As countries in North Africa and the Middle East continue their descent into violence and chaos, crude oil prices have increased more than 20 percent. Americans feel that pain at the pump too. Their addiction will be difficult to break. Since petroleum replaced whale oil as a main fuel source more than a century ago, chemical companies and refineries have found a startling range of uses for it, from asphalt to vanilla flavoring in ice cream to pills from the drugstore.
“It just turns out to be a very abundant product that is easy to manipulate chemically, so you can turn it into many different products,” said Dr. Benny Freeman, past chairman of the American Chemical Society’s polymeric materials division. Not only does the American farm and grocery network rely on cheap fuel for low-cost shipping between the coasts, but food itself is grown using petroleum-based fertilizer.
From fossil fuel–derived fertilizers and pesticides, to diesel-powered tractors and water pumps, to an elaborate long-distance transport system, oil is something that—in a very real sense—we eat. Because modern agriculture has become so dependent upon oil, petroleum scarcity leads to significantly higher food prices and outright shortages, and was at least partially responsible for the global rice shortage of 2008, when oil reached record high prices.
“The poor are exquisitely sensitive to food prices,” notes Peter Winch, MD, MPH, International Health professor. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that more than 900 million people worldwide are undernourished, a number more than 100 million greater than before the oil-fueled food price increases that began around 1997. Increased food insecurity – and even outright famine – would likely result from any additional large increases in the price of oil. Some economists claim spiking oil prices caused four of the last five global economic recessions. And, says Parker, co-director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Health, economic decline is bad for public health: “Health outcomes decline when the economy declines. People make ends meet at the expense of their health, and societies reduce health benefits when budgets are tight.”
Despite the high costs of oil, hydrocarbons remain the cheapest source of energy on the planet. For decades, the United States has funded refineries, pipelines, and ports to help the economies of oil-producing regions. Figures released in BP’s “Statistical Review of World Energy” show, global oil production has struggled to keep up with increased demand recently, particularly from Asia.
The world needs a replacement; one that is sustainable, secure, and can compete on the open market. And they need it fast. In China alone consumption has risen by over 4m barrels per day in the past decade, accounting for two-fifths of the global rise. In 2010 consumption exceeded production by over 5m barrels per day for the first year ever, as world oil stocks were run down. Oil was cheap only so long as it was plentiful and easy to extract, but in tandem with growing demand from emerging economies like those in China and India, more and more of remaining “non-conventional oils” are locked in tar sands or buried deep under the ocean’s bed. This presents challenges to everything from transportation to food production—and ultimately, to global public health.
Extracting and processing the oil from beneath the sea, or tar sands, or shale deposits or the vast supplies of heavy oil known to exist in Saudi Arabia and Canada involve using ever more energy-intensive technology to produce each additional barrel of oil. “Non-conventional oil sources are dirty,” says Cindy Parker simply, “and if we make the choice to exploit them heavily we can actually accelerate carbon emissions and global warming, along with the many negative health consequences that will bring.”
“There are no solutions, only responses,” says EHS professor Brian Schwartz, co-director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Health and a nationally recognized expert on the health consequences of peak oil. “You can deny climate change forever, but you can’t deny the rising price of oil. The limitations to ever-increasing production are a geologic reality.” Now, it is time to build bio-refineries, and to create programs that help farmers collect and transport biomass.
There is one bright hope on the horizon. It turbocharges an enzyme but the only one who knows how it works is Novozymes, the Danish firm that makes it. Needless to say, there is a huge potential market for Novozymes. Enzymes are in everything from detergents to beer to gasohol. And they dominate the industrial market, growing at the expense of the chemical industry. They are making sure we can still have all the stuff we enjoy for our daily life but based on sugar instead of oil. With over 700 products used in 130 countries, Novozymes’ bio-innovations increase industrial performance and safeguard the world’s resources by offering superior and sustainable solutions for tomorrow’s ever-changing marketplace.
The U.S. needs to invest in industrial biotechnology. Biotechnology holds the promise, and increasingly the certainty, of reshaping our world for the better. In the future, our cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships will run on fuels cheaper and environmentally friendly fuels — derived from cellulose. Over the long term, bio-based fuels, chemicals, and plastics will become hugely profitable on their own. But today, the industry faces high start-up costs, and competes with an oil industry that receives billions of dollars year after year in government funds.
Novozymes, Inc. has joined Lignol’s consortium for its Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) funded project. Novozymes will contribute technical and development support related to advanced hydrolysis and fermentation of woody biomass into cellulosic ethanol. “In the last two years we have made significant progress with Novozymes towards our shared goal of producing cellulosic ethanol that is cost competitive with gasoline,” said Lignol CEO Ross MacLachlan.
To that Novozymes’ MD for Bioenergy R&D, Claus Fuglsang confirms, “The combination of Novozymes’ latest enzymes with Lignol’s extremely clean and highly reactive substrates is anticipated to provide a compelling cost structure for cellulose-to-ethanol conversion at commercial scale”.