The Glucose Economy

hacking-bacteria-fuel-ecoli-670In the long search to find alternatives to fossil fuels and industrial processes that produce tons of waste, several ideas have been forward. These include alternative energy – ranging from solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal – additive manufacturing, and cleaner burning fuels. All of these ideas have begun to bear some serious fruit in recent years thanks to ongoing research and development. But looking to the long term, it is clear that a complete overhaul of our industrial economy is needed.

That’s where more ambitious ideas come to the fore, ideas like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and what’s known as the “Glucose Economy”. Coined by Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning Chinese-American physicist who also had the honor of serving as the 12th Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama, this concept calls for the development of an economic model that would replace oil with high-glucose alternative fuels.

110302_steven_chu_ap_328Chu conceived of the idea while working as a professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In short, the plan calls for fast-growing crops to be planted in the tropics – where sunlight is abundant – converted into glucose (of which cellulose, which makes up much of the dry weight of a plant, is a polymer). The resulting glucose and cellulose would then be shipped around much as oil is today, for eventual conversion into biofuels and bioplastics.

As expected, this would render the current system of converting oil into gasoline and plastics – a process which produces immense amounts of carbon dioxide through processing and burning – obsolete. By comparison, glucose fuels would burn clean and produce very little in the way of chemical by-products, and bioplastics would be far more resilient and eco-friendly than regular plastics, and not just because they won’t cause a terrible disposal and waste problem (see Garbage Island).

David-Benjamin-and-the-future-of-architecture-01Another benefit of the this new model is the economic development it will bring to the tropical regions of the world. As far as production is concerned, those regions that stand to benefit the most are Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and South-East Asia. These regions are already seeing significant economic growth, and a shift like this would ensure their continued growth and development (not to mention improved quality of life) for many generations  to come.

But above and beyond all that is the revolutionary potential that exists for design and manufacturing, with architects relying on specially-designed software to create multi-material objects fashioned in part from biomass. This unique combination of biological processes, computer-assisted design (CAD), and human intelligence is looking to trigger a revolution in manufacturing and construction, with everyday materials to buildings created from eco-friendly, structurally sound, biomaterials.

bio-buildingOne such architect is David Benjamin, a computational architect and principal of the New York-based practice The Living. Together with his collaborators, Benjamin is conducting experiments with plant cells, the latest of which is the production of xylem cells – long hollow tubes plants use to transport water. These are computer modeled and grown in a Cambridge University lab and studied to create materials that combine the desired properties of different types of bacteria.

In addition, they are working with sheets of calcium and cellulose, seeking to create structures that will be strong, flexible, and filigreed. And beyond The Living Thing, there are also initiatives like the Living Foundries Program, a Department of Defense initiative that is hoping to hasten the developmental process and create an emergent bio-industry that would create “on-demand” production.

1394231762-re-making-manufacturing-united-statesNot only would this shave decades off the development process, but also hundreds of millions of dollars. What’s more, Benjamin claims it could take only 8 to 10 years to see this type of biotechnology enter commercial production. Naturally, there are those who oppose the development of a “glucose economy” as advocated by Chu. Beyond the proponents of fossil fuel energy, there are also those advocate nationally self-sufficient resources bases, rather than foreign dependence.

To these critics, the aim of a future economy should be energy independence. In their view, the glucose economy is flawed in that it merely shifts energy dependence of nations like the US from the Middle East and OPEC to the tropics, which could create a whole new slew of geopolitical problems. However, one cannot deny that as alternatives go, Chu’s proposal is far preferable to the current post-peak oil model of frakking, tar sands, natural gas, and coal.

bio-building1And it also offers some new and exciting possibilities for the future, where building processes like additive manufacturing (which is already making inroads into the construction industry with anti-gravity 3D printing, and the KamerMaker House) would be supplemented by using “biohacked” bacteria to grow structures. These structures would in turn be composed of resilient materials such as cellulose and organic minerals, or possibly carbon nanotubes that are assembled by organic processes.

And the amount of money, waste, energy and lives saved would be immense, as construction is currently one of the most dangerous and inefficient industries on the planet. In terms of on the job accidents, it causes some 10,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries a year in the US alone. And in terms of resource allocation and money, construction is labor intensive, produces tons of waste, and is almost always over budget.

hacking-bacteria-bio-light-670Compared to all that, a system the utilizes environmentally-friendly molecules and materials, enhances growing operations, fostered greater development and economic cooperation, and leads to a safer, cheaper, less wasteful construction industry seems immensely preferable. And it does offer a solution of what to do about two major industries that are ailing and in desperate need of modernization.

Boy, it feels like a long time since i’ve done a conceptual post, and the topics do appear to be getting more and more serious. Can anyone recall when I used to do posts about Cool Ships and Cool Guns? Yeah, me too, vaguely. Somehow, stuff like that seems like a far cry from the Internet of Things, Interstellar Travel, O’Neill Cylinders, Space Elevators, and timelines of the future. I guess this little blog of mine has been growing up in recent years, huh?

Stay tuned for more conceptual posts, hopefully something a little lighter and fluffier next time 😉

Sources: inhabitat.com, aspenideas.org, tampabay.com

Climate Crisis: “Carbon Buster” Bricks

carbon_busterReducing our “carbon footprint” as a society – i.e. finding ways to consume less energy and generate less pollution – is at an all time high in the industrialized world. But for researchers and scientists hoping to avert the worst effects of Climate Change, the real challenge is finding ways to meet human needs that will either be carbon-neutral, or that consume more than they create.

This is the logic behind process like Carbon Capture, the “Smog Vacuum” and now, carbon negative building materials such as the “Carbon Buster”. Basically, it’s a brick that’s partially composed  of wood from old doors and windows (35% to be exact). In addition, it contains nasty pollutants that used to go into the air. But most important of all, more CO2 is locked inside than was emitted during the brick’s production and transport.

carbon_buster1The block is manufactured by a company in the east of England known as Lignacite, a company that has been making products from wood for 65 years. Lignacite recently partnered with another company named Carbon 8, another Suffolk-based company that converts noxious fumes from waste incinerators and combined with CO2, cement and sand to create aggregate.

To create the bricks, this aggregate is mixed with wood shavings from Lignacite’s plant, and Carbon Busters are born. Each one is composed of 50% recycled material and locks in about 14 kg (31 pounds) of carbon dioxide, which includes the CO2 the original trees took in during photosynthesis, and the CO2 captured in the aggregate-making process.

Carbon_Negative_CementGranted, the bricks aren’t exactly aesthetically appealing. But they are relatively lightweight, suitable for even the biggest construction projects, and more fire-resistant than blocks made from stone, which crack and crumble at high temperatures. Since the wood inside these bricks is not exposed to oxygen, they will not burn, but simply calcify and blacken when exposed to fire.

Giles de Lotbiniere, Lignacite’s chairman, claims that so far, roughly 600 homes have been built in the Suffolk area near where the Lignacite plant is situated. He also indicated that they sell at a 5% premium compared to conventional bricks. And while there is currently resistance to using aggregate and wood-based materials on an international scale, de Lothbiniere believes the market will expand in coming years:

Over the years, we’ve wondered if we want to continue making blocks out of wood. Each time we’ve found another reason to do it. Now, with climate change, we’ve found another one.

carbon_buster2But of course, the market for carbon negative materials is already becoming an interesting and diversified place. Just two years ago, Material ConneXion unveiled its own carbon-negative product – a carbon-negative cement composed of magnesium silicate that not only requires less heating, but it is also able to absorb CO2 from the environment as it hardens.

And then there’s Hemcrete, a bio-composite, thermal walling material made from hemp, lime and water that represents an alternative to fiberglass as an insulating material. Much like these other carbon-negative materials, more CO2 is locked-up in the process of growing and harvesting the hemp than is released in the production, and the product is 100% recyclable.

Taken together, materials like these are likely to revolution the construction industry in the coming years, an industry which currently accounts for roughly 38% of the CO2 emissions in the industrialized world.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, inhabitat.com, (2), freshome.com