If we’ve learned anything from the totality of human history, it is that if we ever find anything in great enough abundance, we’ll try to use it for something that benefits us. One need only look at the coal deposits, forests, and oceans for proof of this.
This instinctual human trait has been the cause of numerous conflicts and problems, including the highly publicised anthropogenic global warming that has caused our current climate change.
Our atmosphere is slowly suffocating on increased levels of carbon dioxide which are trapping heat and warming our planet, slowly melting the ice caps, raising the sea level, and pushing warmer latitudes closer to the poles.
But now, researchers at the University of Georgia, USA, have found something that we have in abundance and created something useful out of it. They have developed a means in which to transform the carbon dioxide saturating our atmosphere into useful industrial products like chemicals and fuel.
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“Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do-absorb it and generate something useful,” said Michael Adams, member of UGA’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute, Georgia Power professor of biotechnology and Distinguished Research Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
While it might be the natural process our planet has designed, the mechanism by which plants photosynthesise carbon into sugars is thoroughly unhelpful for the humans who want to use that stored carbon. The sugars that are created have proven to be troublesome to extract.
“What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman,” said Adams, who is co-author of the study. “We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass.”
The specifics are fascinating, and at the heart of it all is a tiny micro-organism called Pyrococcus furiosus, or “rushing fireball.” P. furiosus feeds on carbohydrates in the super-heated ocean waters near geothermal vents, and by manipulating its genetic material, Adams and his colleagues were able to create a version that is capable of feeding at much lower temperatures on carbon dioxide.
The research team then used hydrogen gas to create a chemical reaction in the P. furiosus which saw it incoporate carbon dioxide into 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a chemical often used to make acrylics and other products.
This manipulation is only the beginning, however, as Adams and his team believe that with further genetic manipulations they can make new strains of P. furiosus that create a range of products, including fuels for transport and power.
It’s a fascinating scientific discovery, but one that is really only a stopgap measure in the road of halting the exhalation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The researchers noted that the fuel the P. furiosus could create would — when burned — release the same amount of carbon dioxide that was used to create it. This makes it carbon neutral, but really only serves to displace atmospheric carbon dioxide for a small period of time — as either a chemical, fuel, or other by-product.
“This is an important first step that has great promise as an efficient and cost-effective method of producing fuels,” Adams said. “In the future we will refine the process and begin testing it on larger scales.”
Great for a new industry, not very helpful in the long run for our planet.