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Chemistry to the rescue

15 August 2008
Chemistry to the rescue

By Molly Webb, Head of Smart Technologies, The Climate Group.

Craig Venter is always up to something interesting. Now he's saying he will chemically produce biofuels - and why not? Growing biofuel is what we do anyway (ie, we grow corn), so growing a few synthetically produced algae is a snap!

We're working on what we call second-, third- and fourth-generation fuels. Like corn-based ethanol, a first-generation biofuel, our second- and third-generation fuels start with sugar as the feedstock. But unlike it, we're making fuels that have very high energy content, don't mix with water and have very low freezing points-well under 100 degrees below centigrade. They have the potential of working in high-altitude aircraft. (July 30, Popular Mechanics)

Needless to say ever-vigilant ETC group wonders if this is entirely safe (see last year's Guardian article).

What is interesting is the idea of taking waste and making it useful again, something that happens in nature all the time:

Because we actually have to feed them concentrated CO2, we can take CO2 streams from power plants, cement plants and other places. People view CO2 as a contaminant-they want to bury it in the ground or pump it into wells to hide or sequester it. We want to take all that waste product and convert it into fuel. (July 30, Popular Mechanics)

What I also find interesting is the vision of distributed sources of fuel, which TreeHugger also pointed out. Right now we have to transport fuel long distances, and instead, we could have small biofuel production points -- "micro-refineries" -- distributed around the country.

How is this related to information and communications technologies? I think it is about what is competing with biofeuls. Is it more disruptive to grow different kinds of biofuels or to create a different way of powering and using cars? The plug-in model (which will rely on smart grid technologies), would necessitate national networks of electricity outlets, not micro-refineries. Will these two types of networks co-exist or will they compete and eventually one model will dominate?

We definitely need experimentation in both technologies and business models, which makes it hard to predict which technologies and which types of transport system will be the one we rely on in the future. And we also need the ETC Groups of the world who challenge scientists on the societal implications of their work in the broadest sense.

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