How Going Over Niagara Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey there, welcome to the Podcast. I'm Josh Clark; I am a staff writer here at howstuffworks.com. And with me today is my trusty editor, Chris Pollete. Chris and I don't always see eye-to-eye on what should or shouldn't go into the article but I can tell you one that we both agree on and find fascinating; it's an article that I wrote and he edited called, "Can we fuel cars with grass?" So, Chris, why don't you tell the folks about this article and what it says?

Chris Pollete: Well, basically, switch grass is one of the feedstock's for a bio-fuel and of course that's something that pops up in the news all the time now is ethanol or bio-diesel but instead of using corn, which is something of course that people and animals eat or sugar can -

Josh Clark: Which is delicious?

Chris Pollete: - oh, yes, yes, absolutely but very hard to find in the continental U.S.

Josh Clark: Sure.

Chris Pollete: We can use switch grass which is a great source of cellulose which is the substance I believe you told me that cell walls are made up of. Basically, what they do is they break it down and make it into a fuel, just like you'd refine oil into gasoline except you can't find fossil fuels just anywhere. We're possibly approaching peak oil as you mentioned in another one of your articles and so this is something that might be grown all over the world in lots that aren't good enough to grow crops on; it might be a really good solution.

Josh Clark: Well, not only that but switch grass has the wonderful trait of being able to improve soil where it grows so like you were saying, it grows in marginal scrublands that can't be used for farming anyway and it actually improves the soil so you grow some switch grass in an area for about a dozen years and next thing you know, presto chango, that's airable farm land now. So, it would definitely help Africa out quite a bit which is one of the regions where it can grow wild, too. So, tell us what switch grass is specifically?

Chris Pollete: Well, switch grass is, as its name suggests, a grass. It's not particularly pleasant to look at. It's - I think some people consider it invasive and more like a weed than anything else.

Josh Clark: Yes, farmers especially.

Chris Pollete: Yeah. And it's - I don't know, can - I didn't even find this out, do animals eat switch grass or is it just something that's irritating to farmers?

Josh Clark: I think it's generally irritating. It's used in some circumstances as an ornamental grass, some types are, but I think ultimately it was clearly put on the earth here to be used as cellulosic ethanol.

Chris Pollete: Well, I suppose that's one interpretation of it. It'll be interesting to see what happens with it because right now, it's very expensive to refine switch grass into cellulosic ethanol and of course every proponent of every different bio-fuel has a reason why we should be using there's but one thing, Josh, that I found out recently, since we published the article is that converting fields to be used for bio-fuels, for example, to grow soy or corn or sugar cane -

Josh Clark: Or palm.

Chris Pollete: - or palm, can actually be more trouble because in the conversion process, it can release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I read an article in the New Scientist that said 10,000 square meters of Brazilian rainforests - converting that over to grow bio-fuel stock crops that would actually release 700,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide which is amazing. You have to use bio-fuels for years, hundreds of years, in some cases to recoup the carbon debt that you do by converting it. So, it seems like switch grass might be a great solution to that problem.

Josh Clark: Switch grass is an excellent solution but I don't think it's the only solution. You know, you can't grow switch grass in Indonesia; you can grow palm in Indonesia and make oil from it and, sure, you know, there's a carbon debt and that is something clearly that we're trying to get around is to put any more carbon or any other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere but I think even more than - maybe more important than climate change is war and regional autonomy.Imagine if Indonesia didn't have to import any oil from anywhere else, they were energy self-sufficient; imagin e if the U.S. were energy self-sufficient. How much more peaceful would the world be do you think Chris is we all grew our own energy supply.

Chris Pollete: That's true and it makes regions more stable; there are fewer things to have political conflicts over.

Josh Clark: Sure, and I'm not pointing fingers, but wars are fought over oil.

Chris Pollete: Oh, sure and all sorts of other resources.

Josh Clark: Well, thanks for joining us this week. You can read, "Can we fuel cars with grass," on howstuffworks.com.

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