Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Miracle cure for our sickness?

Some would call it a sickness, this excessive lifestyle we live as North Americans. Our entire way of life is based on the consumption of petrochemicals, a finite resource. For years now, researchers have been searching for a cure, be it a change in the way we live, or a change in the fuel we consume. We've heard talk of cars that run on nothing but hydrogen and oxygen and release nothing but water as an emission. We've seen countless scientists claim that some day nuclear cold fusion will be a reality. But like many other things, it looks like one of the first real solutions has been discovered deep in the forest.

Discover Magazine's great science news aggregator, 80beats, reported today that researchers at Montana State University have discovered a tree fungus called Gliocladium roseum that turns plant matter into a mix of hydrocarbons that almost exactly mimics the composition of diesel fuel! The fungus grows on Ulmo trees in the Patagonia area of Argentina and apparently uses the gaseous mix to poison other fungi that try to move in on its feeding territory. This fungus can convert cellulose plant material into gaseous hydrocarbons so easily it makes the current process of turning cellulose into ethanol look foolishly cumbersome.

Having a relatively simple organism to achieve such a complex process opens up the door to producing these hydrocarbons in a factory setting on a large scale. Producing bio-ethanol requires large amounts of land to grow the corn, which also removes land necessary for growing food, which subsequently pushes up the price of food. The concept being toyed with by the researchers, who have obviously patented the fungus and are closely guarding its location in Patagonia, is that the fungus would be cultured and grown in factories just like yeast. It would be fed cellulosic plant material (a renewable resource) upon which it would convert the cellulose into the gaseous hydrocarbons that could be siphoned off and used as fuel.

But is this a good thing? The finite nature of petroleum could be a mixed blessing when it comes to the future of the planet. If the burning of hydrocarbons has contributed to global warming, then if the source of those hydrocarbons, petroleum, were to disappear, we would be forced to change our ways to be more sustainable. But if we suddenly had an infinite supply of hydrocarbons at our disposal, we could continue with our reckless consumption. I think this is a good step, but not the answer. Renewable resources that do not produce hydrocarbons as a product, like wind or solar, would be far more useful.

Of course, if we would just quit living beyond our means, the whole problem wouldn't exist.

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