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

Towards a Cleaner Future: Solar and Wind Drones

solar_cell_galliumWith supplies of easily accessible fossil fuels diminishing, pushing us towards dirtier sources of oil and natural gas (such as tar sands and frakking), researchers are looking for ways to make renewable energy more efficient and accessible. Towards this end, they are pushing the boundaries of solar cells and wind turbines are capable of, but the constraints of land and weather limit where vast solar or wind farms can be set up.

Luckily, a UK-based company known as New Wave Energy has spent the last few years developing the technology to produce an army of power-generating drone aircraft to overcome these very problems. Basically, each craft is a 20x20m (65ft) flat surface fitted with solar panels and turbines to generate power from the sun and wind, and four small propellers that keep it aloft.

solar_dronesThe drones would be capable of flying at altitudes of up to 15,240 meters (50,000 feet), putting them far above the clouds that can obscure the sun. The propellers would allow the craft to track the course of the sun to remain in optimal position for as long as possible. At these altitudes, the wind is also more consistent and powerful, which means smaller turbines can be used in place of the giant towers necessary down near the ground.

In terms of transmitting that power, the key is in the use of microwaves. In essence, power from the drones would be beamed down as a low-energy microwave and collected by antenna arrays on the ground. These antennas can then be used to turn the electromagnetic radiation into usable DC power and then send it to where it is needed.

solar_drones1One of the benefits of this design is that the proposed drone power plants wouldn’t need to land to refuel themselves. Supposedly, they will be able to power themselves entirely with the energy generated on-board, and still produce 50kW of power. This that means several thousand drones would be needed to power a large city of 205,000 homes.

However, these swarms of robotic power plants aren’t just a way to replace the power infrastructure we already have. They could be used to augment our current power supplies as demand increases, removing the need to expand on large, expensive power plants. Also, they bring power to remote areas with poor service, or to restore power in regions affected by natural disasters.

solar_panelThus, the cost of building and deploying the drones will determine whether or not that’s feasible. At present, the company plans to raise about $500,000 on Kickstarter to fund the construction of a prototype for testing and marketing. If this campaign does turn out to be successful, the first flying power plant could be aloft within six months.

Combined with other improvements that are making wind and solar power more efficient and affordable, and future prospects for space-based solar power (SBSP) that are being made possible thanks to space startups like Google X, we could be looking at a near-future where solar and wind meet the lion’s share of our energy requirements.

Source: extremetech.com

Powered by the Sun: Sun-Made Hydrogen Fuel

solar2It’s been known for some time that our future may hinge on the successful development of solar power. Despite it being a clean, renewable alternative to traditional, dirtier methods, the costs associated with it have remained prohibitive.  Which is why, in recent years, researchers and developers have been working to make it more efficient and bring down the costs of producing and installing panels.

But a new technique developed by the University of Colorado Boulder may have just upped the ante on solar-powered clean energy. Using concentrated sunlight in a solar tower to achieve temperatures high enough to drive chemical reactions that split water into its constituent oxygen and hydrogen molecules, the team claims that solar energy may now be used to cheaply produce massive amounts of hydrogen fuel.

hydrogenfuelThe team’s solar thermal system concentrates sunlight off a vast array of mirrors into a single point at the top of a tall tower to produce very high temperatures. When this heat is delivered into a reactor full of metal oxides, the oxides heat up and release oxygen. This leaves the reduced metal oxides in a different state and ready to bind with new oxygen atoms.

Steam is then introduced into the reactor, which can also be produced by heating water with sunlight. This vaporized water then interacts with oxides, which draw oxygen atoms out of the water molecules leaving behind hydrogen molecules. These molecules can then be collected and harvested as hydrogen gas, and placed in storage containers for export.

solar_beadsGranted, the concept of using solar energy and heat to create hydrogen fuel is not new. Earlier this year, teams from the University of Delaware and Harvard already proposed using solar arrays and small panels (artificial leaves) to separate hydrogen from water. And solar thermal tower power plants have been in use in some parts of the world for years now.

But there are several key difference that set the University team’s concept apart. In a standard solar power tower, sunlight is concentrated about 500 to 800 times to reach temperatures around 500º C (932 º F) to produce steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. However, splitting water requires temperatures of around 1,350º C (2,500º F), which is hot enough to melt steel.

hydrogenfuel-2To get those kinds of temperatures, the team added additional mirrors within the tower to further concentrate the sunlight onto the reactor and the active material. But the big breakthrough came about when the team discovered certain active materials that allowed both these chemical reactions (reducing the metal oxide and re-oxidizing it with steam) to occur at the same temperature.

As Charles Musgrave, Professor of Chemical and Biological engineering at CU-Boulder, explains it:

You need this high temperature both to give you the driving force to drive the chemical reactions and also the kinetics to make the reactions go fast enough to make the process practical. We determined that both reactions could be driven at the same temperature of about 2,500° F (1,371° C). Even though we run at a constant and lower temperature we still generate more hydrogen than competing processes.

Though they have yet to produce a working model, the concept has a big advantage over other methods. By eliminating the time and energy required for temperature swings, more hydrogen fuel can be created in any given amount of time. Another advantage it has over other renewable technologies, such as wind and photovoltaics, is that it uses sunlight directly to produce fuel rather first converting sunlight into electricity, which reduces overall efficiency.

solar_array1The team believes that a site with five 223 m (732 ft) tall towers and about two million sq m (21.5 million sq ft) of heliostats on 485 ha (1,200 acres) of land could generate 100,000 kg (222,460 lb) of hydrogen per day, which is enough to run over 5,000 hydrogen-fuel cell buses daily. Or as Alan Weimer, the research group leader, put it:

Our objective is to produce hydrogen (H2) at $2/kg H2. This is equivalent to about US$2/gallon (3.7 L) of gasoline based on mileage in a fuel cell car versus a combustion engine today.

Not a bad substitute for gasoline then, is it? And considering that the production process relies on only the sun – once the multi-million dollar infrastructure has been built of course – it will be much more cost effective for power companies than offshore drilling, frakking and pipelines currently are. Add to that the fact that its far more environmentally friendly, and you’ve an all around winning alternative to modern day fuels.

Source: gizmag.com