Monday, November 12, 2012


Fast depleting fossil fuel resources is raising alarms all around with private and public funded research efforts striving to evolve alternate sustainable energy sources. While tapping solar energy, wind energy, wave energy, geothermal energy, etc can help to fill the gap to some extent after the era of easy and cheap fossil fuels, still there is no clear solution to this vexing problem. One of the areas where fossil fuels have contributed enormously is in the manufacture of a variety of plastics for packaging consumer products including food and it is an irrefutable fact that both production and disposal of plastics pose technical, environmental and economic challenges. There are alternate technologies for production of plastics from basic chemicals produced by the plants and some microbiological sources though they have not yet gained universal acceptance. Recent break through in research studies to convert carbon dioxide, the very villain of peace to day in the global warming debate, are considered exciting and here is a critique on this development with some far reaching future potential to clean up the Globe.

Today, the world consumes 120 million tons of the chemical ethylene to make the world's most widely used plastics. Almost all of that ethylene is derived from fossil fuels. Between 1.5 to 3 tons of carbon dioxide is released for every ton of ethylene produced, which is why plastic has such an enormous carbon footprint. Now, researchers have inserted a gene into bacteria that turns it into one of the world's most efficient factories for ethylene by eating carbon dioxide, instead of releasing it into the air. On the opposite end of the plastic production line, a newly discovered fungus in the Amazon eats plastic, finally giving us a way to get rid of the stuff. The new cyanobacterium works in the opposite way of traditional plastic production: Its photosynthetic capabilities means it harnesses today's photons from sunlight (as opposed to old photons stored in the energy of chemical bonds in petroleum) to add carbon from the air to ethylene molecules. This saves six tons of carbon dioxide emissions for every ton of ethylene created: Three tons are absorbed by bacteria and three are avoided from the usual fossil fuels, says the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "Our peak productivity is higher than a number of other technologies, including ethanol, butanol, and isoprene," said NREL principal investigator, Jianping Yu, in a release from the Lab. "We overcame problems encountered by past researchers. Our process doesn't produce toxins such as cyanide and it is more stable than past efforts. And it isn't going to be a food buffet for other organisms."

The new genetically modified bacteria offers exciting possibilities if harnessed properly. The fact that it can create the basic building blocks of plastics by absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide has future repercussions for both the packaging industry as well as environmental managers since it will considerably reduce the green house effect due to carbon dioxide while providing an inexhaustible source for making plastics for consumer use. The commercial feasibility part of the research has to be established in no uncertain terms and if technical feasibility is confirmed all countries in this Universe must join hands to evolve this technology further to the point of global use. The technological developments for optimizing the production of ethylene by the bacteria and exploitation of the Amazon fungus must be a common property of the mankind and there should not be any reservation on the part of NREL to share this with the world community at large.


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