Potentiating Algae, Modernizing Bioeconomies: Algal Biofuels, Bioenergy Economies, and Built Ecologies in the United States and Turkey
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This dissertation is an ethnography of potentiation the labourious processes by which potential is imagined and materialized. It investigates how life scientists and engineers potentiate algae as alternative sustainable biofuels in the wake of the global food versus fuel debate of the late 2000s. I draw on two years of multi-sited ethnographic research conducted in the United States and Turkey to document why, how, and to what end do algal biofuel advocates figure algae as a material brimming with potential. I show that this potential is grounded in the reproductive capacities of algae as a life form, through its activation in environmental remediation projects, and through its compatibility with new biotechnologies and bioeconomic markets. At its heart, this dissertation troubles the notion of potentiality in two ways: it disrupts imaginaries of algaes potential as a natural, innate sustainable energy resource, while it simultaneously de-naturalizes ideas about the inherent potential of the United States as the hegemonic model of all bioeconomies. I begin with a historical overview of biofuels research in the United States and Turkey to demonstrate national differences in algal biofuel advocacy. While state and governmental initiatives profoundly shape algal biofuels research in the United States, the biofuels sector is actively sidelined by the Turkish state. As this dissertation demonstrates, Turkish scientists instead have sought to fill this science and energy policy vacuum by modeling algal biofuels inside their imaginaries of modernity. As such, this dissertation intends to provincialize American-centered accounts of bioeconomies. Further, it contributes to STS literature on bioeconomies by examining how biovalue is made within systems, as well as inside of the frameworks of systems biology and integrated systems of production. By drawing on fieldwork conducted inside laboratories, conferences, and critical textual analyses, I coin the analytic of built ecologies the infrastructures such as test tubes and photobioreactors to unpack how sustainable algal biofuels are made and remade inside of designed and engineered processes. Challenging these processes, this dissertation instead invites readers to explore alternate ways of engaging with algae and biofuels as a way to confront relentless reductions of life forms into energetic biomass.