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Research lights way to the future

Published on October 1, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on October 29, 2010 6:19AM

Carl Sampson

Carl Sampson



Capital Press

The 20th century brought a revolution in agriculture, and the next 100 years promise to do the same.

Since 1900, the efficiencies of farming and ranching have increased yields manifold, keeping pace with a growing world population. In 1900, the population was 1.56 billion; by the turn of the century in the year 2000, it had multiplied to 6 billion. During the next 50 years, the estimated population will mushroom to 9 billion.

Feeding such a rapidly expanding population has been the challenge facing agriculture. In recent years, that challenge has expanded to include providing energy, too. Biofuels of all types have attracted lots of attention, sometimes to the detriment of those who rely on crops such as corn and soybeans for livestock feed and other uses.

That is why much of the research on biofuels now under way is so revolutionary.

Imagine, for a moment, a way to make gasoline or diesel fuel from the air.

As fantastic as it sounds, that's exactly what scientists are working on. They are starting with a commonly found bacterium, Escherichia coli, and genetically modifying it to produce biofuels. Ultimately, they hope the E. coli can be modified to obtain the raw material for the fuel -- carbon -- directly from the air.

"Using any foodstock, whether it's canola oil, cane sugar, corn, whatever -- in my opinion this is all temporary technology," Desmond Lun, Rutgers University associate professor of computer science, told Capital Press reporter Matthew Weaver. "What we're working on now is the technology to jump over that, so we're not going to be relying on those sources any more."

This is beyond Buck Rogers. If research such as this can economically produce a virtually unlimited amount of fuel, it could be the beginning of a new energy revolution.

Instead of relying on relatively inefficient and intermittent technology such as wind turbines and solar cells, reactors populated by E. coli colonies could produce a virtually unlimited amount of fuel for our cars, trucks, tractors, jet airliners, electrical generators -- all forms of transportation and power production.

At the same time, the E. coli would remove carbon dioxide, which has been blamed for climate change, from the atmosphere. The primary component of fuels such as gasoline is chains of carbon atoms.

Think about that for a moment. By taking agricultural crops off the table as a raw material for ethanol and biodiesel, farmers could concentrate on food production and meet the needs of the growing population.

It should be said that, as it stands, this is still just a theory. But not too long ago, the ability to extract crude oil from recycled plastics was seen as a similar theory.

Today, only a few miles from where this is being written, that is routinely done. A company, Agri-Plas, is converting recycled agricultural plastics into crude oil using technology developed by Agilyx, a Tigard, Ore., company.

All technological breakthroughs begin with inspiration, an unquenchable curiosity and plain hard work. In millions of university and private laboratories and on test plots around the world, the future of agriculture -- and our planet -- is being discovered. Breakthroughs large and small will show us the way to more efficient ways to produce food, fiber and energy.

We salute those who seek a better world through their research. Ultimately, we will all benefit from it.


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