Fossil fuels are made of natural ingredients, laid down by something alive millions or more years ago. Finding ways of getting the same kind of fuel from modern life is one of science's big problems. Not only is it dirty stuff and causes problems for many, but the supply of fossil fuel is limited. We will use it up one day and so the race is on to find sustainable alternatives.
We farm plants and animals for food, wool, milk, and eggs, we keep bees for honey, so why not do something along these lines for energy? Finding a way to get life doing what we want is not always easy, it tends to do what it wants instead. And why not? We didn't put it here for ourselves. That's where the ball stops bouncing, because with genetic modification we can create new life that behaves in different ways.
Another, perhaps more ethical approach, is to search the abundance of life on Earth until we find something that produces what we want naturally. These organisms range from bugs for food colouring to silk worms for textiles, and now algae is joining the ranks of organisms that can work for us. A special species of algae has been discovered that loves to make fats. But the only catch is that in order for them to do this, they have to be starved of other nutrients.
Nannochloropsis gaditana has been genetically enhanced to produce even more fats when starved to create a super fat making machine. But why fats? I know, we're always trying to cut them out, but fats can be easily converted into diesel. Diesel is usually made from fossil fuel and is used to power the majority of the global logistic infrastructure. Boats, trains, lorries, and cars all rely on this fuel for their energy so finding ways of producing diesel that doesn't lean on the dwindling oil industry is extremely important.
Because the fats are made when nitrogen food is withheld from the algae, it's impossible to continually grow fats and algae. It's only possible to grow one at a time, so a method of staggering the vats is being implemented so that a continual harvest can be reaped. By employing a bloom and bust method, colonies can be brought to maturity and then made to create their payload of fatty substances ready for extraction. Work is currently ongoing to find ways of making the algae produce fats without being starved. So far however, the response has been to stop growing also, even when there was enough food.
Bio-chemical processes that work with life to find solutions to human problems are perhaps some of the most interesting and controversial aspects of the world we live in. With the ingredients of nature at our fingertips, is there anything stopping us from going even further? Should there be?
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