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TEDSalon 2007 Hot Science

Juan Enriquez: Using biology to rethink the energy challenge

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Juan Enriquez challenges our definition of bioenergy. Oil, coal, gas and other hydrocarbons are not chemical but biological products, based on plant matter -- and thus, growable. Our whole approach to fuel, he argues, needs to change.

- Futurist
Juan Enriquez thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and other life sciences will bring in business, technology, politics and society. Full bio

What is bioenergy? Bioenergy is not ethanol.
00:25
Bioenergy isn't global warming. Bioenergy is
00:31
something which seems counterintuitive. Bioenergy
00:37
is oil. It's gas. It's coal. And part of building
00:39
that bridge to the future, to the point where we
00:44
can actually see the oceans in a rational way, or
00:46
put up these geo-spatial orbits that will twirl or
00:49
do microwaves or stuff, is going to depend on how
00:54
we understand bioenergy and manage it. And to do
00:57
that, you really have to look first at agriculture.
01:00
So we've been planting stuff for 11,000 years. And
01:03
in the measure that we plant stuff, what we learn
01:07
from agriculture is you've got to deal with pests,
01:10
you've got to deal with all types of awful things,
01:13
you've got to cultivate stuff. In the measure
01:16
that you learn how to use water to cultivate, then
01:17
you're going to be able to spread beyond the Nile.
01:21
You're going to be able to power stuff, so irrigation
01:24
makes a difference.
01:27
Irrigation starts to make you be allowed to plant
01:29
stuff where you want it, as opposed to where the
01:31
rivers flood. You start getting this organic
01:34
agriculture; you start putting machinery onto this
01:36
stuff. Machinery, with a whole bunch of water,
01:40
leads to very large-scale agriculture.
01:43
You put together machines and water, and you get
01:46
landscapes that look like this. And then you get
01:50
sales that look like this. It's brute force. So
01:54
what you've been doing in agriculture is you start
01:58
out with something that's a reasonably natural
02:00
system. You start taming that natural system. You
02:02
put a lot of force behind that natural system. You
02:04
put a whole bunch of pesticides and herbicides --
02:07
(Laughter) -- behind that natural system, and you
02:11
end up with systems that look like this.
02:19
And it's all brute force. And that's the way we've
02:23
been approaching energy. So the lesson in
02:26
agriculture is that you can actually change the
02:29
system that's based on brute force as you start
02:32
merging that system and learning that system and
02:35
actually applying biology. And you move from a
02:37
discipline of engineering, you move from a
02:40
discipline of chemistry, into a discipline of
02:42
biology. And probably one of the most important
02:44
human beings on the planet is this guy behind me.
02:48
This is a guy called Norman Borlaug. He won the
02:51
Nobel Prize. He's got the Congressional Medal of
02:53
Honor. He deserves all of this stuff. And he
02:55
deserves this stuff because he probably has fed
02:59
more people than any other human being alive
03:01
because he researched how to put biology behind
03:04
seeds. He did this in Mexico. The reason why India
03:07
and China no longer have these massive famines is
03:12
because Norman Borlaug taught them how to grow
03:15
grains in a more efficient way and launched the
03:17
Green Revolution. That is something that a lot of
03:20
people have criticized. But of course, those are
03:23
people who don't realize that China and India,
03:24
instead of having huge amounts of starving people,
03:27
are exporting grains.
03:30
And the irony of this particular system is the
03:32
place where he did the research, which was Mexico,
03:34
didn't adopt this technology, ignored this
03:37
technology, talked about why this technology
03:39
should be thought about, but not really applied.
03:42
And Mexico remains one of the largest grain
03:44
importers on the planet because it doesn't apply
03:47
technology that was discovered in Mexico. And in
03:50
fact, hasn't recognized this man, to the point
03:53
where there aren't statues of this man all over
03:55
Mexico. There are in China and India. And the
03:58
Institute that this guy ran has now moved to
04:01
India. That is the difference between adopting
04:03
technologies and discussing technologies.
04:07
Now, it's not just that this guy fed a huge amount
04:10
of people in the world. It's that this is the net
04:14
effect in terms of what technology does, if you
04:17
understand biology.
04:20
What happened in agriculture? Well, if you take
04:23
agriculture over a century, agriculture in about
04:24
1900 would have been recognizable to somebody
04:27
planting a thousand years earlier. Yeah, the plows look
04:30
different. The machines were tractors or stuff
04:33
instead of mules, but the farmer would have
04:37
understood: this is what the guy's doing, this is
04:40
why he's doing it, this is where he's going. What
04:42
really started to change in agriculture is when
04:45
you started moving from this brute force
04:47
engineering and chemistry into biology, and that's
04:49
where you get your productivity increases. And as
04:51
you do that stuff, here's what happens to
04:54
productivity.
04:57
Basically, you go from 250 hours to produce 100
04:58
bushels, to 40, to 15, to five. Agricultural labor
05:01
productivity increased seven times, 1950 to 2000,
05:06
whereas the rest of the economy increased about
05:11
2.5 times. This is an absolutely massive increase
05:13
in how much is produced per person.
05:14
The effect of this, of course, is it's not just
05:20
amber waves of grain, it is mountains of stuff.
05:22
And 50 percent of the EU budget is going to subsidize
05:26
agriculture from mountains of stuff that people
05:28
have overproduced.
05:31
This would be a good outcome for energy. And of
05:34
course, by now, you're probably saying to
05:37
yourself, "Self, I thought I came to a talk about
05:39
energy and here's this guy talking about biology."
05:44
So where's the link between these two things?
05:49
One of the ironies of this whole system is we're
05:52
discussing what to do about a system that we don't
05:54
understand. We don't even know what oil is. We
05:56
don't know where oil comes from. I mean,
06:01
literally, it's still a source of debate what
06:03
this black river of stuff is and where it comes
06:05
from. The best assumption, and one of the best
06:08
guesses in this stuff, is that this stuff comes
06:11
out of this stuff, that these things absorb
06:14
sunlight, rot under pressure for millions of
06:18
years, and you get these black rivers.
06:21
Now, the interesting thing about that thesis -- if
06:26
that thesis turns out to be true -- is that oil,
06:28
and all hydrocarbons, turned out to be
06:32
concentrated sunlight. And if you think of
06:34
bioenergy, bioenergy isn't ethanol. Bioenergy is
06:38
taking the sun, concentrating it in amoebas,
06:41
concentrating it in plants, and maybe that's why
06:44
you get these rainbows.
06:47
And as you're looking at this system, if
06:50
hydrocarbons are concentrated sunlight, then
06:53
bioenergy works in a different way. And we've got
06:57
to start thinking of oil and other hydrocarbons as
07:01
part of these solar panels.
07:05
Maybe that's one of the reasons why if you fly
07:09
over west Texas, the types of wells that you're
07:11
beginning to see don't look unlike those pictures
07:15
of Kansas and those irrigated plots.
07:19
This is how you farm oil. And as you think of
07:23
farming oil and how oil has evolved, we started
07:25
with this brute force approach. And then what did
07:29
we learn? Then we learned we had to go bigger. And
07:33
then what'd we learn? Then we have to go even
07:36
bigger. And we are getting really destructive as
07:39
we're going out and farming this bioenergy.
07:43
These are the Athabasca tar sands, and there's an
07:47
enormous amount -- first of mining, the largest
07:49
trucks in the world are working here, and then
07:52
you've got to pull out this black sludge, which is
07:55
basically oil that doesn't flow. It's tied to the
07:57
sand. And then you've got to use a lot of steam to
08:00
separate it, which only works at today's oil
08:02
prices.
08:05
Coal. Coal turns out to be virtually the same
08:07
stuff. It is probably plants, except that these
08:11
have been burned and crushed under pressure.
08:15
So you take something like this, you burn it, you
08:19
put it under pressure, and likely as not, you get
08:21
this. Although, again, I stress: we don't know.
08:23
Which is curious as we debate all this stuff. But
08:26
as you think of coal, this is what burned wheat
08:29
kernels look like. Not entirely unlike coal.
08:32
And of course, coalmines are very dangerous
08:37
places because in some of these coalmines, you
08:40
get gas. When that gas blows up, people die. So
08:43
you're producing a biogas out of coal in some
08:50
mines, but not in others.
08:52
Any place you see a differential, there're some
08:55
interesting questions. There's some questions as
08:57
to what you should be doing with this stuff. But
09:00
again, coal. Maybe the same stuff, maybe the same
09:02
system, maybe bioenergy, and you're applying
09:06
exactly the same technology.
09:08
Here's your brute force approach. Once you get
09:10
through your brute force approach, then you just
09:13
rip off whole mountaintops. And you end up with
09:14
the single largest source of carbon emissions,
09:18
which are coal-fired gas plants. That is probably
09:21
not the best use of bioenergy.
09:25
As you think of what are the alternatives to this
09:29
system -- it's important to find alternatives
09:31
because it turns out that the U.S. is dwindling in
09:34
its petroleum reserves, but it is not dwindling in
09:37
its coal reserves, nor is China. There are huge
09:39
coal reserves that are sitting out there, and
09:44
we've got to start thinking of them as biological
09:47
energy, because if we keep treating them as
09:49
chemical energy, or engineering energy, we're
09:51
going to be in deep doo-doo.
09:54
Gas is a similar issue. Gas is also a biological
09:59
product. And as you think of gas, well, you're
10:04
familiar with gas. And here's a different way of
10:09
mining coal.
10:14
This is called coal bed methane. Why is this
10:17
picture interesting? Because if coal turns out to
10:20
be concentrated plant life, the reason why you may
10:23
get a differential in gas output between one mine
10:27
and another -- the reason why one mine may blow up
10:31
and another one may not blow up -- may be because
10:33
there's stuff eating that stuff and producing gas.
10:36
This is a well-known phenomenon. (Laughter) You
10:42
eat certain things, you produce a lot of gas. It
10:47
may turn out that biological processes in coalmines
10:52
have the same process. If that is true, then
10:55
one of the ways of getting the energy out of coal
10:58
may not be to rip whole mountaintops off, and it
11:00
may not be to burn coal. It may be to have stuff
11:04
process that coal in a biological fashion as you
11:08
did in agriculture.
11:11
That is what bioenergy is. It is not ethanol. It
11:14
is not subsidies to a few companies. It is not
11:18
importing corn into Iowa because you've built so
11:21
many of these ethanol plants. It is beginning to
11:24
understand the transition that occurred in
11:27
agriculture, from brute force into biological
11:29
force. And in the measure that you can do that,
11:32
you can clean some stuff, and you can clean it
11:34
pretty quickly.
11:35
We already have some indicators of productivity on
11:37
this stuff. OK, if you put steam into coal fields
11:40
or petroleum fields that have been running for
11:44
decades, you can get a really substantial
11:47
increase, like an eight-fold increase, in your
11:49
output. This is just the beginning stages of this
11:52
stuff.
11:56
And as you think of biomaterials, this guy -- who
11:57
did part of the sequencing of the human genome,
11:59
who just doubled the databases of genes and
12:02
proteins known on earth by sailing around the
12:04
world -- has been thinking about how you structure
12:06
this. And there's a series of smart people
12:10
thinking about this. And they've been putting
12:11
together companies like Synthetic Genomics, like,
12:14
a Cambria, like Codon, and what those companies are
12:16
trying to do is to think of, how do you apply
12:20
biological principles to avoid brute force?
12:23
Think of it in the following terms. Think of it as
12:27
beginning to program stuff for specific purposes.
12:30
Think of the cell as a hardware. Think of the
12:34
genes as a software. And in the measure that you
12:37
begin to think of life as code that is
12:40
interchangeable, that can become energy, that can
12:43
become food, that can become fiber, that can
12:46
become human beings, that can become a whole
12:48
series of things, then you've got to shift your
12:50
approach as to how you're going to structure and
12:53
deal and think about energy in a very different
12:55
way.
12:59
What are the first principles of this stuff and
13:01
where are we heading? This is one of the gentle
13:03
giants on the planet. He's one of the nicest human
13:06
beings you've ever met. His name is Hamilton
13:09
Smith. He won the Nobel for figuring out how to
13:12
cut genes -- something called restriction enzymes.
13:15
He was at Hopkins when he did this, and he's such
13:20
a modest guy that the day he won, his mother
13:22
called him and said, "I didn't realize there was
13:25
another Ham Smith at Hopkins. Do you know he just
13:28
won the Nobel?" (Laughter) I mean, that was Mom,
13:30
but anyway, this guy is just a class act. You find
13:38
him at the bench every single day, working on a
13:41
pipette and building stuff. And one of the things
13:44
this guy just built are these things.
13:48
What is this? This is the first transplant of
13:50
naked DNA, where you take an entire DNA operating
13:52
system out of one cell, insert it into a different
13:55
cell, and have that cell boot up as a separate
13:58
species. That's one month old. You will see stuff
14:01
in the next month that will be just as important
14:07
as this stuff.
14:09
And as you think about this stuff and what the
14:11
implications of this are, we're going to start not
14:13
just converting ethanol from corn with very high
14:16
subsidies. We're going to start thinking about
14:21
biology entering energy. It is very expensive to
14:23
process this stuff, both in economic terms and in
14:28
energy terms.
14:32
This is what accumulates in the tar sands of
14:34
Alberta. These are sulfur blocks. Because as you
14:36
separate that petroleum from the sand, and use an
14:40
enormous amount of energy inside that vapor --
14:43
steam to separate this stuff -- you also have to
14:47
separate out the sulfur. The difference between
14:49
light crude and heavy crude -- well, it's about 14
14:51
bucks a barrel. That's why you're building these
14:54
pyramids of sulfur blocks. And by the way, the
14:57
scale on these things is pretty large.
14:59
Now, if you can take part of the energy content
15:03
out of doing this, you reduce the system, and you
15:05
really do start applying biological principles to
15:09
energy. This has to be a bridge to the point where
15:11
you can get to wind, to the point where you can
15:16
get to solar, to the point where you can get to
15:18
nuclear -- and hopefully you won't build the next
15:20
nuclear plant on a beautiful seashore next to an
15:23
earthquake fault. (Laughter) Just a thought.
15:26
But in the meantime, for the next decade at least,
15:35
the name of the game is hydrocarbons. And be that
15:39
oil, be that gas, be that coal, this is what we're
15:42
dealing with. And before I make this talk too
15:46
long, here's what's happening in the current
15:50
energy system.
15:55
86 percent of the energy we consume are
15:57
hydrocarbons. That means 86 percent of the stuff we're
15:59
consuming are probably processed plants and
16:02
amoebas and the rest of the stuff. And there's a
16:05
role in here for conservation. There's a role in
16:08
here for alternative stuff, but we've also got to
16:10
get that other portion right.
16:12
How we deal with that other portion is our bridge
16:15
to the future. And as we think of this bridge to
16:17
the future, one of the things you should ponder
16:20
is: we are leaving about two-thirds of the oil today
16:23
inside those wells. So we're spending an enormous
16:26
amount of money and leaving most of the energy
16:29
down there. Which, of course, requires more energy
16:32
to go out and get energy. The ratios become
16:35
idiotic by the time you get to ethanol. It may
16:38
even be a one-to-one ratio on the energy input and
16:40
the energy output. That is a stupid way of
16:43
managing this system.
16:46
Last point, last graph. One of the things that
16:49
we've got to do is to stabilize oil prices. This
16:53
is what oil prices look like, OK?
16:57
This is a very bad system because what happens is
16:59
your hurdle rate gets set very low. People come up
17:02
with really smart ideas for solar panels, or for
17:05
wind, or for something else, and then guess what?
17:08
The oil price goes through the floor. That company
17:10
goes out of business, and then you can bring the
17:12
oil price back up.
17:14
So if I had one closing and modest suggestion,
17:16
let's set a stable oil price in Europe and the
17:20
United States. How do you do that? Well, let's put
17:22
a tax on oil that is a non-revenue tax, and it
17:27
basically says for the next 20 years, the price of
17:29
oil will be -- whatever you want, 35 bucks, 40
17:33
bucks. If the OPEC price falls below that, we tax
17:36
it. If the OPEC price goes above that, the tax
17:40
goes away.
17:43
What does that do for entrepreneurs? What does it
17:46
do for companies? It tells people, if you can
17:47
produce energy for less than 35 bucks a barrel, or
17:50
less than 40 bucks a barrel, or less than 50 bucks
17:53
a barrel -- let's debate it -- you will have a
17:55
business. But let's not put people through this
17:59
cycle where it doesn't pay to research because
18:01
your company will go out of business as OPEC
18:04
drives alternatives and keeps bioenergy from
18:06
happening. Thank you.
18:09

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About the speaker:

Juan Enriquez - Futurist
Juan Enriquez thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and other life sciences will bring in business, technology, politics and society.

Why you should listen

A broad thinker who studies the intersections of these fields, Enriquez has a talent for bridging disciplines to build a coherent look ahead. He is the managing director of Excel Venture Management, a life sciences VC firm. He recently published (with Steve Gullans) Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Shaping Life on Earth. The book describes a world where humans increasingly shape their environment, themselves and other species.

Enriquez is a member of the board of Synthetic Genomics, which recently introduced the smallest synthetic living cell. Called “JCVI-syn 3.0,” it has 473 genes (about half the previous smallest cell). The organism would die if one of the genes is removed. In other words, this is the minimum genetic instruction set for a living organism.

More profile about the speaker
Juan Enriquez | Speaker | TED.com