News this Week

Science  22 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6126, pp. 1364
  1. Around the World

    1 - Daini Atsumi Knoll, Japan
    Japanese Draw Methane From Sea Floor
    2 - Washington, D.C.
    Yellow Light for Anthrax Vaccine Trial in Children
    3 - Brussels
    Proposed E.U. Pesticide Ban Fails to Win Support
    4 - Bethesda, Maryland
    Hughes Gives $22 Million to Bolster Teaching Training
    5 - Baltimore, Maryland
    Organ Recipient Contracts Rabies

    Daini Atsumi Knoll, Japan

    Japanese Draw Methane From Sea Floor

    Chikyu extracts methane hydrate.

    CREDIT: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN VIA AP IMAGES

    In a world first, a Japanese group extracted natural gas from a deep-sea methane hydrate deposit. Methane hydrate, a mixture of ice and methane molecules, is found in permafrost and beneath the sea floor.

    The Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) adapted oil-drilling technology and relied on Chikyu, Japan's deep-sea research drilling vessel, for the experimental probe at the Daini Atsumi Knoll, about 80 kilometers southeast of Atsumi Peninsula. Working in 1000-meter-deep water, the crew drilled through 330 meters of overlying sediment into a 60-meter-thick sandy layer containing the methane hydrate. Pumping water out of the sandy formation decreased pore pressure, allowing the gas to dissociate from the ice and flow through piping up to the ship.

    JOGMEC estimates that an amount equivalent to 11 years' worth of Japan's current natural gas imports could be recovered from the test-site deposit. But environmentalists worry about leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas, and detrimental impacts on the marine environment.

    JOGMEC started related R&D in 2001 and plans to continue technical development through 2018.

    Washington, D.C.

    Yellow Light for Anthrax Vaccine Trial in Children

    President Barack Obama's bioethics commission says that the U.S. government could consider testing the anthrax vaccine in children, if certain conditions are met.

    Whether and how to test biodefense treatments in children is ethically challenging because such studies would expose kids to the risks of, say, a new vaccine, when they are unlikely to directly benefit. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues investigated after another federal advisory board voted in favor of conducting an anthrax vaccine trial in children (Science, 4 November 2011, p. 577).

    In a 146-page report this week, the bioethics commission says that an anthrax vaccine trial—as well as other tests of medical countermeasures in children—could "be considered" if data for young adults show that the risks are minimal for older children. The vaccine could be tested in the older group and then in progressively younger age groups. A study posing greater than minimal but still minor risk would require approval by a national ethics panel. http://scim.ag/anthvac

    Brussels

    Proposed E.U. Pesticide Ban Fails to Win Support

    Activists urge bans on bee-killing pesticides.

    CREDIT: ERIC VIDAL/REUTERS

    The European Commission has failed to win over E.U. member states for restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids, widely used pesticides that have been linked to declining bee populations. The plan was scuttled in a 15 March vote that angered environmental activists.

    Under the commission's January proposal, neonicotinoids would be banned from flowering crops such as corn, sunflowers, and rapeseed for 2 years starting this summer. The commission based the ban on growing evidence that neonicotinoids pose a threat to bee health, including three January reports from the European Food Safety that described the threat as an "acute risk." Only 13 of the 27 member states supported the ban; five others, including Germany and the United Kingdom, whose votes carry more weight because of their size, abstained. The commission must now decide whether to revise the proposal or take the vote to an appeals committee.

    The vote was hailed by neonicotinoid manufacturers Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, which dispute the evidence for environmental harm. "We are pleased that EU Member States did not support the European Commission's shamefully political proposal," said Syngenta Chief Operating Officer John Atkin in a statement.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Hughes Gives $22 Million to Bolster Teaching Training

    The Howard Hughes Medical Institute this week gave $22.5 million to expand a network of universities using an approach (UTeach) developed at the University of Texas to train math and science teachers.

    The money goes to the Texas-based National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), formed in 2007 to draw science and math majors into teaching. Students in the UTeach program, which began in 1997, graduate with both a science degree and a teaching certificate. That combination is designed to give them the content knowledge needed to inspire students and the pedagogical skills to be effective in the classroom.

    Fueled by a $125 million pledge from the ExxonMobil Foundation, NMSI has funded efforts at 34 universities that have agreed to replicate the UTeach model. Gaining support from HHMI, says NMSI Board of Directors Chair Tom Luce, "is a major achievement" for the initiative, which also promotes advanced placement courses in U.S. high schools.

    NMSI will use the money to hold a competition to add 10 research-intensive universities to its network, which to date has trained 1150 teachers. http://scim.ag/HHMItea

    Baltimore, Maryland

    Organ Recipient Contracts Rabies

    A man from Maryland died in late February after being infected with rabies through a kidney transplant more than a year ago—a very unusual route of infection. The case was announced by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta on 15 March.

    The victim received a kidney from a donor in Florida whose illness had not been identified as rabies when he died in September 2011. (Fewer than five human cases of rabies occur in the United States every year, and organ donors aren't routinely screened for the virus.) CDC says three other patients received organs from the same donor; they are now followed by medical teams and are receiving antirabies antibodies and a vaccine. In addition, close contacts of all four organ recipients are being traced because rabies can be transmitted through direct contact, although that is extremely rare.

  2. Newsmakers

    Encryption Whizzes Win Turing Award

    Goldwasser and Micali

    CREDIT: JASON DORFMAN, CSAIL/MIT

    Two computer scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who pioneered advances in digital security have won the $250,000 Turing Award—sometimes called the Nobel Prize for computer science—from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). Shafi Goldwasser and Silvio Micali will share the prize for work that became the bedrock of modern cryptography, which underlies various forms of security on the Internet. Micali and Goldwasser—who also holds a position at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel—developed the concept that the basis for encrypting information had to be computational. Their work enabled others to come up with ways to secure communications and transactions on the World Wide Web.

    Micali and Goldwasser's contributions have affected pretty much everybody using the Internet. "The encryption schemes running in today's browsers meet their notions of security," ACM President Vint Cerf said in a statement announcing the prize. "The method of encrypting credit card numbers when shopping on the Internet also meets their test. We are indebted to these recipients for their innovative approaches to ensuring security in the digital age."

    Intel Top Prize to Algae Biofuel Study

    Kallenbach, Volz, and Bowman

    CREDIT: INTEL

    To win Intel's Science Talent Search, you don't necessarily need a fancy lab; 17-year-old Sara Volz, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, simply turned the space under her loft bed into a lab bench. For her entry, Volz developed populations of algae cells that produce higher-than-normal levels of oil, which could potentially be used as a highly renewable and economically viable biofuel. Because growing and testing the algae required a very specific regimen of exposure to light and darkness, Volz reworked her sleep schedule to sync up with her algae's light cycle—and her homegrown approach nabbed the top prize of $100,000 at the 15th annual competition.

    The second place prize of $75,000 went to Jonah Kallenbach, 17, of Ambler, Pennsylvania, for his bioinformatics study that predicted how proteins bind during drug therapy. And a third place prize of $50,000 went to Adam Bowman, 17, of Brentwood, Tennessee, for designing and building a compact, inexpensive, low-energy pulsed plasma device that could make studies into plasma physics more feasible for researchers who lack the financial support of a premier lab. In total, about 1700 high school seniors applied to the contest, and 40 were selected as finalists.

    Soil Scientist Wins Tyler Prize

    Wall

    CREDIT: COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY

    The fate of nematodes in Antarctica may not seem compelling. But in her studies of these and other soil creatures, Diana Wall, of Colorado State University, Fort Collins, has found that climate change can fundamentally alter the ecology of soils, with a profound effect on how soil stores carbon. For her work, including 17 seasons studying the hardy nematodes of Antarctica's Dry Valleys, Wall has earned the 2013 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. The award, which has previously recognized primatologist Jane Goodall and biologist Edward O. Wilson, comes with a $200,000 cash prize and a gold medal.

    Wall and her team of "worm herders" are still working in the Dry Valleys, studying how the nematode Scottnema lindsayae—the "Rocky Balboa of nematodes"—responds to wetter and warmer soil conditions. With so few species in this polar desert environment, she says, it's possible to study interactions at a species level and how population distributions alter with changing climate.

    Brain Prize Goes to Optogenetics

    Miesenböck

    CREDIT: JULIA CONDON

    Originally a cell biologist, neuroscientist Gero Miesenböck says that his route to winning the world's largest brain research prize was "tortuous."

    "It took me a while to find my niche," he says. He appears to have found it: On Monday, 11 March, the Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation announced that Miesenböck, along with five other researchers including Ernst Bamberg, Peter Hegemann, Georg Nagel, Ed Boyden, and Karl Deisseroth, will share €1 million for fundamental research into optogenetics, a technology that allows scientists to control the brain's activity by genetically engineering neurons to fire in response to light. (Science named optogenetics an Insight of the Decade in 2010.)

    Since Miesenböck first demonstrated the proof-of-concept in fruit flies in 2002, hundreds of labs have begun to use the technique to manipulate brain activity in experimental animals, exploring the neurobiology underlying behaviors like decision-making as well as diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and addiction.

  3. Random Sample

    Obama Touts Energy Research Plan at Argonne

    CREDIT: ARGONNE NATIONAL LABORATORY

    President Barack Obama touted his proposed energy research funding plan, dubbed the Energy Security Trust, before a crowd of sequester-anxious, government-funded researchers at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory on 15 March. The plan proposes to funnel $2 billion in revenues from the government's offshore oil leasing program into energy research and technology development over the next 10 years.

    The plan drew bipartisan interest in Congress, but it has also drawn a skeptical reaction from senior Republicans on the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. "The President's call today for $2 billion in new spending for green energy programs is not the answer to the nation's energy challenges. And it adds billions more to the deficit," said Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the panel's chair, in a statement on 15 March. http://scim.ag/ObamaArgonne

    Digital Archive Marks DNA's Diamond Celebration

    The discovery of DNA's structure signaled a biological revolution in which genetics moved to the forefront of the field. Now, in time for the 60th anniversary of the groundbreaking publication of that structure, the Wellcome Library in London has put together a Web site that tells the story behind this revolution.

    CREDIT: WELLCOME LIBRARY, LONDON/WELLCOME IMAGES

    "Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics" makes available in digital form more than a million pages from letters, papers, personal notes, photographs, sketches, and essays related to James Watson and Francis Crick's 1953 Nature paper and the ensuing biological revolution during the 1950s and 1960s, including the eugenics movement.

    Although Watson and Crick became household names, the Wellcome project drives home how others, including Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins (pictured), laid the groundwork for their discovery. Bringing together 20 smaller collections, the $5.88 million project plans has digitized 650 related books and plans to add another 500,000 pages in the next few months. It includes letters that reveal the scientists "as humans rather than abstract figures," says Simon Chaplin, head of the Wellcome Library. Read their stories at http://wellcomelibrary.org/using-the-library/subject-guides/genetics/makers-of-modern-genetics.

    ScienceLIVE

    Join us on Thursday, 28 March, at 3 p.m. EDT for a live chat on whether conservation strategies are working. http://scim.ag/science-live

  4. Battle for the Barrel

    1. Robert F. Service

    This year is shaping up to be decisive for "cellulosic" ethanol made from corn stalks and other agricultural waste, as oil companies and the ethanol industry clash over government mandates for the automotive fuel.

    Future fuel.

    Poplar trees near Boardman, Oregon, are slated to be the feedstock for ZeaChem's cellulosic ethanol plant.

    CREDIT: ANDREW BOURQUE/GREENWOOD RESOURCES INC.

    Drive east from Portland, Oregon, on Interstate 84 past the 189-meter-tall Multnomah Falls waterfall, past the scores of Day-Glo–garbed windsurfers slicing through the whitecaps on the Columbia River at the town Hood River, and into the brown high-plains desert, and eventually you see what looks like a green postage stamp in the distance. As you draw near you realize its true size. It's an irrigated oasis of more than 10,000 hectares of poplar trees aligned in tidy rows. According to James Imbler, these trees are one of the keys to a revolution in transportation fuel that's now on the cusp of becoming reality. The poplars are committed to be the feedstock for ZeaChem, the chemical company that Imbler heads, which plans to mow them down, chop them to bits, and convert the sugars in their tissues to ethanol to be blended with gasoline and pumped into your tank. ZeaChem officials say that their chemical plant is in the final stages of development and will begin commercial production later this year, eventually producing some 94.6 million liters a year of ethanol.

    ZeaChem isn't alone in ramping up production of cellulosic ethanol, which is made from nonedible plant biomass. In December 2012, a company called Beta Renewables commissioned a plant near Turin, Italy, that will convert rice straw and other agricultural materials into 75.7 million liters a year of ethanol. In June 2012, INEOS Bio finished building a plant in Vero Beach, Florida, that will convert landfill waste and yard waste into 30.3 million liters of ethanol a year. And a 37.9-million-liter-a-year plant opened in Shandong, China, last year as well. Articles in The New York Times and elsewhere have hailed these developments as the long-awaited commercialization of cellulosic ethanol. Company executives agree. "The technology is ready to deliver," says Guido Ghisolfi, CEO of Beta Renewables in Italy.

    Perhaps. Critics of cellulosic ethanol say that they've heard it all before. The U.S. government ordered refineries to blend 75.7 million liters of cellulosic ethanol into gasoline between 2010 and 2012, citing annual estimates that repeatedly concluded that the fuel would be available. But cellulosic ethanol producers failed to deliver. Oil companies have responded by deriding cellulosic ethanol as a "phantom fuel." Now, they're calling for such mandates to be scrapped and are enlisting their friends in Congress to make it happen.

    Ethanol producers of all stripes are girding for a fight. "It's a battle for the barrel," says Robert Dinneen, the president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) in Washington, D.C., an industry association of ethanol producers. "It will be an epic fight," he predicts, pitting the world's largest oil and car companies against giant agricultural firms and Midwest farmers. The winner will likely determine not only the kind of car you drive in the future, but also perhaps the future of global fuel production. This conflict is creating a pressure-cooker environment for cellulosic ethanol producers. They need to deliver millions of liters of their fuel this year to take some of the political heat off the industry. "It's crunch time for cellulosic ethanol," says Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advanced Ethanol Council in Washington, D.C.

    Ironically, things might be even worse for cellulosic ethanol–makers if they succeed. This year's mandates call for 53 million liters of cellulosic ethanol to be blended into gasoline. If producers go beyond such mandates over the next few years and flood the market with their fuel, there may be nowhere for it to go, as refiners aren't required to blend any excess ethanol into their gasoline. Add to this the insecurity over how the ongoing budget battles in Congress will affect U.S. national energy policy and tax breaks that the ethanol industry enjoys, and 2013 is shaping up to be the make-or-break year for cellulosic ethanol. At the National Ethanol Conference (NEC) held in February in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack warned his audience that the road ahead looks rough. "It's a very dicey time," Vilsack said.

    Higher standards

    The ethanol industry seems as though it's been around forever. And in a way, it has. The fermentation of ethanol, more commonly known as alcohol, is one of humanity's oldest known technologies. Analysis of 9000-year-old clay jars recovered in China reveals that Neolithic people consumed alcohol. The use of the energy-rich molecule as a fuel dates back to the dawn of the automobile age: In 1908, the Ford Motor Company's Model T could be powered by ethanol. But eventually carmakers settled on a mixture of organic compounds even richer in energy that could be refined from oil pumped right out of the ground. Gasoline took over in America and has been king ever since.

    In 2005, Congress set out to change this picture. It passed the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and updated it in 2007 with RFS2. The law guaranteed a market for renewable fuels by requiring blenders to incorporate increasing amounts of ethanol and other renewable fuels into gasoline, up to 136.3 billion liters in 2022 (see figure). By doing so, Congress hoped to reduce the country's rising dependence on imported oil, bolster rural economies that would produce the corn and other biomass that would serve as the fuel feedstock, and lower the amount of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere each year.

    Oil companies initially welcomed the move. The 1990 amendments to the U.S. Clean Air Act already required them to add high-octane fuel additives to help engines burn more cleanly. And in 2004, the industry began losing the use of its primary additive, MTBE, after California and New York started a nationwide trend by banning MTBE after it was shown to be poisoning ground water. Refiners turned to ethanol instead.

    Steady drop.

    The cost of cellulosic ethanol has declined steadily thanks to improvements in technology for converting agricultural wastes into fermentable sugars.

    SOURCE: ADAPTED FROM NATIONAL RENEWABLE ENERGY LABORATORY/U.S. DEPT. OF ENERGY
    Ramping up.

    Current law requires fuelmakers to blend an increasing volume of renewable fuels into gasoline, lowering greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.

    SOURCE: ADAPTED FROM AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE

    RFS envisioned that, initially, the primary source of renewable fuel would come from ethanol fermented from the sugars in corn, a relatively mature technology. But growing corn requires relatively large amounts of water, fertilizer, and land. So Congress sought to cap corn's use. The amount of corn ethanol used was slated to rise from 30.3 billion liters in 2009 to a maximum of 56.8 billion liters a year by 2015. Last year, blenders added 50 billion liters of ethanol derived from corn and sugar. That meant that by 2022, the remaining 79.5 billion liters of growth in renewable fuel use had to come from "advanced" biofuels, primarily cellulosic ethanol, with relatively small amounts of biodiesel and biofuels derived from algae, among other sources. This surge in cellulosic ethanol production was originally planned to begin in 2010 with the first 378.5 million liters of the fuel, with year-by-year increases up to 60.6 billion liters a year in 2022. But the technology didn't mature fast enough. So the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which Congress empowered to change the RFS schedule, has had to dial back the mandates.

    To absorb the rising ethanol production, initially the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and EPA permitted refiners to sell E5, consisting of 95% gasoline blended with 5% ethanol. By 2008, numerous states mandated E10, and in 2011 EPA certified—but did not require—the sale of E15 for cars built after 2001. Refiners also blend an ethanol-rich E85 for vehicles with specialized flexible-fuel engines.

    But the new market for ethanol didn't immediately pave the way for cellulosic ethanol. Its development has been slow, because it's harder to make alcohol from nonagricultural biomass than from corn starch or sugar cane. That's because the leaves and stalks of plants have a more complex molecular structure made of a mixture of the biopolymers cellulose, hemicelluloses, and a woody material called lignin that prevents microbes from digesting plants as they grow. To make the sugars available for fermentation, cellulosic ethanol–makers must first grind the plant matter and separate out the lignin with acids and other chemical additives. They then need to add cocktails of different enzymes to break apart the different sugar chains, with each feedstock needing a slightly different cocktail. Finally, many cellulosic ethanol producers have had to engineer specialized microbes to convert the broader mixture of sugars in cellulosic material into ethanol. All these extra steps add to the cost.

    For decades, that made cellulosic ethanol far more expensive than corn- and sugar-derived versions. As recently as 2001, researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimated that cellulosic ethanol cost more than $2.38 a liter. That price fell as researchers and companies began coming up with better enzyme cocktails and better pretreatment methods. Now, a recent NREL analysis concludes that cellulosic ethanol can be produced for just 57 cents a liter, only modestly above the cost to produce corn ethanol. A 27-cent-per-liter tax credit awarded to companies that actually sell the fuel also stands to lower the cost of cellulosic ethanol that makes it to market. And cellulosic ethanol companies and enzyme producers insist they are doing even better. "Today we are at the point where cellulosic ethanol can be made at a cost similar to corn ethanol," says Poul Andersen, a vice president with Novozymes, the world's largest cellulosic ethanol enzyme producer based in Bagsværd, Denmark. Beta Renewables' Ghisolfi goes even further, saying his company can produce cellulosic ethanol for less than 40 cents a liter. That's well below today's price of gasoline. But because the price of gasoline depends primarily on the price of crude oil, if oil prices decline, so, too, will gas prices.

    Building boom.

    Commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production facilities have proliferated as the price of the fuel has dropped.

    CREDIT: ADVANCED ETHANOL COUNCIL

    Ethanol industry leaders say that this price decline has sparked a construction boom. In 2012, the Advanced Ethanol Council, a group made up primarily of cellulosic ethanol producers, reported that eight commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants in the United States—such as the ZeaChem plant in Oregon—were either open, in their final commissioning stage, or under construction. Another eight commercial facilities are in the engineering stage. Outside U.S. borders, in addition to the projects in Italy and China, commercial plants are under development in Brazil, Spain, Germany, and Denmark. It will take a few years for all those plants to be built, Ghisolfisays. But change is coming. "Worldwide, there will be tens of millions of tons of cellulosic ethanol delivered regardless of the rules in the U.S.," Ghisolfisays.

    Phantom fuel

    That all sounds well and good. But while the world waits, cellulosic ethanol critics in the petroleum industry complain that mandates for a so-far nonexistent fuel are driving up their costs. Those added costs come as a byproduct of the way EPA monitors compliance with the mandates. EPA does so by issuing renewable fuel credits, called Renewable Identification Numbers, or RINs. At the end of each year, refiners and blenders must show that they have at least one RIN for every 37.9 liters of gasoline they sell. They receive those RINs either by earning one for each gallon of renewable fuel they blend or by buying excess RINs from other companies that have more RINs than they need.

    Over the past 3 years, EPA decided to keep the lowered mandates for cellulosic ethanol in order to maintain the incentive for cellulosic ethanol companies to continue commercial development. That meant that oil refiners and blenders had no way to earn those RINs and thus had to buy them to fulfill the mandates.

    Oil companies objected that the requirement amounted to an added tax on their product and filed suit against EPA. In January, a federal appeals court for the District of Columbia agreed, at least in part. The court ruled that EPA can't require blenders to pay for credits for a product that is unavailable commercially. Nevertheless, the court continued to allow EPA to set mandates for how much renewable fuels, including cellulosic ethanol, should be blended each year. And the week after the court's decision, EPA proposed a new rule requiring refiners and blenders to blend 53 million liters of cellulosic ethanol in 2013, again citing internal market projections that the fuel would be available.

    The decision drew an immediate backlash. "We are disturbed that EPA is mandating 14 million gallons [53 million liters] of cellulosic ethanol when zero gallons are available for compliance as of today," says Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers in Washington, D.C. Louis Finkel, executive vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is also in Washington and recently came out against RFS, notes that RFS was intended to help drive the development of technology for cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuels. But so far, it hasn't worked. "The technology has not come forward," Finkel says.

    With no cellulosic fuel on the market, "it's just silly" to keep the blending mandates, says Marty Durbin, executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute in Washington. Even worse, Durbin adds, the RFS mandate keeps rising even though U.S. gasoline sales have been declining for several years. Less gas means less ethanol needed for blending. "The pool is going down. The mandate is going up. That doesn't make sense," Durbin says. "We're not against renewable fuels. We think the [RFS] program doesn't work."

    That's not the only grenade being tossed by cellulosic ethanol critics. Durbin and others argue that rising ethanol mandates are putting the squeeze on food producers and consumers. "Ethanol drives up food costs," Finkel says, though he acknowledges that other factors play a role as well. Ethanol opponents have been swinging even harder at E15. In January, the Coordinating Research Council released a study suggesting that increasing the ethanol content of gasoline from 10% to 15% can damage engines, including causing swelling to fuel system components, erratic fuel level indicators, and faulty check engine signals. Previous testing by the industry-backed group found E15 could damage engine valves. Citing such industry studies, last year AAA and a group of auto manufacturers also warned that E15 may damage car engines.

    Putting horsepower behind their studies, ethanol's critics are now pushing for policy changes. In January, following EPA's decision to up its 2013 mandate for cellulosic ethanol up to 53 million liters, Drevna called on Congress to repeal the RFS. It didn't take long for members of Congress to take up the baton. In Congress, in February, Representative James Sensenbrenner (R–WI) introduced a bill to limit the increase in the RFS mandate for cellulosic ethanol to 5% per year or 3.79 million liters, whichever is greater—far below the rate of growth needed to reach RFS's mandate of 60.6 billion liters per year by 2022. Senators David Vitter (R–LA) and Roger Wicker (R–MS) introduced a separate bill to roll back the EPA approval of E15, saying the fuel needs more testing.

    Fighting back

    Ethanol backers acknowledge that their opponents are landing blows. "We are getting hammered by the oil industry," Coleman says. The ethanol industry is "under siege and fighting back," Dinneen told the NEC audience, sounding like a general trying to rally his troops.

    But Dinneen and other ethanol true-believers don't concede any of their critics' points. Instead, they charge that their opponents—led by oil companies—are stepping up their attacks because renewable fuels are eating away at their market share. "You're being tested in the courts. You're being tested in the halls of Congress," Vilsack says. "Why now? I believe there is a reason: You are winning. And the folks on the other side are concerned."

    Steel in the ground.

    Construction crews put together the infrastructure for POET-DSM's 76-million-liter cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

    CREDITS: POET-DSM (4)

    In response, proponents of the new fuel muster studies and figures of their own. Far from being a failure, says Geoff Cooper, RFA's vice president for research and analysis, RFS is the most successful energy legislation ever enacted. In just 8 years, he says, it has prompted the growth of an industry that now supplies 10% of all the transportation fuel in the country. It's directly created 70,000 jobs; increased household farm revenues by $28.9 billion; helped lower oil imports from 60% of U.S. transportation fuel in 2006 to 41% last year; and, according to a recent analysis using a computer model developed by DOE researchers, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 33.4 million tons in 2012 alone, equivalent to removing 5.2 million cars and trucks from the road.

    Those numbers come with caveats. The 2008 recession and rising fuel efficiency standards, for example, would have driven oil imports down to 48% without ethanol, and studies show that the ethanol mandate has driven corn prices up slightly. But Dinneen notes that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food inflation has increased only 2.5% per year since 2005, when RFS was instituted, essentially unchanged compared with the long-term average. Crude oil prices over that same period, meanwhile, have risen 68%. And when it comes to growing corn, energy prices affect a wide variety of things, including the cost of fertilizer, transportation, and processing; the cost of ingredients makes up only 14% of food's final cost to consumers.

    Not only is ethanol already lowering oil imports and helping farmers, but its impact is also expected to grow sharply over the next decade, Cooper says. For example, in the November 2012 issue of Biofuels, Gbadebo Oladosu, an environmental economist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and colleagues looked at the expected impact of RFS2 on the U.S. economy over the next decade. They conclude that adding renewable fuels will be responsible for a 3% decline in oil prices by 2015 and a 7% decline by 2022. That decline in energy costs is expected to boost the U.S. gross domestic product by 0.8%, or $120 billion, over that same period. "It's a great American success story," Cooper says.

    As for industry complaints that cellulosic ethanol RINs amount to a tax, Dinneen notes that the credits have cost oil refiners and blenders just $25 million over 3 years—less than one-fiftieth of 1% of their profits over the same period. Besides, ethanol proponents say, the $4 billion to $5 billion a year in permanent tax breaks that oil companies receive for things like oil drilling and profits earned overseas have long tilted the market in the companies' favor.

    In response to possible engine damage from E15, RFA and other groups note that studies suggesting engine damage were funded by oil and auto companies, and they point out several technical flaws in the studies themselves. Besides, Dinneen says, E15-burning vehicles in the United States have already driven more than 10 million kilometers—the most extensive testing of any fuel mixture in history.

    Dinneen says proposed legislation to end incentives for cellulosic ethanol amounts to a bald attempt by oil industry backers to take down the competition and insists it won't work. Shane Karr, the vice president for federal government affairs at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington, D.C., says that he, too, believes it's "extremely unlikely" that any RFS repeal or reform will make it through while Barack Obama is president, unless it winds up being tucked into a large budget package or the like. Still, clearly the pressure is building. And cellulosic ethanol producers as well as makers of other "advanced" biofuels are feeling the need to get commercial production rolling. "We need to get advanced biofuels into the market," Vilsack says. "That will mute some of the criticism and erase some of the skepticism."

    The road ahead

    If Imbler, Ghisolfi, and other cellulosic ethanol company CEOs are right, the spigots are ready to be opened. But if they do, that could spell a very different sort of trouble. That's because corn ethanol producers already supply enough fuel to fill the entire volume needed for E10 gasoline. Gas stations aren't required to sell E15, and so far only a handful of them do. That means that unless cellulosic ethanol can be made cheaper than corn ethanol, there will be nowhere for the cellulosic ethanol to go, a situation industry insiders call the "blend wall." "The blend wall is the big issue for 2013 and 2014," says Wallace Tyner, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. "There's no place for cellulosics to go," he adds

    The blend wall, it appears, has already arrived. This year RFS requires blenders to use 52.6 billion liters of ethanol, 2.65 billion liters more than the amount of ethanol needed for E10. That extra 2.65-billion-liter requirement is intended to encourage retailers to move to E15 and other higher ethanol blends. But so far, all it seems to be doing is driving up the cost of RINs. RIN prices have jumped from an average of 2 to 3 cents per RIN in January to 75 cents per RIN last month. The price spike, observers say, is forcing blenders to look to buy RIN credits when they run out of room for their renewable fuel.

    But Dinneen and other RFS proponents call for patience and say that the market will handle the blend wall if given a chance. As cellulosic ethanol comes onto the market, the price of ethanol should drop. So refiners will be able to make more money by blending E15 instead of by buying costly RINs, Dinneen explains. "The marketplace will work if you don't change the RFS," Dinneen says. This year is critical, he says, because it is the first in which RFS mandates adding more ethanol than E10 fuel can absorb: "This is where the rubber meets the road, and the policy hits the marketplace."

    Even if cellulosic ethanol companies manage to avoid the blend wall over the next year, other obstacles are looming further out. To incorporate into gasoline the 60.6 billion liters of cellulosic ethanol that RFS calls for by 2022, refiners will need to up their blend mixture to 20% to 25% ethanol. "We're nowhere close to doing that today," says Michael Pacheco, associate laboratory director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

    To work with higher ethanol blends, carmakers will need to modify their engine designs. That's doable. In fact, Brazil has required such designs for years to work with a wide variety of high-ethanol blends. As well, carmakers are already redesigning their engines in an effort to comply with higher U.S. mileage standards instituted last year. But carmakers say that they are wary of tailoring engines to work with ethanol for two key reasons. The first is low demand from consumers. Flexible-fuel cars that run on E85 have been meager sellers in the United States, because the fuel mixture is not universally available and there are few incentives for car buyers to make the switch. And unless demand rises for other novel designs, companies say they can't make money. "If there is no market pull, we will stop building those cars," says Stuart Johnson, a senior manager for Volkswagen Group of America in Herndon, Virginia.

    New kid.

    In 2011, EPA began allowing gas stations to sell E15. So far, only a handful of stations in the United States offer it.

    CREDIT: RENEWABLE FUELS ASSOCIATION

    The second problem for carmakers is that they need to be sure the fuel blends for the new engines will be widely available. "If we are going to build dedicated vehicles, we need a dedicated fuel supply," says Coleman Jones, biofuel implementation manager with General Motors in Franklin, Michigan. Fuel refiners say it works both ways: If cars that run on high-ethanol blends aren't widely available, there's no reason to offer the fuels at all gas stations.

    This has created a classic chicken-and-egg problem between the car companies that will build the cars only if they are sure there will be a fuel supply in place and the fuel refiners who will distribute the fuel only if they know they have cars on the road to use it. The problem is so acute, Pacheco says, that automakers are more comfortable with pushing more expensive electric car designs, because they know that they won't face the fueling problem.

    Pacheco, who in the early 2000s worked on DOE studies that inspired RFS, now wishes that he and other analysts had pushed harder for Congress to make the use of biofuels mandatory. That would have solved the problem of demand from the get-go, he says. "I was naive to think that the industry would start to prepare for the change," Pacheco says. "I really underestimated the lack of support from the auto industry. They have effectively dug in their heels."

    Cellulosic ethanol boosters say there's still time to take action. For starters, Imbler argues, Congress could give all alternative energy producers a huge lift by making permanent the tax credits they've been renewing on an annual basis. This would give investors confidence that a single set of rules would be in place for the duration of their investment. Pacheco is pushing a different approach. He says that he and his NREL colleagues are working to convene a meeting of representatives from oil companies, refiners, carmakers, and gas stations to begin to hammer out the transition to higher octane fuel blends. Finally, station owners such as Scott Zaremba, who sells E15 at all seven stations he owns in Kansas, says in making the transition to higher ethanol fuel blends, there's no option other than to talk with concerned customers one-on-one every day. "Nothing is easy," Zaremba says, "but I believe in it."

    The question is whether Zaremba and his fellow retailers can convince consumers quickly enough to buy the millions of liters of cellulosic ethanol headed their way. If not, an industry that is only now getting up to speed may soon resemble the piles of waste it's trying to use to revolutionize the future of transportation.

  5. U.S. Science Policy

    Suresh Leaves His Mark on NSF as He Heads to Carnegie Mellon

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Outgoing National Science Foundation director hopes initiatives on interdisciplinary research, global partnerships, and entrepreneurship will be sustained.

    Team leader.

    Subra Suresh (left) celebrated his appointment last month as the ninth president of Carnegie Mellon University with outgoing CMU President Jared Cohon. Last week, he joined Chilean President Sebastián Piñera in dedicating ALMA, a $1.5 billion millimeter array on the 5000-meter-high Chajnantor plateau in Chile's Atacama Desert (right).

    CREDITS (LEFT TO RIGHT): PHOTO COURTESY OF CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY; NSF

    A $10 billion budget would have been nice, Subra Suresh admits. But having to work with a smaller budget than Congress and the president had once promised the National Science Foundation may be Suresh's only real regret as he steps down today as NSF director.

    The Indian-born, U.S.-trained mechanical engineer is leaving NSF less than halfway through his 6-year term to become president of Carnegie Mellon University. Still, in 29 months he's managed to put his stamp on the 62-year-old agency. He has launched initiatives designed to make scientists more entrepreneurial (Innovation Corps), to foster high-risk interdisciplinary research (INSPIRE), and to build stronger ties between U.S. researchers and colleagues in other countries (SAVI). He also reassigned several programs that had reported directly to him, notably international and polar activities, as part of a move to integrate the foundation's activities under a concept he calls OneNSF.

    In tweaking how NSF does its business, Suresh hasn't neglected his outside game. He's preserved NSF's enviable reputation on Capitol Hill by assiduously courting influential legislators from both parties. He's been in step with White House priorities to the point that first lady Michelle Obama kicked off an initiative to help scientists balance work and family responsibilities. He worked with his counterparts around the world to create the Global Research Council (GRC), a voluntary forum of funding agencies from some 50 countries to discuss common concerns. And he's done it all on a budget that remained stuck at about $7 billion during his tenure—and will shrink this year.

    "I never felt I couldn't initiate an idea because of a flat budget or budget constraints," Suresh says. "A lot of things aren't limited by money; they are limited by ideas and energy."

    Those qualities have never been in short supply for the 56-year-old former dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In fact, some NSF staffers whose lives have been disrupted by Suresh's management changes breathed a collective sigh of relief when Suresh announced he was headed to Carnegie Mellon. But many other program officers say that they appreciate what Suresh has done in moving NSF in new directions. "I've been at NSF for 28 years, and this is the most fun I've ever had," says Richard Behnke, head of the geospace section within the geosciences directorate and co-chair of the internal working group that designed the INSPIRE (Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education) grants program.

    "Subra came in with a vision for the foundation, and he's effectively implemented it in a way that has been very collegial," says Dan Arvizu, chair of the National Science Board, NSF's presidentially appointed oversight body. "He's also raised the visibility of NSF around the world."

    Speaking with Science during a 7 March interview in his 12th-floor office at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, Suresh said he relishes the opportunity to return to academia. Before he starts at Carnegie Mellon on 1 July, however, Suresh hopes to crank out a few more publications with his remaining graduate students at MIT. "You'd be surprised at how much can be accomplished in a week with no interruptions," he noted.

    Here are excerpts from that interview.

    On any regrets:

    NSF has been enormously successful over its 62 years. But the evolution of its organizational structures lags the evolution of science.… I would have loved to have seen a $10 billion budget. I would have really liked that. But regardless of what we have to spend, we cannot continue to carry out activities that started 30 or 40 years ago. It's difficult for any institution to end things that have already provided their full value, but having that ability is critical for an agency to be able to move ahead with new and exciting things.

    On the origins of INSPIRE:

    INSPIRE [Science, 18 November 2011, p. 883] came about because of a lot of conversations, internally and externally, to foster exciting, interdisciplinary work that usually falls through the cracks because of traditional ways of identifying new ideas.

    This is not just a problem I noticed as an administrator. I also came to it as a scientist. I went from mechanical engineering to microbiology, so as someone in his late 40s, and a department head, I wondered, "How do I get my funding? How do I get my first experimental results?" So I know the issue from the customer's viewpoint.

    It developed over several months from the time I arrived [in October 2010] to the release of the president's 2012 budget [in February 2012]. I proposed it to the administration and OMB [Office of Management and Budget], they embraced it and funded it, for the first year, for up to $24 million. And it also grew out of conversations with the NSF community over the summer, when I was waiting for the Senate to take up my confirmation. …

    We put in $12 million from the director's office, and program officers were asked to match it. They ended up contributing $18 million, and every office participated. And last summer we made 40 awards.

    On the Career-Life Balance Initiative:

    Although 40% of all STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] Ph.D.s are women, they are only 26% of the STEM workforce. Given that they are one-third below their ability to contribute for a variety of factors, NSF had a chance to play a huge leadership role.

    So for a very small amount of money—in contrast, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on broadening diversity—we worked to adjust our policies and practices [Science, 30 September 2011, p. 1811]. Then I socialized it with members of Congress, and with the White House, which was quite taken by this idea. And that's why I think for the first time we had an NSF event at the White House, and the first lady participated.

    On the Innovation Corps:

    We spend $6 billion a year on basic research, and we don't want to deviate from that, because if we don't fund basic research, there aren't a lot of other opportunities for people to get funded.

    But having said that, a lot of the projects that we fund don't go beyond a publication. That's not because the PIs [principal investigators] aren't capable of taking it further, but because some don't have the opportunity to do it at the institutions in which they work.

    I thought NSF can exercise its status and its bully pulpit to create, on a national scale, a set of activities that otherwise would not be possible. And I've been enormously pleased—it's far surpassed my expectations [Science, 20 July 2012, p. 281].

    In the first year we made 100 awards (to three-person teams); in the second year it grew to 300. There are now five national nodes—in the [San Francisco] Bay area, in the New York City area, in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, as well as at the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech [the Georgia Institute of Technology].

    On GRC:

    A recent report from Battelle noted that, for the first time in history of science funding, the Asian nations together invested more in R&D than the U.S. did, a total of $425 billion. (Global investment is $1.5 trillion.) Given that level of investment from developing countries, there are a lot of questions. For example, how do we make sure all the basic elements of the scientific process—issues like peer review, research integrity, intellectual property rights, and so on—evolve as quickly as possible, so that we all benefit from it?

    So we thought, since countries look up to NSF, rather than creating many bilateral collaborations, this allows us to work on a larger stage. For our first meeting [last spring] I invited the head of one funding agency from 48 countries, and 47 came. There was unanimous support for the GRC, and the second meeting will be in Berlin at the end of May.

    Right now, there's not anybody to monitor these issues. It's not done by heads of state, or between the State Departments of each country. It's not individual scientists that can do it, and funding agencies are right in the middle of this. And at Berlin they will discuss a plan for future action on open access.

    On a new NSF report showing that the share of U.S. undergraduate STEM degrees awarded to blacks has remained flat for the past decade:

    It's a lot of complicated issues. A lot of students arrive at college wanting to go into STEM fields and, for a variety of reasons, they drop out in the freshman year. I don't know that there is a simple answer.

    And it's not just an undergraduate issue. If taking high school STEM courses is not regarded as cool, you're not going to have a lot of people from any race wanting to go into these fields.

    There is another statistic that is important. In Asia, the fraction of all college graduates that earn engineering degrees is 21%. In Europe it's 13%. In the United States it's 4.5%. And that has been slightly declining in the U.S. How do we remain an innovation leader if only 4.5% of our graduates choose to go into engineering?

    [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan has said how, in Singapore, it's so prestigious to be a high school science teacher. And the pay scale reflects that. And all of this contributes to how many STEM graduates we will have.

    On becoming a college president:

    Universities are places where you have an opportunity to continuously interact, educate, and learn from young people. And it's a very satisfying environment. I've always enjoyed university life. And being at a university that is a leader in research and education is an exciting prospect.

    Advice to the next NSF director:

    I hope that my successor has a better economic climate in which to work. But even in the tough climate I faced, NSF probably did as well as any agency could have done.

    I very much enjoyed my interactions with my colleagues at other agencies and with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. I spent a lot of time cultivating those relationships in Washington, and I would strongly suggest that my successor spend enough amount of time cultivating those same relationships with Congress.

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