I already mentioned Craig Venter, whose company beat the Human Genome Project to the finish line in sequencing the first complete human genome, in my recent post on carbon-eating trees. His latest project is to develop not carbon-eating trees but algae that use a sort of photosynthesis on hyperdrive to convert CO2 back into hydrocarbons. And apprently he’s making good progress as he reveals in a recent interview (via MetaFilter):
I think the real challenge won’t necessarily come from biology, because biology is infinitely scalable, but from engineering. [If we can overcome that,] we have the potential to stop using oil and coal hopefully within the next 10 to 20 years, and even start reducing the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. […]
We’re using a unique type of algae that we’ve genetically engineered to turn sunlight and CO2 into C8 and C10 and larger lipids. The people that initially grew algae viewed it as farming—you know, you grow a bunch of algae and then you harvest it. But it’s totally different if the algae are chemical factories. Ours continuously secrete these molecules, so we get constant production of something that can basically be used right away as biodiesel.
He’s nothing if not ambitious. I wonder if the existing cost-benefit analyses of greenhouse gas mitigation a la Stern Review adequately account for the possibility for the emergence of one or more of such cheap backstop technologies. My personal hunch is that this possibility is wildly underrated, but the problem is that it’s not exactly easy to attach meaningful subjective probabilities to these states of the world 10, 20 or 30 years hence. On a purely intuitive level, just betting the house (i.e. our atmosphere) on such a development and doing nothing in the meantime seems just as bad an idea as instituting drastic cuts right now as if those possibilities did not exist. Any good ideas on how to quantify this trade-off?