Terry Walker: Biofuel from Switchgrass

Interview with Terry Walker, PhD, Associate Professor of Agricultural & Biological Engineering

When I started driving gas was 23 cents a gallon. Today, sky's the limit. Those high prices represent supply and demand. In other words we're running out of gas, we're at the bottom of the barrel. We need to find alternatives.

I met with Dr. Terry Walker, a bioprocess engineer at Clemson University who is researching alternative fuel sources.

What we have here is a bio reactor that we're utilizing to convert switch grass, which is a common type of grass that has very high yields, fairly low nitrogen use, to be able to convert the cellulose material over to glucose, and then ultimately into ethanol.

Okay so what basically we're doing is we're cooking switch grass in here. Okay maybe it's a bit more complicated than that. There's quite a bit of biotechnology involved and understanding the way nature puts this together into a structural form and then be able to break it down back into its components.

Nature has produced these types of products for a reason. They're structural products and they're not supposed to break down and that's where we're really having to fight against nature to be able to make this happen. With all the talk in the media these days it's easy to think biofuels are a new thing but actually they're not.

The original diesel engine was run on peanut oil, as a lot of people know this, and also the original Ford motor company vehicles many of those ran on ethanol. How long before biofuels will once again be the primary energy source for vehicles? No one knows for sure but the work of Dr. Walker and other researchers certainly makes me hopeful it will be soon. This is Peter Kent for Science and Society.