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Spring 2001

Our new oil fields
By Steve Tally


Image: Bernie Tao
Bernie Tao: fuel of the future (Photo by Tom Campbell).

As agricultural engineering professor Bernie Tao speaks to groups of Indiana farmers, he delivers a message they don't expect:

"You may not realize it, but you're oil barons," he tells them. "But the oil you control isn't below the ground. It's growing on top, in the corn and soybean plants in your fields." It may be green gold instead of black gold, but Tao and other scientists in Purdue Agriculture predict that over the next several decades, plant oil will become just as essential to everyday life as fossil fuels are today.

The products the scientists talk about sound a bit outlandish. And so does their promise. Those products include plastics made from corn, and gasoline made from coconut and ethanol. The promise is that in the decades to come- -25 or 40 years, within the lifetimes of today's students--our nation will have converted from a black gold economy to a green gold economy.

"In the 1970s we got our first taste of what it was like when the fuel begins to go away,"
Tao says. "Three decades later we're beginning to see the start of another large petroleum crunch. And part of that is consumer demand, which has greatly increased. One-time-use resources, which
are also known as non-renewable resources, such as petroleum, are a problem because you eventually run out," he says. "Eventually, we will have to switch from using nonrenewable resources to using renewable resources."

But Tao and others say that the potential is already there for common field crops, such as
corn and soybeans, to replace petroleum oil as the driver of our economy within a few decades.
"With a bio-based economy, you can produce new raw materials every year, so you don't have this
type of problem," he says.

Fossil fuels were plants once, millions of years ago, and so it makes sense
that both the fossil fuels we use today and oils produced by plants are chemically similar.
Both are made up of chains of chemicals known as hydrocarbons.

A hydrocarbon is a carbon atom surrounded by hydrogen atoms. Methane, the simplest hydrocarbon, is a single carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms. Gasoline varies from seven to 10 hydrocarbons long. "In fact, the word 'octane' means eight carbons in a chain," Tao says.

 

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