Biohybrid Spinach: Sure Beats Actual Energy Solutions

By Gary P Jackson

Spinach is a super-food, for sure, but now the Environmental Protection Agency is sending out money we don’t have to a group at Vanderbilt University who are looking to substitute the green leafy plant for the silicone wafers currently used to convert the sun’s rays into electrical energy.

EPA Grant Number SU836022, Titled Don’t Eat Your Spinach: Nature Inspired Biohybrid Solar Cells was given to Vanderbilt in August of 2011:


The development of a secure energy future requires unique approaches to classical problems. Recent work has sparked interest in the development of photovoltaic cells which utilize the largest solar energy conversion process on the planet, photosynthesis, as a means of producing electrical energy.

The lab of Dr. Kane Jennings of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Vanderbilt University has developed a method for employing Photosystem I (PSI), a photoactive protein present in plants and some bacteria, in solar cells.

We aim to build on these results by adapting existing technology to construct novel, large-scale, biohybrid solar panels for power production. This task presents a number of unique challenges to be addressed:

1. Optimize the electrolyte solution to increase the individual cell performance.

2. Investigate alternative packaging options to promote long-term durability.

3. Overcome issues associated with connecting a large number of cells to form a large panel.

At the time, the EPA gave the university $14,999 for this project. Now comes word an additional $90,000 was given away over the weekend.

From the Washington Examiner:

President Obama recently touted algae as a potential source of energy, and now the Environmental Protection Agency has invested in converting spinach into an energy source.

The EPA awarded a $90,000 grant over the weekend to Vanderbilt University students “who designed a biohybrid solar panel that substitutes a protein from spinach for expensive silicon wafers that are energy intensive to produce, and is capable of producing electricity.

The team of engineering students — Eric Dilbone, Phil Ingram, Trevan Locke, Paul McDonald and Jason Ogg — “also won the Marketplace Innovation Award from Paladin Capital, a private equity firm, and the Student Choice Award, a special nod from their peers in competition,” according to Vanderbilt.

The idea is that “a miniature bio-cell can produce minute electricity from Photosystem I (PSI), the protein in plant chloroplasts that converts light to electrochemical energy.

They won the grant despite “nagging doubts about how the slight power from the panel would convince the judges,” one Vanderbilt professor explained.

I’m not anti-science, and certainly think we should be researching viable energy alternatives, but I have a real moral problem with the idea of substituting food for fuel.

We know the use of corn to produce ethanol has caused world wide increases in food prices over the years. Corn is a staple in diets around the world.

In 2009 the Los Angeles Times reported:

Ethanol demand may raise food costs for needy, report says

Increased use of the corn-based fuel may mean the government pays more for food stamps and other assistance programs, the Congressional Budget Office says.

WASHINGTON — The increased use of ethanol could cost the government up to $900 million for food stamps and child nutrition programs, a congressional report says.

Higher use of the corn-based fuel additive accounted for about 10% to 15% of the rise in food prices from April 2007 to April 2008, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That translates into higher costs for food programs for the needy.

The CBO said other factors, such as skyrocketing energy costs, had an even greater effect than ethanol on food prices during that period.

Economists at the agency estimate that higher food prices will increase costs for food programs overall to about $5.3 billion in the current budget year.

Ethanol’s effect on future food prices is uncertain, the report says, because an increased supply of corn would have the potential to lower food prices.

Roughly one quarter of corn grown in the United States is used to produce ethanol, and overall consumption of ethanol in the country hit a record high last year, exceeding 9 billion gallons, according to the CBO. Nearly 3 billion bushels of corn were used to produce ethanol in the United States last year — an increase of almost a billion bushels over 2007.

The demand for ethanol was one factor that increased corn prices, leading to higher animal feed and ingredient costs for farmers, ranchers and food manufacturers.

Some of that cost is eventually passed onto consumers, since corn is used in so many food products.

Several of those affected groups have banded together to oppose tax breaks and federal mandates for the fuel. They said Thursday that the report showed the unintended consequences of ethanol.

As startling as these figures are, they do not even tell the story of the toll higher food prices have taken on working families, nor the impact higher feed prices have had on farmers in animal agriculture who have seen staggering losses and job cuts and liquidation of livestock herds,” the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., American Meat Institute, National Turkey Federation and National Council of Chain Restaurants said in a statement.

In 2011 USA Today followed with this:

Add lower-than-expected corn yields last year and, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures out Wednesday, U.S. reserves of field corn are at their lowest levels in 15 years. The demand for corn for ethanol is now at 4.9 billion bushels per year. Corn prices have almost doubled, from $3.49 a bushel in July to $6.10 in January. Corn futures, contracts to buy corn at a given price in the future, as of Wednesday were $6.90 a bushel.

[ …. ]

For the 1.2 billion people who make $1.25 or less a day and spend 50% to 80% of their income on food, price rises mean hunger and less money for education and health care, says Gawain Kripke of Oxfam America, an anti-poverty charity.

For Americans, there are “definitely indications that point to higher prices, but we’ve yet to see a major impact,” says Ephraim Leibtag, a USDA food economist. Meat, dairy and eggs, primarily dependent on feed prices, are “less shielded from surges in commodity prices,” he says. USDA is predicting rises in the food price index for 2011 of 3.5% to 4.5% for pork, 2.5% to 3.5% for beef, 2.5% to 3.5% for eggs and 4.5% to 5.5% for dairy.

But corn, because it’s made into high-fructose corn syrup, our most commonly used sweetener, is in many other items Americans buy as well.

Using food as a substitute for energy hurts the poorest among us, and it makes little sense.

It would be one thing if the world was out of real energy, or even if the United States was running out, but as we have reported over and over, the exact opposite is true. We have as much as 300 years worth of oil, natural gas, and coal reserves right here in the United States, and that’s if we don’t import a single drop.

Again, I’m all for research and development, but it needs to be funded by private investors, not the government.

Our government has proven time and time again that it isn’t competent enough to be handing out grants for this sort of thing.

Of course, the second problem is the United States is flat broke. We don’t have enough money coming in to even fund the basics. The last thing we should be doing is funding research such as this spinach project.

The solutions are simple. We have plenty of energy right now, enough to provide for the nation for centuries.

Instead of chasing pie in the sky dreams, that use essential foods to replace the abundant energy we have in the ground, lets get serious about developing those God given natural resources we have.

Of all of the so-called “green” energy solutions, solar has the most potential, and a proven track record of actually producing energy. Yes, it’s expensive, and only survives because of massive tax incentives, but it at least has the potential.

Cost is major issue, but using food as a solution is a non-starter. Finding a way to inexpensively amplify the energy produced by a solar panel making the need for fewer panels, for a given project, makes more sense to me.

It’s time we tell our members of Congress to stop the EPA and other government agencies from funding these projects, and allow the free markets to work.

It’s not government’s job to pick winners and losers, and besides, they have a really lousy record of trying.



Filed under In The News, Politics

6 responses to “Biohybrid Spinach: Sure Beats Actual Energy Solutions

  1. Aaron Allen

    Hi Gary: I’m sure that spinach is better left as a food [don’t boil it–use a
    pressure cooker for a minute to save nutrients]. We shud re-evaluate ‘in-
    dustrial corn’–maybe only eat sweetcorn or popcorn: We consume way
    too much corn oil and fructose…Spoiled, deseased, dirty [spilled] corn
    shud be used for ethanol in the remaining years that it is used as a fleet
    fuel: If HHO is added, the loss in energy vs gasoline is made up for and
    savings are still possible…This may be another direct-sales-to-users op-
    portunity: Cust-owned ‘straight’ fuel trucks pick up the E-85/E-90 and dis-
    pense it to the fleet vehicles as they begin their day–the rest is dumped
    into the motor pool pumps’ tank…Aaron Allen…

    • Gary P Jackson

      Ethanol is simply a crap motorfuel. It takes more energy to create it, than it produces. It’s incredibly inefficient. If you go to any new car dealer and look at “flex fuel” vehicles that can run on both gasoline as well as E85, you’ll notice a shocking fact on the federally mandated sticker, concerning fuel mileage.

      Cars and trucks go significantly further on a gallon of gasoline than they do a gallon of ethanol.

      Why is this?

      Ethanol is not as energy dense as gasoline. In other words, it take a larger amount of ethanol to do the work than it does gasoline.

      So not only are you paying more for ethanol [if not at the pump, most certainly in higher taxes] you are getting fewer miles per gallon, for the privilege!

      Oddly enough though, ethanol has a higher octane rating than gasoline. This is true for both gasoline/ethanol blends [E85] and straight ethanol [corn or sugar based]

      If you notice, both NASCAR and the Indy Racing League now run ethanol. This is two fold. One, the ethanol lobby, using tax dollars, pay these two sanctioning bodies to do it, and two, it does make more horsepower over gasoline.

      Of course, in racing, while fuel mileage is important, it ain’t that important, especially since all teams are effected equally.

      Ethanol makes some sense as a race fuel, simply because of a higher octane rating, which lessens the chance of detonation, and broken parts. You can push the laws of physics a bit harder. Also [thanks to huge state and federal subsidies] it’s a lot cheaper than racing gasoline.

      That said, it’s still a junk fuel that serves no meaningful purpose as a fuel for the country.

      BTW, both NASCAR and Indy Car could run methanol and see the same benefits without the negatives surrounding ethanol. Racers have been using methanol almost from the start. In fact, until it became so chic, Indy cars raced on methanol.

      Many sportsman drag racers use methanol simply because it’s easier to tune, and the engines run cooler.

      There is one drawback to any alcohol fuel, be it methanol or ethanol. They absorb a LOT of water. This is why ethanol can’t be transported through pipeline and must be shipped by truck, which makes this crap fuel even worse.

      The “greens” preach “save the earth” with this nonsense, but the truth is, as a whole, ethanol pollutes more than petroleum based fuels.

      It’s a bad idea that just keeps getting worse.

  2. Aaron Allen

    Hi Gary: I agree with your criticism of ethanol as a major fuel in most mar-
    kets but I do think it has a place in places where good gasoline is scarce
    or too expensive for work vehicles. By blending in HHO while driving, the
    ‘loss’ in mileage can be made up. In hot, dry areas of the US the stuff runs
    cooler and evaporates less. A modest amount of grain [spoiled or dirty] can be put to good use and the oxygen sensors ‘fooled’ into starting and
    running well. Grassoline is ‘highway-hay’ which is free and plentiful in most rural areas. The process used to refine it differs from ‘bootlegging’–
    the mash is NOT distilled like alcohol but actually converted to a hydrocar-
    bon which is cracked-n-refined like gasoline…Plants which previously dis-
    tilled ethanol can be modified so that their outputs ‘swing’, crossing over
    from mostly ethanol to mostly grassoline. Finally, a small stream of etha-
    nol is produced [to sweeten lower-octane straight gasoline. The rest of the
    production is 91-96 UL ‘Regular’ and 100-102 UL ‘Premium’. The FAA ap-
    proves non-ethanol grassoline for use in piston aircraft: The lower octane
    juice is okay for ‘Mo-Gas’ conversion [STC]; the 100-102 UL is okay for all
    piston engines [except unlimited racers which still like 115-145…I still think
    we wud be better off eating sweet corn and popcorn…I know I don’t need
    any more starch, hi-fructose syrup, etc…Aaron Allen…

    • Gary P Jackson

      Arron, ethanol, in EVERY case, is far more expensive tan gasoline. It doesn’t reflect it at the pumps, because your tax dollars subsidize it. If ethanol had to survive in the free market, it would fail spectacularly, because it would cost so much more than gasoline. Same goes for solar and wind power.

      Oil is plentiful. The only places it isn’t are places where it is so remote that everything must be shipped in, and it’s going to be expensive, no matter what.

      Ethanol is just a junk fuel. It takes far more energy to produce than you get back. It’s less energy dense, which means it take more ethanol than gasoline to do the same amount of work.

      Go look at a brand new “flex-fuel” vehicle on the showroom floor. There is a federally mandated fuel mileage sticker. It will show two different sets of numbers. One for gasoline, one for ethanol. You get fewer MPGs on ethanol. That really says all one needs to know.

      The only thing ethanol has done is cause food prices to rise world wide.

  3. Aaron Allen

    Hi Gary: I concede that ethanol is not as good a fuel as gasoline–let’s re-
    duce its production in a linear fashion–converting the ethanol plants into
    local/regional mini-refineries, capable of serving a few counties’ vehicles
    and passers-thru who stop for fuel?..After a few years, the only ethanol in
    production might be sitting in nice, charred-oaken barrels? Mixed with a
    splash of water or soda, it sure wud taste better than gasoline?..Because
    of the Scotts’ supposed frugality, I wonder if Scotch [single-malt or blend-
    ed] wud be cheaper than corn likker? “Fill ‘er up with Chevas? Walker?”
    …Aaron Allen…

    • Gary P Jackson

      When I think of Ethanol, I always think of Henry Ford and the Model T. That cheap car put America, and eventually, the entire world on wheels. It was a decent ride for it’s day, but underpowered and temperamental.

      One of the big problems was the quality of gasoline. Since the automobile was in it’s infancy, little research had been done to make gasoline better. Henry Ford’s answer was, you guessed it, ethanol. Like I was talking about using ethanol for racing, because it does have the higher octane, thus great anti-knock properties, it was a perfect solution, on paper. But just as it is today, one of the problems, besides cost, was the fact that ethanol isn’t as energy dense as gasoline, meaning you need much more ethanol, than gasoline to do like amounts of work. This is OK in racing, as fuel mileage isn’t a great concern. It’s a disaster for the general public.

      In other words, ethanol is almost as old as the automobile itself, and is no better of an alternative than it was 100 years ago, when it was abandoned.

      BTW, the same goes for electric cars. They were also building electric cars over 100 years ago. Good ones. The Model T was hard to drive. You couldn’t get an electric starter on the early models, so you had to hand crank them. If you had the ignition timing off [something you manually set when starting, then controlled while driving] you ended up with a broken wrist, or arm. Many women drove electrics. Companies like Detroit Electric catered to women, making cars that were very feminine in appointments.

      Thing is, today’s electrics are no more efficient, and can travel no farther than those of yesteryear. Worse, proportionately, electrics cost far more [over the price of conventional automobiles] than the electrics of the early 1900s did.

      The answer to our fuel crisis is actually damned simple. Drill baby, drill!

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