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Dr. Jonathan Trent, Bioengineering Research Scientist, Ames Research Center

Dr. Trent: We’re not sure yet. As a society, we’re using a lot of liquid fuel and petroleum is still a cheap commodity, although that’s changing. If our enzyme scaffold system, which we call a rosettazyme, is going to help make enough biofuels to offset our use of petroleum, we have to be able to make a lot of it cheaply, and it’s going to have to work really well. We don’t yet know if we can make enough rosettazymes, or if we can make them cheap enough to be competitive; we’re still working on optimizing their activity. What I do know is that we have to do something and we have to do something soon to move our civilization away from petroleum or the consequences of using petroleum are going to move us away from civilization as we now know it.

NTB: In 2007 you submitted a winning proposal to Google for something called “Exploration Into Sustainable Energy for SPACE SHIP Earth.” Tell us a little bit about that project and what it involved.

Dr. Trent: Well, as I said, we had been working on building nanostructures that could contribute to biofuel production and this got me thinking about energy issues in general and where we are as a society and how our society fits into the global picture and how that picture might look in the not-too-distant future. When I found out that Google was offering research grants to scientists at NASA Ames, I submitted a proposal to investigate what NASA Ames could do as a Research Center and what NASA in general could do as an agency to address problems associated with sustainable energy and the environment. I called the proposal “Exploration into Sustainable Energy for SPACE SHIP Earth.”

In any case, I proposed putting on a seminar series to educate myself and the Ames community about what’s going on in the world with regard to energy and environmental issues and what NASA is doing in these areas. NASA is doing some great things already such as Earth observations from satellites, atmospheric modeling, and Jim Hansen’s work at Goddard, but there are many other things going on at NASA that are contributing to solving global problems. I wanted to look beyond the more obvious contributions in Earth Science to consider the potential contributions from areas like life support. How can what we’ve learned about life support for space be applied to problems on Earth? Such things as purifying water, recycling or reusing everything we take into space, sequestering CO2, dealing with all kinds of wastes and producing oxygen and food. How can NASA research into the concepts of useable living spaces or air-traffic management, which is big at Ames, be applied to optimizing ground transportation and saving fuel? Perhaps one of the most important things that NASA does is systems-level problem solving. This large-scale, exhaustive planning at the level of systems and systems of systems is what made the Apollo missions a success and I think it’s true that we are going to need an “Apollo mission for energy.”

NTB: In addition to your research work, you also head up the GREEN team at the Ames Research Center. Tell us about the GREEN team, what it does, and what you hope to accomplish with it.

Dr. Trent: When I started the Google-funded SPACE SHIP Earth project, I realized we needed a good acronym that reflected what we are doing. Well, we’re focusing on Global Research into Energy and the Environment at NASA, so our acronym is GREEN. The GREEN team is the core group at Ames that was working on the projects I already mentioned. What we hope to accomplish is to clarify the issues related to energy and the environment. What data do we need to address the problems? How confident are we in the models and what are the sources of error? As individual scientists and engineers and as research centers, what can we do in GREEN?

NTB: NASA probably has the biggest wealth of research and knowledge on the environment going back decades, so they should be leading the charge, shouldn’t they?