Lives may depend on it.
These days, there’s a quieter battle emerging – one that won’t be won in jungles with armies and bullets.
Instead, it will play out in laboratories with scientists like Arnold and research that’s opening the door for future generations to save the Earth by replacing coal and oil with cleaner, renewable energy made from corn and other plants.
It’s called biofuel, and it’s going to change the way we live – whether we like it or not.
The Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal initiative to make America’s fuel supply more sustainable, requires 36 billion gallons of biofuels to be mixed into gasoline by 2022.
Of that quota, 85 percent must come from a mix of ethanol and cellulosic material such as wood chips and grasses.
These types of fuels have been known to emit less pollutants and greenhouse gases than their petroleum counterparts, stonewalling the progression of global warming.
A study completed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, cited by the U.S. Department of Energy, found that greenhouse gas emissions for biodiesel were more than 52 percent lower than those from petroleum diesel.
Despite the environmental benefits, however, biofuels still present a host of dilemmas.
For one, there’s supply and demand.
In 2014, less than 2 percent of the mandated amount of cellulosics were produced as the industry failed to get off the ground.
Then, there’s the food vs. fuel debate.
A United Nations expert once called biofuel production a “crime against humanity” for allegedly driving up the price of food, contributing to worldwide hunger.
After all, ethanol is a product of corn, which is used to feed both livestock and humans.
Ethanol isn’t cheap to produce, either, due to the cost of harvesting and processing a crop that’s spread out across the country.
Those costs, of course, get passed onto the consumer.
Meanwhile, the price of oil has plummeted to roughly $40 per barrel offering little incentive for biofuel to become a feasible alternative.
“How can you compete with nearly free oil?” Arnold asked. “The feed stocks for biofuels are diffuse. They’re spread out all over and it costs money to collect them together.”
Dr. Arnold receiving the 2011 National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama
The key, she added, is making biofuel production more efficient.
That’s where Arnold’s research comes in.
In the 1990s, she pioneered the idea of “directed evolution,” a method of developing proteins using a type of lab-controlled natural selection through random mutations, which can be used to create – or “evolve” – proteins capable of a specific function.
Proteins spawned from this technique can be found anywhere, from glucose sensors for diabetics to more common household products.
For example, many laundry detergents contain stain-removing enzymes “evolved” to clean your clothes.
Arnold’s experiments take a system nature has created and re-engineer it to develop microorganisms to improve the production of biofuel.