Monday, June 18, 2007

Scrap food to energy - here we come

Well, congrats to Martin Wu, who is a Project Scientist at Davis in my group for getting his pet project approved as a new Community Sequencing Proposal through the Joint Genome Institute. In this project (see the MIT technology review article here)Martin and Ruihong Zhang a Prof. at Davis are going to do some sequencing of microbes that like in Dr. Zhang's biogas reactors.

From the MIT article:
"Sequencing these organisms will give us a better idea of who the players are so we can better control the conditions or improve the design to further improve conversion of waste into biogas," says Ruihong Zhang, the UC Davis bioengineer who developed the system.
"We want to compare what kind of microbes are there at different conditions and try to figure out why one [set of conditions] works better than the other," says Martin Wu, a geneticist at UC Davis who will lead the genomics part of the project.
In nature, the microbes that carry out degradation of organic waste and generation of methane exist in a very complex anaerobic community, and individual isolates from the community are hard to grow," says Jim Bristow, head of the community sequencing program at the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, in Walnut Creek, CA
Martin has been interested in this area for ages, since his family used to use a biogas reactor on their farm in China. I find this much more sensible than the plans to specifically grow plants to produce biofuels since these reactors simply make use of current solid waste.

Some other interesting stories and links about biogas:

Big biogas Africa project
Biogas project in India wins award
Google blog search on biogas
Google news search on biogas

Books on Biofuels


  1. Right on again, Jonathan! This is more sensible than specifically growing crops to produce biofuels. Growing those crops with our current energy-intensive methods often consumes more energy than we get back from the resultant fuel.

    Also worth noting for perspective and scale: in 2001, energy consumption in the US was almost equal to the total global photosynthetic output.

  2. Yeah, I am trying to not go postal on my concerns regarding much of the current biofuel movement but I guess I can hide it here in comments. I am VERY concerned with the move to grow crops specifically for fuel for many reasons

    1) We need to conserve more first
    2) We need to use other biological material before moving to specifically growing things for fuel
    3) Growing for fuel will increase the price of food
    4) Growing for fuel will lead to relaxation of already too lax environmental restrictions on agriculture. Just imagine the pesticides, fertilizers and other crap they will put into these fields when the crop is not destined for food, clothing or other materials that will be eaten or touched.

  3. I agree. I do support the need for continued research, as a potential solution to the energy problems of the future will not come from a single technology. However, I will be a little more blunt in saying that the corn-for-fuel mantra that has poured a lot of money into a yet unproven scaleable technology ( bubble anyone?) has affectionataly earned overzealous supporters the distinction of being part of the 'biofools' movement.

  4. OK Just registered . It points back to my blog for now. What say we create a site relating to the folloy of some biofuels projects?

  5. sounds appropriate, and timely. Presidential elections will provide no shortage of fodder.

  6. I agree with what you said about growing crops for fuel. It looks like a convenient way for politicians to pretend that they are doing something about the problem (while they are not) and then give money to interest groups all at the same time.

  7. came across this today:

  8. Good to see I am not alone out there in blogging agst. biofuels somewhat.

  9. Here is another example of where I see the problems developing. In this article ( the author describes as one of Fiji's 'top priorities' the development of their biofuels industry, mostly coming from palm and sugarcane. Fiji is just one of dozens of small island/marginal economies trying to grab a piece of this market. When either (a) global supply far exceeds global demand causing a glut and prices paid to producers to plummet, (b) water problems start to creep in and show that biofuels are not as promising as they once were, or (c) some combination of both, will Fiji just be able to recover and go back to business as usual? Hardly. Larger biobased economies who have been in this space for decades (ie, Brazil) will be able to handle the transition...others won't be so lucky.

  10. Maybe Fiji will start tocollect fish in their territorial waters and burn them into biofuels

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. fyi: one of the better pieces I have read recently:


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