Competing for environmental sustainability in Boston

Competing for environmental sustainability in Boston

Twelve intrepid Biotech students from the Faculties of Science and Engineering are heading to Boston for a major international synthetic biology competition, as science student Ethan Wait explains.

Victoria University of Wellington’s iGEM team for 2019

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGem) is the world’s premier international synthetic biology competition. Teams from universities across the globe are tasked with using synthetic biology to solve problems in both the laboratory, and everyday life. Synthetic biology, at its most basic level, is the melding of biology with engineering (we’re all from the School of Biological Sciences or the School of Engineering and Computer Science). Our team, with students ranging from undergraduate level to PhD, will be attempting to solve the world’s energy and climate crises by building an Enzymatic Fuel Cell.

The project: Powering the future

An Enzymatic Fuel Cell is very similar to a battery, but instead of using increasingly rare metals, like Cobalt, to create electricity, we use proteins to prompt the breakdown of biofuel. These proteins are where the synthetic biology of our project comes in.

By adding additional DNA to bacteria, we can get the bacteria to behave like mini factories building the proteins we need for our project. From there, the proteins can be extracted and placed into the shell of a battery with some biofuel and eventually be used to power appliances.

Our biofuel of choice is glycerol, which was chosen by the iGEM team for two reasons – Firstly, it is packed full of energy and, secondly, it is a by-product of biodiesel production, making it available via more sustainable means than fossil fuels. 

New Zealand has always prided itself on being “Clean and Green”. This philosophy really shines in our energy sector, with 40 percent of our total energy consumption being sourced from renewable resources in 2015. In that same year, seven percent of our total energy consumption came from biofuels, but at iGEM we think it can be a lot more. Our Enzymatic Fuel Cell provides us with a chance to use industrial waste glycerol in a safe, efficient, and carbon neutral manner, powering New Zealand for years to come.

If humanity is to continue to thrive on this planet, we must learn to start working with nature, not against it, and biology holds the answers to how this can be achieved. Biofuels and Enzymatic Fuel Cells are only small steps to a civilisation that lives in harmony with its natural environment, but iGEM believes they’re important ones.

The iGEM Competition runs from 31 October – 4 November in Boston, Massachusetts:

https://igem.org/Main_Page

If you’re interested in this subject, you can read more online:

Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority: https://www.eeca.govt.nz/energy-use-in-new-zealand/renewable-energy-resources/

An interesting visual article on our raising energy demand and what exactly is causing it: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/explaining-surging-demand-lithium-ion-batteries/

Ethan Wait is doing a Bachelor of Science Degree majoring in Biotechnology and Chemistry.  

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