Washing Machines Large and Small

Here is a picture of two different factories that do the same thing: turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia.

The one on the left is a gigantic Haber process plant. It requires fantastic amounts of heat and pressure to do its work. Plants like this consume 3-5% of the entire world’s natural gas output. The one on the right is an enzyme: nitrogenase. It can do its work in the roots of the clover growing in your front yard, all with very little risk of an explosive industrial accident.

This vignette shows one of the biggest lessons that biology has to teach us: how to do useful chemistry with much less effort. Which has all kinds of benefits, as you can imagine.

People hear the terms “biotech” and “synthetic biology” and it’s no surprise that the pharmaceutical industry is what springs to mind. After all, we live in the shadow of The Virus. I don’t want to diminish the miracles being worked by the mRNA hackers at Moderna and Pfizer, but I do want to point how much synthetic biology is already doing for us in non-medical settings. This article about Frances Arnold provides a couple of real world examples.

Here’s a laundry-related story.

Up to 80% of your washing machine’s energy use comes from heating the water. But cold water wash is the way to go these days, thanks to engineered enzymes. Your laundry detergent contains eight or more enzymes, all designed to do the work that hot water used to. So do yourself and the planet a favor: set your wash cycle to “cold” and let engineered enzymes save energy and expense with every load.

I like this example because it highlights the same big machine/small machine dichotomy I described above. You can do a lot of work at high heat with a big machine (the washer), or you can do much less work in cold water with many small machines (enzymatic molecules). It seems like a cute example, but it’s real and it matters. There are many more stories like it.

So set that cycle to cold! One day we’ll look back and laugh at how profligate we were with our energy. Or maybe we’ll cry. Or maybe we won’t be here because we played with fire for too long.

Oooh, that got dark. Let’s go with laugh.