Dear Al Gore, Did you forget about harvesting carbon for bioenergy?!

August 05 2008 / by Garry Golden / In association with Future
Category: Energy   Year: 2018   Rating: 16 Hot

In his bold speech calling to transform the energy industry, Al Gore forgot to say one of the most important words of the 21st century – biology. He forgot to mention that if we wanted to ‘grow’ energy, carbon could become a profitable feedstock rather than an economic and environmental liability.

Gore is now calling on America to launch a major Apollo-style program to ‘decarbonize’ the electricity sector by 2018 using renewables, geothermal and carbon sequestration efforts. He imagines a world beyond ‘fossil fuels’, but might be overlooking our greatest potential investment in the energy sector – tapping biological systems that ‘eat’ carbon and ‘grow’ energy resources such as biofuels (for transportation) and hydrogen (for electricity generation).

What is possible by 2018? Within a decade we could transform the role of carbon into a profitable feedstock for clean, abundant energy by tapping the power of biology.

The phrase ‘fossil fuels’ is misleading. Coal and oil are not ancient bones or animal matter, rather they are ancient plant life and microorganisms that locked up hydrogen and carbon molecules using the power of the sun. Coal and oil are bioenergy resources. And rather than extract ancient bioenergy from the ground, we can grow the same hydrocarbon chains ourselves without adding new carbon to the atmosphere. (cont.)

What is bioenergy?

While sunlight is often viewed as the main source of energy on our planet, the reality is a bit more complicated. Most light energy is captured by molecular systems inside plants and microorganisms, then converted into forms of biomass energy (e.g. plants/trees, fatty acids) that are useful to human beings and the energy sector. Fossil fuels exist because of the power of biological processes. Eons ago sunlight and carbon were used as building blocks for ancient plant life that decayed and became coal. Light and carbon also fed microorganisms that fell to the bottom of shallow seas and were crushed into vast petroleum deposits.

The secrets of biological energy systems are found at the molecular level where energy passes through channels that support photosynthesis and specialized proteins (enzymes) that reshuffle hydrogen and carbon molecules.

Today, we know little about these systems. But by 2018, our new knowledge and applied bio-engineering could re-invent the energy sector. And still, Al Gore forgot to mention the word bioenergy. Turning carbon into a profitable feedstock for energy? Bioenergy entrepreneurs argue for a very different approach to carbon. Rather than put it underground, they prefer to see it as a profit generating feedstock for carbon-eating algae and bacteria that produce fatty acids (for biofuels) and hydrogen (for electricity generation). Their vision is to ‘grow’ energy based on carbon feedstocks, rather than extract ancient bioenergy from the ground.

We have already started building the first phase of the bioenergy industry around naturally occurring algae and bacteria that produce fatty acids useful in biofuel production. Start up companies (listed below) are currently operating pilot and Phase One projects that take carbon emissions from power plants and factories, and produce small quantities of biofuels.

Yet our knowledge and engineering experience is growing exponentially. By 2018, we could easily imagine a very different bioenergy industry with higher yields and impact on carbon if we invest today in basic science and applied engineering. There is still much we do not know about basic biological energy processes in enzyme proteins. We have still not developed a full catalog of the world’s vast genetic resources of energy producing microorganisms. Yet using this incomplete library, molecular pathway engineers are trying to understand the role of oxygen, sulfur and carbon molecules in hydrogen and fatty acid (e.g. biofuel) producing enzymes.

When they understand how these molecular interactions work, they will pass this knowledge onto synthetic biologists who will create the genetic blue prints for microorganisms with superior performance. Then industrial process engineers must develop ideal growing environments for systems that can be simply ‘plugged into’ existing coal and natural gas power plants and begin using the carbon emissions as food for microorganisms. The end result is new useful forms of energy that do not add new carbon to the atmosphere.

We might amaze ourselves at how much can be accomplished in the next ten years, and how quickly we could transform carbon from an economic liability into a profit generating resource that does not contribute to climate change. But we must not forget to mention ‘biology’ when we talk about the future of energy.

It is time to tap the molecular power of biology and start harvesting carbon for energy.

Learn more via: TED Talk by Juan Enriquez titled – Why can’t we grow new energy?

TED Talk by Craig Venter’s on Creating Synthetic Life

Bioenergy and Synthetic Biology companies to watch:
Altra Biofuels
Amyris Biotechnologies
Aquaflow Bionomic
Aurora Biofuels
BioHydrogen (UK)
Nanologix, Inc, NewEnergyAsia
Renewable Synthetic Fuel (RSFuel)
Synthetic Genomics
National Algae Association

Image: Steve Jurvetson (Flickr,CC-Attribution)

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. I’ve always wondered about the carbon deposits and examples of where they might go. After reading “The World Without Us” I guess I just figured people were resigned to storing CO2 in underground caverns. But the idea that we could use it to our advantage in oxygen, food or energy production never occurred to me.

    The only thing I wonder about is how we’d get to the carbon. CO2 filters aren’t up to par yet, so would we attack it at the root? For instance, would we feed and create trillions of microorganisms just to dry them up and store them somewhere? I guess that would be nipping Carbon-excess in the butt…

    Posted by: John Heylin   July 19, 2008
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  2. Good question. Carbon ‘eating’ algae and bacteria definitely need large volumes of carbon to make it economical. The idea is to retrofit coal/natural gas plants with bioreactors that sit on the same property. Carbon emissions are re-routed into the bioreactors. Solazyme uses vertical plastic bags that hold aglae. So this form of bioenergy is really about eliminating carbon that comes out of coal plants (which is 50% of electricity production and China’s big bet on energy) What about using algae as fuel. Algae double in body mass almost daily and end up as 50% fatty acids that can be converted in biofuels for combustion engines or power plants.

    We could also feed microorganisms cellulosic materials (wood chips, straw, etc.) but this does not address carbon emissions.

    The other long-term option is to run the fatty acids through bio-fuel cells and strip electrons off to create electricity. (This is more efficient than combustion, but we still have a ways to go on the technology)

    Other companies (Aquafuel Bionic, PetroSun) use open ponds that grab carbon from the air. This is cheaper, easier but less efficient and does little to eliminate carbon emissions from power plants. I think Al Gore is concerned about power plant emissions. So grabbing carbon from plants seems a better route. The other use of microorganisms is to ‘breathe in carbon, exhale hydrogen’, or using proteins to split water in oxygen/hydrogen using sunlight. And glad that read The World without Us!!!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   July 19, 2008
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  3. Superb piece, Garry. The way that issues are framed and minds are set is so important to the way we approach the world. So often, rhetoric and memes take hold before people have a chance to explore them more deeply and with greater context. This piece made me think about carbon in a different way and the concept of ‘growing’ vs. ‘extracting’ is so much more appealing while communicating a built-in sense of sustainability.

    Posted by: Jeff Hilford   July 20, 2008
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