A New Direction?

For the past three years or so I have been expecting to pursue a career in ecology–this despite the fact that I am not particularly excited about most ecological research. I do love the birds and other creatures, but I find that an objective study of them takes away from my appreciation of nature. I’m sure I would enjoy using radio telemetry to track bird migrations and ultimately contribute to the conservation of species, but it lacks a certain pressing importance and intellectual challenge that I would prefer. The birds will be fine if we stop destroying their habitats, and if we continue our current course no amount of ecological research will save them.

So I began to think how I could use biology to address more pressing concerns, especially alternative energy. The energy reaching the earth from the sun in one hour could power all of the world’s energy needs for an entire year, so solar power is promising if only we could find a cheap and efficient way to turn sunlight into energy. Plants do this everyday through photosynthesis. At present the best we can do is burn the plants after the growing season ends, but I began to wonder if we could engineer plants to produce useful energy throughout their life cycle–rather like the photosynthetic equivalent of milking a cow. As it turns out, it is conceptually possible to insert a hydrogenase (an enzyme capable of making hydrogen from protons and electrons) into the photosynthetic apparatus of bacteria or algae. I envision future solar panels filled with cyanobacteria and water that churn out hydrogen with virtually no up-front energy investment or expense.

As it turns out, quite a few people are working on this, and so far light-to-hydrogen efficiencies have not exceeded 1%, but the future looks promising. In any case, I am currently much more excited about this than about ecology, so I am looking into graduate programs in this area.

Several holidays have come and gone since my last post. All went well and were filled with family reconnections, many thoughtful gifts, and tasty food of all types. I am still unemployed. I returned to Carleton for the first time since graduation this past weekend. I walked the entire Arb, reunited with my best Carleton friends at a midwinter bonfire on an oddly warm night, discussed hydrogen photobiosynthesis enthusiastically with Susan Singer, ate waffles at the new waffle bar, and otherwise had a great time at a place that I now miss following my entry into the “real world.”

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