Can algae be genetically engineered to produce sufficient quantities of biomass for fuel? Can “solar” nanostructures, used like paint on the exterior of buildings and cars, help to harness sunlight to give us energy and destroy pollutants in the air?
Science may have some answers that could make irrelevant the anger of environmentalists directed at politicians who failed us at Copenhagen by not agreeing on concrete and legally binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
The Weizmann Institute for Science, Rehovot, Israel — in the news recently when Ada Yodanath of the Institute won the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry — has set up the Alternative Sustainable Research Initiative to try and “push the envelope of the possible” as its President Daniel Zajfman notes. The founder of the Institute, Chaim Weizmann, was, incidentally, also a Zionist leader and the first President of Israel till his death in 1952, underlining the emphasis on science in Israel.
Boris Rybtchinski in the organic chemistry department is hopeful — optimistically it could happen in a decade and pessimistically speaking it could take two — that nanoparticles could be used in an aqueous (water) base to create “self-assembling” structures that could give us a kind of “light harvesting paint” to give limitless cheap solar energy.
Interacting with a group of Indian journalists who were recently in Israel on invitation of the government of Israel, said his search was for a “stable” and “:self-assembling” system that would be cheap and easy to use. In nature plants use solar energy to grow and make food – proteins and sugars.
If one were to get the “right stuff,” put it into water, where it will assemble itself to become a light-harvesting system, the world will have an answer to its greenhouse gas belching problem. “Success is not yet there, but it is possible,” Dr. Rybtchinski, who came to the Weizmann Institute from Kiev in Ukraine, adds cautiously. “We do not have a lot of time. Pollution will kill us before global warming…. We need to find a product which we do not need to burn.”
A post-doctoral research scholar from Tamil Nadu, who is part of Dr. Rybtchinski’s team, G. Santosh, came to the Institute in April 2008 after taking a doctoral degree from IIT, Mumbai. “An organic solar panel as against the currently used silicon based panels can theoretically give us very cheap and plentiful energy. An entire year’s energy requirement of the United States can be produced in a day …” He said there were about 20 scholars from India attached to different departments.
A sort of magical light-harvesting paint is not the only area of research under the Institute’s Alternative Sustainable Energy Research Initiative. Avihai Danon is hoping to create “superalgae’ that could be grown in a controlled environment to yield 30 times the oil output from the best plant crops. “Such algae, which could be harvested year-around and produce little waste, could be farmed near power plants, where they would convert carbondioxide to oil, making then a truly green alternative,” an article in a document of the Institute said.
And Avignor Scherz and Dror Noy are engaged in research to create genetically engineered cyanobacteria and algae — both these simple organisms are photosynthetic like plants — that will thrive in all sorts of extreme climactic conditions and produce biomass for fuel.
Science here is of stuff dreams are made of, but as Dr. Boris Rybtchinski insists “it is curiosity driven research” where what is possible must be shown to be doable.