Friday, April 10, 2009

Nature Has Had Billions of Years to Do Energy

“At this point in time, it really has to be a liquid, and we don’t have the battery power to really bottle solar or other kinds of energy for transportation fuels,” Krauskopf said. “Also, bioenergy is local, as a good alternative to gasoline.” _Bioenergy
Kauskopf makes an excellent point: a rapid transition to sustainable transportation fleets will require liquid biofuels, because liquids fit perfectly into our current infrastructure consisting of trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure. Anyone who has trillions of dollars of spare change lying around who wants to replace present infrastructure in one fell swoop is welcome to do so -- but not welcome to charge high multiples of current prices. Nature has had billions of years to work on the problem.
The researchers are collecting material for the legions of six-legged silent crawlers residing at the Currie lab, leaf-cutter ants the university, state and nation have staked some hope in.

Tucked away in a sealed room off the main lab, the ants live in more than a dozen plastic boxes, stacked neatly on the shelves.

University of Wisconsin researcher Cameron Currie and his colleagues have been studying them all year, trying to understand their system of natural farming, whereby they cultivate fungus to eat, grown on the infamous leaf shreds they harvest.

Currie and others hope these tiny bugs and their fungus will help unlock answers to fight a major challenge for the United States: energy.

...“The ants have been doing bioenergy for tens of millions of years, and so we’re studying the system to understand the breakdown of plant biomass in natural systems,” Currie said.

While scientists have long known how to make ethanol from other kinds of plant matter, the process is long and inefficient. That’s where the ants march in.

“They’ve evolved to be very efficient in many different aspects of their biology, and so it’s very likely that they’ve also evolved to be more efficient in breaking down cellulose, so that’s what we’re studying,” Currie said.
In fact, scientists are looking everywhere in nature from the deepest oceans to the highest mountains -- and in the atmosphere -- to find any possible energy secrets that nature may be trying to hide. From specially evolved species of microbes, to growth-boosting plant hormones, to highly efficient enzymes -- nature has evolved countless ways of solving energy problems.

Humans are still fairly new at conscious energy biomimetics, but with the explosion of knowledge in biotech, nanotech, microelectronics, and information / communications tech, it seems as if a widely coordinated reconnaissance of natural bioenergy schemes should provide a large payoff. Humans need to copy the ants' persistence and patience, combined with higher level cognitive ingenuity and insight.



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