Sustainable MBA?

July 25, 2008

Recently, I came across a BNet article about obtaining an MBA under the filter of sustainable business practices.  Why does KGI not have any of these types of courses? 

The self-proclaimed leader in sustainable business education is Bainbridge Graduate Institute: . In looking over their program, I was intrigued.  They also offer certificates programs for those of you who are short on time, as we all are…

How does everyone feel about this?  Of course, it cannot be bad thing as long as the curriculum reinforces the reasoning behind sustainable business to an extent that exceeds sustainabilty as a “business driver.”  It seems like this is the case with their “social justice” and “environmental responsibility” themes thorughout their courses.  I like it!

A side effect of the rising crude prices is a drastic increase in naval shipping cost. As a result, the massive amount of stuff that we ship in daily from China to Wal-Marts around the country will become more expensive (Financial Times Article). This reduction in the efficiency of transport creates yet another way in which oil prices are systemically affecting the economy.

So I was thinking about this issue and how biofuels could be applied, and realized that the shipping industry would be a perfect early adopter of biodiesel. I am basing this assessment on two basic facts:
1. All shipping vessels are powered by diesel engines
2. The fuel is all stored in centralized locations (sea ports)

As a result, the naval shipping industry has none of the adoption hurtles for biodiesel found in the auto fuel market. The shipping companies would be greatly incentivized to begin purchasing a fraction of their fuel from a more stable source.

The real question is: what is the current price point for biodiesel production? And could a venture reduce costs to a point where it beats traditional diesel?

As for the technical implementation, I found a great presentation by Richard Sadler of Llyod’s Register Group concerning biofuels and shipping. Slides 25 and 26 have a list of technical challenges and a diagram of a fuel layout system; although, the whole thing has some great data.

Beyond the use of biofuels, there are also various wind power strategies. A minor drawback to the wind assisted ships is their confinement to wind friendly shipping routes.

One forward looking group from Japan produced a concept ship that utilizes biofuel, wind AND solar. I would have to call it the Trifecta.


Biofools is a term currently being used in public discourse to describe leaders supporting contemporary biofuel technology.  Agrofuels (first generation agriculture-driven biofuels) have this spurred environmental and social backlash.  Destruction of natural resources and famine has been realized by the hand of agrofuels.  Becoming privy to the work being done by Almuth Ernsting has given me new thoughts about which technologies we choose to fund and implement with respect to agrofuels.  Additional considerations regarding environmental and social issues beyond energy production must be viewed with a more focused lens before technological implementation.


The Gallagher Report released by the Renewable Fuels Agency last week has called for employment of the European “precautionary principle” with respect to agrofuels in England.  In short, Gordon Brown is expected to bring about a slowdown of first generation biofuels to determine sustainability.  Some fuels derived from sugar cane and animal fat are considered “sustainable,” but what does this mean exactly, and to whom?  Moratoriums on certain crops are not out of the question, however, and there will be an upcoming clash with the US.


Ernsting believes that this slowdown is not sufficient, and that a total moratorium on biomass-derived liquid fuels should be enacted. He states:


“…biofuels from agricultural and forest residues that should be returned to the natural cycle because they play an important role in maintaining soil fertility and bio-diversity. Biofuels from true waste, such as biogas from manure or landfill, or waste vegetable oil, are not agrofuels.  Biofuels from algae are not agrofuels either.”


Many definitions of sustainability revolve around energy production efficiency and exchange, but other concerns are often not considered.  One outstanding issue is the future use of GM plants and microbes to produce biofuels and the potential ecological impact.


Past science and society courses have told me that there is a lack of forethought with respect to biotechnology (we can do this, but should we really?) which leads to ethical dilemma.  Is a moratorium too extreme an action at this point, or just what we need?  Ethics tells us that the deontological argument is to respect our duty to planet earth and humanity to prevent deforestation and hunger.  However, ideological contrary to this is our perogative to preserve the order of the contemporary earth, which requires energy.  Teleology complicates these sentiments by guiding us to think that the lives of millions in starvation cannot outweigh our need for liquid gold.  However, if oil reserves are completely drained without the necessary preparation, how many more will die?


This being the case, second and third generation biofuels will have bigger shoes to fill regarding public sentiment, research, and investment.  Hopefully, slowing down production of first gen biofuels may divert more grants and investors their way.  Cellulosic ethanol production is ramping up, and demonstration plants are being built by companies such as Mascoma.  Some capital investments are aimed at procuring fuel technology without forethought to environmental and social impact.  The fuels investors of the future must take this in mind because sustainability is a multifaceted problem in which energy in and out is not the only determinant of success.


To view the entire Gallagher Report, click here




Picture Source:


One of the major drawbacks of the open air pond system for industrial scale algae growth is the engineered strain’s inability to compete with wild types. This is because the lab trained algae spend all its energy resources producing oil instead of growing as fast as possible. So what is needed is a strain that can grow fast enough to push out the native strains and still produce the desired oil.

One possible way of achieving this is to rearrange one’s thinking about algae production. Instead of viewing the algae as biomass to be harvested, one could see them as solar powered bioreactors. What I mean by this is: have the oil production as an inducible trait and view the oil production as a byproduct of an algae bioreactor. This will allow the oil production to only occur when the engineered strain is at critical mass, and after it has grown fast enough to out-compete the wild type.

Of course this idea has a few technical hurdles (such as the oil produced would need a mechanism to be excreted into the media). But I see this post as more of a brainstorming exercise rather than trying to actively generate a solution. I would be interested in what the sustainable biotech community thinks.