In Search of Pollution-Eating Bugs

The logical choice, he thought, would be some sort of algae. A colleague put him in touch with Cooksey, an expert on cyanobacteria who had done some research in Yellowstone, famed for its blistering hot waters and geysers. That, surely, would be the place to find the perfect animal.

Cooksey turned to Steve Miller, a member of Yellowstone's own scientific team. Miller has compiled a huge database on the park, including topographical maps that show the temperature and chemical composition of thousands of potential sites for Cooksey to search for the perfect bug.

He plans to collect a few samples soon. His agreement with the park calls for a minimal impact on the environment, so he'll take just a few. Then he will feed them an enriched diet, and hope to grow enough for a full-blown demonstration project.

How to Brighten a Smokestack

That brings us back to a problem that confronted Bayless at the beginning of the project. Photosynthesis needs light, and how do you get sunlight down a smokestack?

"We considered artificial lighting, but that's just not practical," Bayless says. "It's just too energy intensive."

Bayless had almost given up on the project when an undergraduate student, Ben Cipiti, came up with an idea. Oak Ridge National Laboratory had developed a system of parabolic mirrors that track the sun and channel light down a series of fiber optic cables. The cables lead to boxes that "look like florescent lights," and they provide enough light to meet the needs of an entire building.

It was just what Bayless needed, and Oak Ridge joined the project to develop a system that will deliver sunlight directly to the "bioreactor" where Cooksey's bugs will be waiting.

The idea is to get the cyanobacteria to cling to membranes which are sort of like window screens. Fiber optic cables will focus light across the membranes, allowing the bugs to grow and feast on a diet of carbon dioxide as it flows through the membranes.

The bioreactor will be located just below the stacks, where the gas has already been cooled to about 130 degrees by liquid scrubbers that remove fly ash and sulfur from the exhaust. That temperature should be just fine for Cooksey's bugs.

Bayless hopes to have a full-scale demonstration project running in about four years. If it works as he expects, we could have cleaner skies in the years ahead, allowing the nation, and the world, to ease the burden we have placed on the planet.

If it fails, some scientists believe the only alternative is to figure out some way to pump all that carbon dioxide into the ocean, a significant problem since about 70 percent of the nation's power plants are inland.

"I don't think that will work, and I don't think it's something we should do," says Cooksey. "We have no idea what the consequences of injecting CO2 into the ocean would be. Many scientists are violently opposed to it."

So let's hear a rousing cheer for green slime. Maybe those little bugs can do it for us.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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