Monday, November 14, 2005

Bacteria Eat Human Sewage, Produce Rocket Fuel

The high cost of treating human wastewater may one day tank thanks to a bacterium that eats ammonia and produces rocket fuel.

Standard water treatment plants use oxygen-hungry bacteria to break down human waste. To feed the microbes, plants must aerate sewage sludge with costly, power-hogging equipment.

But Brocadia anammoxidans, or anammox bacteria, survive without oxygen, producing energy from nitrite and ammonia, which is found naturally in human waste.

"Conventional [bacteria] treatments do a good job, so the big benefit is doing this much more efficiently and cheaply," said Marc Strous, a microbiologist at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Strous says savings could be enormous, up to 90 percent versus standard sewage treatment plants. A prototype facility in Rotterdam is already earning praise.
(Continued at the National Geographic)

This could make for some fun with allegories: Once upon a time there were some shape-shifting aliens who fought a civil war. Fortunately the good aliens won the war, so all was well and swell. There was just one minor problem, whether good or evil these type of aliens could not die. The evil ones were going insane over their loss of power now and dealing with them was a problem that the good ones were getting tired of. So some alien scientists got together, marshalled their knowledge and came up with some redemptive solutions based on patterns of cycling and recycling. One of the things they developed was some larva to put in the prison with the evil aliens to make use of even their excrement for good. As you can imagine, the evil aliens didn't like all these redemptive solutions.

As to this last one, they sometimes went so far as to eat their own excrement out of spite. The reason was that they had noticed that some of the larva were hatching into butterflies and flying out of the prison that they remained stuck in. They did not see the good of keeping the place clean, as they were going insane. One day, some of the good aliens had taken a sample of excrement out of the prison and were studying their larva at work.

One was looking at the larva intently and then said, "Say, do you hear that high pitched whining?"

"Yes, now that you mention it. By Xenu, is that annoying!" one replied.

"There are patterns to it. I think we can develope a translation for these simplistic frequencies to see what they're communicating to each other." So they did.

When they listened to the larva they began to hear many different messages:

"Whoa, whoa, is us! We live in excrement, excrement I say!"

Others replied, "But wait, it seems like we're designed well to live in it, as if we fit right in! Besides, reproduction is kind of fun too, it's not all so bad."

At a rather high frequency some communicated back, "What kind of incompetent designer would make us, just look at us...we're larvas. Well, I feel very larval right now!"

The good aliens looked at each other, "Odd, some seem to think that things revolve around them. You'd think that they would get a sense that things do not revolve around them, given that they eat excrement." Then they listened some more as some whined, "So you don't believe that we turn into butterflies and fly out of the cage?"

"We're larval and anything like butterflies are just like fairytales murmured over eggs. That's all the same type of fairytale. We can feel the fact now that we are larval, so that's all there is. When I feel a butterfly here and now, then I will believe that they exist."

"I hear that there is a way to see, and not just feel as we feel."

"Then why can't we see now?"

"Maybe it is for our own good that we can only feel our way along for now. For who knows what we would see of ourselves and our situation if we did see?"

The good aliens kept listening, then one turned to the other and said, "It really doesn't make much sense to condemn us as incompetent, does it?" to which the other replied, "It seems to be a losing situation all the way around for them as far as that goes. If we were incompetent, then they lack the competence to judge us anyway. And if we were malicious, then we'd torture the ones who said that we were incompetent. But some of them are silly....which I suppose they would blame us for too."

The other thought about it for a moment, "I suppose they feel that we did not give them a chance, yet we have...and we can make some more too."

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