Time flies when you're having fun, per that hoary old chestnut of an adage, but there's a lesser known corollary: time passes even more quickly when you're juggling multiple deadlines with conferences and book promotion, not to mention much-needed home repairs. Fortunately, we're still managing to have some fun amidst the mayhem (and time is therefore passing at near record-breaking rates — I meant to post this last week). At the AAAS meeting in San Francisco, I got to hang out with Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science and her husband over some tasty Thai food. I also ran into Kristin A. of Radioactive Banana and frequent commenters Alison Chaiken and Louise Riofrio, a.k.a., A Babe in the Universe.
Perhaps because I didn't attend any of the climate change sessions, I kept missing Chris Mooney — author of The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Storm World — in 'Frisco. No worries, I caught up with him a few days later: we were both featured guests for a Bookslut-sponsored reading in Chicago, with Deborah Blum, author of Ghost Hunters, rounding out the evening. To the casual observer, it might appear that I am stalking Chris across the country, but really, we live barely a mile apart. It'd be so much easier to stalk him in DC. (Jen-Luc Piquant points out that he did make Wired's "Sexiest Geeks" Top Ten List in 2005, along with our lovely Bookslut hostess, Jessa Crispin. And wasn't there an online debate just last year as to whether he was "sponge-worthy"?)
Chris' manly image suffered a serious blow, however, when he bellied up to the bar after the reading. The event was held at The Hopleaf Bar, touted as one of the best beer bars in the country, with a "beer menu" that runs many pages and features fine fermentables from all over the world. So the bartender might be forgiven for showing some urban-hipster attitude when Chris asked for… a Miller Lite. "We don't have Miller Lite," the bartender sneered. Chris took the disdain in stride and asked for whatever beer was closest to it. "We don't serve lite beers at all," the barkeep huffed. We have no idea what kind of brew Chris ended up with, but he's lucky the barkeep didn't spit into his mug, so deeply ran his contempt.
Beer aficionados will no doubt blanch at the sentiment, but at the most basic level, beer is beer, whether it's Chris' beloved Miller Lite, a pint of Guinness, or a frothy concoction from your favorite local microbrewery. (Hey! Stop menacing me with that barrel of hops and hear me out!) Sure, there are umpteen varieties and a myriad of subtle differences in color, flavor, foaming properties and the like. But the actual brewing process has remained fundamentally unchanged for thousands of years. Not only did the ancient Egyptians brew beer 5000 years ago — which meshed nicely with their bread-making activities, since both processes are yeast-reliant — but there's some evidence that the Mesopotamians may have brewed beer 1000 years earlier than the Egyptians.
It's all about the fermentation, according to this handy little article in "What's That Stuff?", a regular online feature of Chemical and Engineering News. (For insights into the foamy properties of beer, check out Sid Perkowitz's Universal Foam, which has an entire chapter devoted to foamy food and drink; beer is prominently featured.) You start with malted cereal (in which the starch and proteins in grain cells have been broken down into simpler compounds). The malt is milled and mashed down at Yon Local Brewery to produce maltose and other fermentable sugars. The whole mess is soaked in hot water, and then the liquid portion — the wort — is separated from the grains. The addition of hops lends bitterness (apparently this is a good thing) and aroma, and the concoction is boiled for sterilization purposes.
This is where the yeast comes in. Yeast isn't just a random bread-baking ingredient; it's a living organism. In order to grow and multiply, the yeast cells must feed on the sugars and amino acids contained in the wort, before excreting waste products like ethanol and carbon dioxide. Ewww. Yeast excrement: it's in your beer. Or it would be, except most commercial beers — like, say, Miller Lite — undergo a filtration process to remove "impurities." Traditional British ales aren't filtered at all, so the insoluble proteins, yeast and other "suspended matter" are still there. (Jen-Luc has always found British beers to be a bit "chewy.") Perhaps that's why the Hopleaf bartender sneered: real men like their yeast excrement/brewing byproducts intact.
The final step is carbonation, which produces all those pleasing beery bubbles. Like fermentation, carbonation is a natural process: at high pressures underground, spring water can absorb carbon dioxide and become "effervescent." "Seltzer" originally referred to the mineral water naturally produced in springs near a German town called Niederseltsers, although today, it's pretty much just filtered tap water that's been artificially carbonated. We owe the artificial carbonation process to Joseph Priestley, a British scientist best known for discovering oxygen, along with eight other gases, including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). ("Oxygen is so important," observes Jen-Luc, a veritable mistress of ironic understatement.)
In 1767, Priestley was living next to a brewery in Leeds and started experimenting with the brewery gas using candles and burning pieces of wood. In one such experiment, he placed a bowl of water above the surface of a liquor in the process of fermenting, and found it quickly took on a sweetly acidic taste akin to the famed mineral water of Niederseltsers. The end result was the 1772 publication of Impregnating Water with Fixed Air, which included very simple instructions:
"If water be only in contact with fixed air, it will begin to imbibe it, but the mixture is greatly accelerated by agitation, which is continually bringing fresh particles of air and water into contact. All that is necessary, therefore, to make this process expeditious and effectual, is first to procure a sufficient quantity of this fixed air, and then to contrive a method by which the air and water may be strongly agitated in the same vessel, without any danger of admitting the common air to them; and this is easily done by first filling any vessel with water, and introducing the fixed air to it, while it stands inverted in another vessel of water."
This is the epitome of clear, concise communication in science, and Priestley was writing in 1772! His carbonation process was further refined, and bottled "seltzer water" officially hit the commercial market in 1807, thanks to a Yale University chemistry professor named Benjamin Silliman ("Silly Man"?). The first soda fountain appeared in Philadelphia in 1838, featuring sweetened and flavored carbonated drinks, and by 1891 there were more soda fountains in New York City than bars. Just a few years earlier, in 1886, Atlanta druggist John S. Pemberton sought a remedy for headaches and hangovers, and devised the bright idea of adding kola nut extract to coca extract. The result: Coca-Cola. A century later, the diet version of Pemberton's concoction would get me through many a college all-nighter. The man was a bona fide genius.
Back to this whole fermentation thing, specifically, the bacteria responsible for the breaking-down-into-byproducts process: yeast isn't the only species of bacteria that can do this. There's 400-500 different species and subspecies of micro-organisms in the guts of termites alone. The insects chow down on wood cellulose and convert it into energy. That's why physicist/Nobel Laureate Steven Chu of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has been widely quoted as saying that termites could save the world from oil dependence. He was kind of misquoted, or rather, the nuances of his points were lost in the translation to the mass media marketplace. Hey, it happens. But there's some factual basis for the claim.
Chu is one of several scientists pursuing research into more efficient ways to convert biomass into usable energy, and finding some nifty lessons in biological enzymes found in, say, the guts of termites. For instance, the termite can crank out a full two liters of hydrogen by fermenting just one sheet of paper. This makes it "one of the planet's most efficient bioreactors," according to a DOE fact sheet from the Joint Genome Institute. That's why JGI researchers are interested in sequencing all those microbe species, in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the biochemical pathways at play, thereby leading to more efficient conversion of biomass into useful fuels like ethanol. (JGI scientists are also sequencing the DNA of poplar trees and soybeans as other possible biomass-derived fuel sources of the future.)
We've certainly got plenty of biostuff to work with: a 2005 study by the Department of Agriculture found that the U.S. produces about 1.3 billion dry tons of excess biomass a year, 60% of which is agricultural waste. This could be used to produce about 130 gallons of ethanol. Americans consume 140 billion gallons of fuel for transportation each year, so at first glance, one might think hey! We can meet all our transportation fuel requirements through biomass! If only it were that simple. Ethanol doesn't have as much energy content as gas (roughly two-thirds), and most American cars can't run on fuel if it has more than 10% ethanol content. Retrofitting would be needed, and that takes time. Plus, producing cellulose-derived ethanol is both expensive and time-consuming. Maybe the termites can help with that aspect, at least.
Termites have already provided the inspiration for an energy-efficient office building in Harara, Zimbabwe. The Eastgate Building is widely deemed to be one of the best examples of sustainable architecture in the world; it has no air conditioning and virtually no heating system, and uses less than 10% of the energy of a conventional building of comparable size. Architect Mick Pierce based his design on the termite mounds found in the region, which control temperatures to within a single degree Celsius over the course of a day, despite wildly fluctuating temperatures (35 degrees F at night up to 104 degrees F during the day). Termites need that level of control to cultivate the fungus they use as food, which flourish at 87 degrees F. So their mounds feature a series of heating and cooling vents that the insects can open and close as needed over the course of the day.
The Eastgate Building employs a similar approach, and the result is some very real cost savings, for both the Eastgate owners and their tenants (rents are 20% lower than in the new building next door). It's an ingenious design from an ingenious architect who's doing his part to save the planet — or at least, save us from ourselves. Someone should buy Mick Pierce a beer every time he strolls into a pub. Just don't make it a Miller Lite.