Biological Energy FAQ

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What is Biological Energy?

Strictly speaking, "biological energy" ought to refer to the chemical potentials produced and consumed by the myriad and interwoven reactions that take place within the compartments of living matter as it... well, lives! But these processes are perhaps better known, collectively, as metabolism.

We use the phrase "biological energy" as a convention to refer to a specific social and technological endeavor: to use the metabolic capacities of organisms to convert some combination of light, biomass, organic compounds, gases and water into useful chemical-bond energy; i.e. storable, transportable, energy yielding molecules as well as industrially useful materials. Examples include hydrogen, methane, alcohols, ammonia and bioplastics.

The purpose of designing and developing biological energy systems is to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and provide environmentally friendly alternatives to some industrial processes. Biological energy is sustainable technology.

The development and implementation of these processes to the point of economically competitive technologies will require the coordinated efforts of science, engineering, business and government policy.

Why Biological Energy?

Climatological and oceanographic data point to the global impact anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have on geochemical, atmospheric and ecological systems. Even a conservative interpretation of the data suggest dire consequences if current rates of CO2 emissions continue.

Here are some other reasons:

  • economic - oil will eventually run out
  • political - the US relies on foreign governments for oil
  • national security - famine induced instability in countries with nukes?
  • moral - people will starve/die as a result of the effects of global warming

Or, the bottom line: $$$ and the opportunity to participate in the coming hydrogen economy. Perhaps we will soon be seeing the start of a "garage-biotech" revolution. Think about it - you don't need FDA approval to make gas from bugs.

How can we get energy from microbes?

Here is a picture to illustrate just one possible scenario. Engineered microbes such as cyanobacteria or unicellular eukaryotic green-algae are grown in a photobioreactor consisting of closed, parallel transparent tubes. The medium in which they live is kept in circulation and hydrogen gas is harvested from the ends of the tubes. The hydrogen can be used on site, stored, or transported for use elsewhere.


This setup requires contributions from several disciplines and the answers to many questions:

  • Biology - What kinds of organisms do we use? How do we modify them to increase production of hydrogen or other products? Please see our document on the Biology of Hydrogen Production.
  • Process engineering - How do we design photobioreactors to best capture sunlight and emitted gases? How do we achieve mixing without using too much energy? See Engineering and Materials Science in Biological Energy
  • Business - What biological energy based products are closest to competing, economically, with their non-biological counterparts? What kinds of products could be created to satisfy existing needs for energy production or reduction in carbon emissions?
  • Government policy - How and where do we find the funding for the development of these technologies? what kind of regulation will encourage the development of biological energy? See Business and Policy Participation in Biological Energy.

How can I help?

Contact Peter Weigele to sign up, or just come to one of our meetings, Monday at 3:00 in 68-374.