By Wes Sims
NASA’s primary mission is the study and exploration of outer space. But the end of the space shuttle program and a series of budget cuts are shifting much of the agency’s focus to planet earth. In 2007, NASA Ames scientist Jonathan Trent laid the ground work for a 10-million dollar 2-year research project known as OMEGA.
“So, OMEGA stands for Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae, an outgrowth of a project I started called, Sustainable Energy for Planet Earth,” Trent says. ”Because a lot of the politicians of the time were saying, we need an Apollo mission for energy.”
Until the project ended in May, OMEGA was housed at the California Fish & Game office near Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz. The idea behind OMEGA is to grow micro-algae in treated waste-water that flows into the ocean bays of coastal cities as a way of creating new sources of bio-fuel.
“The reason algae are so interesting for bio-fuels,” Trent says, “and the reason I came up with the idea of growing micro algae is because, A: micro-algae are about a hundred times better than soy in producing bio-diesel, cause they make so much oil they store oil, and, B: most of the oil we currently harvest from the deep earth as fossil oil, came from micro-algae that lived millions of years ago.”
The motivation behind OMEGA is America’s voracious appetite for energy, in comparison with the rest of the world.
“Right now the United States represents less than 5% of the world’s population and uses over 25% of the world’s resources. India, which represents about 17% of the world’s population, uses less than 4% of the world’s resources,” Trent says. “If all the people in India lived like we do in the United States, they alone would use 95% of the world’s resources. If China, which is 19% of the world’s population, China and India lived like we do, it would take almost three planet earths to support that life style. ‘And China’s getting there.’ China and India both are looking in this direction and thinking, gee, we’d like to be able to have this kind of luxurious life style.”
So what’s next for OMEGA?
“It’s not clear to me, given all the budget cuts, whether NASA will continue to fund this. But it is clear to me that other places in the world are looking very seriously at picking up on the notion of doing an offshore system,” he says.
That’s why Jonathan Trent is speaking at TED conferences. Standing for technology, entertainment, and design, TED is a non-profit organization devoted to … quote …ideas worth spreading. A recent TED-Global appearance in Scotland, followed an earlier presentation at TEDx Santa Cruz, which Trent concluded by referencing the analogy of earth as a ship soaring through space.
“But I want to remember and remind you that we’re not passengers on spaceship earth. We’re the crew.”