Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

We the people vs. the richest man on earth

Bill Gates has announced that he will now back mini-nukes (in partnership with Toshiba) as his way to 'solve the energy crisis', tackle global warming and provide electricity to developing countries. He even made his way into the TED conference with these grandiose plans, and seems to have won over the crowd. The utopian rhetoric initially sounds wonderful, particularly coming from a man who has recently been dedicating his time and money to fighting malaria and earning a new reputation as a philanthropist. It almost certainly will captivate you if you haven't thought through the issue and asked yourself not only about the health and safety and security issues from uranium mine to reactor to reactor to reactor to eternally radioactive waste, but about the implications for truly renewable and safe energy systems.

As the TED conference is dedicated to promoting "ideas worth spreading" this proposal seems to be endorsed by some really cool people. It seems that the richest man on earth is going to get a lot of free advertising for his initiative to put billions of dollars into small scale nuclear reactors that can be deployed everywhere. The problem is that this is not an idea worth spreading. It is a nightmare.

You've played the game "Monopoly" since childhood, right? Getting to own Boardwalk and Park Place seems to be the most important thing in the world once you've amassed enough capital, doesn't it? It becomes an obsession. Do you think Bill Gates is now too philanthropic to want to own the real world equivalent?

Perhaps you don't remember "The United States v. Microsoft" wherein it was shown that Gates and co. violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act seeking a monopoly in operating systems and browsers. Judge Jackson ruled that Microsoft had indeed created a monopoly and that they had even taken actions to "crush threats to that monopoly". Now the leader of that monopoly effort wants to get into the energy business.

This is the same Bill Gates, African philanthropic activities notwithstanding, who tried to take over the computing world, and now he wants to purchase a controlling interest in the biggest operating system on the planet - the energy system that operates all of our machinery. You've heard Lord Acton's famous admonition "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"?

Ever see Bill Forsythe's 1983 film "Local Hero" with Burt Lancaster as the Texas Oil Tycoon, in which they say "oil isn't just any business, it's the ONLY business"? For a century the oil industry has monopolized energy and thus controlled almost everything else, since everything else depends on energy. But peak oil is here and the oil business is soon to be just one of many energy businesses because many many sources of energy are now economically competitive with oil. As Sheikh Yamani said to OPEC after the first "oil crisis", "The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones". He was warning the Arab Oil Producers that a time would come when oil was still available but couldn't compete economically with its renewable contenders.

That day is dawning now. Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Tidal, Wave Action and Biomass are now proving they can easily outdo oil, especially now that economists are forcing policy makers and business leaders to account for and put a price tag on what were previously ignored as mere "negative externalities" But the dawn of safe, clean, ubiquitous, affordable renewable energy may end before we know it.

Why? Because the richest man on earth is putting his money into a form of nuclear power that can be leased in small enough packages that it's price tag won't scare off utilities and governments hungry for a "quick fix" to matching supply to growing demand. With subsidy and support from the largest source of centralized capital on the planet, Gate's initiative could spell the end of truly decentralized energy production and make nuclear energy not just any business, but the only business.

This newest energy monopoly will dwarf any that came before because Gate's vision is to use the endless supplies of nuclear waste generated by "conventional nuclear power plants" as his primary fuel. And because Gates and Toshiba want to use so-called "depleted uranium" as an energy source, we will never see "peak nuke". We will never run out of these radioactive stones, because the power plants that use them actually breed them, and the radioactive stone age will never end because once hooked on this form of energy, which will have a huge infrastructure of security and control embedded in it and around it, the energy mafia that grows out of it will never willingly let go.

It is said, "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it". The history of the biggest industry on the planet is fraught with violence and attempts at world domination. If we allow centralized energy suppliers to corner the market on distribution of a faux "decentralized energy"solution your energy freedom will be as secure as your computing freedom in a world where the only supplier is Microsoft. A nuke in every small town and village running the fuel equivalent of Windows and Internet Explorer. No, you may not switch to biogas-fired Firefox equivalents, or Sun-based energy microsystems for your home!

But just as the United States v. Microsoft was able to dismantle the juggernaut's control of browsers and operating systems, we the people can stop Gates' and Toshiba's and big-business's control of the earth's energy OS.

Sun Microsystems, Apple, Netscape and other start-up companies produced superior products to everything Microsoft made and successfully captured significant market shares, knocking the giant off his throne. This time the stakes are much higher, but we can do it again. It is time for micro-systems of energy production, microsystems that use the sun, and apples and other fruit and vegetable and table scrap wastes, in a net-scape of crowd-sourced innovations to take the energy industry over and provide the world with so many clean, safe, healthy, convenient, low-cost, sexy alternatives that nobody wants to buy from the richest man on earth.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who gave a much better speech at TED, once classified energy into two types: "Hard Path Energy" -- oil, coal and nuclear, which were dangerous and in limited supply and could be centrally controlled, and "Soft Path Energy" which was safe, ubiquitous and decentralized by nature so that every town, city or country could control their own sources of it.

If we can get enough truly micro-soft-energy technologies in place before this awful micro-nuke nightmare gets put into place, then when Bill and his army of Microsoft hard path energy salesmen ask you to download their mini-nukes, you can just say no, and we can browse for our energy somewhere else.

Yes, we can.


What Solar CITIES is doing about all this:

We may be a poor mom & pop NGO and no match for the richest man on earth, but that doesn't stop us from continuing to do everything we can to improve the lives of the poor and protect our environment. Despite the odds being against us, our religious heritage tells us we must not give up.
Who knows, maybe the meek shall inherit the earth yet!

To counter the threat of micro-nuclear breeder reactors, which will have a disproportionately adverse affect on the poor, we are working hard on improving natural microbial breeder reactors -- i.e. biogas digestors. T.H. Culhane's latest design and our proudest innovation is using the concept of "fuel rods" that nuclear reactors use, and applying it to biogas systems. The concept is very simple -- in a nuclear reactor the rate of reaction is controlled by putting fuel rods into a liquid where they come into contact with neutrons. The more rods you put in, the greater the energy the reactor produces. In our mini-biogas digesters, we have created "bacterial fuel rods" using plastic bio-blocks in tubular nylon-mesh socks. Each bacterial "fuel rod" creates a substrate of maximum vertical surface area where the bacteria can form their methane producing bio-films. By having bacterial fuel rods in the tank we can now accomplish two things:
1) we dramatically increase the surface area of reaction so that it no longer is restricted to the sludge granules at the bottom of the tank. And by having fuel-rods that can be placed into the tank and removed from the tank we can control the rates of production in a controlled environment and determine the optimum feeding/bacterial-count ratios. We can also use the bacterial fuel rods to seed new reactors (making them true breeder reactors).
2) by having vertical bacterial fuel rods we can now populate our reactors with a mix of psychrophiles, mesophiles and thermophiles in the hope that the psychrophiles will adapt to the colder water at the bottom of the tank, the mesophiles will adapt to the medium temperature water in the middle of the tank and the psychrophiles will adapt to the hotter water above the thermocline at the top of the tank. This potentially enables "stereo breeding" of methanogenic bacteria (just as the Chinese do for fish) and could increase output and create a "reactor for all seasons".
We need more people to test these ideas, so if you are interested in building a Solar CITIES style microbe breeder reactor and help us all stay on a course toward true energy independence, just let us know and we'll hook you up with our initiative.

(Bio Blocks are just pieces of plastic designed so that bacteria can colonize them and form bio-films while permitting water and nutrients to flow through them. You find them at most aquarium shops as they are designed to help clean water in biofilters. Our innovation is to use them to produce higher quantities of biogas and give the different types of methanogens a place to live along the thermal stratification gradient of the tank.)

( Solar CITIES' "bacterial fuel rods": Bioblocks from the local pet shop (pond department) are placed in a nylon mesh sock. Each sock holds approximately 175 bioblocks (sale price per bioblock is 0.08 Euro). At the bottom of each sock are two stones for weight, and the top of the sock is open to let gas come out. At the top of the sock (which has handles) a piece of styrofoam with a hole in the middle is inserted. This enables the fuel rod to hang vertically in the reactor. Your pet/aquarium store will also sell you a packet or bottle of anaerobic bacteria starter but it is cheaper to get pond or lake mud and animal manure.)

(Solar CITIES co-founder Sybille Culhane loads the bacterial fuel-rods into our newest reactor before we finish insulating it with 30 millimeter styrofoam wrapped in pallette stretch plastic. We built our first telescoping biogas reactor on our porch exactly a year ago, at our "2009 biogas birthday bash bonanza party". Now, at the end of March 2010, since our mesophilic bacteria survived the freezing events over the long harsh winter, our birthday party this year is devoted to making a reactor that can support different types of bacteria and be kept at more reasonable temperatures in the winter ).

(Solar CITIES co-founder T.H. Culhane, a.k.a. "the innoventor" is delighted with his latest creation -- a "microbial fuel rod" for home scale biogas reactors that uses bio blocks in a nylon mesh sock with rocks for anchors and styrofoam for floats. With this innovation one can do controlled experiments on how much surface area increases gas production and how much feedstock one can put into a 1 cubic meter reactor for maximum yield. One simply has to put different numbers of fuel rods into the reactor and measure the output. Over the next couple of years we should see what the optimum number of fuel rods and the optimum feeding rate is. )

(Close up of a bioblock on top of the styrofoam float on the sock. Note the hole in the float to allow gas bubbles to escape)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Help Create the Solar CITIES Crowd Sourced Community Cloud Citizen Science Computing Network!

You've heard of cloud computing, right? The idea is to treat information as a public utility and spread capital costs among users so that one can "reduce costs significantly while increasing the speed of application development" (so sayeth Wikipedia, one of the most cumulonimbus of clouds!). You've probably also heard of Berkeley's SETI@home project, wherein you lend some of your computing power to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It is no secret that when we pool our resources we can develop economies of scale, and that science can proceed much more rapidly when we increase our sample sizes by sharing data openly and without restriction.

You've probably also heard of "Crowd Sourcing" wherein "the public may be invited to develop a new technology, carry out a design task (also known as community-based design[1] and distributed participatory design), refine or carry out the steps of an algorithm (see Human-based computation), or help capture, systematize or analyze large amounts of data." (thank you you wonderful innumerable contributors to Wikipedia!)

If you are really nerd-hip-cool, you probably already have participated in some "Citizen Science" Projects (Citizen Science is any "ongoing program of scientific work in which individual volunteers or networks of volunteers, many of whom may have no specific scientific training, perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement or computation." (Thanks Wiki!) With Citizen Science "professional researchers" (the ones with all the extensive training and responsibility who also get paychecks for their explorations) not only are able to engage the public but are able to achieve research objectives that were heretefore impossible without NASA size budgets and facilities.

You've probably heard of all this. You've probably seen it in action (that's why you come to blogs like this -- to find out if we've caught on yet!). Yeah, we wouldn't be blogging if we weren't hip to these concepts.

What we haven't often seen is effective poverty alleviation or sustainable development operating using the cloud model, the crowd model, the citizen science model. As Paul Polak et al. point out in "Design for the Other 90%" most of our most talented designers, inventors, innovators, artists, mathematicians, scientists, engineers and musicians (I could go on -- "our most talented janitors, mothers, businesspeople, teachers, security professionals" etc.) are caught up in thinking about the very few -- the elite, the upper middle class, the people who can pay. An awful lot of energy goes into creating ever more efficient and aesthetically pleasing gadgets, trinkets and toys. But when it comes to creating technologies for the rest of humanity that can help stop environmental and social decay the field gets very thin.

Too often we find ourselves "re-inventing the wheel", needlessly replicating experiments that have already failed, failing to replicate the ones that succeed and waiting for serendipity to put us in touch with like minded people who can share results and experiences that could potentially protect biodiversity, clean environments, end suffering and save lives.

Solar CITIES is dedicated to "Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Solutions", so our mission suggests a personal cloud computing model.

In many discussions in Cairo, Egypt, South Central Los Angeles and Seattle Washington, whilst building home-scale biogas reactors and solar hot water systems, Solar CITIES colleague Mike Rimoin and I amped up the volume of our enthusiasm through the sustained beat of "cloud computing as the best way to use Web 2.x to accelerate innovation and implementation of much needed home and community scale envirotechnology." In his mid-late 20s, as a business school grad, Mike well understands how cloud computing, crowd sourcing and citizen science are transforming the so-called 1st world. We want very much to bring these paradigm shifting tools and techniques to the art of sustainable development.

To that end we are inviting you to participate in the Solar CITIES Crowd Sourced Community Cloud Citizen Science Network (yes, YOU -- if you've read this far you are part of the team, someone who stands out of the maddening crowd because you are IN with the cloud source crowd).

What do you have to do?

For starters, because we are currently on a two-year National Geographic Innovations Challenge Project working to improve the efficiency of small-scale biodigestors around the world, you would build your own bio-reactor (believe us, it isn't hard). You would build one at any scale, feed it, and share your results with us.

We need data - lots and lots and lots of data. We need replicability. We need scalability -- we need to know how these things operate at the smallest and largest sizes and everything in-between. And we need lots and lots of trial and error with different parameters and different controls, under different temperatures and pressures and pH's, with different bacteria, different ecologies, different feedstocks. We need to see how these systems operate by the ocean, in the mountains, in the forests, on balconies, in backyards, in garages and basements, in the snow, in the desert...

Since nobody is going to fund such an ambitious project (because household and community scale do-it-yourself technologies that are affordable and adaptable to the conditions of the very very poor and use local recycled materials and social liquidity to operate rarely create profit) we need a virtual army of tinkerers sharing the results of worldwide bricolage.

To rephrase an old saying appropo to citizen science: We are not professionals. Please DO try this at home!

Cumulus 1:
Location: Essen, Germany, Solar CITIES home office
Experiment: Mini-digestors to test different substrates and feeding regimes

(Photo: Citizen Science in the Kitchen. Each of these 1.5 gallon containers is a mini-Solar CITIES biogas reactor, modeled after our signature HDPE systems. All have gravel on the bottom and are filled with water. The one on the right contains about 1/2 kg pond mud from the frozen duck pond that our son Kilian goes to with his grandfather on his daily walk. It was set up on March 5th. The middle container contains effluent from our in-active porch bioreactor, drawn on Friday March 9th, an icy day after a snowstorm, with the reactor having been left unfed for 4 months and having gone through freeze and thaw cycles. The left container contains the contents of two of our son's diapers, the first put in on March 5th. )

(Photo: All containers adjusted to room temperature (about 20 C). Within two days (by Monday March 8) the pond mud (PM container right), which was cored with a piece of 3" diameter plastic plumbing pipe driven about 7 inches into a frozen pond, was producing microbubbles. The diaper contents reactor (KD, container left), set up at the same time, did nothing). In the middle container, containing clear cold reactor effluent (EF) set up three days later, I placed a piece of netting above the gravel to increase surface area. Into each reactor I put about 25 ml vinegar, hoping not to raise the pH too much, because acetate is the primary food of methanogens. By Tuesday morning, March 9th, both PM and EF were producing a lot of microbubbles, particularly when tapped with a finger or shaken (the bubbles came out of the gravel). KD produced absolutely nothing. All containers were fed some blended oatmeal. By Thursday PM and EF contained more gas and KD had nothing. I then added another load of diaper waste to KD. On Friday March 12, after our visit to the Sondermann biogas farm, I returned home at about 2:30 and tested PM and EF -- both produced flammable gas which I used up in a quick pop. By the next day, Saturday March 13, at 12:30, PM had about 500 ml gas and EF about 250 ml. Both gave good flame tests with burns of about 2 to 3 seconds. KD still produced nothing. I added about 100 ml of sodium acetate (vinegar mixed with baking soda) to all. By Monday March 15 all bubbling ceased in EF and PM slowed down. Not sure if this was due to overfeeding, too much sodium or acidification. But KD began to show a frothy bubbly substance at the top for the first time. By Wednesday, March 17 (St. Patricks Day) I had purchased a thermometer and a pH meter. Teh day was sunny and the temp 25 C. Bubbles were appearing in PM and KD with no reaction in EF this time. pH was 7.09 for EF, 6.1 for PM, and 6.6 for KD. I fed PM and EF about 50 ml of fruit juice blend in the late afternoon. By Thursday, March 18, at 1 p.m. PM and EF were both producing bubbles again and KD was vigorously producing bubbles. On Friday March 19 I added blended food waste and water to all three which are all actively bubbling. Underfeeding of readily digestible food may have been cause of earlier shut down. Conclusions: It appears that the pond mud outproduces the other two systems by at least 2x at 20 C, and human fecal material seems to be a very slow starter material for methanogenesis, but it does work. Surprisingly, even after a hard winter, no feeding and complete settling, the mesophiles from our porch reactor's overflow pipe remain viable and start a new reactor faster than fresh humanure)

Cumulus 2:
Location: South Central Los Angeles, Alvaro Silva residence.
Experiment: A Backyard Solar CITIES 3 tank water displacement digestor started with 4 gallons of horse manure from the Glendale Equestrian Center.

Cumulus 3:
Location: Seattle, Washington, Mike Rimoin & Co. Residence
Experiment: A modified Solar CITIES digestor using HDPE reactor with solar heat exchanger as reactor and 55 gallon drum telescoping gas collectors. Starter material is elephant dung and manure from 27 other species of animal from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, courtesy of horticulturist David Selk and Dan Corum a.ka. "Dr. Doo"

Cumulus 4:
Location: 460 Lucas, Santa Rosa California, Frank DiMassa's property
Experiment: Solar CITIES water displacement system using float valve in sump. Starter material: Horse manure from Foothills Park composting bin.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Small-town nukes? Hey you guys, what's the big idea?

(Illustration from March 2010 issue, copyright National Geographic)

Micro-nukes? That's the big idea?

I'm afraid. Very afraid.

On my birthday, which is supposed to be the first day of spring, I opened the March issue of National Geographic, my favorite magazine, only to find a prescription for the darkest of winters -- the nuclear winter that will be the most severe winter of our discontent. But the tone of the article suggested everything was rosy in the bright big beautiful tomorrow of atomic energy.

The article is titled "The Big Idea - Small Town Nukes", authored by Chris Carroll, and its appearance in a magazine that has inspired and guided me since childhood frustrates and frightens me.

As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who was awarded for my own work in "Small Town Renewable Energy Solutions" (particularly in teaching communities how to build low cost but effective solar hot water systems, urban-waste-to-household-cooking-gas biofuel systems and how to install small scale photovoltaic and wind systems along with do-it-yourself greywater, roof-top gardening and recycling regimes) I'm worried that our beloved magazine has run an article on the most dangerous of energy alternatives that reads at times like a piece of 1950's nuclear industry propaganda.

To me this is perhaps the most frightening article the magazine has ever published, not just because of what it says, but because it seems in its tone to support the centralized energy lobby at a critical time in our earth's history when all the cards must be on the table. I love National Geographic. And I admire its family of scientists, explorers, writers, photographers, film-makers, editors, radio and television producers, marketers, merchandisers, publicists etc. more than any of the people I've encountered in any other enterprise on the globe. So I speak as someone afraid that other admirers of the magazine and society will think this article is an endorsement of the deployment of small nuclear reactors around the world. Read it yourself and let me know if I'm over-reacting. After three pages of glowing commentary (pun not intended) for what I consider the terrible idea of encouraging the widespread use of radioactive material in many "mini-nukes" to "solve our energy problems" the article seems to toss off the unresolved issue of highly radioactive waste in one glib sentence. It says nothing about how a massive deployment of "small town nukes" will affect proliferation or increase terrorist threats, to say nothing of the dangers of having radioactive material shipped to every Bedford Falls in the world.

It doesn't talk about the health of thorium and uranium miners and plutonium processing factory workers and their families (we saw the consequences and the horrible deformities of babies and children when we met with the doctors studying this in India). And it doesn't talk about how this initiative to "decentralize" nuclear energy through micro-nuke deployment, while keeping centralized control of the manufacture, sale, installation, servicing and fueling of the reactors, will affect the true decentralized distributed energy sector which is working with safe, clean, renewable energy sources that can never become a health or security threat.

It also doesn't talk about the impact that a new era's false promise of "electricity too cheap to meter" will have on the real green energy business. The "carbon free, relatively cheap" mantra that leads the article reinforces the climate change scare tactics the industry uses to get environmentally concerned citizens to approve these horrible devices. And I think it is a red herring. We already have plenty of net carbon zero technologies (if we are really concerned with global warming) that are safe and can be immediately deployed. Any stock broker can tell you that a diverse portfolio is safer than reliance on a single stock, and while the article gives a nod to the idea that small town nukes wouldn't be able to meet all energy demand (if only because the demand is said to be growing too fast, with the intimation that regulators move too slow, and even block innovation!) there is no discussion of what having deployable small reactors that can be profitable for a wealthy minority will do to the investment landscape for true small businesses and start-ups.

My fear is also that a green light for small scale nukes will kill off the true green competition, just as the subsidies for oil prices did in the 70's and 80's when oil embargo shock prices initially encouraged innovations in renewable energy. Naturally nobody in their right mind is going to let the private sector use the free market to create a competitive nuclear industry -- we are ready to go to war when countries like Iran start working on their own domestic nuclear power, to say nothing of letting every small town around the world make their own nukes. The reactors will, as usual, be manufactured in cooperation with governments (which is necessary for something so dangerous) by a limited number of large companies but, as Amory Lovins points out, will be subsidized by tax payer money so that they can out-compete other nascent idustries with large start-up and capital costs. And the downstream profits will go to just a few big business players with close ties to Eisenhowers' famous "military industrial complex" (and foreign equivalents). That's just one of the threats I perceive.

As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who is working on small town renewable energy issues I am deeply dismayed, disturbed and depressed. It isn't only that the push that the U.S. and France and others is making for this initiative is so frightening (we're supposed to be fighting nuclear proliferation at the same time?), but the fact that such an important magazine that stands as an authority on global issues is publishing such uncritical material on the subject. Please read it yourself and see if you agree. I think it sounds more like an advertisement than a report. As we used to say in Dobbs Ferry New York, to express shock and concern "hey, Nat Geo, what's the big idea?"

My cousin Charles, a former Navy man who worked on nuclear submarines, read the article and had similar misgivings. He commented,

"What the @%$! is wrong with them? Maybe a big influx of energy corp. dollars? This is awful -- and I speak as a former reactor operator."

This out of character National Geographic article deliberately compares the mini-nukes being proposed for the rest of us to the small reactors on nuclear subs, as if that somehow makes them okay. The public has this weird warped impression from what I think is a hijacked and backwards "small is beautiful" campaign that somehow our military's ship-based mini-nuclear reactors are safe, have never had accidents and don't create unmanageable toxic waste. But this is contradicted by the evidence (see this list of accidents with small reactors since the 1950s). Charles has told me over the years about the worrisome things he saw and learned when he was on a submarine working with the reactors and why it made him want to leave the armed forces.

If you read Hayden White's "Tropics of Discourse" and deconstruct the trope of this article it is clear that it contains linguistic subterfuges. The dangers of deploying "small town nukes" are glossed over with such finesse and utopian optimism you would think we were reading General Electric public relations pieces during the shrewd "atoms for peace" campaign. To say that civilian nuclear energy has no link to atomic proliferation is to ignore history. India fooled us all in 1974 by signing up for atoms for peace and turning around and making and detonating a nuclear bomb, spurring Pakistan to do the same. Today, the American and French mini-nuke agendas, which Japan, Korea and China are also interested in pursuing, is to lease these reactors to all the other countries (supposedly so they won't have to make their own radioactive fuel), come in, pop them in the ground, connect every town and village to them, and then come back 30 years later to refuel them. As if nothing changes in 30 years (no, the Berlin Wall didn't come down; no the Soviet Union didn't dissolve, placing a huge nuclear stockpile in the hands of unstable forces that has led to leaks of material to God knows where). As if giving everybody a small town nuclear reactor which contains material that will remain deadly and toxic for tens of thousands of years isn't a manifestly bad idea during an era of unpredictably large storms, threats of emerging diseases, orange and red terror alerts and huge social, political and environmental changes.

What I fear most, even IF we could solve the terrorist and environmental and health threats, and find a way to deal with the waste, is the idea of making towns and cities dependent on ubiquitously distributed radioactive energy sources that demand high security everywhere. Talk about setting up conditions for a climate of fear that will justify police-state fascism! If you read F.A. Hayek's 1944 classic "The Road to Serfdom" (which he wrote in exile from Nazi Germany) it doesn't take much of a cognitive leap to see how the "mini-nuke" path will lead us inexorably down that same road.

The thing is I normally really admire Chris Carrol's writing and articles. His article on "Hi-Tech Trash" and its impact on the health of African villagers who are on the receiving end of the environmental insult was a real eye-opening experience ( and he has always covered issues with fairness, compassion and a leaning toward sustainability and health. This is uncharacteristic of him and the magazine.

What can we do?

Well, you might write National Geographic and Mr. Carrol and ask why such an unbalanced report was published, and urge that when we are talking about dangerous energy sources a full and balanced discussion of the cons and pros is always available (we aren't talking about something benign like solar hot water here, which can harm nobody, after all, and articles always talk about the "threat" of "noise" and possible "bird mortality" when talking about wind farms, the deforestation and land use contradictions like "food vs. fuel" that affect biofuel production; you rarely read an article on solar energy that doesn't point out every little disadvantage, from economic competitiveness to competition for sunlight and space. I think we should be much much harder on alternatives that cause mutations, and deformities and cancer along their supply chain and that can lead to unconscionable catastrophic situations).

Another thing you can do is engage in public debate about the issue and inform yourself as much as possible about the risks and alternatives. And lets compare things fairly -- can we really say, as Carrol does at the end of the article, simply "With any of the new reactors, of course, there will still be radioactive waste to contend with" as if this is something trivial? If this is a fair way to address the concern, logically then, we should be saying about things like the continued burning of fossil fuels, and "clean coal" initiatives, "with any of these technologies, of course there will still be carbon dioxide to contend with".

And if we say that, then we should ask, "which is easier to contend with -- deadly radioactive waste that can fall into the hands of crazies and contaminate our air, food and water, or a substance like CO2 that we breathe out of our own lungs every day and that has been part of the planet's nutrient and sequestration cycles for billions of years?"

If dealing with nuclear waste, a waste that contains elements like plutonium that didn't even exist on this earth until recently, and which biological systems have no mechanism for coping with (to say nothing of human societies) is so trivial, then dealing with carbon dioxide should be regarded as even more trivial.

And if that is the case, then the whole case for having nuclear reactors and investing so much in their supposed role in bringing CO2 levels down, becomes a sham.

Or maybe Solar CITIES should stop trying to get funding for teaching community catalysts how to build solar power and biogas power systems on their roofs and backyards and should apply for grants to build home-scale nuclear reactors instead. Want to pitch in and help us do that? We promise to come and make one in your small town too!

(Above is the image from the March issue, copyright National Geographic 2010. Care to try this at home?)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Leading a bacterium to culture

(Graphic from

This past weekend we were once again honored to have a radio broadcast conversation with host Boyd Matson on National Geographic Weekend, this time about our work exploring how to harness Alaska's psychrophilic bacteria to produce biofuels around the world in areas where it is too cold for the typcial mesophiles that we get from animal manure (our last interview was about building solar hot water systems in Cairo with the Zabaleen and Darb Al Ahmar communities).

One of the excellent questions that Boyd asked at the end of the show spoke to a concern that many people have, and one that is impeding our ability here in Germany to replicate the experiments we are conducting at Cordova High School with the students of science instructor Adam Low: should we be concerned about bringing Alaskan bacteria (an "exotic species" -- actually a consortium of different species) to Europe and Africa?

Psychrophilic bacteria are found all over the world with the hardiest of the extremophiles, like the ones pictured above, found at the Poles. These are Antarctic bacteria featured on "The Worlds of David Darling". We use the ones from the Arctic circle. They can survive and metabolize at temperatures as low as -17 C because they have polyunsaturated fatty acids in their cell membranes, something very unusual for prokaryotic cells. For more information on the Nutrition and Growth of these Bacteria see Lessons In Microbiology by Kenneth Todar, Ph.D..

In fact the German High School that has supported our solar and biogas work in Cairo, a very forward thinking school that has its own renewable energy association, is now thinking of canceling the biogas program we were going to start there because they are afraid that the German health authorities will not give permission to work with "alien microbes".

So just how big a concern is this issue?

The standard answer I gave on-air to Boyd Matson and his listeners, and the one that Dr. Katey Walter, our colleague from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, repeats when she and her scientific team are shipping bacteria-laden lake mud to the Max Plank institute in Germany and elsewhere, is that during the millions and millions of years that these bacteria have been freezing and thawing in the lakes of the Artic Circle, migrating birds that play in the mud have been carrying them on their feet and feathers all over the globe as part of their normal migratory fly-way. Thus they would have been introduced to other lakes in the temperate and tropical zones repeatedly for millenia, but, because they are optimized to metabolize at low temperatures, any that might survive the journey would perish or be outcompeted by the other methanogens already present. As Zakhia et al. write in "Psychrophiles: From Biodiversity to Biotechnology" (Springer 2008, p. 130),

"A long standing theory of microbial distribution is that 'everything is everywhere, but the environment selects' and that local habitats select for specific microbial flora that is globally distributed (Baas Becking 1934)"

The question of endemism and distribution of bacteria is a topic of much debate (see "Poles apart: biodiversity and biogeography of sea ice bacteria by Staley, James T. in Annual Review of Microbiology v. 53 (1999)), but there is no question that psychrophilic methanogens occur all over the earth, varying in their cold tolerance by region according to the selection pressures they endured (much of the permafrost of the Arctic circle is about 3 million years old while the permanent Antarctic ice sheets originated some 15 million years ago; what we see in these regions today are presumably ordinary psychrophiles that adapted to the relatively recent temperature extremes). So it is extremely unlikely that one could "contaminate" other regions with bacteria that have recently evolved abilities to handle even colder weather.
Furthermore, because they are strict anaerobes and cannot tolerate any oxygen, exposure to air inevitably kills the methanogens we are harnessing. So unless they make to it an anoxic area of the right temperature, they perish.

Are they dangerous to humans or any other animal, or to plants? There is no evidence of any pathogenicity whatsoever, and as if to prove it, our entire team of explorers, scientists, teachers and students spent several weeks "playing in the mud" as we scooped buckets of the microbe carrying Alaskan lake mud into the 8 digestors that we built in the town of Cordova and drew off the bacteria saturated effluent for testing and starting new reactors. We got it on our hands and faces. We spilled it on our clothes. As one of the Alaskan officers of Fish and Wildlife said when I went to ask him about exporting the psychrophiles "it's lake mud. It contains lots of different organisms. We've never heard of any toxicity -- in fact the lake muds here in Alaska are getting famous and being sold as mud for expensive facial masks. I suppose it could be good for you!"

Bacteria good for you?

Well yes, of course! Despite a terrible smear campaign against the smallest of living things, most bacteria are good for you, and if not you directly then they are good for the planet itself. According to Scientific American's article "Stopping Infections: The Art of Bacterial Warfare",

Most bacteria are well-behaved companions. Indeed, if you are ever feeling lonely, remember that the trillions of microbes living in and on the average human body outnumber the human cells by a ratio of 10 to one. Of all the tens of thousands of known bacterial species, only about 100 are renegades that break the rules of peaceful coexistence and make us sick.
Methanogens and other members of the archaic Archaea, psychrophiles among them, are some of the most important and yet misunderstood beneficial microbes.

But should we be transporting them knowingly across state lines, across national boundaries?

What I should have answered Boyd on National Geographic radio for all the listeners, and what I'll be responding with from now on, was another question: "Should we worry about bringing sourdough starters or the starter cultures of yoghurt or the microbes that allow us to ferment cheese, beer and wine and sake and tempe and kafir and kombucha and komchi and sauerkraut and pickles etc. around the world?" Because that is basically what we are talking about -- harnessing the good bacteria from one place to do their good in another place.

If the bacterial and fungal cultures that have so improved nutrition around the world were considered invasive species and were prohibited from being spread beyond their centers of origin our civilization would be much much poorer .

Of course the beauty of most microbial species is that they are easily confined, particularly fermentative microbes, which cannot normally survive outside the narrow conditions they are used in; outside of their watery fermentation tank most dry up and die; exposed to the air, all the obligate anaerobes perish. Hardly the recipe for an invasion. The same cannot be said for arguably much more invasive species that we have not only allowed but encouraged to spread around the globe: weedy grasses like wheat (once confined to Eurasia), corn (once confined to the Americas), rice (once confined to Africa and Asia) and sugar cane (once confined to the Indian subcontinent), roots and tubers like potatoes (once confined to South American highlands) and fruits like tomatoes (once found only in the new world), domestic animals like cows and pigs and horses and goats and sheep (once confined to Eurasia) and chickens (once confined to Asia) to name just a few invasive species whose pandemic spread we not only take for granted but consider beneficial (for more on this topic see Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism 1600 to 1860 by Richard Grove, Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe 900 to 1900 and The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred Crosby; also A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations by Clive Ponting and The Botany of Desire: A Plants Eye View of the World and Second Nature: A Gardener's Education by Michael Pollan to name just a few!)

The idea of harnessing newly discovered bacteria to do good is hardly news. This entry from the book "Defining Moments in Science" (page 54) tells the story of the discovery of Lactobacillus bulgaricus in 1905:

Key Discovery
Friendly Bacteria (by David Hall)

"Yoghurt, in its original form, could only be produced in Bulgaria and some isolated surrounding areas. It was a mystery as to why and unlocking the mystery opened new avenues of microbiological research.
Born in Bulgaria in 1878, Stamen Grigorov was well placed to solve this mystery. At the age of just twenty-seven, whilst working in an institute of microbiology in Geneva, he made his most important discovery -- a certain strain of bacillus (rod-shaped) bacteria which we now know to be central to the production of natural yoghurt. It was a microbe which would only grow in the climatic conditions peculiar to the Balkan regions.
The bacterial strain, named Lactobacillus bulgaricus, produces the chemical acetaldehyde while it ferments, which helps to give yoghurt its characteristic smell. But it has a more important role than just supplying a pleasant niff. The bacterium feeds on the lactic acid found in milk. This not only helps to preserve the white stuff but also breaks down lactose into more simple sugars. People who suffer from lactose intolerance often find that such yoghurts can help their digestion.
Isolating the bacteria meant that, for the first time, yoghurt could be manufactured on a large scale, which was handy, since Grigorov had also found that yoghurt could help in the treatment of diseases such as tuberculosis, ulcers, and various gynaecological conditions. It was one of the first instances that scientists had realized bacteria has a beneficial role to play in maintaining health."
Why it's key: Bacteria aren't just dirty germs. And Yoghurt can be made all over the world.
Now scientists realize that methanogenic bacteria have beneficial roles to play in maintaining both community and planetary health, cleaning water, reducing pathogens in waste and turning those wastes into clean burning methane gas and into valuable fertilizers and value added products.

Somehow, though, when it comes to trying to set the planet aright, to free us from the damaging spread of the toxins and social instability that are the result of dependency on fossil fuels or the spread of cancer causing radioactive isotopes and the proliferation of nuclear weapons that result from dependency on atomic fuels, the old prejudices and xenophobic fears are raised -- shouldn't we worry about what might happen if we commingle with foreign microbes?

I would say rather, shouldn't we worry about what is going to happen if we don't start putting our planets microbes to work to solve our energy and food and water problems?

Anyway, we know what we are going to do here in Germany until we can convince the authorities to let us bring in Alaskan psychrophilic bacteria: We will simply go into the local German lakes and core out some mud and use German psychrophilic bacteria. Yes they exist -- they are everywhere, and they hurt no-one and they can be harnessed to make methane and other beneficial products. Why then, the need to bring bacteria down from the arctic circle? Only because they do all those good things about 4 times as efficiently as the local species and in temperature ranges far lower, the result of spending so many generations in the harshest conditions.

But as we learned from visiting Blue Marble Energy in Seattle (a cutting edge company working with anaerobic bacterial cultures), one can train bacterial populations and breed them using artificial selection techniques to increase their outputs and tolerances. Assumedly German psychrophiles and African psychrophiles (which must exist in the colder regions) can be selected to be ever more beneficial in the struggle to solve human induced problems. The question is, do we really need to go to all that effort when creatures that natural selection has honed to the task already exist and can be put into service immediately?

Well, you can lead a bacterium to culture, but it may be hard to get human beings to think. For now, here in Germany, we'll work with what the local environment provides until we see what the health ministry decides...

(For comprehensive information on the psychrophilic bacteria and their new applications in industry see Psychrophiles: from biodiversity to biotechnology edited by Von Rosa Margesin et al., Springer 2008.)