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Energy Education Now: Biotechnology for Energy and Beyond

Since beginning this series on energy education, I’ve been hearing a lot about the applications of biotechnology in energy sectors. The development and application of biodiesel, ethanol and other biofuels are often cited as some of the most important aspects of energy technology today.

I wanted find out more about the different aspects and applications of biotechnology, so I spoke with another Houston Community College Northeast and Energy Institute professor, Dr. Chandra Mittal.

According to Dr. Mittal, biotechnology is concerned with the uses and applications of biological systems. These uses and applications comprise a staggeringly broad range of economic activities including applications for biofuels and alternative energy sources, health care,  food science, biodefense,  environmental pollution control, forensic sciences, genetic testing, and genetic modification, to name just a few.  In fact, we’re only just beginning to discover the nearly infinite applications of this particular field.

So why might biotechnology be an exciting field to work in today? Dr. Mittal says that the broadness of the field is one big perk. Biotechnology is fascinating because it doesn’t just deal with one select area, but works to apply the specific reactions within a system to a number of different technologies.For example, let’s say that researchers are interested in the way the human system uses oxygen. Biotechnology attempts to emulate that process in a test tube and explore the ways that specific reaction could be used in a different systems outside of the human body. As the mysteries of living systems unfold, biotechnology offers new angles, opportunities and information that can be exploited to benefit humans. According to Dr. Mittal, the number of permutations and combinations of possible applications that could be derived from this experimentation are nearly infinite. And many of these possible applications – not just ethanol or other biofuels – could help make our world a greener place.

“After all,” says Mittal, “On a fundamental level every living system is simply a very tiny energy system.” From studying what’s going on in these living systems, biotechnologists are learning that green biofuels (fuels that have extremely low or negligible emission levels) can be managed on an extremely small scale. This suggests that mega-investments of money and resources (like the investments required to implement nuclear or coal power) might not be necessary to implement more efficient, less harmful energy systems.

In fact, according to Dr. Mittal, we would do well to spend less time worrying about mega-energy projects, and more time focusing our energy efforts on adopting these cleaner, greener technologies within communities.

Like Dr. Bolfing (who I spoke with regarding my post about better petroleum technology), he believes that the solution to the world energy problem will be found not in a single energy source but in a combination of viable sources. The type of energy communities use will, of course, depend on their geographic location – certain areas are better for solar, some are better for wind, etc. But, according to Mittal, just as important than the type of energy we implement is the scale on which we adopt it.

A huge proponent of energy independence on local and community levels, Mittal believes that whether communities use  solar energy, wind energy, bioenergy or a combination of forms of alternative energy, the implementation of these energy sources within communities can make them more manageable and cost-effective.  And he believes that biotechnology and biofuels can be a big part of this. “Energy is needed everywhere,” says Mittal. “Put a source in every community – not just in specific places.” By doing this, people everywhere – even those in remote areas – can become self-suffiicent in terms of their energy needs.

Rachel Harkai is a freelance writer who studied environmental science and creative writing at the University of Michigan. In addition to writing for local and national publications Rachel currently works as a Writer-in-Residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project.

Posted on: May 10, 2010, 4:18 pm Category: Energy Education Now: Series Tagged with: , , , , ,

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  1. Where are the jobs for entry level Biotechnologists? Having tried every avenue, yet unemployed. Help!

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