Friday, August 31, 2012

ABC Wednesday: G is for Green Gas

This one is for Carver on conserving natural resources: Green Gas, or How Cow Farts May One Day Save the Planet!

Oceanic methanogens.  Image from the Oregon State University Subsurface Biosphere Initiative

Cow farts saving the planet?  It's not sarcasm.  In fact, it's an idea that many scientists are working hard on to make a reality.

To understand how cow farts may one day save the planet, you have to understand what methane is.

Methane is a carbon compound with one atom of carbon and four hydrogen atoms.

Methane is a great energy source that we already use in our homes today in the form of natural gas.  Unlike other fossil fuels, it's very clean burning.

But like other fossil fuels, natural gas comes at an environmental price.  Just like gasoline (what you use to run your car) and coal (what many power plants run on), it increases the risk of global warming.

Furthermore, stores of natural gas, just like oil, are becoming more rare.  Just like oil, more dangerous techniques are being used to extract natural gas.

For example, you may have heard of fracking.  Fracking is a potentially dangerous gas extraction technique.  It's been connected with severe groundwater contamination in some areas.

So What's Different Here?

Methanogens are different.  Methanogens are living things - tiny, single-celled organisms - that take plant matter and turn it into valuable methane.  It actually exhales methane just like you and I exhale carbon dioxide!

Methanogens are real and are already alive and doing the work of making methane in many animals.  You and I have methanogens, but some truly amazing animals that have made use of the methanogen in their digestive process include the ruminants, animals that have a special part of their body, called the rumen, which houses methanogens.

The methanogens help them digest their food - and produces a lot of gas, which is why cow and horse stables don't smell terribly nice!

Scientists are now trying to figure out how to use methanogens to turn methane production - biological natural gas production - into a large scale, industrial process.

Imagine being able to turn plant waste from your garden into fuel for your car!  That's the dream of green gas!


  1. Green, like this week's theme! (I was going to say "that was a lot of hot air," but don't know if that would come off as funny - my intention - or mean.)

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

    1. So much of the science that I do can be described in crude jokes... :-D

      Biogeochemistry: the story of life... and death... and poop. Looooots of poop. :-)

  2. Now that's one I haven't heard about. I've been reading a lot about fracking lately and have signed online petitions against it because it's been a hot issue in my state. Some NC towns in my state are passing their own ordinances to ban fracking trying to get ahead of the issue. NC has been studying the impact of fracking and the possibility of using it which has prompted some city ordinances against it to get ahead of the issue. That would be great if biological natural gas production could add a safer option. Fantastic post. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

    1. Thanks for visiting! Yes, fracking is a difficult issue.

      On the one hand, natural gas is a wonderful, clean fuel once it's out of the ground. It even has a great energy:CO2 ratio (we get a lot of energy from natural gas compared to, say, gasoline, for how much carbon it produces.)

      On the other hand, there is a real, serious risk of permanently destroying local water supplies, including above ground water resources like lakes that are connected with subsurface water.

      I wrote a long piece comparing different forms of energy currently available. It's not an easy topic, and one I wish the presidential candidates would talk about more: