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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Why wait 'til the last minute?
April 20, 2010 - 5:17pm

So let's say your university takes the plunge and invests big-time in solar photovoltaic panels covering all the roofs on campus. You do it now, in the springtime, so that everything's in place for summer -- the sunniest season in most parts of the Northeast.

At about the same time, your Physical Plant department grounds crew decides to start mowing the grass on the Quad and around the buildings.

The sad fact is that the grass clippings your school is paying staff to create, rake up and remove probably represent a greater energy production capacity than does the expensive technology newly adorning the tops of your building. Not that you can easily take advantage of it (grass clippings don't throw off much heat when burned -- the most efficient way to benefit is probably to graze animals on the grass and then eat the animals), but still . . .

Or wait. Maybe not. Maybe there's a way to harness the power generating potential of the grass, if not the grass itself. If the results of some recent lab experiments that a Greenback student directed my attention to are any indication, maybe biomimicry can help us get out of this mess.

OK, there's a huge difference between "works in the lab" and "works". That's why I try not to get too excited about most newly announced discoveries, certainly not at the "pure science" stage. "If you don't have an application, you don't have much" is kind of like "if you don't have an agreement in writing, you don't have it" to my mind.

But this one may be different. This one may be reproducible cold fusion. Or, of course, . . . not.

Actually, it's not even "this one". It's "these two, taken in combination".

First, there's the announcement out of Stanford that they've taken a step toward high efficiency bio-generation of electricity by capturing the electron(s) created during the early stages of photosynthesis. Then there's the paper out of the University of Cincinnati which describes artificial photosynthesis in a foam structure, with chemical efficiency of up to 96%.

So put the two together -- scalable, cell-free photosynthesis for the purpose not of producing sugar (most of us have enough sugar already), but for producing electricity. While actually removing carbon dioxide from the air. Kind of like combining artificial trees with wind turbines, in terms of net inputs and outputs. Two great tastes that taste great together.

Anyways, if it works -- or even if only the artificial photosynthesis part of it works and the result is efficient and scalable production of biomass which can be burned as fuel -- then we can drastically reduce the multi-million-year wait time that's currently characteristic of our most popular liquid fuel production cycles.

Just think, if it really does work it will save energy, it will save emissions, and it will even save time! What's not to like? (Except, of course, that "in the lab" proviso.)

 

 

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