Food From Fuel

Crazy idea:

What if we used hydrocarbon fuels to produce food?

How could this possibly make sense? The insight comes from noticing two things. First, the molecules which compose food items are quite similar to the molecules which compose crude oil. Second, finding new uses for oil can decrease the use of oil for energy (which would help reduce carbon emissions).

For example, here is what medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s) look like:

MCT’s are a component of many foods such as coconut oil.

And this is octane, which is a key component of the “octane rating” for gasoline:

Skeletal formula of octane

Notice that the blue chains have the same number of carbons as octane.

What we need to do to convert octane in to MCT’s? My synthetic chemistry is a bit rusty, but it seems like converting octane into octanol, converting to an aldehyde, and then doing a condensation reaction with glycerol would do the trick.

If we could run these reactions efficiently, we could produce cheap calories from hydrocarbons such as coal and oil, thus preventing these resources from producing pollution and reducing food prices, without using much additional land, energy, or water to produce calories.

There are several caveats:

First, food is already pretty cheap, and the world is not terribly food-limited, so this process would be better as a short term solution to emergency situations where the population is at risk of starvation.

Second, the easiest food to produce with hydrocarbon fuels would be the MCT’s discussed before. Producing other macro-nutrients such as proteins or carbohydrates would be much harder. Though it is possible that we could feed these MCT’s to microorganisms which could produce carbohydrate and protein for us.

Third, this approach does not prevent carbon from eventually entering the atmosphere, since the consumed calories will eventually be exhaled as carbon dioxide. But it does reduce other aspects of pollution and slows the rate of output of carbon.

Given these considerations, this food-to-fuel pipeline seems ideal as an emergency measure used to feed a population facing temporary food shortages. For example, a country might face a sharp drop in agricultural productivity due to a nuclear attack or a crop infection. In this situation, an unprepared country would face mass starvation because it’s agriculture temporarily cannot meet the needs of its population.

To prepare for a disaster like this, governments could increase their hydrocarbon stockpiles and develop an industrial process for producing food-from-fuel. This stockpiling strategy also increases the price of fuels, thus decreasing pollution while providing insurance against famine.

I am skeptical of certain components of this plan, but it seems worthwhile to consider as part of a broader effort to develop robust, global food security.

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