Machine Design

Mandating innovation

Been following the cellulosic ethanol fiasco? In a nutshell, Congress passed a law five years ago mandating that oil companies blend cellulosic fuel into gasoline. That’s the biofuel made from switchgrass, corn cobs, wood chips, and other plant waste. Refiners are supposed to use 500 million gallons this year, and the requirement eventually grows to 16 billion gallons in 2022.

Problem is, no one was producing cellulosic fuel outside the lab when the law was passed. And despite the government’s insistence and hundreds of millions in subsidies and tax credits, researchers and refiners still haven’t figured out how to make it economically in commercial quantities. The EPA recently admitted that less than 0.1% of required renewable fuels will come this year from cellulosic biofuels.

Yet incredibly, because no cellulosic fuel is available, oil companies must purchase “credits” from the EPA, at about $1.20/gallon, for failing to buy a product that doesn’t exist. As the head of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Assn. said recently, “This makes no sense.”

I say, if the government is going to senselessly mandate the impossible and levy fines for noncompliance, let’s focus on areas that really need attention.

Baseball strike zone. Doesn’t it drive you crazy when a pitch a foot outside is called a strike, then the next one — clearly over the inside corner — is somehow a ball? If the military can plant a cruise missile to within a couple feet of a target a thousand miles away, certainly MLB should be forced to devise a sensor array to tell a ball from a strike.

Airport security. Tired of being herded like cattle, humiliated, strip-searched, and groped? We’re already shelling out $200,000 apiece for security scanners that pose potential health hazards. Let’s make the TSA invent a safe, noninvasive way to detect weapons and explosives and apply artificial intelligence to differentiate between someone packing heat and limping with a titanium hip — all while we’re merely walking to our gate without passing through a security gauntlet.

Flying car. Even better than a quick trip through the airport, why not the flying car? In the 60s TV series, The Jetsons, commuting was by cars resembling flying saucers with clear bubble tops. Fifty years later, we’re still glued to the ground. The government should put the screws to the slackers at Boeing and GM. Think of the benefits: Instead of being stuck in traffic, fast commutes would mean less pollution, less stress, higher productivity, and more leisure time. Then we could all have George Jetson’s workweek: three hours a day, three days a week.

Cold fusion. Mandates for electric utilities to generate power from wind and solar farms are becoming commonplace. How about legislation demanding a portion of the power comes from cold fusion? Though unproven — and likely a scam — who can argue with the economic benefits from cheap and abundant energy, not to mention all the make-work jobs for researchers, scientists, and engineers.

Have a wish? Write to Congress.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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