Aerospace engineer wants to bring Mars to cars

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics, spoke Wednesday on the links between oil and terrorism. His talk, titled “Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil,” drew from his recently published book of the same name.

Zubrin, an aerospace engineer who has been a strong advocate of the manned exploration of Mars, said he recently worked on a project to derive fuel from the Martian atmosphere. His book, which took eight months to write, was inspired by the implications of his research on alcohol-based fuel.

Zubrin told The Herald that he believes that widespread comprehension of the role alcohol-based fuels could play in the “war on terror” could lead to more funding for research into alternative fuels.

“After Sept. 11th, I naturally started thinking about how I could do something useful,” Zubrin said. “Then I saw the Bush administration pushing hydrogen economy as their alternative to oil, and for various engineering reasons it was apparent that that was a nonstarter, but I saw methanol on the other hand, which we were making with Mars applications.”

In his lecture, Zubrin discussed U.S. reliance on foreign oil imports. In addition to addressing the environmental and strategic implications of such reliance, he also addressed the economic implications of continued reliance on foreign oil imports.

As an alternative to oil, Zubrin said he supported a mandate requiring Americans to purchase flex-fueled cars, which run on any combination of alcohol-based fuels, such as ethanol and methanol, and regular gasoline.

“If you do that, you change the world,” Zubrin said. “Within three years of a flex-fuel mandate, there would be 50 million cars capable of running on flex-fuel.”

Zubrin pointed to Brazil as a country that had already effectively introduced flex-fueled cars. In the 1970s, he said, Brazil had mandated the installation of ethanol pumps in every gas station in towns of more than 1,500. Since the introduction of flex-fuel cars in 2001 and with the concurrent spike in world oil prices, Brazil now almost exclusively uses flex-fuel cars, Zubrin said. “Brazil actually is a very good model for the world … Its mix of people and incomes is a microcosm of the globe.”

Zubrin quoted figures on OPEC oil revenues, saying that enormous amounts of world oil revenue went to OPEC countries, the majority of which went to Saudi Arabia. “They simply waste a lot of the money – that’s true – on palaces, and concubines, and cocaine and racehorses, and yachts and you name it,” Zubrin said.

Economically, Zubrin claimed that OPEC, with its “arbitrary” price changes, was harming the world economy, especially lesser developed nations that cannot afford oil. “We are being looted, and other people who can’t afford it as much are being looted too.”

Zubrin said that the introduction of flex-fueled cars would “break the vertical monopoly” that OPEC currently controls and lead to massive growth in demand for agriculture, which would in turn lead to economic growth for agriculturally-reliant lesser-developed economies.

Zubrin told The Herald that though rising demand for agriculture would create demand for more land, it would not result in land degradation because rising value of land would lead people to take better care of it. “In general the worst land degradation occurs when agriculture is less profitable, when land is abandoned,” Zubrin added.

Addressing the environmental impact the switch to flex-fuel would bring, Zubrin described alcohol-based fuels as “cleaner-burning” and mentioned that the water-soluble fuels would never cause disasters, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Paul Wilde, a teacher at a local elementary school, told The Herald that he agreed with much of what Zubrin said. “It’s a complicated set of issues we’re facing here,” he said. “One of the things the general public of the U.S. needs to become more educated about is the problems facing us and about alternatives out there.”