I’m co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual...
In response to Prof. Wood’s call for a paradigm change, I see such a change on the horizon. One that might actually change our economic framework as consumers start to become producers – and as 'money makes the world go around', this is a potential real catalyst for change!
This isn’t just an academic proposition. The beginnings of a revolution in manufacturing is taking place right now and is a whole new way of designing and engineering with living things in a new scientific practice called synthetic biology. You’re probably already familiar with the industrial version, called genetic modification, which needs expensive laboratories and large buildings.
But a different kind of synthetic biology practice is taking place in domestic environments and is much more like home brewing than a sterile, production assembly line for tiny machines. You probably won’t have come across it yet because it’s happening in domestic spaces – Cathal Garvey uses biotechnology in his bedroom in Cork, Ireland – working in a manner that already has a precedent in the way that sheds were the manufacturing outlets for the personal computer revolution started by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in the 1970s.
The kinds of products that are being produced are much more (commercially) valuable than alcohol and include biodiesel and high value chemical products.
For example, Sustainable Now Technologies is a young algae biotech company set to create technology that could mean that you make enough home based biodiesel in your shed - so that you may never need to visit a fuel station again!
Sustainable Now Technologies harness the incredible power of algae that have an incredible ability to use sunlight and carbon dioxide to make complex substances like oils and alcohols. In fact, the ancestors of these life forms were also responsible for making the oxygen in the atmosphere that we breathe today.
These bioreactors – a fancy name for an aquarium that grows algae – can be likened to tiny farms that graze ‘little green cows’ (algae) on carbon dioxide and sunlight. The algae get fat with biofuel and are circulated into a shed (which is simply a copper pipe) by a small fish tank motor that is driven by solar energy. Here they are exposed to a low voltage shock which ‘milks’ them by causing them to let out a little blob of ‘cream’. The oil is then dried and absolutely no algae are lost or harmed in the process.
Over a week enough biodiesel could be obtained from a thousand gallons of algae to keep a family car topped up for all your around-town journeys. There’s a double save here – one for not driving to the garage to top up your tank and one for not having to pay at a fuel station for fuel.
What’s more is that it is possible to pipe the carbon dioxide coming from your natural gas (methane) burner into the bioreactor to feed the algae and not only make more fuel but also to reduce your carbon footprint in the process! It is also possible to make biofuel even if you don’t have access to natural light since these processes can be driven by a fluorescent light bulb that can be powered by renewables.
Domestic biotechnology adopters do not make products, they have lifestyles.