Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Engineering Our Way Out of Crisis

The Times of London has an interesting article about efforts to produce crude oil from plant waste such as straw and woodchips using genetically modified micro-organisms which excrete oil as a waste product. Thus far, their efforts have been very small scale, but it's a fascinating effort.

“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.”

He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls “renewable petroleum”. After that, he grins, “it’s a brave new world”.

Mr Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil (£70) from Saudi Arabia obsolete. “All of us here – everyone in this company and in this industry, are aware of the urgency,” Mr Pal says.

What is most remarkable about what they are doing is that instead of trying to reengineer the global economy – as is required, for example, for the use of hydrogen fuel – they are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that this “Oil 2.0” will not only be renewable but also carbon negative – meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.

Fascinating stuff. I would imagine there are also some folks out there working hard at super-efficient CO2 converting micro-organisms, to be used as "scrubbers" in power plants and perhaps even internal combustion engines.

I know that some fellow science enthusiasts find me overly blasé about the prospect of global warming, peak oil, etc., but given humanity's track record over the last few hundred years, it strikes me as fairly likely we'll manage to engineer our way out of any scenarios in which earth becomes uninhabitable for us. This struck me particularly when I found myself flipping through the environmentally alarmist tome Six Degrees the other day. It discusses what would happen if the earth's average temperature increased six degrees Centigrade (about 11 degrees F), as the most extreme global warming models currently suggest could be possible in the next hundred years or more. Needless to say, it's pretty dire. Author Mark Lynas predicts that a full 6C rise could result in the collapse of civilization, the extinction of most plant and animal species, and a return to the stone age, if humans didn't die out completely.

Now here's the thing I find unconvincing about these kind of scenarios: They're invariably based on global warming skyrocketing while humanity sits down and suffers the consequences, with billions dying, civilisation vanishing, etc. Maybe I've got too much of a Heinlein mentality, but I don't see humanity going quietly into the night (or desert, as the case may be.) If we started to see really massive, destructive effects that were clearly the result of global warming, expect someone (if not in the West, in the developing nations like China and India) to take matters into their own hands and do something massive. For instance, if you created a massive underground explosion along the lines of Krakatoa (think underground nuclear test that makes the USSR's "Tsara Bomba" look small) you could win yourself a couple years of unusually cool world temperatures as a result of suspended dust in the atmosphere. Heck, perhaps there's even an easier way to get that many particulates into the upper atmosphere. Similarly, genetically modified plants and micro-organisms might be used to try to drastically reduce CO2 fast.

Now obviously, we don't think about trying these things right now because they're easy things to get wrong, with the possibility of a run-away GMO wiping out hundreds of existing plant species, or your attempt to get particulates into the atmosphere causing world-wide nuclear fallout. But if countries like China are in danger of collapse, or tens of millions of people world-wide are starving, expect the caution to go to the winds.

This isn't to say that the earth might not end up trashed, but my guess it that it would be trashed by massive (and sometimes poorly thought out) attempt to stem off disaster, rather than by the warming itself. I'm pretty sure we could keep the climate from cooking us out of existence. The question is, can we do that without trashing the environment, or will we do it by large and clumsy means. Either way, I don't see world temperatures going up 6C. There may be environmental disasters in our future, but I don't see that one being it.

(Note: It's also entirely possible that the natural systems of our planet have the ability to adjust to process much more CO2 than we imagine, without going into serious global warming. I consider that fairly possible, but I'm ignoring it for the purposes of this discussion.)


Jeff Miller said...

I don't know if the caution will go to the wind if their is major starvation. Look at the history DDT and Malaria and it certainly looks like people lose out in these equation.

It seems to me that when some people lose their faith they gravitate to other apocalyptic scenarios to place their faith in. The global warming true believers have all the hallmarks of a religion along with their eco-Messiah energy guzzler Al Gore.

Just look at the books that were published in the 70's and 80's the secular parallel to "The Late Great Planey Earth." Population bomb, silent sprint and a bunch of others scared scores of people while not getting a single thing right. People laugh at the JW's and others who had forecast the day of the Second Coming, but environmentalist get a pass I guess.

Christine the Soccer Mom said...

Wait, wait, wait! If we use bug poop for oil, does that mean it will be illegal for me to kill those suckers if they get into my house?

I have limits here, you know ...

On a more seious note, one factor that must also be looked at with all alternative fuels is the cost of production. Another important factor that rarely gets talked about in green circles is the amount of a product you need to produce the fuel necessary. For example, the amount of corn it takes to make a single tank of ethanol would feed someone in the third world for a year! And the new plant from Florida that might be able to be used to make a biofuel requires 60 pounds of the beans to make a single gallon of gas. While it's admirable - and important - to search for alternatives, especially renewable resources - we also need to look at these kinds of factors as well as the energy used to produce the fuel. Unless things have improved drastically - and I don't doubt that it's improving - it takes more energy to create the hydrogen cell fuel than you actually get from said cell.

Darwin said...

Yeah, I think that's clearly the problem with something like ethanol, or even palm oil based bio-diesel, since you need to have vast amounts of corn production or palm production in order to get the resulting fuel.

That's what struck me as particularly interesting about this venture, in that they apparently can use waste products of virtual waste products like woodchips, staw, etc. I'm curious how efficiently their micro-organisms digest cellulose. For instance, could these critters eat waste paper? Food garbage?

Even so, the costing in the article is clearly off. They're talking about how their oil could be cheap because the inputs are cheep (they talk about producing $0.50/gal diesel from raw Brazilian sugar) but thats not taking into account how the price would be affected by demand. If they can't produce it in truly vast quantities, the cost is high because demand is high.

Anonymous said...

Can you imagine solving the landfill problems by converting garbage to OIL! World Net Daily has had some articles on this topic too.

Bugs eating garbage & pooping oil. Causes me to wonder if oil deposits really might be naturally renewable, and maybe the world wont run out.

On a slightly related note - one consequence of abortion is maybe some of the world's solutions have been murdered...?

Anonymous said...

This is a very cool idea. The U.S. alone produces enormous amounts of "biomass," which is essentially any waste product that used to be alive. That includes corn stalks, wheat stalks, even the poisonous leaves and stems of tomatoes and potatoes. And all of that can be turned into hydrocarbon fuel by bacteria.

A Georgia company called Bell BioEnergy, which I wrote about earlier this month, is also working industriously to get in on the action. To hear these folks talk, OPEC had better be sweating bullets right now!

Foxfier said...

I wonder if the run-off from feed lots and dairies could be used-- I know that horse leavings are very, very poorly digested, so that should be a good and very cheap option as well....

My mind is dancing with the idea of a "chicken bucket" on every corner, for folks to chuck leftovers and scraps into--headed not for egg machines, but for motor vehicles....