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Planetary Scientist and Astrobiologist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology


The Gibbs Landscape

Biology is rarely wasteful. Sure, on the individual organism level there is plenty of waste involved with reproduction and other activities (think of all the fruit on a tree or the millions of sperm that loose out in the race to the egg). But on the ecosystem level one bug's trash is another bug's treasure — provided that some useful energy can still be extracted by reacting that trash with something else in the environment. The food chain is not a simple linear staircase of predator-prey relationships; it is a complex fabric of organisms large, small, and microscopic interacting with each other and with the environment to tap every possible energetic niche.

Geobiologists and astrobiologists can measure and map this energy —  referred to as the Gibbs free energy. Doing so is useful for assessing the energetic limits of life on Earth and for assessing potentially habitable regions on other worlds. In an ecosystem Gibbs free energy —  named for it's discoverer, the late 19th century scientist J. Willard Gibbs —  is the energy in a biochemical reaction that is available to do work. It's the energy left over after producing some requisite waste heat and a dollop or two of entropy. This energy to do work is harnessed by biological systems for activities like making repairs, growing, and reproducing. For a given metabolic pathway used by life, e.g. reacting carbohydrates with oxygen, we can measure how many Joules are available to do work per mole of reactants. Humans and essentially all the animals you know and love typically harness a couple thousand kiloJoules per mole by burning food with oxygen. Microbes have figured out all sorts of ways to harness the Gibbs free energy by combining various gases, liquids, and rocks. Measurements by Tori Hoehler and colleagues at NASA Ames Research Center on methane-generating and sulfate-eating microbes indicate that the limit for life may be about 10 kiloJoules per mole. Within a given environment there may be many chemical pathways in operation and if there is an open energetic niche, chances are life will find a way to fill it. Biological ecosystems can be mapped as a landscape of reactions and pathways for harnessing energy; this is the Gibbs landscape.

Civilizations and the rise of industrial and technological ecosystems bring a new challenge to our understanding of the dynamic between energy needs and energy resources. The Gibbs landscape provides a short-hand abstraction for conceptualizing this dynamic. We can imagine any given city, country, or continent overlain with a map of energy available to do work. This includes, but extends beyond the chemical energy framework used in the context of biological ecosystems. For instance, automobiles with internal combustion engines metabolize gasoline with air. Buildings eat the electricity supplied by power plants or rooftop solar panels. Every component in modern industrial society occupies some niche in the landscape.

But importantly, many of the Gibbs landscapes in place today are ripe with unoccupied niches. The systems we have designed and built are inefficient and incomplete in the utilization of energy to do the work of civilization's ecosystems. Much of what we have designed excels at producing waste heat with little concern for optimizing work output. From lights that remain on all night to landfills that contain discarded resources, the Gibbs landscapes of today offer much room for technological innovation and evolution. The Gibbs landscape also provides a way for visualizing untapped capacity to do work — wind, solar, hydroelectric, tides and geothermal, these are just a few of the layers. Taken together, all of these layers show us where and how we can work to close the loops and connect the dangling threads of our nascent technological civilization.

When you start to view the world around you with Gibbsian eyes you see the untapped potential in so many of our modern technological and industrial ecosystems. It's disturbing at first because we've done such a poor job, but the marriage between civilization and technology is young. The landscape provides much reason for hope as we continue to innovate and strive to reach the balance and continuity that has served complex biological ecosystems so well for billions of years on Earth.