Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Microbes: Solution to the Energy Crisis?

For those who haven't been paying attention to the news, paid a utility bill, or tried to fill up their car at the pump recently there is an energy crisis at the moment.  Not only in America, but around the globe as developing countries like China, India, and Brazil slowly rise to 1st world nations and consume more.  Higher demand has increased prices in the U.S. and spurred the public to demand offshore drilling (thanks to to some clever marketing).

There are numerous problems with drilling, not least of which is the fact that it would take a decade for it to have any impact on prices.  Another important drawback most Americans don't think about, justifiably because they can't afford to, is that the more we drill now the less we will have in the future when the scarcity of and demand for oil are both even greater than now, hence when prices are highest our domestic supply will have been drained.  Another question arises as to whether domestic supply will actually affect domestic prices or whether this simply increases global supply which would have a smaller impact on domestic prices.  This says nothing of the environmental consequences of more drilling, or if the push for more leased offshore drilling rights is simply an attempt to make the financial assets of oil and gas companies look more impressive to investors.

Most worrying about our current energy system and needs is that global supply is limited.  Eventually the oil, coal, and natural gas will simply run out.  This may take decades or centuries, but many scientists believe that we are already reaching the peak of oil production and it will begin to decline in the next decade or two, this as demand for energy rises with along with the economies of the developing world.  Once the supply runs out everything about modern society shuts down.  No fuel for trains, planes, or automobiles and more importantly the ability to create plastics becomes severly limited.  Everything in modern society needs plastics, from medicine, defense, clothing, computers, buildings, etc.   Without plastics the world we have to revert methods of constructing goods employed prior to World War II.

All of this could potentially become irrelevant with new developments in biotechnology.  Not within the next century or even the next half century, but within the next decade.  J. Craig Venter, instrumental in the mapping of the human genome, and his company Synthetic Genomics, stated in a recent interview with Newsweek that he believes that within two years that can create a bacterium that will consume CO2 and produce fuel, with mass production occuring within the next five.  All of this would work within existing infratsructure.

The potential consequences of this are astounding.  It could solve or reduce three major threats facing the entire planet in the form of current environmental, security, and economic crises related to oil:
  1. By using CO2 as the means to creating fuel there is the potential to drastically reduce carbon emitions and other emitions which cause environmental degradation and climate change.
  2. The ability to produce oil (or natural gas and hydrogen) would not be limited to areas of the world with natural reserves, solving a geopolitical crisis where the West and developed nations transfers billions every year to unstable countries.
  3. The cost of the fuel  could also potentially be reduced drastically, because supply would not be limited by natural reserves and the cost of extraction (this would also depend on how expensive it is to produce bacteria versus drilling miles under the earth and sea, but logic and intuition would suggest it would be cheaper).
Synthetic Genomics recently won a top industry award for its work in developing green fuels and a scientist at the company also testified before Congress before the U.S. House Select Committee on Energy Inpendence and Climate Change.

Hopefully this is more than just a pipe dream as it has not garnered great media attention as of yet.  But this is probably a good thing until Venter's company reaches the point where they are simply tackling production problems rather than creating bacteria itself, and if Venter's estimate is right this could be by 2010 or sooner.

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