Biofuels and other Symbiotic Processes

So I had planned on writing a post about my thoughts on the incredibly vast and deep/philsophical topic about the relationship between humans and nature. But my writing quickly became convoluted.  The problem with writing about such broad topics is that you don’t have an idea of where to start or where to end, you could spend days debating about such topics, that’s what makes them so deep/philosophical. So instead I’m just going to go back to talking about more … ‘physical’ stuff.

My main interests, according to my twitter profile, are “all things related to the symbiotic/sustainable design of built and natural environments and systems.” Which, I know, is not very specific. What I mean by symbiotic design of built and natural environments and systems are things that utilize both man-made and natural processes together to come out with something that benefits both the natural and human worlds. A good example of such a design would be the Arcata Marsh which I have already written about.

Another example comes from the University of Virginia, where researches have combined the wastewater treatment process with the cultivation of algae for the use as biofuels (See article here). Basically, the stuff in the wastewater that we consider ‘waste’ is seen as nutrition to the algae, which picks up the nutrients to grow, effectively cleaning the wastewater. The algae are happy and humans are happy now that they have significantly cleaner water at a fraction of the price. The algae is then used to be turned into biofuel – fuel created from the lipids of the algae. Biofuels are a pretty novel technology at the moment, researchers have been experimenting with various renewable resources that can be turned into fuel. Corn is a main resource (producing ethanol) and there have been various research projects investigating the uses of switchgrass and canola, although algae has been the most promising, due to its relatively quick growth and ability to grow in almost any environment (saves space). The above article later talks about biofuel farms found in arid regions of the earth that use saltwater and saltwater-tolerant plants to produce the biofuel while incorporating ecosystems that contain fish and shrimp. The water is then used to feed mangrove trees which can be used for timber.

Honestly, I used to not be that interested in biofuels, but lately, thanks to following some influential people (mainly Sean O’Hanlon) in the field of biofuels on twitter, my interest has been piqued. I’m not well versed in the subject of biofuels, but just the fact that they are a renewable resource certainly makes them a positive in my mind. I know there are various debates about the fuel vs. food usage of crops as well as how efficient the process is and whether it can compete with current fuel sources, but as to how these debates are evolving, I have very little knowledge. Incorporating various natural and human systems such as wastewater treatment and algae growth and turning it into clean water, timber and fuel for humans while remaining carbon neutral or even carbon negative is my idea of a symbiotic design. I really enjoy reading about such stories where people combine processes for an overall positive benefit.

Some may say it seems more like humans are taking advantage of the natural systems by growing algae and trees only to use them for fuel and timber (let’s not forget, wood is a renewable resource when used correctly), but like all things in nature, things must be consumed, and as long as equally beneficial products come out of the system (like clean water) I would argue that it isn’t taking advantage of nature, but integrating into nature. I think a main characteristic of natural processes is that there is no such thing as waste, everything is turned into a resource, and keeping that principle in mind will lead to more sustainable designs. Let nature do what it does best.

But I also wonder that if biofuels become a cost-effective option, will that really change how our society works? Sure, we’ll be emitting less greenhouse gasses, but will that mentality ultimately lead to more people driving cars because they believe that they have less of an impact environmentally? Biofuels are just a technological advancement, and without the coupling of social awareness and advancement, only becomes a tool that can be abused.

I hope to see more and more systems like the ones I have mentioned arise, and I hope that I can one day be a part of their designs. We shouldn’t see nature as a crutch that we have to rely on, but as an endless resources of knowledge and potential that we can utilize (not abuse) and hope that one day we can incorporate all our systems into natural ones so that we can become a part of the natural cycle once again. At least, that’s what I think.

Note: You can also learn how to make your own Algae Bioreactor here!

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