Over the course of the past 50 years, scientists, engineers and academics have unlocked the secrets of energy efficiency by producing technologies with the capacity to harness wind, solar and nuclear power. Scientists have additionally focused their research on developing viable oil substitutes – particularly ethanol and biomass energies – that can be used to produce heat and electricity. Yet the future of global sustainability and decreased warming will depend on the expansion and improvement of these technologies.
The Huffington Post and The Mother Nature Network recently released profiles on Dr. Ka-Yiu San, a bioengineer who discovered a method for turning plant waste into fatty acid. This fatty acid is the beginning ‘ingredient’ in a synthetic compound – a compound that can be converted into an artificial diesel fuel or oil-like lubricant. The base of the compound comes from a genetically modified bacteria, and specifically a strain of the E. coli bacteria, which “converts sugar-heavy hydrolysate (inedible cellulose from sorghum) into fatty acids.”
According to his reports, San’s fermentation process of the genetically modified bacteria “generates an 80 percent to 90 percent yield of fatty acids from what the science team calls ‘model sugars’”– a process he believes has the potential for an even greater yield. It may take numerous rounds of tests and several years, however, before the E. coli strain is ready to be used in a wide industrial setting.
San’s research hasn’t been adapted into a large scale project, but the implications of his discovery are immense for developing countries. Though some biofuels have potential drawbacks such as aggressive land, water and resource requirements, air and water pollution and increased food costs, San’s research is promising. His E. coli strand can use plant waste efficiently; this provides an avenue for agriculture based societies – like those in Africa and rural Asia – to use their abundant plant waste in a productive way. In areas where electricity and energy access is scarce, a technology like this could have an unspeakably large impact.
— Allison Heymann
Sources: The National Resources Defense Council, Huffington Post, EPA