When Wally Tyner first came to Purdue University in 1977, his task as an energy economist was to analyze economic and policy issues surrounding biofuels. But as the energy crunch of the ’70s gave way to cheap oil in the ’80s, there wasn’t much call for biofuels anymore, and Tyner began to follow his other academic interest—international development.
Two decades later, biofuels started attracting research interest again. Since Tyner’s return six years ago to studying economic and policy analysis of biofuels, his work has made him one of the leading researchers in the area. Government agencies and industry and commodity groups interested in biofuels use his analyses to determine future policies.
Tyner, the James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics, credits the reputation of his research to the balanced and unbiased nature of his work. “We try to do the best analysis with the best data, and the results are what they are,” he says. “Neither side completely likes or dislikes what we do, but we’re not perceived as pushing an agenda.”
Not promoting an agenda is a tricky position to maintain in the high-stakes world of biofuels, where university research, industry investment and government policy all have an interest. Tyner doesn’t seem to mind the tightrope walk; rather, he relishes it. “I got interested in agricultural economics because I wanted to work on real-world problems,” he says.
As Tyner’s analysis shows, many real-world problems, such as the feasibility of biofuels, require the best thinking from many areas of expertise. Solving problems with a multifaceted approach is hard, he admits, but necessary. Tyner’s undergraduate degree in chemistry is a major advantage as he works side by side with engineers and plant scientists who are trying to solve the problems of developing elusive cellulosic ethanol.
While corn-based ethanol has reached a plateau based on current policy and practices, cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel produced from wood, grasses (like the miscanthus grasses that surround Tyner in the photo) or other non-edible plant parts, is believed to have greater potential.
Tyner is a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee evaluating the economic and environmental impact of biofuels. “Right now, biofuels are really expensive, and we need significant research breakthroughs to reduce the cost,” he says.
As a world-traveling researcher and lecturer, Tyner is not all work and no play. Once seated on a plane, he does admit to an outside passion. “I’ve read all three of Stieg Larsson’s books (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) and wish there were a fourth,” he says.
It seems solving real-world mysteries is not his only pursuit.