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Here's where we open up discussion on key issues - and we've started with climate change and energy.

Could methanol be the fuel of the future?

Do Craig Venter's bacteria have the answer to our fuel problems?

More to follow shortly!



Tackling it head on

by Ann Macqueen - 23:35 on 26 March 2009

This was written on 10 December 2007, and I've just moved it as part of a restructure of the page to make room for more material. But it seems to be just as timely today as when it was first posted up. Glad to hear what anyone else thinks about this.

The details: We’re all starting to do our bit for the environment; but we have huge problems to tackle. Last year the world used 30 billion barrels of oil and 3 billion tons of coal. Somehow an alternative has to be found, and quickly.

Craig Venter is a man who believes in speed when he homes in on a target. In the race to sequence the human genome he came in from virtually nowhere, and he came in with what was, in his words, ‘a completely new and relatively untried technique’. They called him a maverick – but within two years there was the first draft of the genome, for all to see. 

And now he has turned his focus on the biggest scientific challenge of all – to produce the fuels and materials we need to keep our civilisation going, in a way that drastically reduces the use of carbon from fossil resources. And again his thinking is very clear and direct. 

What do we need? The synthesis of chemicals. And who is best at this? The bacteria who have survived and adapted to every challenge that Nature has thrown at them over the past billion years. You name it, they can find a way to make it.

And how do we get them to do it? With the new genetic techniques, it is possible to shape the bacteria to the task we want to set them.

We now extract coal from the ground and burn it for energy. But bacteria could convert it direct into methane gas, without the need to mine it. There will still be carbon dioxide produced, but only a tenth of the amount from conventional use.

And bacteria can take renewable material like cellulose from plants and turn it into the kind of raw materials that today come from oil. They can turn sugar into fuel for jet engines. Or human and animal waste, in a type of microbial fuel cell, into electricity and/or clean water.

You can see his approach: identify the problem and turn the full effort of his research teams onto it. And that leads to the question: are there more Craig Venters out there, about to make their first breakthrough? Or taking the first steps on a scientific career? And if so, how do we encourage them on the path?

We need something big, and the right person at the time could make all the difference – to changing the odds for our survival, and also to opening up huge new industries. It’s worth a great deal to us to find Scottish or UK Craig Venters – so how do we do it?

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