We don’t seek out potentially disgusting topics, truly we don’t. But occasionally we stumble upon them quite by accident, and feel the need to share with our readers as a form of intellectual catharsis. You know, to expunge the trauma and promote psychological healing. Such is the case with today’s post. You can blame Spike TV if you’re offended. They’re the ones who followed their fantastic CSI marathon on Labor Day with back-to-back airings of a new reality series called Raising the Roofs. The online review at Pop Matters sums it up as "a kind of reality-TV version of Beverly Hillbillies, with bowel movements and body odor…. It plumbs the depths of fat-drunk-and-dumbness."
The Pop Matters reviewer is being far too forgiving — and I say this as one who enthusiastically watched several seasons of Survivor, at least until it went and got all racist to boost sagging ratings. Plus, I’m a huge fan of Celebrity Poker Showdown, and adored the first two seasons of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. In short, I am not automatically contemptuous of reality TV. Nonetheless, one must have standards of basic decency, and Raising the Roofs violates the bare minimum of those standards.
I did not, it must be admitted, watch more than five minutes of this miserable excuse for a series — and then only because I was feeling too lazy to change the channel right away, although that attitude quickly changed to a proactive scrambling for the remote: "Argh! Make it go away!" Even that short exposure so horrified Jen-Luc Piquant that she spent the next few days watching earnest documentaries and tasteful British mysteries on public television. It doesn’t take much to grasp the gist of the show, which prides itself on catering to the lowest common denominator. The premise couldn’t be more simple: Michael Roof Jr. is a young, reasonably successful actor in LA whose moronic, redneck relatives — his father Michael and Uncle Stevie, specifically — come to visit and proceed to wreak havoc wherever they go. They are crass, crude, and rude, prancing in front of the camera in their tattered underwear, blubbery beer bellies jiggling with abandon. Their idea of haute cuisine appears to be beer and the finer cuts of roadkill, and as for humor, well, they think it’s hilarious to let one rip in the other’s face.
So, why even bring up such a horrific example of the depths to which popular culture can sink? One word: methane. That’s right, the Roof family’s preoccupation with flatulence provides a handy segue into today’s topic of unusual renewable energy sources. Environmental engineers at the University of California, Davis, are building a full-scale anaerobic digester capable of converting any type of "solid organic waste" into electricity via methane, a byproduct of the conversion process. It’s a broad definition that includes leftovers from local restaurants and institutions — like the university itself, which no doubt has tons of uneaten scraps to feed into the digester from its on-campus eateries. In fact, leftover food accounts for some 18% of a landfill’s content, and one ton of leftover food can produce enough fuel to power 18 homes for an entire day.
Anaerobic digestion is a naturally occurring decomposition process involving the work of various types of bacteria that thrive in low-oxygen environments. (I believe such bacteria belong to a class of microbes known as extremophiles — microbes that thrive in extreme conditions such as extreme heat or cold, extreme pressures, even high concentrations of toxic chemicals in some cases.) Organic waste is collected and fed into air-tight containers filled with anaerobic bacteria. One type of bacteria releases enzymes that turn carbohydrates into simple sugars, amino acids and fatty acids. A second group of bacteria takes those component molecules and converts them into acetic acid — the primary component of vinegar — hydrogen gas, and carbon dioxide. These compounds in turn are converted into methane and (again) carbon dioxide. The bulk — 60-80% — becomes methane, which can be harnessed as fuel for an internal combustion engine, thereby providing electricity. Other uses for such digesters include waste and sewage treatment, heating, and increasing the level of nutrients in soil.
Granted, the connection with Raising the Roofs‘ flatulent fools is a bit tenuous, since anaerobic digestion is quite different from human digestion. The type of bacteria that produces the methane in the UC-Davis digester don’t thrive in the human digestive tract. But Ruihong Zhang, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC-Davis, does admit that certain foods produce more methane than others, i.e., meat produces more than potatoes. Not exactly the squeamish type, Zhang is also testing the renewable energy potential of livestock manure and the creeping wild rye that pervades California’s San Joaquin Valley.
The UC-Davis digester program is part of the $100,000 Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) pilot project. SMUD’s goal is to obtain as much as 20% of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biodegradable matter (a.k.a., "biomass") by 2011. That’s double its current percentage (10%), and biomass accounts for a mere 2.5% of that 10%. An even bigger digester system will soon be operational in San Francisco, and a fruit cooperative in Fresno called Valley Fig Growers recently installed a digester to degrade sugars in wastewater. The Fresno digester can handle 1.8 million gallons of sugary water without sending it to the city’s sewage treatment plant, thereby cutting the cooperative’s sewage bill by as much as three-quarters. And that’s not counting a little extra electricity that can be used in-house.
California’s efforts at fostering renewable energy sources reflect current national trends. According to the US Department of Energy, as of 2003, biomass was the leading source of renewable energy in this country for four years running, providing 47% of all renewable energy, or 4% of the total energy produced in the US. Not all of this comes from anaerobic digesters, of course, but it’s all part and parcel of a growing interest in recycling waste products into something more useful, i.e., fuel. And not just methane: hydrogen is also a fuel of interest, as is biologically derived ethanol. In 2005, more than 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol was made from cornstarch and used as automotive fuel.
But the process of ethanol conversion is pricey because the chemical makeup of most biomass materials doesn’t allow for optimal efficiency in the conversion process — more often than not, there’s a high percentage of worthless acetic and lactic acids that result. Lonnie Ingram, a professor of microbiology at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has developed a new process for producing fuel-grade ethanol from farm wastes using genetically engineered E. coli bacteria, the reigning workhorse of metabolic conversion technologies. (Unlike the bacteria used to make methane at UC-Davis, E. coli bacteria do thrive in the human gut; they are also used to make insulin.) Basically he cloned the unique genes needed to digest sugars into ethanol, and inserted them into a variety of other bacteria to increase their conversion efficiency to 90-95%.
Ingram’s technology can produce ethanol for about $1.30 per gallon, thereby stretching the nation’s fuel supply while producing gasoline that burns more cleanly, thanks to the high ethanol content. He says his genetically engineered E coli can convert all sugar types found in plant cell walls into fuel ethanol: sugarcane residue, rice hulls, forestry and wood wastes, for example, in addition to corn stems, cobs and leaves. A 30 million gallon plant is now being built in Jennings, Louisiana, based on Ingram’s process for converting biomass to ethanol, and should become operational by the end of the year, drawing on the region’s ample supply of sugarcane waste as its primary feedstock.
Kudos to Zhang, Ingram, and other scientists working on similar projects for contributing something truly useful to benefit the environment. We’re all for converting waste products into energy that can be harnessed to perform useful functions, thereby benefiting our society. Now if we can only find a way to convert the trashy shows on TV into a viable form of energy, we’d have an endless source of fuel for countless generations to come.