April 30, 2013 | 1
The language of innovation often stresses disruption–eliminating inefficient industries and replacing them with more streamlined, technologically advanced versions. Nowhere is disruption more complex and important than in the energy industry, with implications for so much of the way that we live, affecting global industry, economics, and climate. A major focus of synthetic biology today is the design and production of biofuels, to disrupt the current practices of oil extraction and edge towards a more carbon-netural energy future. Biofuels have to disrupt not only the intricate complexity of cellular metabolic networks, but also the complex political, economic, and technological networks of global energy production. In the words of sociologist of science Adrian Mackenzie, “Biofuels, as it turns out, are extraordinarily messy entities to think with.”
In his recent paper “Synthetic biology and the technicity of biofuels” in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Mackenzie looks at three startup companies in the biofuels industry–Synthetic Genomics, Amyris, and Joule Unlimited–as case studies of how synthetic biology and biofuels “come into being, change and endure”, asking “how does synthetic biology translate a potential technical object into an actual technical object?”
The ways that these companies design and market their products, both those currently in production as well as future products promised by new technologies, highlight the technical ensembles and supply chains necessary to produce energy, asking different “what if…?” questions about the future. However, while biofuel companies propose a disruption in the ways that we produce fuels, in vats of yeast or ponds of algae, they still rely on many of the networks that support our current infrastructures and industries. Mackenzie writes:
While synthetic biology might come up with revolutionary ways of producing next generation biofuels, these fuels are part of a interlinked large technical systems of aviation, road transport, and shipping that have taken shape over a century or more. In some ways, no matter how revolutionary it is, synthetic biology will be doing very little to change the broad sociotechnical systems of transport…The close fit between next generation biofuels and existing transport socio-technical system means that the ‘revolutionary’ innovation promised by synthetic biology is likely to be in service of changing not much.
There is a wide range in the ways that current biofuel researchers imagine their future products fitting into fuel pipelines and transport infrastructures, from hydrogen gas production that requires adoption of entirely different kinds of transport pipelines, car fuel cells, and fueling stations to “petroleum replica” diesel fuels that can “drop in” to mature petroleum infrastructures with little processing. In the recent paper by researchers at the University of Exeter and the oil company Shell and funded in part by a grant from Shell Research, these petroleum replicas are produced in E. coli starting from processed sugar, placing these molecules not only in current fuel and transport infrastructures, but also agricultural systems needed to produce sugar for the bio-molecular supply chain. In the paper’s conclusion and in news interviews, the researchers make clear the many infrastructures–political, economic, technical, and biological–that are necessary to do this work and will be necessary to scale up production of such a molecule.
It will take a lot more work to truly disrupt the ways that fuel is produced and to move beyond systems that replicate the petroleum industry. In thinking with biofuels and making visible the sources of the carbon molecules and the bond energy of fuel molecules we can ask new kinds of “what if…?” questions and begin to imagine new industrial ecosystems. As Mackenzie closes his article, “[biofuels] bring together many things in relation, not to make something totally new or hitherto unimagined. Just the opposite, they make something familiar—fuel—in ways that remain open to transformation.”