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 😉


Cities of the Future: Building with Bacteria

bio-building1Since the beginning of civilization, building hasn’t evolved much. In fact, archaeological digs show that between the Early Paleolithic and today, construction has moved at a snail’s pace. And while change has certainly sped up within the past few centuries – with mud and stone giving way to bricks and cement and thatch and wood giving way to steel and shingles –  the fundamental techniques and concepts remain largely unchanged.

However, a radical shift may soon be underway where traditional factories will give way to biological ones, and the processing of raw materials using hands and tools will be replaced by an active collaboration between human architects and cells specifically programmed to create building materials. In this new age, biology, rather than machining, will be the determining factor and buildings will be grown, not assembled.

the-livingAlready, biological processes have been used to manufacture medicine and biofuels. But the more robust materials for everyday life – like roofs, beams, floor panels, etc – are still the domain of factories. However, thanks to researchers like David Benjamin – a computational architect, professor at Columbia University, and the principal of the The Living (a New York architectural practice).

The purpose of The Living’s research is to redirect and engineer biological processes and then capture them using computational models. The end result is what is known as “human-cell collaboration”, where humans specify the shape and properties of a desired material and computers translate them into biological models. Patterned “sheets” of bacterial cells are then grown in the lab, determining the final design based on what was encoded in the DNA.

bio-buildingEmerging software, says Benjamin, will soon allow architects to create multi-material objects in a computer, translate these into biological models, and let biology finish the job. This will be done in laboratories, growing them under carefully engineered conditions, or tweaking the DNA to achieve precisely the right result before deploying them to build.

At the moment, Benjamin and his colleagues are working with plant cells known as xylem – the long hollow tubes that transport water in plants. These are being designed as computer models and grown in a Cambridge University lab in conjunction with various species of engineered bacteria. In addition, they are working with sheets of calcium and cellulose, seeking to create structures that will be strong, flexible, and filigreed.

And of course, Benjamin and The Living are hardly alone in their endeavors. Living Foundries Program, for example, is a 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 and shave decades and millions of dollars off the development, the process is far from perfect, and could take another decade to become commercially viable. But this is a relatively short time frame given the revolutionary implications. This, in turn, may open up what the former U.S. energy secretary Stephen Chu has called the “glucose economy,” an economic system powered largely by plant-derived sugars grown in tropical countries and shipped around the world, much as we do with petroleum today.

Once factories switch to sugar as a primary energy source, and precisely engineered bacteria become the means of manufacture, the model of human civilization may flip from one powered by fossil fuels to one running largely on biologically captured sunlight. It’s one of the hallmarks of the future, where programmed biology is used to merge the synthetic with the biological and create a “best of both worlds scenario”.

In the meantime, check out this conceptual video by one of Benjamin’s collaborators about the future of bio-building. And be sure to check out some of the The Living’s other projects by clicking here.