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Economics and Ecology Fuel Research for Ethan Woods '09

By Lisbeth Redfield
Posted August 11, 2007
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Ethan Woods '09 (Stratford, N.Y.) started out his summer with a research survey into sustainable fuels, but he quickly decided to narrow his topic and focus on biofuels instead. The rising junior has a Levitt Fellowship this summer to combine his interests in environmentalism and economics in research on biofuels as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.

The industry for biofuels, liquid or gaseous matter from biological origins, is among the fastest-growing in the world, with 40-50% growth a year. These substances include waste products, biomass (plant materials that make up biofuels) that can be burned such as grass or trees, biomass which can be chemically altered (Woods offered the example of chemically treating cornstalks to produced liquid fuel), or so-called "biodiesel" – treated cooking grease that will run a diesel engine.

Although biofuels sound like an ideal answer to the problems of greenhouse gases and environmental destruction, Woods said that he had been reading "some pretty compelling anti-biofuel papers." Physicists see problems with biofuels, as do economists; biofuels are kinder to the environment but they are considerably more expensive, inefficient, and exist in a limited supply. Woods, who went into his research to ask whether biofuels would be feasible, admitted that they may not be. "My question is, if not biofuels then what?" he explained.

"They may be a short-term option," Woods added. We are at a point where the rising cost of fossil fuels may spur more research into biofuels, which will in turn bring their price down. "I think by 2020 we're going to have something," Woods said, although he was not sure if "something" would be feasible biofuels or another alternative. Although there have been fuel price spikes in the past, Woods believes that the current one will produce really useful research because today, unlike in the past, there is an added motivation to protect the environment.

"We're on the cusp of something dramatic," Woods said, referring both to the scientific opportunities and to the economic ones. The duel geology and economics major is interested in the ballooning biofuels sector because of the entrepreneurial possibilities. "I was trying to look into the industry," he said, explaining his motivation to research this particular topic. Woods, who hopes to start his own business after college, looks at this industry as one he may enter in the future.

He loves his first summer of research – "it's getting me into gear," he says – even though balancing research time with his day job (a public health inspector for three counties) is difficult. Woods will, however, continue to monitor the economic and scientific state of alternative fuels after the summer ends. "It's going to be an ongoing thing," he said and explained that he planned to use observations from this and next summer as the basis for a duel senior project in economics and geology.

During the year Woods is a member of the Hamilton choir and the business manager of the a capella group The Buffers. He is also an ITS lab consultant and a tour guide, and hopes to serve as a senior admissions intern. He will spend part of next year in New Zealand, and looks forward to showing his eco-friendly side there by hiking.

Woods' research this summer is funded by the Levitt Research Fellows Program, operated through the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. The students spend the summer working intensively in collaboration with a faculty member on an issue related to public affairs; Woods is collaborating with the James L. Ferguson Professor of Economics Erol Balkan.

-- by Lisbeth Redfield

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