Thursday, April 03, 2008


Back in 1977 Carl Woese came up with our "modern classification of cell structure". Some 20 years later, William Whitman and others at the University of Georgia calculated the approximate number of "bugs" on the planet. Woese came up with three basic cell structures, Whitman came up with a number of approximately 5 million, trillion, trillion or 5x10 to the 30th power! Researchers in Denmark have since found over 4,000 species in a single gram of dirt.

We all learned or at least had the opportunity to learn in elementary school about the cycle of life. We learned about how nitrogen is absorbed by living plants and given back in decaying plants. We learned about the roles of ammonia, methane, oxygen and carbon dioxide in dirt and in the ocean. As is often true, the more we learn the more we realize how much more we have yet to learn. For example, the amount of carbon stored in the 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 "bugs" is about the same amount of carbon stored in all the plant life on our planet, including all the algae in the ocean.

Folks, humans are a lot smaller than most of us seem to think. While we are certainly bigger than a bug, together the bugs can keep up.

We have learned that most bacteria pose no threat to life but instead are a necessary part of life. About 93% of all bacteria live under ground or under water. We purposefully use "bugs" to process foods, such as low lactose milk and cheese, to process our sewage, to extract metals such as gold, cobalt and copper, to synthesis organic compounds and for thousands of other purposes. Now that we are beginning to realize how many different bugs there are, we know that there must be 1,000's of more ways in which we could harness "bugs" to work for us.

One class of "bugs" are called methanogens. Various species of these bugs use different materials and processes to accomplish the same task. Some can crack water molecules, some crack coal, some use light as an energy source and we simply do not know what other neat tricks are performed. One thing that we know is that huge quantities of materials lie on our ocean floors that are in various stages of chemical-biological "conversion". We know that massive quantities of these compounds can and are easily being converted into clean burning methane (natural gas). The Al Gore crowd likes to talk about renewable energy sources. This crowd is coming close to convincing us to spend trillions of dollars trying to out do Mother Nature (many of these folks do not believe in God so in kindness we reduce their challenge to besting only Mother Nature). It makes great sense to work with Mother Nature instead of trying to challenge her. No mater who leads the band, the final result will be about the same. There is simply no reason to pull the wagon up the hill when Mother Nature is ready and willing to do the work for us.

One of the great triumphs of man has been to speed up Mother Natures techniques in regard to plant and animal growth, breeding and selection. The result has been a massive increase in the production of food per acre. We can do the same thing in regard to energy. Mother Nature is constantly at work renewing our supply of hydrocarbon fuels. We simply need to fertilize and enhance natural energy processes in a manner similar to the way we have enhanced the natural process of growing food.

The laws of economics are already hard at work on the problem. People in wealthy countries (of course this includes the wealthiest country of all) are devoting capital, time and resources at unprecedented scale to the "energy problem". Politicians and pundits are quick to remark that we need to attack the problem on the scale of the Manhattan Project. These fools have no idea what they are saying. We are attacking the problem from all angles at a scale that makes the Manhattan Project look like the science project of a single 6th grade student. This week, scientist at MIT founded a new company to take advantage of their latest improvement to solar energy.


It seems that hardly a day goes by without the discovery of something that makes solar energy production cheaper or more efficient. The MIT discovery will lower the cost of production by the massive amount of 27%. SO WHAT! This is like saying that Papa Johns has lowered the cost of its family special from $150 to $109, while Pizza Hut is offering a $15 special with a $15 fuel surcharge attached. The reason for the excitement about solar is that people are extrapolating the last 5 years of oil price increases ten or twenty years into the future. With the oil price over $100 per barrel, while solar is down to $1.60 per kilowatt it is easy to assume that the two shall meet in the middle in the not too distant future. With more than 13 of the earths 14 trillion barrels of oil still in the ground, and with drilling performance the best in 25 years, it is common sense to appreciate that the current price of oil is yet another bubble. Those who buy solar energy stocks at super high PE ratios will see a plunge in their asset values when it becomes obvious that government subsidies of solar will die when the cost of oil goes down. A fellow who has remodeled homes for the past 45 years says one of his "big winners" was tearing out the solar heating panels added to homes during the Jimmy Carter years.


While it makes sense to build anaerobic chambers to test the abilities of various methanogen "bugs" (many of these bugs work best where oxygen is not present), we probably do not need to build gigantic facilities. The advent of horizontal drilling has given us access to trillions of cubic feet of natural gas but, more importantly, access to the means of "fertilizing" the natural process of "bug digestion of carbon". The right mix of enzymes poured into the right holes could easily increase the pace of digestion by a thousand times (not my estimate but that of noble prize winners). Why send men deep into hazardous coal mines if a slurry of several trillion bugs can enjoy converting dirty coal to clean methane?

As always it is great fun to watch men when they flop around like fish out of water. Australia has spent a ton of money and resources on a vaccination program that helps reduce the amount of flatulence produced by ruminant animals. Most of the methane gas coming from these animals is burped. If a car could be equipped with an extra stomach like that found in cows and other ruminants, a car would produce its own gas. We do not have to look far to find lots of unique bugs. Various animals hold thousands of bugs that have developed the ability to digest the plants that grow in various locals.

And, yes, cars are among the least efficient users of energy. Only about 15% of the energy used in an auto is converted into the mechanical energy needed to push the vehicle. Without a doubt, we need to and we will become more efficient in our use of transportation fuel. We have made tremendous progress in the industrial use of fuel. We have made tremendous progress in the home heating use of fuel. We have made great progress in our use of fuel to transport goods (most of our goods are transported very cheaply on trains or very, very, very cheaply on water). We have made little progress in our use of fuel to transport people and we can easily do much more to increase the efficiency of heating our homes and businesses.

The Al Gore crowd is willing to cause tremendous damage to the income and wealth of billions of people in order to solve a temporary problem. The fact is that if the problem were real, massive numbers of people would be willing to stop living in the suburbs 20 miles from work. People would quickly agree to ride mass transit if solving the problem were worth the effort. With the exception of relatively small un-captured externalities, the cost of driving a vehicle is captured in the price paid by the public. One of the factors the global warming crowd is not willing to consider is that the cost of walking to work does significant environmental damage, indeed perhaps more than riding in a vehicle.

A person who walks to work burns calories. To replace those calories, he must eat or drink. The cost (in terms of money and in terms of the environment) of a glass of milk for a walker is probably almost as much as the cost of the fuel needed to move a vehicle the same distance. A short trip by two people in a car is probably less costly than the cost of two glasses of milk. When the Al Gore crowd talks about the externalities of one system, they often conveniently overlook the externalities of their favored system. One fact is that trillions and trillions of tonnes of coal have been burned as a result of the "success" of delaying the construction of very low emission nuclear power plants.

We still have a lot to learn. Al Gore nor I can come close to guessing the future but, given that 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bugs are hard at work completing the life cycle for us, I suspect that bugs will continue to renew our un-renewable energy sources for a long time to come.