The future of energy and the future of risk

I got to have another great conversation with synthetic biologist and blogger Christina Agapakis on's Science Saturday. Christina and I chatted about some of the issues that came up at an energy conference I spoke at recently, examined the possibility of using synthetic biology to create fuel, and talked about how we navigate the often-confusing questions of technology and risk.


  1. I love these conversations. They’re soothing in the same way Car Talk is, with smart people talking about their passions, but still something I can enjoy in the background and get something out of.

  2. Whenever I hear people talking about backyard reactors I think of this animation “There Will come soft rains” it’s in russian and based on or is a Ray Bradbury story.

  3. That’s a pretty interesting film, chellberty!

    Unfortunately, we’ve been using so much fossil fuel for so long, biofuels can’t come close to replacing them. The US consumption of transportation fuels is roughly equal to the food energy production of the whole world’s agriculture.  There’s not much that’s soothing about the current situation.

  4. Dude, have you listened to “Car Talk”?  What the hell is soothing about Click and Clack?  “Yes – that sweet smell is a leak from your radiator… your relaxing relaxing radiator.”

  5. Alan Robock, at Rutgers University, is currently studying geoengineering, specifically sulphate aerosol, and attempting to model and understand the ramifications of  atmospheric sulfate injections.

    Robock et al, Benefits, risks, and costs of stratospheric geoengineering

    The benefits basically being that it will in fact cool the Earth, it is (relatively) cheap, and sulfate aerosols do not last long in the atmosphere ( a few years) so the process can be stopped fairly quickly.   However there are a host of disadvantages, such as interrupting the hydrologic cycle (droughts), continued ocean acidification (does not remove any CO2 from the atmosphere), terrestrial telescopes will no longer work, and cultural and moral ramifications.  Also, the skies will no longer be blue, but a rather bland whitish (although the sunsets will be spectacular).

    I think the best point Maggie made in the geoengineering portion was that we are already geoengineering the planet.  In the end all the reasons why adaptive geoengineering is bad have to be weighed against all the reasons why unabated climate change is bad.  And by unabated, I mean worse than the IPCCs worst case scenario.

  6. Bacteria will never be able to turn salt into hydrocarbons. Salts are made of ions, hydrocarbons are made of carbon and hydrogen.  The reason hydrocarbons contain so much energy and take so much time and geological temperatures and pressures to form is because they contain bonds that contain a lot of energy, so that when you break all those bonds they release lots of energy (heat). So, to MAKE fuel molecules you need a source of huge amounts of energy. If it were so easy to turn the ocean into oil, somebody would have done it already.

    1. one of the more realistic propositions to turn water into fuel is to use the sulfur iodine cycle. It uses heat to break water into hydorgen and oxygen. hydrogen is then used in hydrogen powered cars. And one of the ways to supply all the heat needed to make all that hydrogen (there are a lot of cars in the world) is nuclear power

  7. Using gas power plants to accommodate for changes in wind power on the grid is using old technology to fix new technology, not the other way around.

  8. Lot of stuff touched on in this, but the most interesting may well be the stuff about past fears and how the US grid was bootstrapped by the very same companies producing electric appliances and running amusement parks. It highlights that getting shit off the ground rarely happen without manipulating the market in some way.

    And i think i have actually seen the “now the Hendersons got the bomb” comic. And with a quick bit of searching:

    in the end the talk strongly reinforces the issue that no matter how much economists and “intellectual property” lawyers seems to think otherwise, shit do not happen in a vacuum on planet earth!

  9. If the future of risk includes natural, human, material and processes failures, mistakes and unknowns, then what would be the future of nuclear accidents in relation to the future of risk?

    What PR makeover or technical fix in the process of nuclear power production will change the genetic impact of its radioactive byproducts when exposed to organic lifeforms?

    not that I expect a direct answer to these questions here on this post.. so late in internet time. too serious, like a wet rag really .. not cool and fun and hip science I guess.

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