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Engineering Biopathway to Green Products

Posted March 17, 2016 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Agricultural products like corn and sugarcane are used to produce a host of non-food products ranging from bioplastics to automobile fuel. But there's growing concern that turning more and more farm land into non-food production will decrease the world's food supply and drive up prices. Now, researchers at the University of Minnesota have taken a step to solve the dilemma by creating a new pathway to converting plant waste into 1.4 butanediol, BDO, a major building block used to produce spandex and a host of plastics, solvents, and electronic chemicals.


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Join Date: Mar 2014
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#1

Re: Engineering Biopathway to Green Products

03/18/2016 10:23 AM

To paraphrase the "plastics" advice received by Dustin Hoffman in the "Graduate", with respect to "our" food (add natural fiber, too), I offer "phosphate" (P).

Natural ecosystems are in balance with and limited by the nutrients of the air, water and soil. Enter humans. Water is added where it is the most severely limiting nutrient for the cultivation of whatever. As we proceed down the list toward micro-nutrients, quite quickly we come upon P, which of recent decades has received some bad press because so much extra P is dumped by humans (sewers) into our natural waters, thereby lessening the constraint presented by limited P and causing what the pros call eutrophication, or a water body's version of a floral epidemic resulting from unintended fertilization.

But here is the deal. We mine enriched sources of P, blend it with other nutrients, and apply it to the land to eutrophy our crops. P in its various versions that appear in fertilizer does not chemically bond well with most inorganic constituents of most soils, rather, as it is transported down through the soil to the plant roots, what is not grabbed by osmosis, capillarity or other process by the roots, generally will continue on down beyond the roots to the local zone of ground water saturation well below roots to a feature more commonly called the water table. And so the cycle continues with the mining of less and less accessible and lower enriched P ores to meet an ever growing demand for the results of using the P. Eventually, we find we are using a prodigious amount of energy just to get P, perhaps as extreme as extraction from the world's oceans.

The end game? Greater ag effort on soils that chemically capture more P? Perhaps. The use of recycle wells to pump the P that leached past the roots back to the cultivated surface? Perhaps. But what about growing all the plants we need in a confined volume of water from which no P escapes beyond the roots? Hydroponics, increasingly combined with aquatic faunal ecosystems (e. g., fish), seem like the most compelling answer, but whoever saw a pine tree, apple tree or coconut grown hydroponically?

As much as our attention is directed to solving energy, mutant microbe and climate change problems, the preservation of eternal access to P to support the feed stock of the natural environment and humanity's needs must rise considerably, and sooner rather than later, on our radar screen.

You can use it up and you can wear it out, but you had better make do or you will do without.

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