Key to Environmentally Sound Future May Be in South Valley

Winter officially starts Wednesday, but already the South Valley
has faced a few frost-on-the-rooftops mornings. It won’t be long
before the season’s drop in the thermometer causes a rise in our
monthly PG
amp;E bills.
Winter officially starts Wednesday, but already the South Valley has faced a few frost-on-the-rooftops mornings. It won’t be long before the season’s drop in the thermometer causes a rise in our monthly PG&E bills.

Experts forecast it’ll cost you about 26 percent more than last year to heat your house this winter. But this significant rate increase might be a blessing in disguise. Americans often need a crisis to stimulate them into action. Our rising gas and electricity bills might wake us to the fact we need to start looking at sources of energy other than oil and natural gas.

That’s why I want to introduce you to Mike Cox. This genial gentleman is president of Anaerobe Systems, a Morgan Hill company he founded in the 1970s. Cox has spent his career studying some of Earth’s tiniest critters: anaerobic bacteria. These micro-organisms, he believes, might help supply the world with a cheap, virtually pollution-free and limitless source of energy.

A couple of months ago, Cox gave me a tour of his company’s headquarters. I got a crash course in anaerobic microbe biology.

Anaerobes, I learned, are organisms that do not live or grow in the presence of oxygen. They are some of earth’s first life-forms, evolving here about 3 billion years ago. They also make up the most life mass on our world, contributing a staggering 90 percent of all flora and fauna.

Like all life-forms, anaerobes need a source of food. Luckily for us, they’re not picky eaters. These bacteria will snack on just about any carbohydrate food source you give them, including garbage.

If you’ve forgotten your high school chemistry, carbohydrates are a sugar molecule combining the elements carbon, oxygen and – here’s the kicker – hydrogen. They store the energy that vegetation absorbed from sunlight.

Snack on a Snickers bar, Cox says, and your body’s digestion breaks down the candy’s carbohydrate chemical bonds, releasing the energy holding the atoms together. Your cells can then absorb this energy.

Just like us, anaerobes digest sugars. As they do, they release hydrogen.

What Cox envisions is an anaerobe-based energy processing system. He’s earned several patents in his quest for a practical way to use these mighty microbes to produce commercial quantities of hydrogen. If he’s on the right track, anaerobic bacteria flatulence might one day power our TV sets, computers, refrigerators, hair dryers and electric-powered automobiles. Think of the headline: Microbe Farts Save the World!

A micro-organism chowing down on garbage cuisine becoming civilization’s salvation? Sounds like science fiction, but the scientific principles work. Cox showed me himself – on a small scale – at his Anaerobe Systems laboratory.

Someday, if Cox’s idea proves workable, his proposed biotech power plants could be built right next to food-processing factories to use their carbohydrate-based waste to generate electricity.

But what of the dollars and cents consideration? How much might it cost to build such a power plant?

“About 30 to 40 million (dollars),” Cox told me his estimate. “And it would pay for itself in four months,” he added with a mischievous grin.

Not a bad deal all the way around. Food factories get rid of their garbage without the expense of hauling it off for landfill. The companies also get a pretty cool financial windfall from producing energy from their biomass. Cox chuckled when he told me that they’d probably make much more money producing energy than from processing food.

It seems a win-win situation for the factories, the microbes and for society. The environment also wins. Hydrogen is 14 times lighter than air, so if there’s an accidental “spill,” this gas removes itself by simply floating off into the high atmosphere. And unlike oil, hydrogen can’t get into the groundwater supply or create expensive toxic contamination sites.

Another environmental benefit from society shifting from oil to anaerobic-produced hydrogen is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, a major contributor to the greenhouse effect, many scientists believe.

There’s political profits as well. With alternative energy sources like the biotech power plants Cox proposes, America could wean itself off of its addiction to foreign oil. That benefits everyone. That would help to economically stabilize global politics and reduce international tensions. And Cox’s hydrogen power plants could be set up virtually anywhere in any country, thus reducing the domination a few oil-producing nations now have on the world’s governments.

A cheap and renewable source of energy based on biomass hydrogen production might also stimulate economic development throughout the world.

The main worry many people have with hydrogen as a fuel source can be summed up in one word: Hindenburg. The vivid explosion of Germany’s great zeppelin airship on May 6, 1937, in Lakehurst, N.J., gave hydrogen an undeservedly bad rap. But few of the 36 people who perished in that disaster died from the fire. Most were killed either by jumping or falling. Hydrogen, if handled properly, is safer than gasoline, diesel, or natural gas.

The barriers to developing commercial hydrogen-powered energy plants are both practical and political. Big oil’s lobbyists have an unfair financial influence over our elected representatives. Money talks. But things are slowly starting to change.

Three years ago, President Bush proposed in his State of the Union address a $1.2 billion initiative to develop technology for hydrogen-powered fuel cells to power cars, trucks, homes and businesses. Unfortunately, Bush’s proposal requires that up to 90 percent of all hydrogen be refined from nonrenewable resources: oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels. That’s the wrong track.

My hope is for an internationally-financed program – something on the scale of NASA’s Apollo lunar mission – to develop alternative fuel sources such as the biotech one Mike Cox is now working on. There’s hope for our future if the world can just team up on this vitally important program before our easily-available fossil fuels run out.

If we don’t, it’s gonna be a long, cold winter.

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