With experts telling us that the world’s viable reserves of oil are on track to run out in 50 years, the race is on to discover new processes for producing alternative fuels that can be used to power our vehicles. The fuels that have received most of the attention in this hunt for an alternative are those derived from plant or other biomass material, such as ethanol from corn and butanol from algae. But what if we were to turn this search in the opposite direction, looking not for an alternative to fossil fuels, but for a way to replicate them?
This is exactly what researchers at the University of Minnesota have been pursuing, and to a large degree, their research has been very successful. The university is filing patents on a process that produces renewable hydrocarbons from bacteria, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. A photosynthetic bacterium called Synechococcus converts carbon dioxide to sugars, which are then fed to another bacterium Shewanella that produces hydrocarbons from the sugars.
In essence, this process takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turns it into usable hydrocarbons. “CO2 is the major greenhouse gas mediating global climate change, so removing it from the atmosphere is good for the environment,” says Larry Wackett, principle investigator supervisor for the team of graduate and undergraduate researchers. This is not the only reason to be excited, though. “It’s also free,” Wackett continues, “And we can use the same infrastructure to process and transport this new hydrocarbon fuel that we use for fossil fuels.” Also, utilizing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere avoids the vexing land-use and food supply problems of other popular biofuels.
While the last of these do indeed seem like legitimate advantages, it is the claim that this process is “good for the environment” that might not sit well with supporters of other alternative fuels. This process would in fact remove harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but through the combustion of these renewable hydrocarbons, aren’t we just simply releasing it right back into the atmosphere? It seems like a zero-gain process. The news release from the University of Minnesota regarding this research did not detail the byproducts of combusting these hydrocarbons, but one can only assume that this hydrocarbon results in carbon dioxide emissions just as readily as any fossil fuel hydrocarbon.
More details are definitely in order on this issue, and until I can learn more about subsequent carbon dioxide emissions, I will remain unconvinced as to the beneficence of this process. It solves only one problem related to our dependence on fossil fuels, and that is the prospect of “peak oil,” or our inability to secure economically viable reserves of petroleum. In this regard, the research is groundbreaking and could prove enormously influential. But the other problem with fossil fuel dependence, and one which I feel should take precedence in our search for alternative fuels, is the more profound problem of greenhouse gas emission and global warming. It is toward achieving a solution to this problem that our search for alternatives should be directed, not toward simple replacement of one hydrocarbon fuel with another. While the renewable hydrocarbon research being conducted by these researchers may prove to be an important stepping-stone in the short-term, ultimately it falls short of the necessary ends of renewable energy research.
Discussion Question: What are the pros and cons of the research present? What are some concerns you would have?
News Article: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110323135635.htm
Research Article: http://www.jbc.org/content/286/13/10930.abstract
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