applied science

Another Astounding Agent of Change

The other day I caught an article on ScienceDaily about a major (in my mind) advance in plant biology and just had to blog about it so you’d hear about it too. That was about making plants up to 40% more productive.

Then last night I’m watching CBS 60 Minutes and they do this piece about this guy named Marshall Medoff. I’d never heard of him or his company but after a little while I’m saying things out loud like ‘Holy Shit’ and ‘Oh Wow’ and ‘this guy is like Edward Land’.

That last bit means, in my estimation, this person is a different sort of animal from regular folks. This person sets out to find solutions to problems that stump the best and brightest in the world. Problems in areas this person might have no scientific training in whatsoever but that doesn’t stop them from forging ahead . . . and coming out the other end with a solution.

Ed Land (1,2) did that. His parents sent him off to university but he had other ideas. He wanted to do something about Polarization.

Science was aware that light could be polarized but no one had figured out another way to create optical polarizers than herapathite. In 1852 it was discovered that feeding quinine to dogs created the conditions for proper crystal formation of this polarizing material in their urine.

Land took the money he was supposed to go to school with and spent it on solving the problem of finding a better way to make better polarizing material. Hiring a machinist to make equipment he needed. And he succeeded.

This guy Medoff in the 60 Minutes piece did something like that. He stopped and paid attention to what he was hearing about coming future threats from problems like climate change. And then went to Walden (yes that pond at that Walden) to think about it.

Most of the world’s plant matter is cellulose. And cellulose contains sugars which could be very very useful if only they could be released from the cellulose. Various teams were working on different ways to do this with limited success. This became Mr’s Medoff’s project.

Then he crawled into a large garage building for 15 years and learned what he needed to about the problems and potential solutions. Which meant learning a lot of science . . . pretty much on his own.

When he was done and ready to try and make his solution real he hired an MIT grad to help him. If you believe the 60 Minutes piece Mr. Medoff has done it. He’s found a way to do what everyone else was trying to. And because he can extract the sugars directly from the cellulose he can make things that petroleum is used for currently. Plastics for instance. Plastic with programmable degradability from 11 weeks to years. Fuels for internal combustion engines. Alcohol you can drink and also put in your fuel tank. Edible sugar that doesn’t rot your teeth.

All that from plant matter we consider waste. Cobs after the kernels are removed for instance. Cellulose is the most abundant plant material on the planet.

And he’s using Electron Accelerators to break the cellulose down and a custom enzyme mix to extract the sugars. Old CRT TV tubes were Electron Accelerators. But they operated in a vacuum and I suspect the industrial EA’s Xyleco uses are quite different.

Marshall Medoff guesstimates that this new access to the sugars in plant cellulose could increase our usable material resource by 30%. Add that to the potential 40% in the article about improving photosynthesis and the future’s not so lacking after all. Here’s hoping the useful advances allow us the keep ahead of the looming disasters predicted for the not so distant future.