Milliongenerations:Fuel to food
Let's build a device that converts fossil fuel efficiently into something that humans can eat.
(More generally, encourage work to make food much more efficiently (in energy, area and other resources) - for example in a prize question - and show the utility of energy and encourage a wider perspective.)
Fuel is food. Discussions on biofuel have brought to popular attention that using agriculture to generate fuels competes with the ability to feed people. Building a device that directly converts fuel to food efficiently might inspire more insight that fuel is valuable. And such devices could have a practical role in situations where food is difficult to get to people in need, such as initial phases of emergencies or as temporary backup in a major catastrophe. A machine that turns out food that humans really want to eat regularly might be quite a challenge. Yet it should be feasible to make something that keeps humans from starving more efficiently than e.g., making and airlifting cornmeal to far off refugee camps.
Living beings need to eat mainly because of the same reason that they need to breathe: cells need energy to power the chemical reactions that maintain function and structure i.e., life. We eat carbohydrates (e.g., fats, sugars, starch, protein) and we burn carbohydrates in fossil fuel. Consciousness is the best use of energy.
visualizations of possible proof of concepts
- an exhibition at an art museum or festival where visitors obtain a small glass of e.g., gasoline to pour into a machine that turns it together with air and water and if necessary electricity into something edible like flour, sugar or starch or if that is too difficult an ingestible oil. Similar to one of Wim Delvoye's Cloaca machines, with different in and output. Something that can be made into a sort of bread would be ideal, the machine can do that itself in a second step, and ideally so that the visitors can see that a lot of bread can be made from a bit of fuel. Natural gas will do for a start if gasoline or diesel is too difficult. And optimally the machine would use the fuel for its energy needs.
- find what others have done so far
- possibly communicate the goal, even before the road to achieve it is clear
- find partners who know more about
- conversion of carbohydrates (e.g., chemical / process engineering)
- suitable technologies (e.g., refinery?)
- what substances are edible and would not be too difficult to make (e.g., a combination of sugars/starches/fats similar to candy)
- making small scale machines
- the rules that apply before something is allowed to be offered to the public as food, the ways to approve them
- gathering support
- generate ideas and make plans to
- identify suitable products that the machine could make
- identify suitable input to the machine that is widely available (e.g., diesel oil, water, air, small amounts of additives if necessary)
- identify concepts and ways to make, test and refine them
- identify regulatory hurdles in different regions, talk to regulators
- draw up a project plan
- gather support
- raise the funds required to execute the plan
- execute the plans, realise and test concepts and build and test a device until it is workable
- make sure all involved with knowledge of the machine are willing to and eat the product themselves
- obtain permission to offer the product of the device to the public
- display in a public space (e.g., inner city, festivals, modern art museums), generate publicity
- publish results under a non-commercial sharealike creative commons or similar license, so that others can improve upon this for the human benefit
- improve the steps above, or find better ways to reach the objective
Background and references
Energy utilization in food production
Agriculture already converts renewable and fossil energy into food. Most foods now need many times their caloric value in fossil fuels to produce, and distribution, storage and preparation adds more. A very rough estimate is that typically the weight of the food is roughly equivalent to the weight of the fuel that has been used in production, distribution and storage before the food is in someone's home. E.g., the equivalent of about one kg of gasoline might be needed to produce a kg of milk (in this case one could replace the kg with a gallon or liter and still be about right). Obviously, this varies widely between foods and depends on the way in which and where they are produced. Yet it seems difficult to find foods where the fossil energy spent to get it on the table is less than ten times the caloric value of the food. That leaves much room for improvement in a direct conversion.
To avoid misunderstanding: Life is valuable. Nonetheless this project is not started with the intent to use all available fossil fuel to feed as many people possible and rapidly increase population. Such fuel would eventually run out and the ensuing reduction in population might endanger civilization. To contribute to the discussion of how we use fuel and the capacity to produce and distribute food over space and time would seem a reasonable objective.
Similar efforts, proof of concepts
Preparing to create food during disasters ALLFED Feeding everyone no matter what David Denkenberger, Joshua Pearce: Feeding everyone no matter what, see also Denkenberger's interview on 80.000 hours
It has been done:
- Arthur Imhausen and his son Karl-Heinz created edible fat synthetically in the late 1930ies and 1940ies, Deutsche Fettwerke Witten produced 250 to 350 tons of "Coal butter"/Butter aus Kohle monthly by paraffin oxidation, using about seven tons of coal for one ton of butter-like fats. The product was edible despite unusual proportions of odd-numbered straight chain acids.
- It has been said (not yet corroborated) that scientists at DSM created milk from coal in the 1970ies
- July 2017 Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland announced that Professor Jero Ahola and Dr. Juha-Pekka Pitkänen and their teams had created a laboratory setup to generate edible protein from CO2 and electricity. They founded Solar Foods to commercialize it.
- Companies offering protein made from methane with bacteria: Calysta and Unibio
- Arkeon Biotechnologies also produces protein via fermentation, energy source to be determined
- Farmless grows healthy food without arable land by turning electricity into food through fermentation. e-methanol, green ammonia and minerals serve as feedstocks to create a single-cell protein for human consumption.
- more on ALLFED’s page on publications and reports in the field
- Wim Delvoye's Cloaca machines have different in- and output but show that the art world is up to this sort of thing