Green technology

There is a tendency for people to see “technology” and “environment” as mutually exclusive terms. Technology is sometimes portrayed as the cause of the world’s environmental problems, and the abandonment of technology as the cure.

Well, it might be true that the world’s overall environment would be in better shape if we’d all stuck to living on nuts and berries in unheated caves–and maybe we would have if not for this darn thing called intelligence. First it was the spear, and then there was fire, and then some fool invented the wheel and the next thing you know, here we are in the age of computers, telephones, airplanes, satellites, CAT scans, smallpox vaccinations, high-yield agriculture–and, concurrently, oil slicks, ozone depletion, global warming and overpopulation. What’s a species to do?

Going back is hardly an option that the many people in the world who haven’t yet experienced some of the finer points of technological civilization is likely to stand for, and frankly it doesn’t appeal to me very much, either. Instead we must do what we’ve always done–apply our ingenuity. We got ourselves into this mess; now how do we get ourselves out?

In Japan, they’ve already started in a big way.

It seems the Japanese have decided, much in the same way that they decided that there could be a future in making computer chips, that the driving force in future economic growth will be environmentally friendly technology–“green tech,” for short. They’re pouring millions of dollars (well, yen, actually) into a nation-wide effort to developing such products as bio-degradable plastics, substitutes for ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, technology to absorb and utilized greenhouse-effect-producing carbon dioxide, and biotechnology to mop up oil spills.

For example, Tadashi Matsunaga and Shigetoh Miyachi, two of the country’s leading microbiologists, are trying to develop genetically engineered photosynthetic microorganisms that could mop up the carbon dioxide emitted from power stations and industrial plants.

They’ve built a two-litre prototype “biosolar reactor” filled with a genetically engineered bacterium and lit throughout by 600 optical fibres of a special kind that emit light evenly in all directions along their length. This reactor can absorb all the carbon dioxide out of ordinary air bubbled through it at the rate of 300 millilitres a minute. ( In a similar reactor installed in a power plant the light would come from the sun, hence the name “biosolar.”)

The reactor is still a long way from being able to scrub all the carbon dioxide out of power plant exhaust. For one thing, the levels of carbon dioxide in such exhaust are much higher than in normal air–but researchers have located a form of algae that grows happily at such high concentrations, and they hope to isolate the genes that give it that ability and transfer them to engineered microorganisms.

Another problem is one of sheer size. A typical megawatt power plant emits about 200 tons of carbon dioxide an hour. Even if it absorbed only a few percent of that, the biosolar reactor would itself produce several tons of algal sludge an hour.

But the researchers have some ideas on that topic, too. Miyachi hopes to create a strain of algae that makes a hard exoskeleton, like coral, in effect converting the carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate that can be safely dumped at sea. Matsunaga, on the other hand, would like to create a strain of microorganism that can produce useful byproducts, such as antibiotics and plant growth hormones.

Another example of this push for “green tech” was the recent announcement of a five-year, $15-million U.S. joint project between Japan and the U.S. to genetically engineer pollution-eating microorganisms. Led by James Tiedje, director of Michigan State University Center for Microbial Ecology, and Kieji Yano, professor of biology at Nagaoka University, the research is based on the fact that microbes ultimately consume or degrade all natural organic products, from leaves to garbage. The researchers believe that genetic engineering and an understanding of microbial evolution can be used to produce microbes that can degrade oil spills and other man-made pollutants such as PCBs.

In Japan, research into “green tech” is garnering huge support both from government and from business, ranging from Tokyo Electric Power Company to Nissan to Hitachi to life insurance companies to banks to Wacoal Corporation, Japan’s leading manufacturer of women’s underwear. Not only do such companies see the opportunity for becoming involved in leading-edge technology and gaining a foothold in a new growth industry, they also recognize that green tech is important to the well-being of everyone. (The Japanese call such public-minded support from a corporation “matsuri no kifu,” which translates roughly as a “donation to the village festival.”)

Technology is here to stay. It’s part of what makes us human and not just a species of particularly unattractive hairless apes. By misusing the tools we have invented (more through naivete than malice, I think) we have caused great damage to our home planet. But the proper use of those tools offer us hope that we may yet prevent further damage–and begin to repair what we’ve already caused.

The one thing we can’t do is simply throw our tools down and walk away, because that’s a walk that ends back in those unheated caves–and frankly, I hate nuts and berries.

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