(Could poop power our cars?) DAVID WERNICK: There’s a lot of protein waste that we produce right now as a society
that are not really used. In 2008, it was estimated that there’s about 1 billion tons
of manure. That is a lot of manure that is not fully
utilized. A good portion of that is left to aerobically
compost and that produces a lot of nitrous oxide and a lot of methane emissions, which are green house gases that 325 times more potent than CO2, respectively.
Our laboratory works on applying biology and biological principles to solve engineering
problems. Anything that comes from a nonrenewable source, we’re looking to develop a renewable
way to make it. We’re looking at using all sorts of different
waste feed stocks, anything such as agricultural waste, like manure, municipal waste, like
sewage, plant matter. And we work with a variety of different bacteria, a variety of different
organisms, to get them to produce different compounds. And what we’re focused on right
now is sort of advanced biofuels. They have more favorable properties as a fuel than ethanol.
Ethanol’s not an ideal biofuel. It doesn’t have the exact same burning properties as
any of the other liquid transportation fuels that we use. It is not quite as energy dense
and it is corrosive to metal and to the fuel infrastructure that we already have in place.
We try to produce branched chain alcohols that are a little larger and they’re therefor
more energy-dense and they burn more like real gasoline. They’re therefor compatible
with current fuel infrastructure. You can drop it right into your car. You don’t need
any modifications. (How do you make biofuel?) Bacteria have evolved over billions and billions
of years to find protein in the environment and then use that to grow. However, we don’t
want them to do that. We try to engineer the metabolism of bacteria so that instead of
just growing on this protein, they will now take a good portion of it to produce products
for us. So bacillus subtilis is a soil organism. It’s recognized as safe by the FDA, which
is a good step for developing this process for industrial deployment. We’ve engineered
bacillus subtilis to produce alcohol biofuels and ammonia, but we don’t have the highest
yield. So what we’re doing right now is trying to further study the metabolism of this organism.
See how we can alter it, adjust it. Once we improve our yield of biofuels, then we can
start looking at can we scale production of this up. To me, it’s important that we come
up with technology for renewable energy. In an academic setting, you know, we have a little
more freedom to investigate basic science, generate new theories, new hypotheses, that
you might not be able to do in a corporate setting. And because of this we can be sort
of an engine for generating new ideas. And right now we’re working with guidance from
a company in industry and well as the U.S. Department of Energy to make something economically
solvent or viable on an industrial scale. Want to learn more about climate change? Check
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