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Bioinspired Energy Utilization

What is the compelling question or challenge?

Can we develop energy utilization technologies that better mimic the highly efficient processes found in biological systems? This will allow more efficient use of future renewable energy resources.

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

Our current energy utilization technologies are highly inefficient. Carbon based fuels are generally combusted in a single reaction process and resulting thermal gradients are used for heating, electricity generation, etc. The resulting pressure gradients are also used for transportation. The reliance on these processes means that ~2/3 of the energy consumed annually in the U.S. is rejected to the atmosphere as waste heat. Alternative systems such as fuel cells and the development of strategies to capture and use waste heat may help reduce these numbers. A better approach would be to look to nature to see if other technological solutions could be possible.

Biological systems have evolved to exploit multistep chemical reactions that take place isothermally and energy is stored in chemical gradients instead of thermal or pressure gradients. Far less energy is lost to the environment leading to vastly higher energy efficiencies. A cell is able to obtain far more energy from the controlled oxidation of a gram of sugar that we would be able to recover by simply burning it in a furnace.

Our inefficient use of energy also has implications on the small scale, where computational processes can be limited by our ability to reject waste heat. We have not yet matched the computational power of the human brain, and yet the brain functions very efficiently without the need for tremendous heat rejection to the environment. Thus future computational advances will likely require new approaches in energy delivery and utilization.

As we develop technologies for better harvesting renewable energy resources, we should also think about use alternative energy carriers beyond organic carbon compounds. And we should also be thinking about how to use these new energy carriers for alternative bio-inspired energy transduction pathways. Nature accomplishes energy transduction using enzymes, small molecule energy carriers, chemiosmotic potentials, etc. My Big Idea is to develop biomimetic and bio-inspired technologies based on advances in catalysis, electrochemistry, energetic materials, etc, with the goal of vastly increasing the efficiency of our utilization of future renewable recourses. For example, in the future we could develop nitrogen based energy carriers such that oxidation is coupled to the formation of a large scale chemical gradient that can be used to drive isothermal electricity generation.

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