Fuel from veggies

By: Emi FitzGerald Email
By: Emi FitzGerald Email

LANE, Okla. -- Rarely has the pain at the pump has been so severe, with a new national average for gasoline hitting $3.23 a gallon. That figure from AAA is the result of a 27 cent jump in just 30 days.

The jump is being blamed on oil prices now at nearly $110 per barrel for the first time.

Here in Texoma, AAA says Oklahoma’s average price per gallon is about $3.10; Texans are paying about $3.14 per gallon, and the future isn't looking any better. The energy department said Tuesday prices may rise this spring to $3.50 a gallon.

But some federal researchers right here in Texoma are looking to the earth to grow crops that could ease U.S. dependence on petroleum.

"It's hard to think watermelon could actually fuel our cars, but researches say that could be a reality in the future," research plant physiologist Vince Russo says.

"We are actually growing oil, just not growing petroleum oil."

Yes, oil -- coming from crops in the ground at the South Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Lane, Oklahoma. Scientists are studying ways to produce ethanol in vegetables other than corn.

"When you have all of your eggs in one basket, then there's a good possibility someone's going to come along and either steal that basket or their eggs are going to be broken."

Researcher Vince Russo says they are trying to add watermelon to that basket. He says there's a lot of simple sugar in the fruit that's technically a vegetable, and those sugars are ready to become ethanol fuel unlike the sugar in corn, which has to be broken down first.

How do they study this? Scientists say it's an age old technology.

"In essence, you're looking at a very sophisticated moonshine still."

Scientists monitor levels of sugar and yeast to change the concentration from that compound to fuel. A U.S. Department of Agriculture center is looking at other plants, like sugar cane, mustard seed, and sorghum so the U.S. has a diverse bio-fuel system to choose from.

"If we have a diversified system, we have a sustainable system. If we have a sustainable system we can secure fuel for the U.S."

Scientists say about one third of watermelon crops are not fit to eat, but the meat inside is still usable. Other experts are extracting lycopene that's makes the watermelon red for nutritional supplements. Any byproduct from that could be used to make fuel.

"Ultimately one would like to envision taking the rind, the pulp, and everything and being about to break that down into simple sugars and utilize them as well."

Researchers say they not only plan to use watermelon, but other crops they can grow all four season to be more productive with their land.

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