Good News from Science!

Ah science, how I love thee. Every day it seems like more solutions are being found to really important things, like materials science and the environment.

Renewable energy is on everyone’s mind but there’s a few things that are at the bleeding edge of “That would really be something.” Most accessible green energy technologies aren’t yet really green – wind turbines that kill birds & bats (controversial), “bio-fuels” that are dependent on tons of plant matter that should be used for things like growing food, etc. etc. So imagine how great it would be if something like algae (there’s a lot of it and it just keeps getting more out of hand) became that source of renewable energy. We could be taking out something that is often the ocean’s response to industrial pollutants and turn it into something that replaces things like oil and coal. Except there’s still a few key discoveries keeping the idea stuck at “potential.” It’s part of a huge list of science that has the power to be game changing, but has yet to be adopted by industry or “discovered” by people en masse.

 Then in the first month of 2012 there’s this:

When the team fed alginate to their engineered E. coli, the microbes pumped out ethanol, the researchers report in the Jan. 20 Science. The system yields 80 percent of the theoretical maximum amount of ethanol for a given amount of biomass, the scientists noted, and with further tweaking will probably be even more efficient.Part of the beauty of the system is its flexibility, says Yoshikuni. Because the alginate-degrading enzyme is released into the environment, initial breakdown products can easily be harvested for creating useful compounds such as precursors to nylon or plastics. And when E. coli consume the broken-down alginate the bacteria generate a lot of pyruvate, a chemical intermediate useful for making fuels such as butanol or biodiesel.Seaweed is already harvested at commercial scale in several countries for other uses, and Bio Architecture Lab is working on a pilot plant in Chile to convert seaweed into fuel, says company CEO Daniel Trunfio. Also, any seaweed will do, he notes. “We like to say we’re seaweed agnostic — we can process any brown algae.”

And here’s the really awesome thing that’s caused me to go from being a die-hard pessimist to a cautious optimist: Big Business is participating in trials, making sustainability pledges and finding new ways to do things across all industries. Even the airline and transportation industries!

“Unlike cars where there are millions of filling stations, there are only about 1,700 aviation stations in the world. So if you can get the right fuel, like mass-produced algae, then getting it to 1,700 outlets is not so difficult,” Branson said.Branson, who announced last month he hoped Virgin would soon be able to use waste gases from industrial steel and aluminium plants as a fuel, said the industry should aim for 50% sustainable fuels by 2020.”I would be very disapointed if not. Once the breakthrough takles place, getting to 50-100% is not unrealistic. Aviation fuel is 25-40% of the running costs of airlines so the industry is open to new fuels.”Branson, whose Virgin group owns 51% of Virgin Atlantic Airways, was speaking in advance of the launch in Durban of, an open access website that assesses and updates the progress of companies planning to produce commercial-scale renewable fuel for aviation.

Shipping giant Maersk has been making a number on interesting efficient improvements in its containers ships as of late, and

now is testing algae-biofuels as well: Right now the Maersk Kalmar is en route from Northern Europe to India running a blend of algae-biofuel and petroleum-based fuel.During the 30-day trip, over 6500 nautical miles, a variety of blend percentages will be tested, including testing how well the ship performs on 100% biofuel. Emissions of greenhouse gases as well as particulate pollution are being monitored along the route.