"Corn is an OK source for ethanol," said Daniel Kammen, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and director of its Institute of the Environment. "But if you really want to hit a home run, you need to go to cellulose."
Other countries have blazed a trail in the conversion of cellulose to ethanol. "Brazil is a big success story in this," Kammen said, noting that 15 years ago the nation began using cellulose from sugar cane to create ethanol, and it now uses 50 percent less gasoline.
Sweden also has two federal plants that create ethanol using cellulose, and there are small plants in Kansas and California working to refine the process here. In Brazil, he said, the price of ethanol is half that of gasoline, and Kammen estimates that here it could be 60 percent, even if some of it is made with corn.
For consumers, switching to ethanol would cost only about $100 per car. Kammen said all it takes are some new hoses and a new gas cap. "This is actually a switch we could make very easily and very quickly," he said.
Kammen is working to get an initiative on California's November ballot requiring that all new cars sold in the state be flex-fuel ready within five years. According to UC Berkeley, in 2004, ethanol-blended gasoline accounted for just 2 percent of all fuel sold in the United States, though nearly 5 million vehicles are already equipped.
"Converting to fuel ethanol will not require a big change in the economy," Kammen said. "We are already ethanol ready. If ethanol were available on the supply side, the demand is there."
ABC News' Tarana Harris and Brian Hartman contributed to this report.