Duckweed

frog-duckweed

Although solar power has made vast improvements since it first became available for residential use, there are still issues with cost, efficiency, and storage. According to Ralph Vartabedian’s “Rise in renewable energy will require more use of fossil fuels” article in the LA Times, both wind and solar are “intermittent” power sources, since the power generated is entirely dependent on the weather and therefore can stop at any given time. Since they are inconsistent power sources, it is necessary to have a backup power source (produced by fossil fuels) like the Delta Energy Center outside of San Francisco. Vartabedian claims that this backup source wastes a tremendous amount of energy because it needs to be running at all times in case the alternative sources shut down. This system of compensation shows alternative energy’s dependency on fossil fuels, although their intention is exactly the opposite.

In Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, she describes nature’s ability to use solar energy with incredible efficiency. She explains that our energy problem is because “we’ve never gone beyond fire—combustion in furnaces or in engines is still the primary egg in our energy-producing basket, and it hasn’t brought us one inch closer to living sustainably…Instead of feeding dead plants to our fires all these years, perhaps we should have been studying the living ones, carefully copying their magic.” Benyus describes how the duckweed plant lives at the bottom of water bodies during the winter and feeds off of stored energy until the spring, when it floats to the surface and multiples at incredibly fast rates via sunlight. John Zirschky’s “The Use of Duckweed for Wastewater Treatment” claims that each duckweed “frond”, approximately 1/8 inch, can reproduce 10-20 times during its lifetime, and can double its covered area in 4 days time. This intense reproduction rate allows duckweed to entirely cover the surface of ponds in mere weeks. Despite the fact that it is considered an invasive species, its ability to both reproduce via photosynthesis and store starches for energy make this very miniscule plant an expert in solar efficiency.

Although I realize humans may not be able to mimic natural systems at a one-to-one scale, I do believe our access to and reliance on fossil fuels is prolonging our transition to alternative energy sources. Our current alternative energy sources are still very much dependent on fossil fuels, from crop production for biofuels to backup systems for solar/wind power. A greater sense of urgency and more in-depth studies of natural organisms could only benefit this slowly developing system. In Michael Pawlyn’s Biomimicry in Architecture, he states “Humans have achieved some truly remarkable things, such as modern medicine and the digital revolution, but, when one sees some of the extraordinary adaptations ­that have evolved in natural organisms; it is hard not to feel a sense of humility about how much we still have to learn.”

 

 

Pawlyn, Michael. Biomimicry in Architecture. N.p.: RIBA Publishing, 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

Benyus, Janine. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York City: William Morrow, 1997. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.

Vartabedian, Ralph. “Rise in renewable energy will require more use of fossil fuels .” LA Times. N.p., 9 Dec. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.

Zirschky, John. The Use of Duckweed for Wastewater Treatment. Water Pollution Control Federation, July 1988. JSTOR. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.

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One comment

  1. Building off of the reference to Benyus’ book, she discusses towards the end of her chapter, “How Will We Harness Energy”, that Jim Guillet, a professor at the University of Toronto, is using duckweed as his inspiration for a means to create a storable fuel. Guillet observed that with how little sunlight Canada gets during the winter months, there is a massive increase in energy usage that a source like solar power simply cannot satisfy. He wants to use solar power during the summer months to generate a fuel that can be burned during the winter months when solar isn’t viable.

    Guillet eventually patented a hydrogen fuel generation system inspired by none other than the invasive duckweed mentioned here. These disks are what are called photozymes, which use a combination of hydrophilic and hydrophobic molecules combined into a polymer to extract chemicals out of the environment. According to Guillet, the disks are first soaked in a “starter solution”, where they fill up with liquid and produce Vitamin-D. From there they are thrown into a pond and left in the sun to work chemistry magic. The hydrogen fuel produced from this process could be burned as a liquid fuel source come winter, producing the benign bi-product of water.

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