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Reading this on the toilet? You’re making fuel.
If someone told you they discovered a new fuel source, you’d probably call bullshit. Well, you’d be right! According to scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, cars can be powered entirely by poop.
In search of raw materials to use for biofuels, UCLA graduate student and Fullbright scholar David Wernick and his fellow researchers discovered that there was a ton of waste—human, animal, and otherwise—going to waste. In the United States alone, 1 billion tons of manure is generated each year according to the Department of Agriculture.
The vast majority of that product is left to compost, releasing nitrous oxide and methane into the atmosphere, both of which are harmful greenhouse gasses that are 325 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Instead of letting that poop pile up, Wernick believes it can be put to use as a renewable biofuel. By engineering a bacteria to efficiently break down the proteins in waste and turn them into alcohol biofuels and ammonia, the scientists believe they can create a biofuel that will serve as a viable alternative to liquid fuels.
“We’re working with anything such as agricultural waste like manure, municipal waste like sewage, plant matter, cellulosic matter and even carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” Wernick said in a video.
According to Wernick, the waste-based biofuel produces properties similar to those of real gasoline. “You can drop it right into your car. You don’t need any modification,” he explained.
While biofuels are a necessity to combat reliance on nonrenewable liquid fuels, they have been proven to be elusive. The most popular and well-known option is ethanol, but it’s far from an ideal energy source. Derived from corn, ethanol has proven to be a less than perfect biofuel. Studies have found it to produce more smog than gasoline, as well as get fewer miles to the gallon than standard fuel. The U.S. government mandate to produce ethanol set in 2005 has also had adverse effects to the global food market, causing increased food prices.
Using poop as a renewable biofuel doesn’t just provide a cleaner burning alternative to fossil fuels that will eventually dry up; it also provides a use for the waste that is effecting the environment.
It has been suggested that the large population of farm animals, especially those kept in factory farms, are directly responsible for global warming. The Environmental Integrity Project found the air at some factory farm sites in the U.S. is dirtier than the air in America’s most polluted cities. A 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found animal agriculture accounted for 18 percent of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions, including 37 percent of methane and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions.
Wernick and his team are currently attempting to improve the yield of its process to increase the production of biofuels. If they can accomplish that, they can begin to attempt to scale the process to the point that it may become a true alternative fuel source.
AJ Dellinger is a seasoned technology writer whose work has appeared in Digital Trends, International Business Times, and Newsweek. In 2018, he joined Gizmodo as the nights and weekend editor.