The Science Of Shit
Will the new millennium be powered by your ass?

Have you seen the most recent New Scientist? There's a lovely little item in there about a Connecticut company called Advanced Fuel Research (AFR). AFR is helping NASA develop a process to convert astronaut doo-doo into rocket fuel. Fecal fuel, you might call it.

See also...
... by Mat Honan
... in the Whoa! section
... from September 27, 1999

AFR's process relies on pyrolysis, a system in which the spaceboys' bowel sculptures will be broken down into small, combustible molecules by heating them in an oxygen-free environment. Of course, fecal fuel is nothing new -- humans have been burning dung to warm themselves for thousands of years. But lately the field has been heating up.

You might have heard of biogas from your stinky eco-neighbor. Or maybe you saw the last of the Mad Max movies (the one with Tina Turner and the pigs where she didn't need another hero and they made a lot of shit jokes). But biogas, or fuel derived from excrement and organic waste, is not just for hippies and post-apocalyptic desert-dwelling bikers anymore. Biogas is beginning to emerge as a viable, if pungent, alternative to our reliance on fossil fuels.

In China, for example, some five million households are equipped with biogas digesters. The digesters work much the same way as AFR's process does, breaking down the poop in an anaerobic environment. Biodigesting tanks beneath Chinese outhouses and hog wallows collect waste and break it down. Gas bubbles up from the slop into a plastic tube that runs directly into the kitchen where it is linked to heating devices.

But is it efficient? Well, according to The Edmonton Sun, a Chinese family of four with four pigs can produce enough gas for all their cooking, lighting and water heating needs. One would think that if the family and their porcine friends were to get enough legumes in their diet they might even be able to fire up the hot tub.

In the U.K., the Financial Times reported that some select southern Englishmen will soon find their houses powered by their local sewage treatment plants. Scottish Power (you knew it would be the Scots) will soon be turning the shite of 2.5 million English into methane gas and solid fertilizer to spread on crops. The process will power the sewage plants themselves and provide enough excess juice to light up an additional 5,000 homes. And you thought they smelled bad now.

But not all of the exciting advances in crapology are taking place across our borders. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is working on their own biogas generator in Memphis, or so said the Southeast Power Report. The TVA will burn biogas from an adjacent sewage treatment plant starting next summer. (Here's the part of the story where you get to make your own joke about rednecks, dung, and the ghost of Elvis Presley.)

Meanwhile, National Hog Farmer reports that new low-cost methane digesters will help hog farmers across this great land of ours reduce odors, produce fertilizer and turn pig poop into clean-burning methane gas. This, in turn, will be used to heat the digester and the whole process will start all over again. The pig may be filthy, but, judging by this latest news, it is apparently a useful animal -- and not just for eating with eggs.

In related news, The Montreal Gazette reported that scientists in Jasper National Park, Canada, have answered a question scholars puzzled over for ages: Does a bear shit in the woods? The scatological scholars are using bear scat to identify individual grizzlies via the remnant DNA. BioScience reports American doo-doo detectives are doing similar work in Washington state. Used in conjunction with radio collars, the bear mung helps observers track the bears' movements, er... location, that is.

Why do we have this fascination with studying our own waste (and for that matter, why would an otherwise respectable and staid publication such as GettingIt devote an entire html file to it)? The answer, perhaps, rests in the womb.

Earlier this year Discovery Laboratories released a study on its drug Surfaxin (a proprietary bronchopulmonary lavage procedure no less) in the treatment of meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS). A fascinating read if ever there was one, but I will skip to the good part: approximately 15% of babies pass a bowel movement while still inside the uterus, and of these, five to twelve percent inhale the dreck into their lungs and develop MAS. These kids quite literally suck shit -- 25,000 of them a year in the United States alone. This obviously leads to a shitload of Freudian fecal fascinations.

So as Y2K approaches and you find yourself stocking up on water, canned food and Kalashnikovs, be sure to stock up on some beans too -- because it's always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Mat Honan is a senior editor at GettingIt. If you find his yellow Shaft T-shirt, please send it to him in care of this publication.