Biofuels and Carbon Capture from Frog Foam?
Since time immemorial human beings are trying to use solar energy for their survival and day to day use. We know that green plants create their own food and energy with the help of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis happens in the presence of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. The end results are food, chemical energy and release of oxygen gas. Whenever scientists tried to harness the solar energy they were quite unsuccessful in utilizing a major part of solar power. The conversation rate of solar energy into electrical energy is quite inefficient. Now engineering researchers at the University of Cincinnati are trying to overcome this problem.
The researchers are engaged in figuring out various methods to harness the power of the sun and carbon from the air to produce new forms of biofuels. And the help came from quite unusual quarters. Scientists of the University of Cincinnati received that help from semi-tropical frog species. They have published their work in Nano Letters. The project team consists of research Assistant Professor David Wendell, student Jacob Todd and College of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Carlo Montemagno. Now these scientists need photosynthetic material that can perform actual photosynthesis. For this the researchers put their energy on creating a new artificial photosynthetic material. This material takes the help of enzymes derived from plant, bacteria, frog and fungi to manufacture sugar while taking in the sunlight and carbon dioxide. All these enzymes are trapped within a foam housing.
Dean Montemagno talks about his project, “This new technology establishes an economical way of harnessing the physiology of living systems by creating a new generation of functional materials that intrinsically incorporates life processes into its structure. Specifically in this work it presents a new pathway of harvesting solar energy to produce either oil or food with efficiencies that exceed other biosolar production methodologies. More broadly it establishes a mechanism for incorporating the functionality found in living systems into systems that we engineer and build.”
Now the interesting question is why the researchers have opted for foam? If we give careful thought to anything foamy we can easily recall that sunlight and air can very easily enter a foamy material. Another advantage is scientists were able to concentrate the reactants inside the foam. Foam was chosen because it can effectively concentrate the reactants but allows very good amount of light and air penetration. They drew inspiration for foamy material from a design based on the foam nests of a semi-tropical frog. This frog is known as the Tungara frog. They are known for producing a very long-lived foams for their developing tadpoles.
What is the advantage of using foam nests of semi-tropical frogs? One major advantage is since a foam nest is a non-living thing, it can convert all the sunlight it receives into sugar because it doesn’t have other life-related activities like respiration, digestion, reproduction, growth and excretion. Wendell clarifies further, “Our foam also uses no soil, so food production would not be interrupted, and it can be used in highly enriched carbon dioxide environments, like the exhaust from coal-burning power plants, unlike many natural photosynthetic systems.” He discusses another advantage, “In natural plant systems, too much carbon dioxide shuts down photosynthesis, but ours does not have this limitation due to the bacterial-based photo-capture strategy.”
Other advantages of the plant-like foam are that the sugar produced can be converted into many different things such as ethanol and other biofuels. Another great advantage is cultivatable land will still be available for production of important crops. As Wendell explains. “And it removes carbon dioxide from the air, but maintains current arable land for food production.”
Now the next logical step for the project team would be to make this technology feasible for large-scale applications like carbon capture at coal-burning power plants. Wendell explains, “This involves developing a strategy to extract both the lipid shell of the algae (used for biodiesel) and the cytoplasmic contents (the guts), and reusing these proteins in the foam. We are also looking into other short carbon molecules we can make by altering the enzyme cocktail in the foam.”