Shell shares research with Mines

With the world’s nonrenewable energy supply dwindling, what is the answer? Dr. David Nielsen of Arizona State University addressed this question at last week’s Shell Seminar, sharing some of his research. “Every day we consume 25% of total oil used for that day. We consume more than we can produce, and [the majority] of our oil comes from our neighbors to the north.”

But it is an unavoidable fact that we are in need of energy. “Most energy comes from nonrenewable resources with a very small percentage coming from renewable resources,” said Nielsen. And since oil is a nonrenewable resource, it goes without saying that while demands will go up, we are going to eventually hit a peak in production, if we have not already. As Nielsen explained, “Some say the time is now or even thirty years ago to establish renewable energy.  But regardless or when we should have started, we must overcome our oil addictions, so to speak.”

Nielsen then moved on to describe how bio-fuels are being developed as part of his collaboration efforts. “It’s not to say that bio-fuels are the answer to the energy crisis; I personally think that we need a balanced portfolio. I do, however, think that bio-fuels are an important piece of the puzzle.”

The lecture also stressed the importance of putting ideas into practice through what Nielsen called pathway assembly. “The first step is to identify enzymes that give the desired properties,” he explained, “we then like to think of our microbes as little microscopic chemical factories.”

The utilization of these “little factories” is known as bio-refining, the objective of which is to “convert biomass feed into different chemical products and fuel products.” The result would be an efficient and alternative source of energy.
A few of the products gaining interest from bio-refining are the aromatic compounds, 3-Hydroxybutyrate, and n-butanol. N-butanol, and some other similar compounds, even have potential as gasoline alternatives in the future. In some instances, the bio-products can be better than what they are an alternative to, as shown by n-butanol’s increased hydrophobicity, or tendency to repel water. But, unfortunately, there is no silver bullet, and these technologies often come with a cost, which in this case is higher product toxicity.

Though non-renewable resources will likely continue to reign supreme for some time, they will increasingly have to share the spotlight with their renewable brethren. The energy problem is not ending anytime soon, but witnessing current research into solutions for the future is a breath of fresh air. It shows the initiative and creativity that engineers can take in working to solve problems before they become crises.

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