October 30, 2009
Q&A with Bruce Rittmann
Dr. Rittmann is Regents’ Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, affiliated faculty of the School of Sustainability, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. As director of the Center for Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute, he has pioneered research on microbiological systems that generate usable energy from waste products and remove pollution from contaminated ecosystems.
What event or recognition focused your work on sustainability?
In the mid-1990s, I realized that sustainability is not about “the environment” or “the Earth,” but about the ability of human civilization to survive. Earth will fare well, and so will cockroaches, but will human society continue to exist? Should it? Balancing our deplorable record of destruction with our great works of art, music, architecture, and engineering, I decided humanity is worth the effort, so I made sustainability an explicit part of my research.
What is the most important sustainability-related research project you are currently working on?
Our society’s addiction to fossil fuels is the root cause of most environmental problems. Intoxicated by hundreds of millions of years of stored-up energy to draw upon, we have built a society that depends on coal, petroleum, and natural gas for up to 86 percent of its energy. This cannot be sustained. Therefore, my most important project studies how to use photosynthetic bacteria to capture sunlight and CO2 and convert it into a form of renewable biofuel that can replace fossil fuel.
Why do you believe microbes are the key to sustainability solutions?
Bacteria can grow 100 times faster than plants and do not compete for arable land or consume and pollute our water resources. With a working large-scale microbe-based system, we could generate enough renewable energy to replace the world’s fossil-fuel use in a total area roughly equal to Texas. Microbes can provide other services as well. In our lab we are developing microbe-based systems that can purify contaminated water and increase our usable water supplies.
How do you think your sustainability-related research can affect policy decisions?
Once policymakers realize it is possible to replace fossil fuels without harming our food supply or water resources, we can focus on global cooperation instead of competition over fossil fuels. I expect some push-back from entities with vested interests in fossil fuels, but society has no choice but to move steadily over the next 20 or so years towards an energy supply that is predominantly clean and renewable.
What is the world sustainability challenge that concerns you most?
Global climate change is the most difficult technical challenge because fossil fuel use permeates every aspect of our society and we are way behind in finding solutions. What worries me most, though, is that war and terrorism may overrun civilization if we cannot find technological solutions fast enough.
October 30, 2009