Energy Research

It’s good to remind ourselves from time to time that all is not bleak. Mostly, it’s pretty damned bleak; but not all. The SF Chronicle and science writer Keay Davidson have been doing a good job of tracking on-going research into other-than-fossil-fuel energy sources.

…converting cellulosic biomass to fuels is virtually the only option we have for making sustainable liquid transportation fuels with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions that can make a major impact on oil imports.”

Over millions of years of evolution, the tougher parts of plants have developed dense, intertwined layers of molecules that resist being broken down by natural forces — a phenomenon called “biomass recalcitrance.” One of the toughest cellulose components is a substance called lignin, which gives plants their stiffness and ability to stand upright. If scientists can figure out how to break down lignin, they could more easily tap into the plant’s energy riches — just as kids can get at the ice cream if they figure out how to break into an ice cream store.

Scientists at the U.S. Energy Department’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek and the California Institute of Technology are seeking help from termites, nature’s most proficient cellulose eater.

Seeking Clean Energy

This is all good and interesting stuff. I will say, however, that whenever the word “bioengineering” appears my wider eyes replace my narrow ones. We may need bioengineering; it may be done safely but it will take more than high hopes to make it so. Above all we don’t want any self-reproducing bioengineered organisms to prove, once again, the rule of unintended consequences. We’ve had enough problems with simple transport of creatures from one habitat to another without borrowing bugs that convert our neighborhood trees into piles of slush….

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