues. If corn and cane become valued, land will be at a premium and people will want to grow crops rather than build more McMansions, reducing exurban sprawl and allowing communities better growth management. If sugar cane and beets become a valued commodity for fuel the price of candy and donuts will sky rocket encouraging overweight Americans to eat something else, maybe carrots, green beans and kale. Cows will be tossed off the land to make way for the fuel producing crops, decreasing the availability of saturated fat laden food products. Healthier Americans will mean less impact on the medical care system and we can see the price of health insurance decrease.

You see, this is a win win win situation. But I am not holding my breath that anything will change.

10:20 AM, January 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do agree that some old-fashioned Progressive-style trust-busting behavior might be useful in getting big oil deal fairly with alternative energy. However, I think I'd rather pay more for gas than have an aging, 60s-era socialist in the White House.

I don't think we'll see any kind of radical intervention until voters really start hurting at the gas pump, the grocery store, and elsewhere. Might even take 70s-style gas lines to bring people around. At that point, alternative energy will be at the top of everyone's agenda - Republicans and Democrats. It's going to take a while and we're going to have to suffer a lot more than we are now.

3:01 PM, January 02, 2008  
Blogger Mercurior said...

unfortunatly, the use of biofuels, has driven the price of wheat up

"Neither one of these suppositions is correct. The massive use of land for monocropping genetically modified biomass is neither natural nor earth-friendly. Thus far the displacement of farmers and the exploitation of farm laborers in producing crops used for agrofuels work against decent standards of living for human beings.

Changes in land use under the agrofuel strategy will transform landscapes and lives, not only in the United States but throughout the hemisphere. Even with increased crop yields and genetic modification, U.S. agrofuel production will fall far short of the recently set goals for agrofuel consumption. Offshore sourcing provides a cheap and reliable source. In the Americas, Ecuadorian agribusiness plans to expand sugar cane production by 50,000 hectares and clear 100,000 hectares of natural forests for oil palm production. In Colombia oil palm production is already dubbed the "diesel of deforestation." Brazil plans to clear another 60 million hectares for sugar cane production.

so they are going to cut down more of the rain forest to.. save the planet from what...He notes that in the state of Pernambuco 45,000 families have been displaced by monocrops Other analysts fear that landless peasants who are unable to find work in plantations will be forced to clear land in natural areas protected for their biodiversity. The concentration of land and distilleries in the hands of rural elite and transnational corporations pushes family farmers out of entire regions.

so is biofuels the answer..

3:29 PM, January 02, 2008  
Blogger Helen said...


Zubrin explains that this is not a left/right problem only. There are plenty of Democrats making out like bandits (Vernon Jordan among others) with Saudi oil money and they don't want to change the status quo either. What we need is a leader who is willing to look at some of these alternative fuels and find a way to make us less dependent on Middle East Oil. Lobbyists and politicians of both parties (the Clintons included) are making money off Saudi oil. We need someone who is willing to look at what would be best for the country rather than the lining of their pockets.

3:37 PM, January 02, 2008  
Blogger Mercurior said...

but that will happen for bio fuels, alternative fuels. follow the money, gore says about carbon tax/credits he owns a company that sells them.. and so on..

3:50 PM, January 02, 2008  
Blogger Rich said...


Great podcast with Zubrin. I wonder about the alcohol angle having worked in the transit industry for a number of years methanol was a big "silver bullet" until the industry found it damaged engines. Now the thing is hybrid buses and fuel cells. Maybe this is something that could be overcome by technology but has not, as far as I know.

My other point is that I have not heard about investment in thermal depolymerization. An old process that can take any carbon based material and process it into (I think) No. 2 Deisel and a agriculturally neutral solid. There is some question about what feedstock (the material you process to get the fuel) is the best. Also have not heard much (electricity-wise) about pebble bed reactors. That seems to be a safe (from a melt down standpoint) method of producing electricity. Maybe the more knowledgable in the audience can speak up.

4:00 PM, January 02, 2008  
Blogger David Foster said...

1)Sugarcane is a much better feedstock for ethanol than is corn; unfortunately, it only grows in limited areas within the United States. We should be getting rid of the import tariff and bringing in large quantities of sugar-based ethanol; however, this will be politically very difficult because corn is farmed throughout wide areas of the country and has strong political support from those that grow and process it.

2)Methanol seems to have great potential; however, the two most likely ways to make it on a large scale are through the conversion of natural gas and coal. Domestic supplies of nat gas are finite, and at some point methanol production could begin to drive nat gas prices up...although this could be partly offset by turning gas into methanol in other countries and transporting it here by ship, this isn't really "energy independence" in a pure sense. Coal-based methanol production will be fought tooth-and-nail by various environmentalists...does anyone want to spend a couple billion on a methanol plant and then have it tied up in litigation for the next 10 years?

The intersection of the protest culture and the ligitation business have made it very difficult to carry out *any* kind of large-scale infrastructure-building. It will take exceptional political leadership to ever get past this.

4:05 PM, January 02, 2008  
Blogger Rich said...

Just as a sidenot here is a link to the Popular Mechanics article on alternative fuels.

4:29 PM, January 02, 2008  
Blogger Sebastian said...

I'll have to listen to your podcast later. I'm very skeptical of the idea that we can grow our way to energy independence, as there's only a limited amount of arable land in the United States.

The United States basically has only two real sources of domestic energy: coal and nuclear. There's also hydro power, but we've pretty much utilized all we can do there. There is a process for converting coal into a motor fuel, but it involves a lot of natural gas, and is hardly greenhouse friendly. Not to mention expensive.

5:22 PM, January 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My daughter is pursuing her PhD(s) in biotechnology / biochemistry (plants) for the very reasons of renewable fuels, lubricants, higher crop yields, more nutrition in the crops.

Many are working on it. Working on different facets, different ideas. Like anything else, it will take time to develop the processes. After that, it becomes a logistics and engineering problem.

I remember how environmentalists were screaming the rain forests are being destroyed, but no one was telling us why; just what a crime it is and how it will damage the world. Brazil was planting sugar cane. Still is. The waste, bagasse, is burned in boilers to generate electricity to power the sugar mills, which are usually out in the middle of nowhere. Sugar cane rots in days. The mills have to be where the crops are.

No easy answers exist. Never have and probably never will. There are more people around who can poke a million holes in someone's ideas than you can shake a stick at. I wonder how well we would do if the same amount of people were working on solving the problems. We can't go back to subsistence farming. Like Steve Goodman said, "How ya keep 'em down on the farm, when even outer space has lost its charm."

6:33 PM, January 03, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, by the way, during the first oil embargo, oil refineries were required to design, build, and test coal gasification plants. Once they were up and running, they were shut down and buttoned up. They are sitting there waiting for an absolute emergency - no oil, no fuel. It's expensive. But not as expensive as no heating oil, etc.

6:43 PM, January 03, 2008  
Blogger Will Conway said...

good interview, helen and glenn

11:58 PM, January 03, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:37 AM, January 04, 2008  
Blogger David Foster said...

br549..."during the first oil embargo, oil refineries were required to design, build, and test coal gasification plants. Once they were up and running, they were shut down and buttoned up. They are sitting there waiting for an absolute emergency" you have a link on this? It seems very improbable to me, because the primary cost of plants like this isn't the operating cost, it's the capital cost, which goes on running whether the plant is operating or not. (Unless these are simply pilot plants, too small for economic commercial operation)

BTW, there was an item in today's WSJ about coal-to-oil plants now being built in Asia.

9:17 AM, January 04, 2008  
Blogger Serket said...

We definitely need a cheap, efficient alternative, and corn ethanol does not qualify and will increase the price of food.

Cham - the reason you listed of the Saudi influence is exactly why Republicans like Giuliani. He refused to receive money from them on 9/11. I actually think that Clinton would be better on foreign policy than either Obama or Edwards. The sugar option does sound reasonable if we still have enough land to maintain other crops and animals. Plus raising the price of candy would probably be a good thing.

2:11 PM, January 04, 2008  
Blogger Joe said...

He's absurdly naive and offers up typical socialist clap trap that ignores the consequences. There isn't enough feedstock to provide enough alcohol to displace oil, even using E85. Two unintended consequences would be to drive the price of basic food up and dictators will displace crops to make ethanol. The result will likely be a new cartel.

What about the effects of using non-food crop residuals on soil formation?

What about delivering ethanol? It is so corrosive and attractive to water that you can't use the current infrastructure.

His price claims also make no sense. Adjusted for inflation, the price of oil is still cheaper than the height in the 70s.

Now, getting rid of heating oil makes perfect sense and should be done ASAP. It's just plain dumb.

PS. I'm annoyed by the obsession with ethanol. Butanol is a vastly superior fuel and can be used in current cars without any changes. Think about that for a bit--the solution already exists, but OPEC is still there.

6:42 PM, January 04, 2008  
Blogger Joe said...

Another point; Bob fails to understand and appreciate that OPEC accounts for less than 50% of world oil production. Contrary to popular believe they can't simply set prices arbitrarily. He also fails to understand that there is pretty good evidence that more oil reserves are under the Caribbean than in all the middle east. The US could be tapping some of that right now, but is being blocked by environmentalists, the state of Florida and a myriad of other interests who have far more influence on the US government than Saudi Arabia.

8:56 PM, January 04, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The only link I have is from the plants I've seen and worked on eons ago. Yes, pilot plants, mostly.

The Chinese have been drilling for oil off Cuba already, if I'm not mistaken. And most know that one of the latest drilling techniques is to drill sideways once underground. No telling where the drill bit can actually end up.

10:39 PM, January 04, 2008  
Blogger David Foster said...


10:36 AM, January 05, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:25 PM, January 05, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While Brazil has been very aggressive in developing ethanol and biodiesel production to help the country become energy independent, the country also has been aggressively searching for and developing domestic oil sources.

This part of the plan doesn't get the headlines, though, but you can read about the country's plans here.

In other words, Brazil took a balanced approach to the problem, alternative fuels combined with increased domestic oil production, equals energy independence.

In fact, I believe Brazil's president celebrated the country's achievement of energy independence by breaking a bottle of champaign on a new offshore drilling rig.

If the U.S. is to achieve the same goal, then we too must take a coordinated and comprehensive approach. More alternative fuels, more domestic oil production (Alaska, East and West coasts), plus conservation.

However, such a sensible policy will never see the light of day because major policy debates in the U.S. are reduced to a zero sum game.

For alternative fuels to win, domestic oil production and conservation must lose.

Feel free to rearrange the above sentence anyway you want to suit your own taste, but the answer to our energy woes lies in all three, not just one or two.

5:41 PM, January 05, 2008  

Post a Comment

<< Home