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.