Bioenergetic Transformations

This page provides a short summary of a very large subject, specifically to identify an origin for the energy that activates the proposed Labour Theory of Value Creation.  A more comprehensive background can be sought by researching the subject of Energetics and Bioenergetics.  Additionally, such energy flows through ecosystems are covered in the impressive and far reaching works of Howard T. Odum.

Most of the energy that drives activity on Earth in one way or another has its source on the Sun and this solar energy enters the biosphere through the process of photosynthesis[1].  The chlorophyll in vegetation converts solar energy into chemical energy in carbohydrates.  Within each leaf, solar energy breaks off hydrogen, the H from the H2O of water, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.  Then the free hydrogen is added to carbon of carbon dioxide CO2, cleaning the atmosphere of this gas, and then flows on through a sequence “reduction” chemical reactions to create sugars and starch carbohydrates that essentially store solar energy in a form of chemical energy.

Once captured by photosynthesis the chemical energy can be used to enable plants to grow and reproduce and in doing so pass their constituent energy into the food chain.  Herbivores consume large quantities of grass from which they can extract the energy and concentrate this conveniently in their energy packed tissues for carnivores to consume.  Whether through the consumption of meat or vegetables, there is a complex series of biochemical reactions that convert the consumed carbohydrates, eventually, to ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is a universal carrier of energy for living systems.  ATP percolates throughout the body of all animals, carried by the bloodstream and into every cell where oxidation reactions release the stored chemical energy and enable that cell to perform its natural biological functions.  In this way muscles can contract to launch a ball.  Miniscule pumps consume energy to transport ions through cell membranes making nerve cells transmit sensory signals.  Energy is also consumed in growth, repair, heating, movement, feeling and thought.  It is energy that is expended through the act of living[2].

The solar energy that is the source of the bioenergetics that power life has also been captured and concentrated over millennia into the fossil fuels.  Through the machines originating in the industrial revolution, human beings have learned to release this stored energy in coal, oil and gas to augment massively the modest biological power outputs and increase the productivity of whatever those beings are engaged.

The activities of the human species that are powered through the conversion of chemical energy of food into the mechanical contraction of muscles and the cerebral constructions of thought provide the energetic origins of human labour.  This labour power is augmented by machines and external energy is deployed to increase the value of commodities by means of innovation, production and distribution.  This energy is deployed in the factories and the supply chains that produce the goods.  It can be observed through the transport infrastructures of roads, rail and shipping lanes of distribution networks.  It is applied in retail outlets from which potential purchasers are able to appreciate the value of the goods and decide on their purchase, and also in the advertising channels in the various media that bring the same perception of value to those same customers to enable them to consider the same economic decisions.

An economic society is fundamentally based on energy flows that add value to the commodities and services that are traded.   The energy transformations within such a society are charted in the figure below.

 Bioeconomic Energy Transfers

Conduits for energy flows through an economic society

We now need to consider the nature of the energy flows that take place within a commercial enterprise.  That is, we need to discover the form of energy that is flowing through the economic conduits.

In an economic processes charted in figure above, labour adds-value to the raw materials and the goods products thereby acquire a utility or use-value that makes them attractive to consumers, whilst that value is forever changing, buffeted by events and influences often beyond direct control of the producer.  It could be likened to the motion of a tiny smoke particle subject to the random collisions of “Brownian motion”.  However, the producers’ purposeful activity is to propel their products on an upwards trajectory in an economic potential field through the creation of value through innovation and the replication of that value by production.

We have illustrated this concept of value by means of a Value Surface that is elevated through the endeavours of labour augmented by capital equipment and external energies that are ever increasingly deployed to make that labour more productive.



[1] Nuclear power and wind energy are two notable exceptions to this rule

[2] An excellent short exposition of the basic biological concepts can be found in New Scientist, Inside Science Supplement: Fuelled for Life  New Scientist 13th January 1996.  A more rigorous treatment of this field is given in:  Bioenergetics of Photosynthesis, Govindjee, Academic Press 1975.


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