Columbians come out for city’s first science cafe

Tuesday, April 1, 2008 | 8:45 p.m. CDT; updated 8:05 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — Columbia had its first science cafe Tuesday night.

Science cafes are a growing grass roots movement, where members of the community get together with a scientist to discuss relevant science topics, such as stem cells. Tuesday night’s science cafe, hosted by the Cherry Street Artisan, was led by MU Life Sciences Center Director Jack Schultz. His talk, titled “Got Grass in Your Tank?”, focused on biofuels as an alternative energy source.

“We live in a town with a world class resource as far as people who know things,” he said. “In this society, technical and scientific skills tend to be critical. A goal here is to talk about science.”

The format of Columbia’s first science cafe was modeled after science cafes held in Boston, Schultz said. A scientist gives a simple and jargon-free presentation followed by a group discussion. About 30 people attended the discussion on Tuesday.

Schultz began his speech by explaining the science behind biofuels.

“Plants store some energy in chemical bonds,” he said. “We come along and recover that energy by breaking bonds.”

Corn, he added, is only able to capture about 2 percent of the sun’s energy. According to Schultz, three-fourths of cultivated land in the world would need to be covered in corn in order to make enough ethanol to fuel all the cars in the United States.

Despite these obstacles, Schultz is still interested in looking into biofuels as an alternative energy source.

“In 2006, the United States consumed 146 billion gallons of gasoline,” he said. “People have not stopped driving because of high prices.”

One person in the audience asked about using switch grass to make ethanol, and Schultz spent several minutes explaining that it was a possibility.

Others posed questions about using geothermal energy and hydrogen as alternative fuels.

Schultz emphasized the use of many alternative fuels, insisting there is not going to be one solution. He also talked about powering vehicles with yellow grease, or grease leftover from restaurants, explaining that it a more desirable form of fuel than ethanol but harder to obtain.

“Economists agree that the solution to energy problems will be diverse,” he said, before adding a final piece of advice: “Be a skeptic. Science is about being skeptical.”

Science cafes will be held at the Cherry Street Artisan on the first Tuesday of the month for the rest of the year. The next science cafe will be on May 6. The next topic will be determined by public requests.

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