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Nov 15

Biotechonomy: Can We Grow Energy?

Posted in Biofuels | Future Technology

Energy Crop Today’s TED Talk is brought to us by Juan Enriquez, chair and CEO of Biotechonomy, and an authority on economics and the political impact of science. Enriquez proposes that we look at ‘growing energy’ by accelerating the biological processes that produce fuel crops. He believes increased agricultural productivity and energy production can be achieved by understanding the role biology plays in producing traditional fuel sources like coal and oil. He also argues that we should stop extracting energy with ‘brute force’ and start using biological science and technology to process crude fuel sources in a sustainable way.

Juan Enriquez: Why can’t we grow new energy?

“Our current energy sources — coal, oil, gas — are ultimately derived from ancient plants — they’re “concentrated sunlight.” He aks, Can we learn from that process and accelerate it? Can we get to the point where we grow our own energy as efficiently as we grow wheat?”
— Juan Enriquez: Biologist, futurist



  • Jan

    “Growing Energy” through the production of fuel crops is no more than a short-sighted solution, supported by agricultural/governmental lobbying groups with financial objectives in mind.

    More crops mean there is a need for more land to produce them, resulting in deforestation and substituting those by mono-cultures, thereby adding to global warming and eliminating natural diversity. Additionally the harvesting and processing of these crops into a usable source of energy will require energy, meaning that the net energy yield is reduced significantly. As a side effect of the increased demand for crops, market prices for staple foods will increase which will mainly hit the third world countries, resulting in an increased regional conflicts in those areas.

    If we wish to use a really ‘green’ form of energy, the only solution will be sustainable energy sources available to us through the use and further development of technology and not agriculture. I.e. wind mills, solar panels, harvest of geothermal heat etc…

  • Bob Wallace

    A most excellent comment.

    And let me add that ‘growing’ our fuel is going to require a lot of fresh water. Another limited commodity.

  • Ryan

    Did you guys even watch the presentation? Agriculture was used as an analogy. Using biology, crop yields have significantly increased eliminating starvation in places like India and China. So the point of the talk was to illustrate that we should use biology to extract energy instead of brute force. One example was using bacteria that eats coal and produces gas. Instead of destroying entire mountains to process the coal itself, we use the bacteria and just capture the natural gas.

    All that I ask is people watch the presentation in its entirety before commenting.

  • Alex

    I agree Ryan, the video does not advocate growing more crops for fuel, but instead a more sustainable way of extracting energy from natural resources. I’m also thinking about the potential this could have for recycling pollution. Great ideas!

  • Sepp Hasslberger

    Bad as it may seem, we are married to hydrocarbons from oil, coal and gas although we HAVE filed for divorce. There is no telling when we can actually separate, when we can bring alternative energy sources on line that will work well enough to become a replacement without killing the environment or putting a lease on future generations like atomic energy where pollution is invisible but just as insidious or even more so than with fossil fuels.

    So Enriquez’ proposal to find more efficient (and cleaner) ways to use hydrocarbons until we CAN get off them should become policy.

    Apart from the fact that we don’t know exactly what those fossil hydrocarbons are made of and whether they are actually fossil or not, we are using them in a very wasteful and polluting way. Seeing the mountains of sulphur that are stacked up at the oil sands processing site, I get the idea that oil may be almost as bad as nuclear for future pollution, quite apart from what is the result of burning the stuff.

    Probably bacteria are what forms those fossil fuels in the first place, and if we can use bacteria to re-process them into a clean burning gas or perhaps even into hydrogen, we should very well think about it.

  • Steve

    A lot of smart people have made excellent points regarding the downside of biofuels, but there is another argument I have yet to hear anyone express. Crop vulnerability to disease or pestilence, be it natural or man made (read bio-terrorism). No doubt there are many on this planet that do not want to see biofuels become a legitimate competitor to their interests. Probably a safe bet these same people do not consider the US to be a “friend”.

    One can easily imagine a scenario where a hostile force introduces an insect, fungus, bacteria or even a virus, and destroys our biofuels crops – or worse, our food chain.

    Before such a thought is written off as a paranoid delusion, stop and consider the resources of Iran, Venezuela, or Russia – not one of them a friend of the US. Rich beyond imagination with petro-dollars, Is such a theory really beyond the scope of possible?

    I agree with Jan, technology is the best answer in the long run.

  • Just Watching

    About one trillion barels of oil left in the ground that is recoverable, 100 + dollars per barrel. Now who do you think would be against another energy source? First clue, it ain’t Russia, Venezuela or the Middle East. Second clue is seven sisters oil.

  • PeterG

    Biofuels today are farmed. Let’s get that straight. We all agree that equals third world hunger.

    Biological organisms are extremely inefficient when it comes to power generation or power product excretion, because the biochemistry of each organism requires more energy to maintain their own metabolism than can be passed on to the products and byproducts they generate.

    In other words, micro-oranisms of today and the next 20 or so years are/will be great for consuming waste in order to convert it into low-energy forms, plus a little heat (not much or you’ll cook the organisms).

    But by the time we develop “super-freak” micro-organisms which can deliver us with high energy, or high energy fuel, at an efficiency comparable to solar or geothermal or tidal or even wind, and can be contained without wiping out our existing micro-organisms or ourselves – then by then we will also have decent solar/geothermal/tidal power generation, and probably even nuclear fusion.

    The technology of gene isolation and containment is a LONG way off. That makes the risk of biofuels not worth the rewards.

  • JR

    So many interesting comments it’s hard to know where to start. Based on the previous comments I would say that there is little foresight and to much conjecture. History has a strange way of moving in a circle. Bio-Fuels is man’s gift from G-d. It needs to be utilized wisely. It can also be produced by third world countries who currently are replying on the US to sustain there existence for both food and fuel. But you haven’t thought about that it would appear?

  • william

    HEMP Grows anywhere. 2 harvests per year. Does not deplete the soil and in fact replenishes the soil. Needs little or no fertilizer. Can be grown on farm land that is depleted. Estimates are:10% of American farmland growing hemp for biofuel will reduce oil imports to zero.

    Hundreds of other uses for hemp. Was once a major crop in the US before the pot hysteria.

  • Justwatching

    The problem here is that Congress has spent the last two generations destroying the family farm. The average age of our farmers is around 60 and getting older every day. Also the aquifers are nearly depleted.

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