A New Way To Grow Ethanol.

September 17, 2007 at 8:37 pm (Knowledge, Tech)

Ah, ethanol, the politicians new darling.

While this fuel holds many promises, it also has its pitfalls. Namely that ethanol is made from corn, which we eat (and drink) in everything. I do mean everything. It’s in our food, in our sodas, our furnishings, batteries, beer, paper, pharmaceuticals, the list goes on. The problem with using ethanol for fuel is that there is just not enough corn to go around. But what if there was another way to grow it? Professor Pengchen (Patrick) Fu (whom I believe works at “the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His laboratory focuses on metabolic engineering, bioprocess control, metabolomics, Systems and synthetic biology,” according to a Google search.) has dreamed up a novel way to “grow” ethanol. From Refactor Reality:

Professor Pengchen (Patrick) Fu is using cyanobacteria to produce ethanol from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water. I got to see this first-hand at Wired NextFest. This is exceedingly cool since ethanol, a useful fuel, burns cleanly to produce energy, carbon dioxide, and water. See the pattern? It’s a sustainable cycle, essentially storing solar energy in a fuel that we already know and love. There is very little waste in this process, and it’s quite harmless, in the form of oxygen and some dead bacteria at the end of their natural life cycles. This is already cool enough that I think I need to sit down for a while and take it all in, but there is more! In case the photo didn’t make things amply evident, let me state clearly: Pengchen (Patrick) Fu has come up with a possible solution for renewable energy using large, glowing cylinders full of bubbling green liquid. These things look like they came straight off the set of a science fiction movie. You know, the good kind, with lots of explosions.

“A series of tubes.”

Hey explosions are cool, right? But I do have a few issues with this idea.

  • Ethanol does NOT burn cleanly. It’s thought to be cleaner burning. However, it is far from perfectly clean. When things burn, they produce wastes, sorry folks, that’s just the way it is. Here’s a great pdf research paper outlining some of the possible effects of ethanol burning. Let it be noted that ethanol does burn cleaner than gasoline. To bad you have to burn more of it to get the same amount of power as from a comparable amount of gas.
  • Just because a movie has explosions, does not make it good. “Battlefield Earth” comes to mind.
  • The “large, glowing cylinders full of bubbling green liquid” making fuel is pretty awesome. Much more awesome than watching corn grow, let me tell you. I should know, living in Nebraska, I’m freaking surrounded by it

This could be wonderful, for Americas energy problems, should the technology pan out (and if oil companies don’t buy it up, then sit on it). I know I would much rather drive and eat than drive or eat, and taking corn out of the ethanol equation would help.


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