Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why Re-Invent?

Al Fin discusses the utility of microbes (and links to a Brian Wang roundup on the topic) followed by notice of a Chinese effort to develop artificial photosynthesis to power a bio-energy process.

I also take note of this uncredited article at the New Energy and Fuel blog. Our anonymous author begins thus:

Elizaveta Bonch-Osmolovskaya and her colleagues at the Winogradsky Institute of Microbiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences discovered the rare archaeon, a kind of ancient bacteria called Desulfurococcus fermentans, in the Uzon Caldera on the Kamchatka Peninsula, an isolated spit of land in eastern Siberia that is full of volcanoes and their remnants. D. fermentans degrades cellulose from the higher plants that fall in the caldera. When news of the successful isolation and description of the microorganism’s activity reached Biswarup Mukhopadhyay, an assistant professor with the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech he saw the chance to create an organism that produces hydrogen from a cellulose feedstock at high temperatures. A team of scientists from across the world have now teamed up to unlock the process and the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute will expedite the research by sequencing the organism for comparative genomic research.

So, there has been discovered a bacteria that naturally consumes cellulose and belches hydrogen. And does so at a suitably elevated temperature to preclude contamination from another microbial or bacteriological source. As well, we are presented with the first step taken in producing photosynthesis how/as we desire it. All as a mere part of a broad-ranging effort to harness biology to the creation of energy sources to power human civilisation. Independent from the machinations of certain currently influential members of that species, I might add.

Can you spell "oil bubble"?

One has to wonder how long it will be until a personal greenhouse is the mark of true human liberty? Along with the means to keep it, of course.

The two were ever intertwined concepts sad to say.

Oh, and the answer to the titular question can be found in the engineering concept of robustness:

What you have in some systems is a tendency to self-correct. When the system is perturbed, the inherent forces of the system will eventually bring it back on track. Such a system is robust. The opposite case is a system which is fragile, which means that if the system is perturbed, the inherent forces tend to amplify the perturbation, and eventually the system collapses.

The oil-based energy business is not robust as an energy source in light of it's pending competition for that market. How well it survives as a source for the component chemicals used in manufacturing is a different, and slightly more open, question as of yet.

Update: Via Instapundit comes notice of a pertinent article in The American on-line magazine by former Intel CEO Andy Grove. Mr. Grove details the advantages achieved by our transitioning to ICE/electric motor hybrid vehicles and urges same as a matter of national priority. I'm not going to quibble with his prescriptive, or even his admittedly tepid seeming suggestion regarding tax incentives and the like.

I will quibble over one of his cited reasons for doing so. In the article, Mr. Grove flirts with fear mongering:

There Could Be Blood
Oil-producing countries flex their muscles more and more openly. The elections in Ukraine led Russia to threaten to cut off natural gas supplies. The need to secure oil seems to have influenced China’s attitude toward the genocide in Darfur. In Venezuela, Hugo Ch├ívez is using oil to gain political influence in the hemisphere. “The politics of energy is warping diplomacy in certain parts of the world,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in recent Senate testimony.

Secretary Rice's observation is pertinent to the topic, but skirts close to being taken out of context in the threat of violence implied in this article. Mr. Grove offers further support as follows:

And it could get worse. Scratch the surface, and you find that oil has been a major factor in many wars. And it could be again. Today’s relationship between China and the United States, says Henry Kissinger, “is very similar to that of Germany, a rising country at the turn of the 20th century, and Britain, an established one.” Their conflict over resources “eventually led to war.” Listen to Lieutenant General William Caldwell, who heads the Army’s schools and training centers: “We are in a period of time in the world today where there is a shortage of resources.” Because of this, over the next 10 to 15 years, Army Chief of Staff General George W. Casey Jr. says we will face “an era of persisting conflict.”

I would dispute with General Caldwell to the extent of modifying his statement to read: "... where there is a politically induced shortage of access to resources."

As I feel certain both Generals Caldwell and Casey are well aware, virtually all wars are the result of conflict over control of resources to some extent. The Nazi view that major segments of the European population were at best expendable resources best expended via slave labor camps, the Imperial Japanese effort to claim by force the oil and other resources of S. E. Asia and even the British rejection of the commerce in human bondage as a resource at all some two centuries earlier are all major historical examples of the influence control of resources has had on world events. In the 19th century, the US civil war was entirely the result of conflict arising from the control of national resources and the utilisation thereof (to include the temporarily Confederate States continued practice of forced human bondage as a commercial resource).

My point is that oil is simply another resource and that resources in and of themselves aren't responsible for war or conflict. Control over access to and utilisation of resources, in this example petroleum and it's myriad of resultant products, is the proximate cause of contention. Secretary Rice would do well to alter US diplomatic efforts to manipulate a beneficial change in that rather than lamenting the continued impact of the human condition upon the exercise of human affairs. The human penchant for physical violence is simply part of the climate in which diplomacy swirls, not something of itself to be negotiated over.

Mr. Grove might want to pay added attention to precisely how we generate the added electricity he prescribes. I have no objection to such an eventuality, indeed I encourage it, but I am curious as to how he suggests we both actually do the thing and how we end up paying for it all.

Finally, I understand the two generals quoted being loathe to cite the US legislative contribution to our present energy-related woes, but pending some recommendation on his part as to how we reverse that state of affairs leads me to think Mr. Grove is less than serious about his considerations on the topic of US national energy resilience.

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