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Nanobiotechnology, renewable energy, sustainability, and the future.

The new fields of nanobiotechnology, renewable energy, and sustainability have a rapidly growing importance for today's science and technology and are good candidates for real prominence in the future. As yet, though, none of these three technologies is even close to maturity. Considering the slow but steady pace of technological development over the past century (Figure 1), it is likely to be another century--let's say the year 2100--before the full potential of nanobiotechnology, renewable energy, and sustainability will be realized.

All are familiar with the "big bang" theory in astrophysics. This author's suggestion, and others think likewise, is that we are currently in a "little bang" of technologies that will play out in the 21st century. The elements of these technologies are:

* Bits, the basic unit in information science.

* Atoms, the basic unit of nanotechnology.

* Neurons, the basic unit of cognitive science.

* Genes, the basic unit of biotechnology.

We are entering a time of convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science, which some in the scientific community have labeled "NBIC"--for neurons, biotechnology, information science, and cognition. To discuss how these exciting and potentially path-breaking developments will lead us into the 22nd century, we must focus on three that represent both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity for biological and environmental engineers.



Nanobiotechnology is an enabling technology that has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems. Examples of potential applications of nanobiotechnology in the science and engineering of agriculture and food systems are many and include disease treatment delivery systems, new tools for molecular and cellular biology, the security of agriculture and food systems, and new techniques and materials for pathogen detection and protection of the environment. Existing research has clearly demonstrated the feasibility of nanoshells and nanotubes for introduction into animals to seek and destroy targeted cells. Nanoparticles smaller than one micron have been used to deliver drugs and genes into cells.

Opportunities exist to identify and track agricultural products for detection of pesticides, fertilizers, and foreign matter throughout the life of the commodity (from production to the table). We can envision treatment delivery systems with multiple applications, having an impact on improved digestibility and flavor of foods and for nutrient applications and implantable, self-regulating drug delivery systems that might be activated to combat diseases long before symptoms are evident. The integration of nanosensing systems with reporting, localization, and control systems will allow real-time monitoring and control of plants, animals, and their environment.

Other areas are self-healing nanomaterials, bio-selective surfaces, and self-assembly of biological systems by nanoscale self-assembly systems. Environmental issues and agricultural waste challenges can be addressed with nanobiotechnology, including the extraction of biopolymers from agricultural products and the design of nanocatalysts for waste bioprocessing.

Now for the really big one: molecular manufacturing using a "bottoms-up" approach (Figure 2) can be used to fabricate food, molecule by molecule, rather than growing it! Food is a combination of molecules in a particular order. It is conceivable that by 2100 we will be engineering foods, molecule by molecule, by mass production to meet the nutritional needs of a hungry planet. What an exciting opportunity for biological engineers!

Renewable energy

As we all know, agriculture is much more than food production. It is also a major source of natural raw materials for bioproducts and bioenergy, and thus it is a significant engine to drive our transition to a sustainable world. In the near term, biomass represents a major renewable resource for bioenergy and biomaterials. Numerous recent reports have suggested that the United States can produce more than 1 billion tons of biomass annually from agricultural and forest lands, to meet as much as one third of our need for transportation fuels by 2030. The sources of biomass would include annual crop residues, perennial energy crops, grains used for biofuels, animal manures, process residues, and other miscellaneous feedstocks.

Wind turbines are becoming common around the world--in the United States, Europe, China, and other countries. Turbines that produce 1.5 to 1.65 MW dot our landscapes. Turbines able to generate 8 MW are on the drawing board and will be common by 2100 with even larger machines available.


Solar energy is also beginning to take off. New companies are using second-generation technologies for inexpensive processes. One company alone predicts it can produce enough solar cells to produce 430 MW annually, and that is only one example of a new type of solar power. These second-generation technologies include dye-sensitive solar cells, non-crystalline silicon cells based on organic materials, and thin-film inorganic CIGS (copper, iridium, gallium, and selenium) semiconductors. A third-generation solar technology is the hope for the future, when nanostructures such as quantum dots with their unique characteristics can be expected to increase solar cell efficiency by a factor of two or more.

In addition, geothermal, although highly region-specific, will be used increasingly in regions where this resource exists in abundance but where so far, with some notable exceptions, it has been underexploited.

Because renewable energy lends itself to distributed generation, power plants for electrical and heat generation will serve local communities efficiently and effectively, as an alternative to large central plants that require transmission over a largely aging, outmoded, and often deteriorating grid. The vision here is integration of renewable energy systems to meet the local needs of sustainable communities.

Pardon a personal bias to suggest the example of a dairy (and other animal farm) transitioning from production of a single farm product (milk) to a comprehensive system that (1) produces other bioproducts, (2) produces bioenergy that can drive other integrated food and fiber production systems, and (3) generates bioenergy for off-farm enterprises, contributing to the energy needs of the surrounding community. Anaerobic digestion will serve as the basic process to produce biogas from organic wastes (animal manures co-digested with food and industrial wastes). The energy converter of the future would be a fuel cell.

Thus, by 2100, all of our worldwide energy needs can be provided from a suite of renewable energy resources, principally biomass, wind, and solar, with a significant amount of hydroelectric power. Clearly, the biological and environmental engineer will be the driver of, as General Electric now calls it, ecomagination!


The modern world is in transition to a world with more people, greater consumption of materials and resources, more connectedness, and a need to reduce poverty without destroying the environment. Over the past two decades, "sustainability" has become a principal concept to integrate technological, economic, social, and political issues to address environmental protection and economic development.

Sustainability, which is our common future, means "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (The Brundtlancl Report: Our Common Future, 1987). Many have suggested further definitions building upon this concept. I particularly like Roy Weston's description of the concept as an impetus for action: "Sustainable development is a process of change in which the direction of investment, the orientation of technology, the allocation of resources, and the development and functioning of institutions meet present needs and aspirations without endangering the capacity of natural systems to absorb the effects of human activities, and without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and aspirations" (R. F. Weston, Sustainable Development: Definition and Implementation Strategies, 1993). Thus, sustainable development is a "process" of redirection, reorientation, and reallocation, an evolving concept rather than a fixed definition. As I see it, it is a fundamental redesign of technological, economic, and sociological processes to address change. Local communities control a major fraction of a nation's energy and resource consumption. Therefore, the challenge is to create a sustainable entrepreneurship that integrates energy, environmental, agricultural, and industrial innovation.

It is out of this context that I propose the concept of the global biologically integrated sustainable community (GBISC). a community with biologically derived fuels; renewable energy systems; total recycling; energy conservation; close-proximity transportation for the work, live, and play environments; sustainable enterprises developed from agriculturally based bioindustries, including both new "molecular technologies" as well as new bioindustries; and infrastructure development to take advantage of the advances in information technologies for communication, both internal and external to the community.

To avoid the perception that agriculture in 2100 will be only a rural development, I want to paint another exciting picture (at least, it's exciting to me) of urban agriculture in an integrated system within a large building complex (~50,000 persons) that is designed to be a complete live, work, and play environment. The structure is a high-rise complex with built-in renewable energy systems, including an array of megawatt wind turbines at the top of the structure, and all vertical surfaces integrate photovoltaic cells for electricity generation. Human and solid wastes are treated by anaerobic digestion to produce methane, which after conversion to hydrogen, is utilized by fuel cells for combined heat and power to meet heating and electrical loads. When methane (beyond that needed for operating this mega-facility) is produced, it can be directly reformed to hydrogen as a high value-added commodity.

By 2100, photoactive bacteria will be available to directly convert waste products to hydrogen for operating the building's fuel cells or producing high-purity hydrogen as a commodity product. The "farms" will be at floor levels. say every 10th, 20th, or 30th floor, for growing of food, both within an outdoor environment and in controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) for high-valued crops. The remainder of the building will be a fairly typical high-rise building with offices, businesses, consumer stores, medical facilities, schools, banks, restaurants, and many other functions.

Yes. the university also exists within the complex. How else can it serve society unless it is an active and fully engaged participant in the live, work, and play environment? Additionally, the community will include all economic segments, all ages including retirement, and comprehensive healthcare facilities. A major transportation savings will accrue in both time and vehicle expenses because one can work, live, and play in the same building.

While it seems very far-fetched today, it is technically feasible even now, and certainly by 2100. A concept of this magnitude and uniqueness will attract the creative and interdisciplinary thinking discussed above, and it will require the greatest intellectual effort that has for so long been associated with the disciplinary fields. Here again, the integrative and systems skills of biological and environmental engineers will be challenged to create new communities that represent a sustainable model for working, living, and playing.

ASABE fellow Norman R. Scott is professor, Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University. Ithaca, NY, USA;
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Author:Scott, Norman R.
Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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