On February 1st, 2018 we learned about

Some of the first industrial-scale metalworking was made in Medieval India

You’ve probably never tried it at home, but distilling zinc isn’t easy. Heating zinc to its 1675° Fahrenheit melting point doesn’t give you a nice, pure liquid, but a reactive gas. In a standard furnace, you can expect that gas to rise into the air where it will immediately bond with any available oxygen, leaving you zinc-oxide instead of the metal you were after. It’s no surprise that the first patent on this process didn’t arrive until the 18th century in England. Except for the fact that this process was already in use on an industrial scale in India nearly a thousand years before that.

Treatises dated to the first millennium AD have been found that describe a process to handle the tricky process of distilling zinc ore. A ceramic container, combined with water and organic materials, was heated over a simple charcoal fire. With no widely known labels for lab equipment available, the manual describes the ceramic container as looking like an eggplant, and the vessel that would collect the distilled zinc as a thorn apple flower.

Distilling zinc on a massive scale

Proving that the method described was put into practice, archaeological evidence has found that it was scaled up significantly by the 14th century. Near a zinc mine in the Aravalli Hills of Rajasthan, seven furnaces have been found, each containing 36 of the eggplant-shaped containers. At full strength, this would have produced around 55 pounds of distilled zinc a day. Other furnaces dated to the 16th century show continued innovation, with 108 larger vessels that probably produced closer to 110 pounds of zinc a day.

If those numbers weren’t impressive on their own, the craftsmanship of the furnaces and other components indicate that this was a sophisticated, well-managed foundry. While earlier furnaces look hand-made, later models have uniform parts throughout. It’s presumed that the operation of these facilities would have required coordination between many different parties, all the way to the Maharajah himself.

So what made that zinc worth the invention of industrial chemistry? Northern India lacked tin for the most part, which meant that people couldn’t harden their copper into bronze. However, large amounts of zinc allowed for the production of brass. Brass, which can have a yellow color and luster similar to gold, was apparently used for a variety of purposes. Brass artifacts from the Medieval India range from coins, jewelry, utensils, statues and religious icons. Unfortunately, the advanced distillation procedures that enabled much of this production was largely lost after the Mughals invaded India. Eventually, this squashed local production so much that zinc was imported from China and finally after the 18th century, Europe.

Source: The origins of chemical industry by Paul Craddock, Chemistry World

On January 31st, 2018 we learned about

Corncobs and sugar are the primary ingredients in a new process to produce plant-based plastics

Scientists from the University of Wisconsin are reporting progress on getting more sugar into soda bottles. While this may sound like they’re aiming to compete with Jolt or Mountain Dew, they’re actually investigating the bottles themselves, or more specifically, the plastic they’re made of. Plastic bottles, food packages and polyester fabric all use polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is produced from petroleum, and thus requires a huge amount of carbon emissions in their production. If costs can be managed, some of that plastic production may be replaced with a material made from sugar and corncobs, reducing the amount of oil needed for the million plastic bottles used every minute in the United States alone.

The sugar-based product is polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a plastic doesn’t require any oil to produce while at the same time doing a better job at preserving foods than PET. The key to its production is furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), which has been available for years, but generally considered too expensive to make PEF practical. Fortunately, corncobs have turned out to be a good source for a solvent that can lower the manufacturing costs of FDCA while also reducing the amount of sugar needed in the first place. If that weren’t enough, this process removes the need for expensive reactors to handle other acids associated with PET production, while also allowing some of the corncob-solvent to be recycled for the next round of production.

A catch with the costs

This may seem like an obvious win, but unless we’re willing to pay more for our bottles and packages, it’s not clear that it will be cheaper than PET yet. A metric ton of PEF made from sugar and corn would be around $45 more than the same amount of PET, although researchers are hoping to shave $200 off that price after they optimize the system. They’re also competing with other sugar-based processes that don’t require the use of platinum, a metal rare and expensive enough to offset some of the gains from making use of all those corncobs.

The final concern is that this process may end up being too good, and then backfiring. If costs can be brought down, the demand for plastic is so high that sugar and corn prices might get pushed up. We’d then be left with the weird trade-off of a carbon neutral, or potentially carbon-negative, product that’s so cheap it makes the sugary beverages it contains more expensive. Then again, we shouldn’t be using this much plastic in the first place, so anything to reduce their impact on the planet is probably worth it in the long run.

Source: Here's a sweet recipe for cheap, green plastic—sugar and corncobs by Roni Dengler, Science

On January 7th, 2018 we learned about

Chemical imaging technique takes apart a painter’s process without injuring the canvas

When you’re in the art museum, seeing that a painting is made in “oil” or “mixed media” sometimes feels more like a formality rather than useful information. Fortunately, a new technique for paint analysis promises to add a lot more useful detail to those descriptions, revealing exactly which paints were used, and even what order they were applied to the canvas. Modern paintings produced with mass-produced commercial paints probably won’t yield many surprises, but by looking at the exact pigments and layering in older paintings, art historians will gain a much richer understanding how these paintings fit into the world that produced them.

The technique is called macroscale multimodal chemical imaging, and is actually a combination of earlier forms of chemical analysis. However, the combination of hyperspectral diffuse reflectance, luminescence and x-ray fluorescence can now produce data that offer more than the sum of their parts. Instead of simply giving researchers a graph of values, the technique uses each form of analysis to create images for each type of pigment used in a painting. The visual relationship of each layer of paint is then made much more obvious, as the strokes, revisions and essentially, choices of the artist are laid out for your eyes to see.

Making sense of materials

Additionally, this technique can identify the chemical composition of each layer of pigment. Knowing how each color was sourced can then provide insight into the difficultly, cost and importance of a painting at the time it was produced. For instance, a rare blue pigment used in a portrait indicates that the patron felt it was worth investing in those materials, helping historians better understand the story behind the painting.

Finally, none of these details need to harm the painting to be analysed. Many ancient objects are quite fragile, and so there’s an interest in avoiding destructive sampling, even if those samples are tiny. When working with ancient, one-of-a-kind artwork, deconstructing the artist’s process without taking apart the painting itself should prove to be a great new addition to historian’s tool kits.

Source: A New Scientific Technique Reveals How Ancient Humans Made Art by Taylor Dafoe, Artnet

On November 1st, 2017 we learned about

The origins of the artificial flavors that make your antibiotics taste like bubblegum

In 1972, Beecham Laboratories made a significant advancement in medicine that has improved the lives of millions of children around the world. They launched Amoxil, an antibiotic related to penicillin that today is often sold under its generic name, amoxicillin. The exact bacteria-busting power of Amoxil were surely great, but the real innovation may have been the sweet, vaguely-bubblegum flavor that was mixed in with the otherwise bitter liquid. By adding what tasted like a spoonful of sugar to every dose, getting kids to follow through on their course of antibiotics became easier than ever.

Battling bitterness with sweet, syrupy relief

While the weirdly chalky flavoring of amoxicillin may stand out in many people’s experience as the best part of a childhood ear infection, but it certainly was not the first time flavor was added to medicine. In the Middle Ages, when illness was believed to be an imbalance of the “four humors,” treatments were based on flavor. So if you felt sad or sour, the recommendation would be that you should avoid acidic foods and eat something sweet instead. (“I feel sad!” shouts the eight-year-old). While sugar has been linked to pain-relief, a lot of these treatments were probably only effective as placebos, and even then it seems hard to feel optimistic over the prospect of being prescribed something to restore your phlegm.

Herbal remedies offered more efficacy, but like penicillin, often taste very bitter. This bitterness was seen as a sign of the herbs potency, but it didn’t make them any more attractive to patients. Rather than have people munch plants directly, herbs were dissolved in alcohol and mixed with sugary syrups. It was nothing as exciting as the wild cherry or banana flavors you might find today, but the sweetness made medications much more palatable.

A fruit salad’s worth of synthetic flavors

By the 1800s, chemists were starting to isolate specific compounds that matched the flavors and smells of various foods. These compounds were usually esters that turned up in various contexts, like the cherry flavors that were found in byproducts of everything from alcohol distillation to coal processing. Methyl anthranilate, which in Germany was associated with orange blossoms, reminded people of Concord grapes (Vitis labrusca) in the United States. It’s now the basis for all the grape flavored candy and cough syrups on the market, even if it doesn’t taste like the Vitis vinifera grapes we snack on or make into wine. Banana flavors have a similar disconnect these days, as the isoamyl acetate that’s added to food and medicine comes from the Gros Michel banana, a cultivar that hasn’t been available since the 1950s. The flavor was included in candies in the United States before the average consumer could buy any bananas, but now it clashes with our expectations of Cavendish banana flavor.

All these flavors promised tastier candies and medicines, which became a serious problem by the 1960s. So called “candy aspirin” was apparently sweet enough to be compared to SweeTarts, a fact that was not overlooked by kids who started seeking treatment for every ailment they could think of. Many children were so drawn in by this flavor that they started eating aspirin like literal candy, and increasing aspirin poisonings by 500 percent nationwide. In response, the flavor was toned down and child safety caps were introduced to keep smaller hands away from medications.

Flavored medicines beyond bubblegum

Anyone with a young child knows that these flavored medications haven’t vanished entirely though. Dimetapp is still flavored like Concord grapes, and amoxicillin is still the strawberry-banana-cherry-cinnamon mash-up that we recognize as bubble gum. Chemistry hasn’t stopped innovating though, opening up a larger array of options than ever before, including mango, watermelon, and chocolate. If that weren’t enough, your dog can get its medicine flavored as beef, tuna, chicken pot pie, bacon, salmon, and yes, bubble gum. No reason for dogs to miss out on one of medicine’s greatest achievements, right?

Source: A Search for the Flavor of a Beloved Childhood Medicine by Julie Beck, The Atlantic

On October 11th, 2017 we learned about

What makes smoke from wildfires so bad to breathe in?

My neighborhood, while thankfully a safe distance from being actually immolated in the fires spread across northern California, is starting to look a little scary. The skies are darkened with the red tint of smoke, and trees just two blocks away are starting to be obscured by the thickening particulate. My third grader is… not taking it well. She’s nervously asking how close we are to the fires, if her aunt further north is safe, and if she should start expecting ash to start falling out of the sky, a scenario she only knows from stories about when a baby in southern California. Parental instinct leads me to try and calm her, but with at least 160,000 acres burned this week, how worried should we be about all this smoke?

Byproducts of burning plants

The smoke from forest fires has a lot of different ingredients. Trees’ and other plants’ exact combinations of cellulose, tannins, oils, waxes and more can create a wide range of chemical byproducts of a fire. Smoke from a burning forest is likely to contain carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, benzene, formaldehyde, trace minerals and other particulate matter. While that may sound like a big scary list, your body can bounce back from the bigger molecules it inhales pretty well, with only temporary irritation to sensitive tissues in the eyes and respiratory tract. The items that are more worrisome are the tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, around 30 times thinner than a human hair. These minuscule particles can get lodged deep in your lungs, where they can cause more lasting damage to cells.

Avoiding inhalation

There are, unfortunately, a lot of health concerns with breathing in too much smoke. Older people, people with compromised hearts or lungs, and of course, growing kids, are all considered to be especially at risk when the air is too polluted. Kids with asthma are probably at the most risk, as irritation can cause their airways to close enough to completely restrict breathing, but anyone who’s lungs are either sensitive or still growing should really avoid breathing hard outdoors if at all possible. Breathing in some particulate is unavoidable— the goal is just to minimize exposure and impact.

Some folks wear dust or surgeons’ masks to try to stay safe, but most of those masks aren’t designed to block the tiny particulate that is of the most concern. Even if you do have an N-95 or P-100 respirator, it needs to fit against your face without gaps, otherwise you’ll end up sucking in particulate you were trying to filter out. Staying inside is probably a safer bet, using air conditioners to help filter the air. If that’s not an option, you may want to look for Clean Air shelters, or even climate controlled malls and businesses, as a way to avoid sucking in too much smoke.

Hazards from flaming houses

The fact that 3,500 buildings have burned down in these wildfires complicates things a bit. Houses these days are packed with a lot of plastics, which burn hot and fast, releasing more toxic and corrosive gasses like hydrogen chloride, phosgene and even hydrochloric acid. Thankfully, most of these won’t be released in high enough concentrations to affect the surrounding areas, and are more commonly issues for firefighters entering burning buildings. In those scenarios, the to big worries are carbon monoxide and cyanide, both of which are odorless, colorless and most dangerous in hot areas with restricted airflows, like a structure fire. Both chemicals restrict your body’s access and use of oxygen, and can be lethal in under ten minutes’ exposure. Again, this isn’t something you need to worry about in a smokey neighborhood downwind of a fire because concentrations each compound will probably be too low to cause that much harm, but it’s something to consider if you’re ever asked to evacuate, as staying in your home may put you and firefighters in much more risk if you need rescuing later on.

Extended influence

If all this weren’t enough, there’s a chance that wildfires are affecting you even if you can’t see the smoke. Global surveys of air quality have found that large forest fires release enough smoke to be detectable on a large scale, even beyond areas where the smoke is visible. In some cases, there are things that can be done to try to mitigate the impact of forest fires, from direct prevention to reducing carbon emissions that raise the world’s temperatures and make fires more likely in the first place.

For now, everyone’s rubbing their eyes, doing a bit more sneezing, and hoping that the fires can be contained before things get too much worse. If waiting things out feels too passive,  making donations to the people whose lives have been more directly uprooted by the fires has felt helpful as well.

Source: Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials by Harriet Ammann, Robert Blaisdell, Michael Lipsett, et al., Environmental Protection Agency

On September 28th, 2017 we learned about

Test authenticating paintings’ particular yellow pigment turns up with problems of its own

By the time you graduate from that first batch of eight crayons, you start to learn that just how much variability there is between one hue and it’s closest cousins. Despite similar naming conventions, you wouldn’t arbitrarily substitute Strawberry for Raspberry Red. These differences can even persist in what is supposedly the same color, depending on its formulation. A pigment known as Indian yellow is so particular it’s origins have become the stuff of slightly unbelievable legend. More importantly, the pigment has also become the center of controversy in identifying the dates and possible authenticity of many famous paintings from the early 1900s.

One of the best places to see Indian yellow is in the sunsets painted by Joseph Mallord William Turner. The impressive but not overly-saturated yellow of the late afternoon sun in Caernarvon Castle, for instance, is an example of a pigment that originally became popular with European painters back in the 14th century. Supposedly, it was produced only in Bihar province in India, where cows were fed only mango leaves. The cows’ urine was then collected and dried so that the remaining concentrate could be mixed with oil, creating the subtle hue that many artists desired. This method of production then continued until the early 1900s when it was halted out of concern for the cows, although that also happens to be around the same time when synthetic dyes and pigments were becoming more widely available.

Testing paint with the wrong test

Whether or not it was ever in a cow’s bladder, true Indian yellow is a magnesium salt of euxanthic acid. Its synthetic competitors were generally azo-based dyes, including tartrazine, a compound found in food coloring today. The synthetic, “fake” Indian yellow may have looked the part to most observers, but it was quite different on a molecular scale. This has proved useful to historians and curators, as the type of yellow could be used to prove when a particular painting was created (or at least altered or repaired.) By comparing the chemical signature of a euxanthic acid against an unknown painting, a researcher could tell if it was painted before or after the early 1900s. Theoretically.

This system was recently discovered to have a major flaw. People’s understanding of the two different paints was correct, but the “real” Indian yellow that they were often comparing new samples against was discovered to respond to measurements just like “fake” tartrazine pigments did. Essentially, people were checking for forged or altered paintings by comparing them to another “fake.” While figuring out how this mix-up occurred in the first place will take some time, curators are now looking to double check the paintings already in their collections. Fortunately, only Indian yellow made with euxanthic acid will fluoresce under ultraviolet blacklights. This low-cost test promises a quick alternative method of authentication, at least until a new spectral analysis standard can be established.

Source: The hunt for Indian yellow by Raychelle Burks, Chemistry World

On September 27th, 2017 we learned about

How chemistry lets us put pumpkin, orange or butter flavors in practically any food

It’s fall, which means every other item at my local Trader Joe’s now has pumpkin in it. Or the essence of pumpkin, at least. You know, that lovely cis-3-Hexen-1-ol (C6H12O) that your nose senses after you slice into a big, orange gourd to carve a jack-o-lantern. Or the always nostalgic dash of sabinene (C10H16) that you taste in a good pumpkin pie, and naturally, pumpkin tortilla chips, which are also a thing… These products probably do have their fair share of pumpkin puree, but sometimes smushed pumpkin isn’t even what we really expect to taste when offered a “pumpkin flavor” product. This isn’t really a problem either way, since really what’s going on pumpkin and other flavors is just some refined manipulation of how we perceive flavor in the first place. And probably sugar.

Compounds that are convincing to your nose and brain

You might not have anything labeled cis-3-Hexen-1-ol on your spice rack, but it’s actually one of the various compounds you’re likely to notice when you cut into a ripe pumpkin. Alongside a few other alcohols and aldehydes, the right ratios of these molecules hitting the right smell receptors in your nose will get your brain working to identify what is causing the aroma. With a pumpkin in front of you, that particular blend gets labeled as “fresh pumpkin smell” in your memory, although none of those compounds are terribly unique. When you taste (and smell) the food you eat, your brain is simply referencing memories of other times you’ve had those particular smell receptors get activated in some particular proportion.

Now, cis-3-Hexen-1-ol is a decently large molecule, but only one portion of it is needed to activate a smell receptor. Rather than have a receptor that can accommodate the entire molecule at once, your nose only really cares about the OH at the end. This is very convenient for chemists, who can attach that smell signifier to other compounds that may be more stable, cheaper or somehow easier to work with than what the pumpkins make themselves. It’s a concept that gets used in tons of different foods, with these artificial flavors often being mixed back into the foods they originated in.

Close control over foods’ flavors

As food production shifted to industrial scales in the early 20th century, manufacturers needed food that could survive longer in transport and on shelves, bring down costs, and also taste consistent from one helping to the next. As with pumpkins, oranges have had their chemistry parsed to see which molecules trigger the experience of “orange flavor,” so that it could be used in other products, as well as orange juice itself. By adding something like ethyl butyrate to orange juice, manufactures can be sure that a crop of bland oranges won’t tank their sales for a season. Similarly, diacetyl was added to products to give them a buttery taste, but the flavor association was so successful that creameries now spike actual butter with the compound, so that butter tastes more like what our brains think of as butter.

In the case of the deluge of seasonal pumpkin products, we also have to accept that we’re not sure what we want to taste. While cis-3-Hexen-1-ol is found in actual pumpkins, that’s not a smell you’re really looking for in your coffee or pumpkin biscotti (which is also a thing.) In those cases, the target flavor is actually pumpkin pie, which is why recipes also include sabinene for nutmeg, eugenol for cloves, and cinnamaldehyde for cinnamon. As ubiquitous as this now seems, it’s not an easy batch of flavors to get right since one person’s perfect pie might not match the expectations of someone else. This led Jelly Belly candies to even temporarily abandon their attempt at pumpkin pie flavor, at least until they embraced the variability inherent in the task by billing the candies as their “family’s” own recipe. Fortunately for manufacturers, sugar helps smooth things out considerably, as it’s certainly a flavor that our brains remember as “yummy.”

Source: The Absurd History of Artificial Flavors by Alison Herman, First We Feast

On September 26th, 2017 we learned about

Fuel cells may soon be powered by hydrogen harvested from people’s pee

As hydrogen fuel cells become a more common way to power our world, the idea of filling up your tank may take on a few new connotations. These power plants capture energy from the reaction of hydrogen bonding with oxygen, and while amazingly clean, they still require some raw materials on hand to function. Hydrogen is abundant in our universe, and oxygen is literally floating in front of your face right now, but capturing these ingredients in a form that’s usable isn’t always easy. The U.S. Army Research Laboratory has been working on how to simplify this supply chain, and may have found a very convenient source of hydrogen in the form of soldiers’ pee.

Making use of human urine wasn’t the project’s original point of interest, but has turned out to be so efficient that researchers can’t ignore its promise. They had originally been working with water and a nano-galvanic aluminum powder, which, when added to water would cause a reaction where one of the products was pure hydrogen. A few different water-based liquids were tested, and pee was found to perform twice as well straight H2O. Researchers haven’t narrowed down the secret to urine’s success, but think may be tied to the higher acidity and presence of electrolytes.

Portable power sources

If researchers do figure out why pee is such a good hydrogen producer, they’re not looking to alter that side of the formula. While the aluminum-based powder may still be refined, the goal of this project was to enable soldiers to generate power in remote locations. Researchers estimate that as little as two pounds of aluminum powder could yield enough hydrogen to produce 220 kilowatts of electricity, which is enough to fully charge up nine Nissan Leafs. As long as carrying the powder isn’t a problem, soldiers could then provide the necessary hydrogen by recycling other fluids, including the pee a healthy body creates anyway. To really close the loop on this supply chain, soldiers could then drink the clean water a fuel cell produces as a byproduct, getting them ready to top off their generators later on.


My kids said: Ew. That’s gross! Wouldn’t the water be like pee water?

Nope. The urea and other stronger smelling ingredients in the pee would be totally left behind in this processes first step. The water molecules from the pee would be effectively destroyed before even entering the fuel cell, and so the water byproduct at the end wold be pure water with no adulterants. It’d be safe to drink, although you presumably do have a dried out pile of urine ingredients after extracting the hydrogen from it.

Source: Army scientists discover power in urine by David McNally, United States Army Research Laboratory

On August 27th, 2017 we learned about

Lasers and polystyrene prove that outer planets can produce diamonds

Giving new meaning to the term “Ice Giants,” researchers have confirmed that Uranus and Neptune are likely producing massive diamonds on a regular basis. The frigid planets may be loaded with frozen hydrogen, helium, water and ammonia, but atmospheric conditions can still scrape together enough carbon, heat and pressure to create millions of carats of solid diamonds. Aside from further embarrassing the lie that diamonds are a rarity, understanding how the outer planets make their bling may help us analyze new exoplanets in other solar systems.

The key ingredients for the formation of a diamond are carbon, heat and pressure. The carbon should be as homogeneous as possible, lest you end up with a muddled mess of coal containing everything from oxygen to arsenic that ruins the diamond’s perfect structure. The heat and pressure need to be applied together, crushing the carbon atoms into a nice, tetrahedral lattice. On Earth, these conditions are most likely to be met deep in the ground, or possibly in a lab in California.

In the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, researchers used a laser to recreate some of the conditions we know exist within Uranus and Neptune, with the expectation that it would be enough to create some diamonds. The source material was a piece of polystyrene, as the plastic’s carbon and hydrogen are a good proxy for the methane found on the ice giants. With a good zap from an optical laser, overlapping shock waves were created in the polystyrene, briefly creating conditions hotter than 8,500° Fahrenheit with 145,038 pounds of pressure per square inch.

Dainty diamonds, distant worlds

This intense moment was barely a moment though. The shock waves existed so briefly that an x-ray laser operating on a femtosecond timescale was needed to document the process. The resulting diamonds were tiny too, reaching only a few nanometers across. However, scaling this process up to the size of a planet like Uranus or Neptune should give a much more dazzling result, with massive diamonds being created in the planets’ liquid mantles before settling near their rocky cores.

With these calculations in hand, scientists hope to improve our estimates about exoplanets with similar compositions. Beyond the radius and mass that we can now estimate, knowing what reactions and activity are happening in a distant planet’s interior would help explain everything from their weather patterns to the exact coloration of their atmospheres.

Source: The Forecast on Neptune? Diamond Rain by Nathaniel Scharping, D-brief

On August 13th, 2017 we learned about

Cow pie biogases now provide fuel for farm’s giant feed truck

The average dairy cow produces around 40,000 pounds of manure a year, most of which doesn’t just disappear into thin air. As a cow pie decomposes, some of that solid waste does become a gas, the most notorious of which is methane. Even though you can’t see all that CH4, it makes a big difference to the world since it traps 23 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Fortunately, methane doesn’t need to simply waft away, and farms are now using their cow poop to power everything from buildings to the very feed trucks that carry food to cows in the first place.

Prepping poop for generating power

Unfortunately, you can’t just scoop some poop into a gas tank and be on your way. Cow poop is made of a variety of materials which need to be separated so they can be used more efficiently, not totally unlike the refinement processes for crude oil. To make the most of their manure, farms have to invest in a huge container called a digester. The digester helps maintain an optimal temperature for poop to break down, and conveniently contains the unpleasant “barnyard aromas” at the same time. The products of digestion are fibrous materials that can be used as cow bedding or other products, potent liquid fertilizer, and assorted “biogases,” including methane.

Methane burns easily, which is why it’s the primary component of natural gas. Burned in combustion generator, plenty of electricity can be harvested to power farms, trucks, and even surrounding communities. Again, the methane doesn’t simply vanish into thin air though, and burning methane does create carbon dioxide as one of it’s by-products. Still, since carbon dioxide isn’t as potent a greenhouse gas as methane, most people consider this a win. It doesn’t hurt if farms can be more self-sustaining either.

Dung-fueled driving

The amount of power than can be generated from reused cow poop is significant enough that many farms are looking to expand their capacity. Farmers that have made the investment to set up one digester are often interested in setting up a second. The Straus Family Creamery in California took a different approach, and invested in a lengthy retrofitting project with their International Harvester feed truck. After eight years of work, they converted the diesel truck into a zero-emissions electric vehicle so that it could be powered by their poop-fueled generator. Apparently the creamery feels their cows’ poop can provide even more, and they plan to power a delivery truck with methane-produced electricity in the near future.

Source: Poop-Powered Electric Feed Truck Debuts at Northern California Creamery by Tiffany Camhi, The California Report