Can General Electric and Synthetic Biology De-Risk Nuclear Energy?

General Electric has tackled one sizable chunk of the risk associated with atomic energy. Can synthetic biology close the gap?

Jun 23, 2014 at 2:03PM

The average nuclear power plant generates 20 metric tons of nuclear waste every year, while America's entire nuclear fleet produces about 2,000 metric tons. That has added up to over 70,000 metric tons in the past 40 years. It's not a big volume, relatively speaking, but the problem is usually associated with the length of time it remains hazardous. The good news is that General Electric (NYSE:GE) and nuclear partner Hitachi have been working hard building the Generation IV PRISM reactor and Advanced Recycling Center , or ARC, which can consume up to 96% of spent nuclear waste and produce carbon-free energy.

Several other companies are tackling the problem with novel reactor designs, too, but cleaning up nuclear waste only reduces part of the risk associated with atomic energy. What happens if or when disaster strikes, as it did in Chernobyl and Fukushima? Erecting a quarantine zone is our current best solution, but Aaron Berliner thinks we can do better. An Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK) employee working on the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group by day and a hopeful entrepreneur by night (Autodesk has no affiliation with Berliner's start-up), Berliner wants to build a biological solution to nuclear contamination. Could it work?

Project Gamma Hungry
The idea behind Project Gamma Hungry is simple in theory -- perhaps too simple, according to some critics -- but has yet to be proven. That's why Berliner has a Kickstarter project hoping to raise $110,000 to find out. It's woefully short of its funding goal as of this writing, although Berliner told me he plans to test his hypothesis with or without the funds. Housing his company in Berkeley Biolabs, a hybrid start-up incubator and accelerator, will certainly help. How does it work and what does he need to do?


The project in three simplified steps. Source: Beyond Berlin.

Berliner aims to engineer the fungus Cladosporium sphaerospermum -- found living in the Chernobyl quarantine zone -- with genes from the bacterium Shewanella oneidensis -- which can add electrons to metal ions (chemical reduction) to stabilize them. The fungus has been reported to have the ability to convert radiation into cellular energy, which means it can survive the radiation encountered during a remediation project. Give it the genes to stabilize uranium and make it water soluble and, viola!, you could theoretically clean up (at least partially) water and soil contaminated with nuclear radiation at sites such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.

While Autodesk doesn't offer formal support for Project Gamma Hungry, it has given Berliner the freedom to pursue such a crazy idea. That's exactly what the incubator-like Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group is all about: pushing the envelope of what is possible, challenging accepted viewpoints, and pursuing ideas that seem crazy given the status quo. After all, Autodesk is working on a software platform that could allow anyone to design with biology, which could one day lead to hospital-grown livers or gold-recycling microbes. BioCAD, not AutoCAD, could turn out to be the company's best way to reward investors. 

Commercial implications
Will this project work? There isn't much data to support the hypothesis, but humans have learned an awful lot from scientific failures, too. It's important to note that biological remediation is far from science fiction. Scientists credited deep-sea, petroleum-munching microbes for mitigating the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Meanwhile, companies such as General Electric and DuPont (NYSE:DD) have funded and studied technologies (link opens PDF) for remediating solid and organic waste sites -- some of which they own.


In some instances, permeable reactive barriers are aided by biological tools (microbes). Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In other words, it's quite possible that even if Berliner fails this time around, one day we'll have a biological tool for cleaning up potential nuclear disasters. Such a tool could even be funded or acquired by General Electric, DuPont, or a government. There are obstacles, such as getting environmental release permits and figuring out how to pump the radioactive groundwater into a bioreactor in the first place, but biological remediation technologies offer many advantages over current solutions. Oftentimes, we don't even have a solution.

Foolish final thoughts
I'm not too confident that Project Gamma Hungry will raise the necessary Kickstarter funding by its deadline, nor am I too confident this idea will work on the first iteration, but I'm happy someone is trying to solve one of the tough problems our world faces. If we can successfully de-risk atomic energy by creating solutions for nuclear waste and nuclear contamination, then we could be one step closer to slowing the advance of climate change. The field of synthetic biology could even spur companies such as General Electric -- which will soon have a solution to nuclear waste from power plants -- and DuPont to further investigate biological remediation tools. Commercializing such tools could spawn an entirely new industry and help protect our planet. What's better than monetizing something that's unanimously accepted as a cost and "doing good" in the process?

Cleaning up nuclear waste could pay BIG dividends
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Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolioCAPS pageprevious writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for SynBioBeta to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry. Autodesk has sponsored SynBioBeta events in the past.

The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out Warren Buffett recently told a select number of investors about the cutting-edge technology that's keeping him awake at night.

This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

That's how Buffett responded when asked about this emerging market that is already expected to be worth more than $2 trillion in the U.S. alone. Google has already put some of its best engineers behind the technology powering this trend. 

The amazing thing is, while Buffett may be nervous, the rest of us can invest in this new industry BEFORE the old money realizes what hit them.

KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

Even one legendary MIT professor had to recant his position that the technology was "beyond the capability of computer science." (He recently confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he's now a believer and amazed "how quickly this technology caught on.")

Yet according to one J.D. Power and Associates survey, only 1 in 5 Americans are even interested in this technology, much less ready to invest in it. Needless to say, you haven't missed your window of opportunity. 

Think about how many amazing technologies you've watched soar to new heights while you kick yourself thinking, "I knew about that technology before everyone was talking about it, but I just sat on my hands." 

Don't let that happen again. This time, it should be your family telling you, "I can't believe you knew about and invested in that technology so early on."

That's why I hope you take just a few minutes to access the exclusive research our team of analysts has put together on this industry and the one stock positioned to capitalize on this major shift.

Click here to learn about this incredible technology before Buffett stops being scared and starts buying!

David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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