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Published: February 24, 2009


William Haseltine: The Thought Leader Interview

S+B: You mentioned energy farming. What does that look like?
HASELTINE: Many microorganisms grow in the sea, and there are a number of potential ways to use them for energy production. One is to place algae tanks far below the surface, but not so deep that they can’t get sunlight piped down to them. Another is to create a series of saltwater-filled tubes on the surface of a large desert and place algae so that sunlight is absorbed as you pump the water through. There are a number of places in the world where huge deserts are right next to the sea. You don’t want to use arable land, and this gets us away from freshwater, too.

These farms could create a continual atmospheric carbon-neutral production cycle: algae taking sunlight, fixing carbon, and producing useful fuels. As I said earlier, what is old is new again. Humanity used to burn wood for energy. Less than 200 years ago, we started burning fossil fuels. Now we’re returning to the older process, but it’s more efficient with the modern advances of genomics, gene regulation, gene splicing, microbial cultivation, and massive ocean engineering.

S+B: Doesn’t that suggest a reorientation for the energy industry?
HASELTINE: Some oil companies are already calling themselves energy companies. In the future, energy companies will be diversified. They will primarily use solar and wind energy to produce electricity and fuel; they will also provide some fossil fuel energy and atomic energy. The materials sector is also very important; it will be the next focus of synthetic biology and of chemistry. All the chemical companies are very interested in petroleum substitution and micro-materials, and the life sciences have enormous amounts to contribute to material manufacturing as well.

Microbial Manufacturing

S+B: How will basic industrial manufacturing processes be changed?
HASELTINE: New manufacturing processes will not use the vats typical of a chemical plant. Instead, the manufacturing basis for materials will be microbial. Life sciences teach us that if you have one good organic substance, it can reproduce itself endlessly and reproduce those products. All you have to do is keep feeding it. You don’t have to keep making it again and again and again. We already know how to produce plastic precursors with yeast and bacteria or plants. So we can grow these materials as we manufacture them.

S+B: What is the connection be­tween nanotechnology and biotechnology?
HASELTINE: The fundamental architecture of matter is an atom and a molecule. Something as large as a forest is made of very tiny substances, hooked together. Life and materials sciences are teaching us that we can arrange atoms in precise locations, to self-assemble and form units in small to very large sizes — replicating the manufacturing pro­cesses of nature. The fact that forests grow and that bacteria proliferate shows you that nano-machines work, and can be very efficient. We can build materials that self-assemble, and this means we can reduce the amount of material used in our lives. For example, we don’t have to carve objects out of great masses of metal (and discard the waste), because we can have them assembled, at the molecular or multimolecular level, with every molecule used. Eventually we can make them intelligent so they’ll assemble on command. The basic unit would be a very tiny, submicroscopic unit embodied with the information that says, “connect A, B, C, D.” It will then, in effect, construct itself: We can make a chair, we can make a table, and we can build a house.

This type of construction will probably not be available until the end of this century or the beginning of the next century. Think of it as an intelligent Lego set that you could program so the pieces compose themselves. You could then create a program that says, “Make a candlestick, make a chair, and make a wall.” Ray Kurzweil describes these types of technologies in his book The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press, 1992).

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