Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

’Termite guts can save the planet,’ says Nobel laureate

14.04.2005


The way termite guts process food could teach scientists how to produce pollution-free energy and help solve the world’s imminent energy crisis. Speaking at the Institute of Physics conference Physics 2005 in Warwick today, Nobel laureate Steven Chu urged scientists to turn their attention to finding an environmentally friendly form of fuel. In an impassioned plea to some of the world’s brightest minds, he explained how he’s leading by example, and encouraged others to join the effort which "may already be too late."



Chu, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997, has begun studying termite guts – one place in nature where a key hurdle for carbon-neutral energy supply has already been solved. Termite guts take indigestible cellulose, which makes up the bulk of all plant material grown on earth, and convert it to ethanol, which even today is a versatile and popular fuel.

Chu described how he decided to leave the richly-funded precincts of Stanford University to become Director of the Lawrence Berkeley Labs to kick-start the effort. He has been cajoling his new colleagues, including 56 members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, to realise the gravity of the problem and shift the focus of their research. And, he says, it’s beginning to work.


The US already subsidises farmers to grow corn to turn into ethanol, but $7bn in the past decade has been wasted because the process isn’t carbon-neutral. "From the point of view of the environment," explains Chu, "it would be better if we just burnt oil."

"But carbon-neutral energy sources are achievable. A world population of 9 billion, the predicted peak in population, could be fed with less than one third of the planet’s cultivable land area. Some of the rest could be dedicated to growing crops for energy. But the majority of all plant matter is cellulose – a solid, low-grade fuel about as futuristic as burning wood. If scientists can convert cellulose into liquid fuels like ethanol, the world’s energy supply and storage problems could both be solved at a stroke."

This is where the termite guts come in. A billion years of evolution have produced a highly efficient factory for turning cellulose into ethanol, unlike anything which humans can yet design. By exploiting these tricks, says Chu, we can use biology as a solution to a pressing world problem.

Nuclear fission may be the holy grail, but in the 50 years since it was first proposed, the predicted time-to-market has grown ever more distant. Solar and wind power look appealing, but mankind has not yet discovered how to store electricity on a large scale. Ethanol – a chemical fuel which would release no more carbon than it took to produce, would be the solution.

Immense funding is made available to cure the "diseases of rich people" such as cancer and heart disease, says Chu. "If we can’t cure cancer in 50 years," he says, "it will be tragic but life will go on. But if we can’t develop carbon-neutral fuel sources, life will change for everyone."

David Reid | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.iop.org
http://www.einsteinyear.org

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Astronomers find unexpected, dust-obscured star formation in distant galaxy
24.03.2017 | University of Massachusetts at Amherst

nachricht Gravitational wave kicks monster black hole out of galactic core
24.03.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Giant Magnetic Fields in the Universe

Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.

The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.

Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...

Im Focus: Tracing down linear ubiquitination

Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.

Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...

Im Focus: Perovskite edges can be tuned for optoelectronic performance

Layered 2D material improves efficiency for solar cells and LEDs

In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...

Im Focus: Polymer-coated silicon nanosheets as alternative to graphene: A perfect team for nanoelectronics

Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.

Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...

Im Focus: Researchers Imitate Molecular Crowding in Cells

Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.

Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

International Land Use Symposium ILUS 2017: Call for Abstracts and Registration open

20.03.2017 | Event News

CONNECT 2017: International congress on connective tissue

14.03.2017 | Event News

ICTM Conference: Turbine Construction between Big Data and Additive Manufacturing

07.03.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Gravitational wave kicks monster black hole out of galactic core

24.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Researchers make flexible glass for tiny medical devices

24.03.2017 | Materials Sciences

Laser activated gold pyramids could deliver drugs, DNA into cells without harm

24.03.2017 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>