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A week immersed in solar biofuels

The Honours Class From Solar to Fuel with Bio consisted almost entirely of the workshop on Solar Biofuels from Micro-organisms that drew more than eighty specialist researchers to Leiden's Lorentz Centre in late March/early April. Students Erica Wenker (chemistry) and Jasper van Dobben de Bruijn (law) wrote their impression of the Honours Class.

Surprise

To their surprise, the students from the Honours Class were introduced individually and welcomed at the start of the workshop on Solar Biofuels from Microorganisms. This made it immediately obvious who these  inquisitive young people were. They were also pleasantly surprised to find that an area had been set aside for them to work during the workshop.

Research is fascinating

‘I thought it would be good to join an Honours Class,' writes Erica Wenker, ‘and when I heard about this one, I applied.  I find research in general fascinating and I also like discovering more about the different branches of chemistry.' 

Law students in biofuels

Jasper van Dobben de Bruijn

Law student Jasper van Dobben de Bruijn didn't make it easy for himself. What's a law student doing in a chemistry Honours Class? Van Dobben de Bruijn: ‘A year ago I saw on TED Talks (www.ted.com) a twenty-minute presentation by Craig Venter. He expected to be able to develop a synthetic bacterium in a year and a half that could generate energy by means of photosynthesis. In other words: he was planning to develop a micro-organism that lives on sunlight and CO2, and that produces energy. As this presentation was some years old, the Honours Class seemed to me a perfect opportunity to find out about the present status.'

By and for researchers

‘The workshop was organised by researchers for researchers, so the level was rather advanced for all the students. For me, the only student without a physics background, it was almost impossible to understand the subject matter at the start, let alone reproduce it.  Fortunately, my fellow students and the researchers were always willing to explain difficult concepts, and Wikipedia was a great help in the evenings. And sure enough, by the end of the week I felt I could manage reasonably well.'  

Contact with researchers

Erica Wenker

Wenker: ‘It was a fun week with a variety of interesting lectures. There were experts in different fields, from industry and from research. There was also an international group with researchers from Germany, including East Germany, America, China and Japan. During the week enough time had been planned for contact with the different researchers. I was surprised that they, too, liked the fact that students took plart. Some of them were so enthusiastic that they helped us with writing the research proposal on the subject we had to submit a short while after the workshop.' 

Macro-organisms and molecules

Van Dobben de Bruijn: ‘Unusually for an Honours Class, after an introductory session, we were immersed for a whole week in the world of phototropic micro-organisms (and a few plants): how does photosynthesis work at molecular level, how can you create fuel using photosynthesis and how do you apply that knowledge in practice. A number of related fields were also discussed, such as photosynthesis through synthetic molecules and the reproduction of molecular structures in plants using an electron microscope.'   

Still a lot to be done

Wenker: ‘In this week I was really confronted with the facts. Of course, I knew that there are energy problems and that we have to work on them. But what shocked me was the amount of work that still has to be done. People are now looking for different alternatives for fossil fuels but a great deal of research is still needed. And, if something is found, it also has to be implemented with a minimum of difficulty. That's asking a lot. I used this week to find out more about the so-calledartificial leaf. This is a system that more or less imitates photosynthesis by organisms, but using chemical catalysers instead of micro-organisms. I find this a very interesting subject. Fortunately there was a speaker who knew a lot about it and who helped me.'  

So much more

Van Dobben de Bruijn: ‘It was very refreshing to see from the perspective of science how far knowledge about photosynthetic micro-organisms and the related area of application has progressed. For me, it was at first disappointing that the future that Craig Venter predicted is a long way off. Producing fuel from algae is still not cost-effective. Also, the position of biofuels is currently still vague because it is still not clear how the world with its fossil fuels, will be transformed when these fossil fuels are exhausted. But if you look further, it soon becomes clear that photosynthesis has so much more to offer than an alternative fuel. Photosynthesis could easily become the basic process of society.'

Important for society

Wenker: ‘All in all it was a busy and interesting week; I enjoyed lots of free lunches, coffee and biscuits, good company and interesting subjects. Participation certainly caused me to think about the direction I want to go in later; I want to do something that will make a positive contribution to the environment.' 

Van Dobben de Bruijn: ‘During this week I was able to experience what it is to consider with a small group of motivated students an issue that is of absolute importance for our society.'  

Photo: Part of the Baltic Sea between the islands of Gotland and Latvia. The blue-green of the water is caused by algae.  Extracting fuel from algae is still not yet cost-effective.

(21 April 2009)

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