RoboJelly diagram
A computer-aided model of Robojelly shows the vehicle’s two bell-like structures.

Undersea Vehicle Powered by Hydrogen and Oxygen

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Tech have created an undersea vehicle inspired by the common jellyfish that runs on renewable energy and could be used in ocean rescue and surveillance missions. In a study published this week in Smart Materials and Structures, scientists created a robotic jellyfish, dubbed Robojelly, that feeds off hydrogen and oxygen gases found in water. “We’ve created an underwater robot that doesn’t need batteries or electricity,” said Dr. Yonas Tadesse, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UT Dallas and lead author of the study. “The only waste released as it travels is more water.”

Engineers and scientists have increasingly turned to nature for inspiration when creating new technologies. The simple yet powerful movement of the moon jellyfish made it an appealing animal to simulate. The Robojelly consists of two bell-like structures made of silicone that fold like an umbrella. Connecting the umbrella are muscles that contract to move. In this study, researchers upgraded the original, battery-powered Robojelly to be self-powered. They did that through a combination of high-tech materials, including artificial muscles that contract when heated. These muscles are made of a nickel-titanium alloy wrapped in carbon nanotubes, coated with platinum and housed in a pipe. As the mixture of hydrogen and oxygen encounters the platinum, heat and water vapor are created. That heat causes a contraction that moves the muscles of the device, pumping out the water and starting the cycle again. “It could stay underwater and refuel itself while it is performing surveillance,” Tadesse said. In addition to military surveillance, Tadesse said, the device could be used to detect pollutants in water. Tadesse said the next step would be refining the legs of the devices to move independently, allowing the Robojelly to travel in more than one direction.

{Dr. Ray Baughman, the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry and director of the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at UT Dallas, was an author of the study. The research was a collaboration between researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia Tech, including Dr. Shashank Priya, the study’s senior author. The study was funded by the Office of Naval Research.}

The Robojelly, shown here out of water, has an outer structure made out of silicone.

When the Earth is uninhabited, this robotic jellyfish will still be roaming the seas
by Esther Inglis-Arkell  /  March 21, 2012

Virginia Tech and the University of Texas at Dallas have claimed their place as the leading purveyor of robot-based nautical doom with robojelly, a robot that simulates the look and the move of a cnidarian. Anyone who has seen jellies knows that they move with a repetitive contraction of their bells, or their transparent outer shells. This movement requires two motions: a contraction and a snap back to the original position. For this carbon nanotubule jellyfish, the engineers used a commercially available, shape memory, titanium-and-nickel alloy to mimic the snap back. The contraction was harder to engineer. The Robojelly needed muscles, so researchers used platinum-covered carbon nanotubes to cover the shape memory sheets. When hydrogen and oxygen gases in the water made contact with the platinum — which is in the form of black powder — they create a reaction that gives off heat. This causes the nickel-titanium alloy to contract. And since hydrogen and oxygen are in seawater, these jellies could roam the oceans indefinitely, with possible future tinkering.

The deformation of the bell, powered by this reaction, was found to be a modest 13.5%. An electro-robojelly can manage 29% and a biological one can get an impressive 42%, but neither of the latter can power themselves until judgment day.

Yonas Tadesse
email : yonas.tadesse [at] utdallas [dot] edu


“Artificial muscles powered by a renewable energy source are desired for joint articulation in bio-inspired autonomous systems. In this study, a robotic underwater vehicle, inspired by jellyfish, was designed to be actuated by a chemical fuel source. The fuel-powered muscles presented in this work comprise nano-platinum catalyst-coated multi-wall carbon nanotube (MWCNT) sheets, wrapped on the surface of nickel–titanium (NiTi) shape memory alloy (SMA). As a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen gases makes contact with the platinum, the resulting exothermic reaction activates the nickel–titanium (NiTi)-based SMA. The MWCNT sheets serve as a support for the platinum particles and enhance the heat transfer due to the high thermal conductivity between the composite and the SMA. A hydrogen and oxygen fuel source could potentially provide higher power density than electrical sources. Several vehicle designs were considered and a peripheral SMA configuration under the robotic bell was chosen as the best arrangement. Constitutive equations combined with thermodynamic modeling were developed to understand the influence of system parameters that affect the overall actuation behavior of the fuel-powered SMA. The model is based on the changes in entropy of the hydrogen and oxygen fuel on the composite actuator within a channel. The specific heat capacity is the dominant factor controlling the width of the strain for various pulse widths of fuel delivery. Both theoretical and experimental strains for different diameter (100 and 150 µm) SMA/MWCNT/Pt fuel-powered muscles with dead weight attached at the end exhibited the highest magnitude under 450 ms of fuel delivery within 1.6 mm diameter conduit size. Fuel-powered bell deformation of 13.5% was found to be comparable to that of electrically powered (29%) and natural jellyfish (42%).”


Japanese researcher draws inspiration from slime mold cognition
by Christopher Mims  / 03/09/2012

A new blob-like robot described in the journal Advanced Robotics uses springs, feet, “protoplasm” and a distributed nervous system to move in a manner inspired by the slime mold Physarum polycepharumWatch it ooze across a flat surface, The Blob style:

Skip to 1:00 if you just want to be creeped out by its life-like quivering. (And if anyone can explain why, aside from wanting to kill its creepiness, the researcher stabs it with a pen-knife at 1:40, let me know in the comments.) Researcher Takuya Umedachi of Hiroshima University has been perfecting his blob-bot for years, starting with early prototypes that used springs but lacked an air-filled bladder.

This model didn’t work nearly as well, demonstrating, I guess, the need for a fluid or air-filled sack when you’re going to project your soft-bodied self in a new direction. (Hydraulic pressure is, after all, how our tongues work.) Umedachi modeled his latest version on the “true” slime mold, which has been shown to achieve a “human-like” decision-making capacity through properties emerging from the interactions of its individual spores. Slime molds appear to have general computational abilities, and you’ve probably heard that they can solve mazes. Here’s what they look like in the wild.

Yellow slime mold (detail) by frankenstoen

Yellow slime mold by frankenstoen

Soft-bodied robots can do things their rigid, insectoid brethren can’t, like worm their way into tight spots and bounce back in the face of physical insult. Umedachi’s goal isn’t simply to create a new kind of locomotion, however. He’s exploring the way in which robots that lack a centralized command center — i.e. a brain — can accomplish things anyway. Slime molds are a perfect model for this sort of thing, because they don’t even have the primitive neural nets that characterize the coordinated swimming and feeding actions in jellyfish.

From the abstract:

A fully decentralized control using coupled oscillators with a completely local sensory feedback mechanism is realized by exploiting the global physical interaction between the body parts stemming from the fluid circuit. The experimental results show that this robot exhibits adaptive locomotion without relying on any hierarchical structure. The results obtained are expected to shed new light on the design scheme for autonomous decentralized control systems.

Simulations indicate that the robot should be highly adaptable to deformation — i.e., squeezing through tight spaces.

For a full account of the ways that Umedachi plans to reproduce the world’s most primitive form of cognition in robots, here’s a 2011 talk on the subject by the professor himself.

Photo taken by Camille Flammarion in 1902 of lightning striking the Eiffel Tower on a summer night.

Scientists work to harness lightning for electricity
by Candace Lombardi / August 26, 2010

Nikola Tesla would be jealous. A group of chemists from the University of Campinas in Brazil presented research on Wednesday claiming they’ve figured out how electricity is formed and released in the atmosphere. Based on this knowledge, the team said it believes a device could be developed for extracting electrical charges from the atmosphere and using it for electricity. The team, led by Fernando Galembeck, says they discovered the process by simulating water vapor reactions in a laboratory with dust particles common to the atmosphere.

They found that silica becomes more negatively charged when high levels of water vapor are present in the air, in other words during high humidity. They also found that aluminum phosphate becomes more positively charged in high humidity. “This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes into contact with. We are calling this ‘hygroelectricity,’ meaning ‘humidity electricity,'” Galembeck said in a statement. But the discovery, if true, goes against the commonly held theory among scientists such as the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, that water is electroneutral–that it cannot store a charge. Galembeck, who is a member of the IUPAC, told New Scientist that he does not dispute the principle of electroneutrality in theory, but that he believes real-life substances like water have ion imbalances that can allow it to produce a charge.

The hygroelectricity discovery could lead to the invention of a device that is able to tap into all that energy. Akin to a solar panel, a hygroelectrical panel on a roof would capture atmospheric electricity that could then be transferred for a building’s energy use, according to the University of Capinas team. In addition to capturing electricity, such a device could also be used to drain the area around a building of its electrical charge, preventing the atmospheric discharge of electricity during storms–aka lightning. “We certainly have a long way to go. But the benefits in the long range of harnessing hygroelectricity could be substantial,” Galembeck said. The research was presented in Boston at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Harness lightning for energy, thanks to high humidity?
by David Biello / Aug 26, 2010

Why do the roiling, black clouds of a thunderstorm produce lightning? Ben Franklin and others helped prove that such lightning was discharged electricity, but what generates that electricity in such prodigious quantities? After all, storms generate millions of lightning bolts around the globe every year—even volcanoes can get in on the act as the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull did when photographs captured bolts of blue in the ash cloud.

Perhaps surprisingly, scientists still debate how exactly lightning forms; theories range from colliding slush and ice particles in convective clouds to, more speculatively, a rain of charged solar particles seeding the skies with electrical charge. Or perhaps the uncertainty about lightning formation is not surprising, given all that remains unknown about clouds and the perils of studying a storm—an electrical discharge can deliver millions of joules of energy in milliseconds.

But Brazilian researchers claim that their lab experiments imply that the water droplets that make up such storms can carry charge—an overturning of decades of scientific understanding that such water droplets must be electrically neutral. Specifically, chemists led by Fernando Galembeck of the University of Campinas found that when electrically isolated metals were exposed to high humidity—lots and lots of tiny water droplets known as vapor—the metals gained a small negative charge.

The same holds true for many other metals, according to Galembeck’s presentation at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston on August 25—a phenomenon they’ve dubbed hygroelectricity, or humid electricity. “My colleagues and I found that common metals—aluminum, stainless steel and others—acquire charge when they are electrically isolated and exposed to humid air,” he says. “This is an extension to previously published results showing that insulators acquire charge under humid air. Thus, air is a charge reservoir.” The finding would seem to confirm anecdotes from the 19th century of workers literally shocked—rather than scalded—by steam. And it might explain how enough charge builds up for lightning, Galembeck argues.

The scientists envision devices to harness this charge out of thick (with water vapor) air—a metal piece, like a lightning rod, connected to one pole of a capacitor, a device for separating and storing electric charge. The other pole of the capacitor is grounded. Expose the metal to high humidity (perhaps within a shielded box) and harvest voltage. “If this could be done safely, it would allow us to have better control of thunderstorms,” Galembeck says, envisioning a renewable energy source from the humid air of the tropics and mid-latitudes.

Unfortunately, the finding violates the principle of electric neutrality, in which the differently charged molecules of an electrolyte like water cancel out. And although geophysicists and other atmospheric scientists may not know all the details of how lightning forms, they do have a general sense, and hygroelectricity seems to ignore what is largely understood. “It is utter nonsense,” says atmospheric physicist William Beasley of the University of Oklahoma, a lightning researcher. “All seriously considered mechanisms for electrification of thunderstorms that can lead to the kind of electric fields that are required for lightning involve convection and rebounding collisions between graupel [a slush ball] and ice particles in convective storms.”

Similar efforts to capture the electricity in a lightning bolt have failed, most recently, Alternate Energy Holdings’s would-be lightning capture tower outside Houston. The wired tower never worked. “This concept has been disproven many times over,” Beasley notes. What’s more, the amount of energy in a lightning bolt—never mind its crackling electric grandeur—is but a fraction of the amount of energy required to run even one 100-watt lightbulb, which uses 100 joules every second, for a day. But taming lightning is a prospect that has tempted experimenters since at least the Olympian thunderbolts of Zeus. Of course, the vast majority of the energy is in the storm itself—hurricanes, for example, have the heat energy of 10,000 nuclear bombs. Capturing that energy might prove frazzling.

Can we grab electricity from muggy ai?
by Colin Barras / 26 August 2010

Every cloud has a silver lining: wet weather could soon be harnessed as a power source, if a team of chemists in Brazil is to be believed. In 1840, workers in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, reported painful electric shocks when they came into close contact with steam leaking from factory boilers. Both Michael Faraday and Alessandro Volta puzzled over the mysterious phenomenon, dubbed steam electricity, but it was ultimately forgotten without being fully understood.

Fernando Galembeck at the University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil, is one of a small number of researchers who thinks there is a simple explanation, but it involves accepting that water can store charge – a controversial idea that violates the principle of electroneutrality. This principle – which states that the negatively and positively charged particles in an electrolyte cancel each other out – is widely accepted by chemists, including the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). “I don’t dispute the IUPAC statement for the principle of electroneutrality,” says Galembeck. “But it is seldom applicable to real substances,” he says, because they frequently show ion imbalances, which produce a measurable charge.

His team electrically isolated chrome-plated brass tubes and then increased the humidity of the surrounding atmosphere. Once the relative humidity reached 90 per cent, the uncharged tube gained a small but detectable negative charge of 300 microcoulombs per square metre – equating to a capacity millions of times smaller than that of an AA battery.

Sensitive Victorians
The Victorian workers would have had to have been particularly sensitive souls to complain of such a shock, but Galembeck thinks his study shows steam electricity may be a credible phenomenon. He thinks the charge builds up because of a reaction between the chrome oxide layer that forms on the surface of the tube and the water in the atmosphere. As the relative humidity rises, more water condenses onto the tube’s surface. Hydrogen ions in the water react with the chrome oxide, leading to an ion imbalance that imparts excess charge onto the isolated metal.

The work finds favour with Gerald Pollack at the University of Washington in Seattle. Last year he suggested that pure water could store charge and behave much like a battery, after finding that passing a current between two submerged electrodes created a pH gradient in the water that persisted for an hour once the current had been switched off. He says this is evidence that the water stores areas of positive and negative charge, but the experiment led to a lively debate in the pages of the journal Langmuir over whether the results really violated the principle of electroneutrality or whether there were salt impurities in the water that led it to behave like a conventional electrochemical cell. Pollack calls the Campinas team’s work “interesting”. “It opens the door to many new possibilities,” he says.

Power from air
Galembeck thinks those possibilities include harnessing atmospheric humidity as a renewable power source, as light is converted to electricity in solar panels. “My work is currently targeted to verify this possibility and to explore it,” he says. However, he acknowledges that most researchers remain to be convinced that what he calls “hygroelectricity” will ever get off the ground.

Allen Bard at the University of Texas falls within that majority. “In general I think that it is true that our understanding of electrostatic phenomena and charging at solid/gas interfaces is incomplete,” he says. “I am, however, very sceptical about these phenomena being harnessed as a power source. The amounts of charge and power involved are very small.”

References: Galembeck presents his work at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston this week; it was previously published in Langmuir, DOI: 10.1021/la102494k. Pollack’s work was published in Langmuir, DOI: 10.1021/la802430k; the resulting debate in the journal can be followed here, here, and here.

Electricity collected from the air could become the newest alternative energy source
Aug. 25, 2010

Imagine devices that capture electricity from the air ― much like solar cells capture sunlight ― and using them to light a house or recharge an electric car. Imagine using similar panels on the rooftops of buildings to prevent lightning before it forms. Strange as it may sound, scientists already are in the early stages of developing such devices, according to a report presented here today at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). “Our research could pave the way for turning electricity from the atmosphere into an alternative energy source for the future,” said study leader Fernando Galembeck, Ph.D. His research may help explain a 200-year-old scientific riddle about how electricity is produced and discharged in the atmosphere. “Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect,” he maintained. “If we know how electricity builds up and spreads in the atmosphere, we can also prevent death and damage caused by lightning strikes,” Galembeck said, noting that lightning causes thousands of deaths and injuries worldwide and millions of dollars in property damage.

The notion of harnessing the power of electricity formed naturally has tantalized scientists for centuries. They noticed that sparks of static electricity formed as steam escaped from boilers. Workers who touched the steam even got painful electrical shocks. Famed inventor Nikola Tesla, for example, was among those who dreamed of capturing and using electricity from the air. It’s the electricity formed, for instance, when water vapor collects on microscopic particles of dust and other material in the air. But until now, scientists lacked adequate knowledge about the processes involved in formation and release of electricity from water in the atmosphere, Galembeck said. He is with the University of Campinas in Campinas, SP, Brazil.

Scientists once believed that water droplets in the atmosphere were electrically neutral, and remained so even after coming into contact with the electrical charges on dust particles and droplets of other liquids. But new evidence suggested that water in the atmosphere really does pick up an electrical charge. Galembeck and colleagues confirmed that idea, using laboratory experiments that simulated water’s contact with dust particles in the air. They used tiny particles of silica and aluminum phosphate, both common airborne substances, showing that silica became more negatively charged in the presence of high humidity and aluminum phosphate became more positively charged. High humidity means high levels of water vapor in the air ― the vapor that condenses and becomes visible as “fog” on windows of air-conditioned cars and buildings on steamy summer days. “This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes into contact with,” Galembeck explained. “We are calling this ‘hygroelectricity’, meaning ‘humidity electricity’.”

In the future, he added, it may be possible to develop collectors, similar to the solar cells that collect the sun to produce electricity, to capture hygroelectricity and route it to homes and businesses. Just as solar cells work best in sunny areas of the world, hygroelectrical panels would work more efficiently in areas with high humidity, such as the northeastern and southeastern United States and the humid tropics. Galembeck said that a similar approach might help prevent lightening from forming and striking. He envisioned placing hygroelectrical panels on top of buildings in regions that experience frequent thunderstorms. The panels would drain electricity out of the air, and prevent the building of electrical charge that is released in lightning. His research group already is testing metals to identify those with the greatest potential for use in capturing atmospheric electricity and preventing lightning strikes. “These are fascinating ideas that new studies by ourselves and by other scientific teams suggest are now possible,” Galembeck said. “We certainly have a long way to go. But the benefits in the long range of harnessing hygroelectricity could be substantial.”

Fernando Galembeck
email : fernagal [at] igm.unicamp [dot] br

Gerald Pollack
email : ghp [at] u.washington [dot] edu


Dr. Gerald Pollack’s views on water have been called revolutionary. He attests that, despite what Mr. Wizard may have taught you, there are actually four phases of water: solid, liquid, vapor and gel. This fourth phase, Pollack says, may in fact be the most important of all. “If you want to understand what happens in any system – be it biological, or physical, or chemical, or oceanographic, or atmospheric, or whatever – it doesn’t matter, anything involving water, you really have to know the behavior of this special kind of gel-like water, which dominates.”

Pollack’s water studies have led to amazing possibilities: that water acts as a battery, that this battery may recharge in a way resembling photosynthesis, that these water batteries could be harnessed to produce electricity. He discusses these ideas in a lecture now playing on UWTV: “Water, Energy and Life: Fresh Views From the Water’s Edge.” Yet the search for these fresh views has not been without struggle. “Before I became controversial, I almost never had a problem; I had large amounts of funding,” Pollack, a UW professor of bioengineering, explained. “The more controversial I became, the more difficult it’s been to get money. There were several really dry years. “And now it’s gotten better because I think people are beginning to recognize the importance of the work on water. So it’s improving, but it’s still not easy.”

The study of water has a long history of unpopularity, Pollack said. “Six or seven decades ago, water was a really interesting subject. A lot of people thought that water had a particular chemistry – that it interacted with other molecules and was really an important feature of any system that contained water. Then, research almost stopped 40 years ago. There were two scientific debacles that took place that made everybody highly skeptical of any kind of research on water.” The first of these concerned polywater. “Some findings seemed to imply that water acted as though it was a polymer; in other words, all the molecules would somehow join together into a polymer and create some really weird kinds of effects,” Pollack described. Eventually, these results – first presented by a Russian chemist – were discredited. “The nails were driven into the coffin of water research by another debacle that took place 20 years later, and that was the idea of water memory,” Pollack said. “The idea was that water molecules could have memory of other substances into which it had been in contact.”

A debate in the science journal Nature eventually moved public opinion against this theory as well. “So because of these two incidents, scientists absolutely stayed away from water because water research was treacherous,” Pollack said. “You could drown in your own water.” Yet, these murky waters were not enough to deter Pollack from the subject. He first broached the topic in his 2001 book “Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life.” “The book asserts, contrary to the textbook view, that water is the most important and central protagonist in all of life,” Pollack said. “There are so many realms of science where water is central. In order to understand how everything works, you need to know the properties of water.” As Pollack sought to understand water, his focus turned to a particular phase near hydrophilic surfaces that didn’t quite fit in. “The three phases of water that everybody knows about in the textbook just don’t do it. In fact, it’s a 100-year-old idea that there’s a fourth phase of water. This is not an original idea.” Though the concept of a liquid crystalline, or gel-like, phase of water has been around for some time, the generally accepted view is that this kind of water is only two or three molecular layers thick. “And what we found in our experiments is that it’s not two or three layers, but two or three million layers. In other words, it’s the dominant feature,” Pollack said.

With this revelation in hand, Pollack focused his attention on this mostly unstudied phase of water. He has since discovered much about its underestimated thickness, its capacity to create a charge, its connections to photosynthesis and its practical applications. The thickness of this gel-like water may explain why items of higher density than water – such as a coin – can float. Surface tension is at work, but it arises from this thick, gel-like surface layer. “Turns out that the thickness depends on the pH,” Pollack said. “If you increase the pH, we found that this region gets thicker. It also gets thicker with time. So if you wait long enough, and if you have the right conditions, and maybe enough light beating down on it, you could conceivably get a very thick layer. “If we come up with the right conditions, maybe it’s true that we can walk on water – if this region can be made thick enough.”

Biblical aspirations aside, the energy carried within this water and the water near it may be even more impressive. Dr. Pollack works in his lab to demonstrate some of the unusual properties of water. “This kind of water is negative, and the water beyond is positive. Negative, positive – you have a battery,” Pollack explained. “The question is, how is it used and might we capitalize on this kind of battery?” The key to understanding how this water battery works is learning how it is recharged. “You can’t just get something for nothing – there has to be energy that charges it,” Pollack said. “This puzzled us for several years, and finally we found the answer: it’s light. It was a real surprise. So if you take one of these surfaces next to water, and you see the battery right next to it, and you shine light on it, the battery gets stronger. It’s a very powerful effect.” This effect takes on entirely new possibilities when considered in terms of the water within our bodies. “I’m suggesting that you – inside your body – actually have these little batteries, and, remember, the batteries are fueled by light,” Pollack said. “Why don’t we photosynthesize? And the answer is, probably we do. It may not be the main mechanism for getting energy, but it certainly could be one of them. In some ways, we may be more like plants and bacteria than we really think.”

All of these innovative ideas may have practical applications as well. Water in its gel-like phase excludes solutes. “It’s actually pretty pure,” Pollack explained. “If you could collect this water right near the surface, it should be free of bacteria, for example, and maybe also viruses. So we’ve constructed a prototype device in the laboratory that shows excellent separation, on the order of 200 to 1. And we’re now trying to scale this up to practical quantities of water that could be filtered.” A second possibility is extracting electrical energy from this natural water battery. “We’ve so far been able to get only small amounts of electrical energy out, but we just started the project,” Pollack said. “If this process that we found is the same as photosynthesis, or the same principle, and I do think it may be, then it’s a pretty efficient system.”

Pollack and other researchers clearly have a long and complex challenge ahead as they seek to understand water in new ways. But you don’t have to know Pollack well to see that the challenge itself is part of the intrigue of pursuing such work. “I’m so compelled to continue our studies because they reveal so much and they answer so many questions – even already – questions that have remained unanswered for so long. For Pollack, finding answers is a way of life. “I dream this stuff,” he confessed. “It never leaves me. If I’m sitting on the plane, sitting on the toilet seat, standing in the shower, it’s on my mind always. “When I see something in nature that doesn’t seem right, or doesn’t seem explained yet, I just can’t stop thinking about it. Thinking about how it might work. I dwell on the problem. I never stop.”


Daniel Nocera
email : nocera [at] mit [dot] edu

by David L. Chandler / May 14, 2010

Expanding on work published two years ago, MIT’s Daniel Nocera and his associates have found yet another formulation, based on inexpensive and widely available materials, that can efficiently catalyze the splitting of water molecules using electricity. This could ultimately form the basis for new storage systems that would allow buildings to be completely independent and self-sustaining in terms of energy: The systems would use energy from intermittent sources like sunlight or wind to create hydrogen fuel, which could then be used in fuel cells or other devices to produce electricity or transportation fuels as needed.

Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry, says that solar energy is the only feasible long-term way of meeting the world’s ever-increasing needs for energy, and that storage technology will be the key enabling factor to make sunlight practical as a dominant source of energy. He has focused his research on the development of less-expensive, more-durable materials to use as the electrodes in devices that use electricity to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water molecules. By doing so, he aims to imitate the process of photosynthesis, by which plants harvest sunlight and convert the energy into chemical form.

Nocera pictures small-scale systems in which rooftop solar panels would provide electricity to a home, and any excess would go to an electrolyzer — a device for splitting water molecules — to produce hydrogen, which would be stored in tanks. When more energy was needed, the hydrogen would be fed to a fuel cell, where it would combine with oxygen from the air to form water, and generate electricity at the same time. An electrolyzer uses two different electrodes, one of which releases the oxygen atoms and the other the hydrogen atoms. Although it is the hydrogen that would provide a storable source of energy, it is the oxygen side that is more difficult, so that’s where he and many other research groups have concentrated their efforts. In a paper in Science in 2008, Nocera reported the discovery of a durable and low-cost material for the oxygen-producing electrode based on the element cobalt.

Now, in research being reported this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Nocera, along with postdoctoral researcher Mircea Dincă and graduate student Yogesh Surendranath, report the discovery of yet another material that can also efficiently and sustainably function as the oxygen-producing electrode. This time the material is nickel borate, made from materials that are even more abundant and inexpensive than the earlier find. Even more significantly, Nocera says, the new finding shows that the original compound was not a unique, anomalous material, and suggests that there may be a whole family of such compounds that researchers can study in search of one that has the best combination of characteristics to provide a widespread, long-term energy-storage technology. “Sometimes if you do one thing, and only do it once,” Nocera says, “you don’t know — is it extraordinary or unusual, or can it be commonplace?” In this case, the new material “keeps all the requirements of being cheap and easy to manufacture” that were found in the cobalt-based electrode, he says, but “with a different metal that’s even cheaper than cobalt.” The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Chesonis Family Foundation.

But the research is still in an early stage. “This is a door opener,” Nocera says. “Now, we know what works in terms of chemistry. One of the important next things will be to continue to tune the system, to make it go faster and better. This puts us on a fast technological path.” While the two compounds discovered so far work well, he says, he is convinced that as they carry out further research even better compounds will come to light. “I don’t think we’ve found the silver bullet yet,” he says. Already, as the research has continued, Nocera and his team have increased the rate of production from these catalysts a hundredfold from the level they initially reported two years ago.

John Turner, a research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, calls this a nice result, but says that commercial electrolyzers already exist that have better performance than these new laboratory versions. “The question then is under what circumstances would this system provide some advantage over the existing commercial systems,” he says. For large-scale deployment of solar fuel-producing systems, he says, “the big commercial electrolyzers use concentrated alkali for their electrolyte, which is OK in an industrial setting were engineers know how to handle the stuff safely; but when we are talking about thousands of square miles of solar water-splitting arrays, and individual homeowners, then an alternative electrolyte like this benign borate solution may be more viable.” The original discovery has already led to the creation of a company, called Sun Catalytix, that aims to commercialize the system in the next two years. And his research program was recently awarded a major grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.

a FUNGUS that EATS OIL SPILLS,32068,13102109001_1879838,00.html
“What Stamets has discovered is that the enzymes and acids that mycelium produces to decompose this debris are superb at breaking apart hydrocarbons – the base structure common to many pollutants. So, for instance, when diesel oil-contaminated soil is inoculated with strains of oyster mycelia, the soil loses its toxicity in just eight weeks.”

Shroom Vacuum / by Emily Linroth / 2008

Lurking in leaf piles and crouching on logs is one of nature’s smallest superheroes. It prefers shade to the spotlight, and eats garbage with a vengeance. Behold: the mighty mushroom. After centuries of trampling the most efficient recyclers nature has to offer, humans are finally beginning to see mushrooms as more than a gourmet meal. A new tactic in environmental cleanup known as mycoremediation uses fungi to transform environmental contaminants into harmless compounds. “Humans seem very good at messing things up and throwing systems out of balance,” said Erin Moore, a member of the Northwest Mushroomers’ Association. “Why not try to use tools like fungi to put them back into balance?”

Myco means “mushroom,” and remediation is the process of restoring something to its optimal state. Mycoremediation is a part of mycorestoration, a term coined by mycologist (fungi researcher) Paul Stamets, to describe the use of fungi in aiding the environment. That’s right. Mushrooms eat more than just rotting wood. Give them oil, arsenic or even nerve gas, and they’ll give you back water and carbon dioxide. Mushrooms are nature’s prime decomposers, and they’re very good at what they do. They eat by releasing enzymes capable of breaking down substances from which they gain nutrients. Their usual diet consists of plants and other organic, or carbon-based, organisms.

Since many toxins have similar chemical makeup to plants, fungi can break them down as well. These include petroleum products, pesticides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals with estrogen, and even neurotoxins. Once the contaminants are broken down, the mushrooms are safe to eat. Mushrooms can also absorb heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic. A species called oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, have a particularly high tolerance for areas heavily contaminated with cadmium and mercury. This means oyster mushrooms can grow in high-mercury areas and still decompose other pollutants. Mushrooms that ingest heavy metals are no longer safe to eat, because the toxins remain concentrated in the mushroom instead of being broken down. For this reason, heavy-metal laden mushrooms must be removed after absorption to prevent the metals from reentering the area when the mushrooms die and decompose.

Oyster mushrooms gained national attention after the Nov. 7, 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill, when nearly 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel were dumped into San Francisco Bay. To test the potential of mycoremediation, workers mopped up oily beaches with mats of human hair, which is extremely absorbent. Oyster mushroom spores were introduced and began growing on the mats, decomposing the oil. The result: water, carbon dioxide, compost material suitable for highway landscaping and restored beaches. Once the oyster mushrooms run out of food, they will die off and decompose naturally, posing no threat to the environment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mycoremediation was first attempted in Bellingham in 1998, when Stamets and a team of researchers from Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Sequim, Wash. treated plots in a contaminated truck maintenance yard operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation. Of the four plots, one received mushroom spores, two received bacterial treatments and one was left as a control. After four weeks, the plots not treated with spores remained unchanged, but the spore-rich plot had sprouted a large crop of oyster mushrooms. Over the next five weeks, the mushrooms matured, reproduced and then died. Their life cycle attracted insects, birds and other animals, and life flourished on the once-dead plot.

Mycorestoration was also used to filter contaminated water after Hurricane Katrina’s rampage through the Gulf Coast States in 2005, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Mushrooms are also capable of breaking down infectious agents such as E.coli and staphylococcus bacteria, according to Stamets’ book “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.” Fungi have also been used at Superfund sites, some of the most toxic hazardous waste sites, throughout the nation.

Mycoremediation has potential for future expansion. Mushrooms could be used to break down pesticides released from Whatcom County farms before they reach rivers and the food chain. Fungi could take up heavy metals from the Georgia Pacific site, restoring the land more rapidly to pave way for Bellingham’s future waterfront development. Mycoremediation has many benefits compared to traditional cleanup processes, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Since mycoremediation can be carried out at the contaminated location, the site doesn’t need to be disrupted, preventing the release of more toxins. Also, mycoremediation is a completely natural process requiring minimal supervision, making it much cheaper than more institutionalized methods such as incineration.

The success of fungi is due to their nature and their structure, according to Dr. Fred Rhoades, a biology professor and avid mycologist at Western Washington University. Fungi are different from plants because they cannot produce their own food. Because of this, many species work with plants or bacteria to break down other substances into nutrients, which they then absorb. “It’s a fantastic relationship,” said Moore. “These fungi actually grow on the very fine, absorbing tree roots, just like a glove on a hand.” The fungi carry nutrients and water to the trees, which feed sugars to the fungi.

Fungi also have a much different structure than plants. Although the mushroom itself is the most popular image we have of a fungus, it actually only makes up a small part of the organism. The mushrooms we see are fruiting bodies – they produce spores, much like the fruiting parts of a plant produce seeds. Mushrooms are part of a larger organism known as the mycelium. All fungi are made up of mycelium, even those that do not form mushrooms. “The mushroom is like the apple, and the mycelium is like the apple tree,” Rhoades said.

Mycelia (plural of mycelium) are complex webs of hair-like fibers that resemble the neurological pathways in the human brain. Although only one cell wall thick, mycelia are responsible for cycling nutrients through the fungus and its surrounding environment, according to Stamets’ book. Mycelium mats can grow very large and connect entire forests in a nutrient-sharing network. One specimen covered more than 2,400 acres on an Oregon mountaintop; possibly the largest living organism, according to the journal “Nature.”

Some fungi will decompose anything that provides them with nutrients, Rhoades said, but others are picky eaters. Mycoremediation occurs most successfully when mycelia of local mushrooms are bred to target specific contaminants, according to Stamets’ book. Since mycoremediation is an emerging field, plenty of testing must be done before it can be used on a wide scale, according to Stamets’ book. Mushroom enthusiast Angus Tierney of Evergreen State College, Wash. believes mycoremediation would profit both the environment and the mushrooms themselves. “All life on earth benefits from a toxin-free environment, including mushrooms,” Tierney said. “If mushrooms were extensively used in this way, it could change many minds that correlate them with putrid rot and poison into seeing how mushrooms are healing.”

Paul Stamets
email : paulstamets [at] gmail [dot] com

Adapted from “Earth’s Natural Internet” by Paul Stamets / Fall 1999

“From a piece of tissue the size of one tenth of your little fingernail, what we call a clone, cells can be grown exponentially into millions of pounds of mushrooms in as little as several months. More than 10% of the growing medium or “substrate” (straw, sawdust, compost, most agricultural and forest debris) can be converted into a protein- and vitamin-rich food. Not only are these mushrooms nutritious, they have demonstrated abilities in enhancing the human immune system, and they produce a slew of natural antibiotics. Yet it is the residual mycelium in that substrate that holds the greatest potential for ecological rehabilitation.

Mycelia can serve as unparalleled biological filters. When I first moved to my property, I installed an outdoor mushroom bed in a gulch leading to a saltwater beach where clams and oysters were being commercially cultivated. An inspection showed that the outflow of water from my property was jeopardizing the quality of my neighbor’s shellfish with the bacteria count close to the legal limit. The following year, after the mushroom beds were colonized with mycelium, the coliform count had decreased to nearly undetectable levels. This led to the term I have coined “mycofiltration”, the use of fungal mats as biological filters.

Mycelium produces extracellular enzymes and acids that break down recalcitrant molecules such as lignin and cellulose, the two primary components of woody plants. Lignin peroxidases dismantle the long chains of hydrogen and carbon, converting wood into simpler forms, on the path to decomposition. By circumstance, these same enzymes are superb at breaking apart hydrocarbons, the base structure common to oils, petroleum products, pesticides, PCBs, and many other pollutants.

For the past four years I have been working with Battelle Laboratories, a non-profit foundation, whose mission is to use science to improve environmental health. Battelle is a major player in the bioremediation industry, and widely used by the United States and other governments in finding solutions to toxic wastes. The marine science laboratory of Battelle, Sequim, Washington became interested, as their mandate is to improve the health of the marine ecosystem. Under the stewardship of Dr. Jack Word, we began a series of experiments employing the strains from my mushroom gene library, many of which were secured through collecting specimens while hiking in the old growth forests of the Olympic and Cascade mountains. We now have applied for a patent utilizing mycelial mats for bioremediation, a process we have termed “mycoremediation”.

After several years, and redundant experiments to prove to naysayers that our data was valid, we have made some astonishing discoveries. (I am continually bemused that humans “discover” what nature has known all along.) The first significant study showed that a strain of Oyster mushrooms could break down heavy oil. A trial project at a vehicle storage center controlled by the Washington State Dept. of Transportation (WSDOT) enlisted the techniques from several, competing bioremediation groups. The soil was blackened with oil and reeked of aromatic hydrocarbons. We inoculated one berm of soil approximately 8 feet x 30 feet x 3 feet high with mushroom spawn while other technicians employed a variety of methods, ranging from bacteria to chemical agents. After 4 weeks, the tarps were pulled back from each test pile. The first piles employing the other techniques were unremarkable. Then the tarp was pulled from our pile, and gasps of astonishment and laughter welled up from the observers. The hydrocarbon-laden pile was bursting with mushrooms! Oyster mushrooms up to 12 inches in diameter had formed across the pile. Analyses showed that more than 95% of many of the PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) were destroyed, reduced to non-toxic components, and the mushrooms were also free of any petroleum products.

After 8 weeks, the mushrooms had rotted away, and then came another startling revelation. As the mushrooms rotted, flies were attracted. (Sciarid, Phorid and other “fungus gnats” commonly seek out mushrooms, engorged themselves with spores, and spread the spores to other habitats). The flies became a magnet for other insects, which in turn brought in birds. Apparently the birds brought in seeds. Soon ours was an oasis, the only pile teeming with life! We think we have found what is called a “keystone” organism, one that facilitates, cascade of other biological processes that contribute to habitat remediation. Critics, who were in favor of using plants (as in “phytoremediation”) and/or bacteria, reluctantly became de facto advocates of our process since the mushrooms opened the door for this natural sequencing.”

Cleaning up toxic spills, stopping poison-gas attacks, curing deadly diseases…
by Linda Baker / Nov 25, 2002

Once you’ve heard “renaissance mycologist” Paul Stamets talk about mushrooms, you’ll never look at the world — not to mention your backyard — in the same way again. The author of two seminal textbooks, “The Mushroom Cultivator” and “Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms,” Stamets runs Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned gourmet and medicinal mushroom business in Shelton, Wash. His convictions about the expanding role that mushrooms will play in the development of earth-friendly technologies and medicines have led him to collect and clone more than 250 strains of wild mushrooms — which he stores in several on- and off-site gene libraries.

Until recently, claims Stamets, mushrooms were largely ignored by the mainstream medical and environmental establishment. Or, as he puts it, “they suffered from biological racism.” But Stamets is about to thrust these higher fungi into the 21st century. In collaboration with several public and private agencies, he is pioneering the use of “mycoremediation” and “mycofiltration” technologies. These involve the cultivation of mushrooms to clean up toxic waste sites, improve ecological and human health, and in a particularly timely bit of experimentation, break down chemical warfare agents possessed by Saddam Hussein. “Fungi are the grand recyclers of the planet and the vanguard species in habitat restoration,” says Stamets, who predicts that bioremediation using fungi will soon be a billion-dollar industry. “If we just stay at the crest of the mycelial wave, it will take us into heretofore unknown territories that will be just magnificent in their implications.”

A former logger turned scanning-electron microscopist, Stamets is not your typical scientist — a role he obviously relishes. “Some people think I’m a mycological heretic, some people think I’m a mycological revolutionary, and some just think I’m crazy,” he says cheerfully. His discussions of mushroom form and function are sprinkled with wide-ranging — and provocative — mycological metaphors, among them his belief that “fungal intelligence” provides a framework for understanding everything from string theory in modern physics to the structure of the Internet. In a recent interview, Stamets also spoke mysteriously of a yet-to-be-unveiled project he calls the “life box,” his plan for “regreening the planet” using fungi. “It’s totally fun, totally revolutionary. It’s going to put smiles on the faces of grandmothers and young children,” he says. “And it’s going to be the biggest story of the decade.”

Statements like those make it tempting to dismiss Stamets as either chock-full of hubris or somewhat deluded. But while many academic mycologists tend to question both his style and his methods, Stamets’ status as an innovative entrepreneur is hard to dispute. “Paul has a solid grounding in cultivation and has expanded from that base to show there are other ways of using and cultivating mushrooms than just for food,” says Gary Lincoff, author of “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.” “These are relatively new ideas … but Paul’s got a large spread where he can have experiments going on under his control. And he’s getting big-name people to back him.”

An advisor and consultant to the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School and a 1998 recipient of the Collective Heritage Institute’s Bioneers Award, Stamets has made converts out of more than one researcher in the mainstream medical and environmental communities. “He’s the most creative thinker I know,” says Dr. Donald Abrams, the assistant director of the AIDS program at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Abrams says he became interested in the medicinal properties of mushrooms after hearing one of Stamets’ lectures. Stamets is now a co-investigator on a grant proposal Abrams is authoring on the anti-HIV properties of oyster mushrooms. Jack Word, former manager of the marine science lab at Battelle Laboratories in Sequim, Wash., calls Stamets “a visionary.” Stamets takes bigger, faster leaps than institutional science, acknowledges Word, who, along with Stamets and several other Battelle researchers, is an applicant on a pending mycoremediation patent. “But most of what Paul sees has eventually been accepted by outside groups. He definitely points us in the right direction.”

Although mycoremediation sounds “Brave New World”-ish, the concept behind it is decidedly low tech: think home composting, not genetic engineering. Most gardeners know that a host of microorganisms convert organic material such as rotting vegetables, decaying leaves and coffee grounds into the nutrient-rich soil required for plant growth. Fungi play a key role in this process. In fact, one of their primary roles in the ecosystem is decomposition. (Hence the killer-fungus scenario of many a science fiction novel, not to mention the moldy bread and bath tiles that are the bane of modern existence.) The same principle is at work in mycoremediation. “We just have a more targeted approach,” says Stamets. “And choosing the species [of fungi] that are most effective is absolutely critical to the success of the project.”

Fungal decomposition is the job of the mycelium, a vast network of underground cells that permeate the soil. (The mushroom itself is the fruit of the mycelium.) Now recognized as the largest biological entities on the planet, with some individual mycelial mats covering more than 20,000 acres, these fungal masses secrete extra cellular enzymes and acids that break down lignin and cellulose, the two main building blocks of plant fiber, which are formed of long chains of carbon and hydrogen. As it turns out, such chains are similar enough to the base structure of all petroleum products, pesticides, and herbicides so as to make it possible for fungi to break them down as well. A couple of years ago Stamets partnered with Battelle, a major player in the bioremediation industry, on an experiment conducted on a site owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation in Bellingham. Diesel oil had contaminated the site, which the mycoremediation team inoculated with strains of oyster mycelia that Stamets had collected from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Two other bioremediation teams, one using bacteria, the other using engineered bacteria, were also given sections of the contaminated soil to test.

Lo and behold. After four weeks, oyster mushrooms up to 12 inches in diameter had formed on the mycoremediated soil. After eight weeks, 95 percent of the hydrocarbons had broken down, and the soil was deemed nontoxic and suitable for use in WSDOT highway landscaping. By contrast, neither of the bioremediated sites showed significant changes. “It’s only hearsay,” says Bill Hyde, Stamets’ patent attorney, “but the bacterial remediation folks were crying because the [mycoremediation] worked so fast.” And that, says Stamets, was just the beginning of the end of the story. As the mushrooms rotted away, “fungus gnats” moved in to eat the spores. The gnats attracted other insects, which attracted birds, which brought in seeds.

Call it mycotopia. “The fruit bodies become environmental plateaus for the attraction and succession of other biological communities,” Stamets says. “Ours was the only site that became an oasis of life, leading to ecological restoration. That story is probably repeated all over the planet.” At Fungi Perfecti, a rural compound not far from Aberdeen, Wash., signs warn visitors not to enter without an appointment, and security cameras equipped with motion sensors guard several free-standing laboratories and a mushroom “grow” room. “My concerns are personal safety and commercial espionage,” says Stamets, explaining that competitors and mycological hangers-on (not always a stable lot, apparently) have a tendency to show up unannounced.

Then there’s the small problem of marketing a product associated in some people’s minds with illegal substances. In the late 1970s, Stamets did pioneering research at Evergreen State College on psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms; he later published a definitive identification guide: “Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World.” “I drew the line a long time ago,” says Stamets. “But I’ll never be an apologist for that work. Everything I did was covered by a DEA license.”

Today, Stamets spends much of his time cloning wild mushrooms. One of his innovations has been identifying strains of mushrooms with the ability to decompose certain toxins and adapting them to new environments. With the benefit of computer clean-room technology, Stamets introduces samples of toxins to mycelia growing on agar culture, then screens the samples to see if the mycelia are actually metabolizing the toxin. You can actually train the mycelia to grow on different media, he says. As reported in Jane’s Defence Weekly, one of Stamets’ strains was found to “completely and efficiently degrade” chemical surrogates of VX and sarin, the potent nerve gases Saddam Hussein loaded into his warheads. “We have a fungal genome that is diverse and present in the old-growth forests,” says Stamets. “Hussein does not. If you look on the fungal genome as being soldier candidates protecting the U.S. as our host defense, not only for the ecosystem but for our population … we should be saving our old-growth forests as a matter of national defense.”

Stamets recently collaborated with WSDOT on another mycoremediation project designed to prevent erosion on decommissioned logging roads, which channel silt and pollutants toward stream beds where salmon are reproducing. In a process Stamets terms “mycofiltration,” bark and wood chips were placed onto road surfaces and inoculated with fungi. The mycelial networks not only helped to build and retain soil but also filtered out pollutants and sediments and thus mitigated negative impacts on the watershed. Stamets envisions myriad uses of mycofiltration, one of which involves bridging the gap between ecological and human health. It’s been more than 70 years since Alexander Fleming discovered that the mold fungus penicillium was effective against bacteria. And yet, complains Stamets, nobody has paid much attention to the antiviral and antibiotic properties of mushrooms — partly because Americans, unlike Asian cultures, think mushrooms are meant to be eaten, not prescribed. But with the emergence of multiple antibiotic resistance in hospitals, says Stamets, “a new game is afoot. The cognoscenti of the pharmaceuticals are now actively, and some secretly, looking at mushrooms for novel medicines.”

Based on a recent study documenting the ability of a mushroom, Polyporus umbellatus, to completely inhibit the parasite that causes malaria, Stamets has come up with a mycofiltration approach to combating the disease. “We know that these fungi use other microorganisms as food sources,” he says. “We know they’re producing extracellular antibiotics that are effective against a pantheon of disease microorganisms. We can establish sheet composting using fungi that are specific against the malarial parasites. We can then go far in working with developing countries, in articulating mycelial mats specific to the disease vectors in which these things are being bred.” Stamets is currently shopping this idea around to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a front-runner in the effort to provide vaccinations in developing nations.

Mycotechnology is part of a larger trend toward the use of living systems to solve environmental problems and restore ecosystems. One of the best-known examples is John Todd’s “Living Machine,” which uses estuary ecosystems powered by sunlight to purify wastewater. “The idea that a total community is more efficient against contaminants than a single Pac Man bug is gaining acceptance,” says Jack Word, now with MEC Analytical Systems, an environmental consulting firm. The key challenge facing mycotechnologies, he says, is securing funding to demonstrate their large-scale commercial feasibility. Stamets is the Johnny Appleseed of mushrooms; he’s spreading the gospel about the power of fungi to benefit the world. Issuing a call to mycological arms, Stamets urges gardeners to inoculate their backyards with mycorrhizae, fungi that enter into beneficial relationships with plant roots, and to grow shiitake and other gourmet mushrooms, among the very best decomposers and builders of soil.

But Stamets’ vision doesn’t stop there. In the conference room at Fungi Perfecti, with a 2,000-year-old carved mushroom stone from Guatemala hovering, shamanlike, over him, he explains his far-reaching theory of mycelial structure. “Life exists throughout the cosmos and is a consequence of matter in the universe,” he says. “Given that premise, when you look at the consequence of matter, and the simple premise of cellular reproduction, which forms a string, which forms a web, which then cross-hatches, what do you have? You have a neurological landscape that looks like mycelium. It’s no accident that brain neurons and astrocytes are similarly arranged. It’s no accident that the computer Internet is similarly arranged.”

“I believe the earth’s natural Internet is the mycelial network,” he says. “That is the way of nature. If there is any destruction of the neurological landscape, the mycelial network does not die; it’s able to adapt, recover and change. That’s the whole basis of the computer Internet. The whole design patterns something that has been reproduced through nature and has been evolutionarily successful over millions of years.” The day after being interviewed in late October, Stamets called to point out a New York Times article on self-replicating universes, an article, he suggested, that reinforced his ideas about matter creating life and the generative power of mycelium. In describing the way universes might multiply, the reporter used the following felicitous metaphor: “For some cosmologists, that means universes sprouting from one another in an endless geometric progression, like mushrooms upon mushrooms upon mushrooms.” Where is Stamets going with all this? “I have a strategy for creating ecological footprints on other planets,” he says. “By using a consortium of fungi and seeds and other microorganisms, you could actually seed other planets with little plops. You could actually start keystone species and go to creating vegetation on planets. I think that’s totally doable.”

Five ways mushrooms can save the world
By John Weier / January-March 2009

Bearded and burly, Paul Stamets searches the forest on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula like a bloodhound, peering under fallen trees and sniffing inquisitively at the air. The object of his quest is the Agarikon mushroom—so rare that it can take Stamets, who has spent more than 30 years researching fungi, weeks to locate just one. And when he does—by bushwhacking for hours through untrammeled wilderness until he finds the beehive-shaped mushroom growing on a log or hanging from a towering Douglas fir— it’s worth the effort, Stamets says. For the Agarikon is the Holy Grail in his crusade to prove that fungi can be used to treat health problems ranging from high blood pressure to cancer. And his vision doesn’t end there.

Stamets believes fungi can clean up fuel spills, provide a nontoxic (and more effective) alternative to insecticides, and be the source of a powerful new biofuel. Listen to him talk, and it’s tempting to dismiss the 53-year-old as just another wild-eyed devotee of natural solutions—especially when he describes the web of mycelia (thread-like tendrils beneath the forest floor that form the foundation underlying fungi) as being eerily similar to the structure of the universe and says mycelia form an intelligent network that can sense human footsteps. But one thing sets Stamets apart: many of his ideas have proven scientifically credible.

Stamets is best known as the owner of Fungi Perfecti, a booming mail-order business outside Olympia, Washington, that peddles everything from grow-your-own mushroom kits to mushroom-based dog biscuits. But he considers this a side job that gives him freedom to conduct serious research. Stamets developed an Agarikon strain that University of Illinois researchers say could treat tuberculosis. He has engineered a fungus that wipes out carpenter ants, has used fungi to remove pollution from streams, and has helped the Department of Defense investigate whether fungi can counteract biological weapons. It’s all part of his quest to harness mushrooms as a solution to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

1. Homeland Security
Two thousand years ago, a Greek pharmacist named Dioscorides described a mushroom that was highly effective in treating consumption. Stamets stumbled upon those first-century writings and began a personal mission to track down Fomitopsis officinalis, agarikon. The Agarikon mushroom is thought to be extinct in Europe and Asia but, fortuitously, still grows in isolated pockets of Stamets’s backyard, the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwestern United States. So far, Stamets has painstakingly located dozens of the mushrooms, established more than a dozen Agarikon strains, and sent hundreds of cultures to scientific labs—including several doing research as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Project BioShield.

Among other things, Project BioShield investigates drugs and compounds that could provide new treatments for tuberculosis, smallpox, and other viruses that could be weaponized. Of the thousands of compounds tested, only a tiny percentage have been effective enough to be approved for more comprehensive research, including animal testing. At least two of Stamets’s Agarikon strains have cleared that hurdle; scientists at the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, have shown that the extracts selectively attack cowpox and vaccinia viruses, which are closely related to the smallpox virus.

Researchers at the Institute for Tuberculosis Research at the University of Illinois, Chicago, got similar results when they placed Agarikon extract and tuberculosis samples in close quarters. The extract actually stopped the tubercle growth and, in separate tests, was shown to be harmless to mammal cells—an important indicator that it wouldn’t hurt people. For now, that’s happened only in a test tube, but institute director Scott Franzblau says researchers are working to identify the extract’s active compounds and understand exactly what makes the remedy tick. Until then, they won’t know how to compare it to other TB drugs or whether it will make an effective drug at all.

Stamets believes the Agarikon is only the beginning. He’s convinced that mushrooms can cure everything from avian flu to cancer. But to extend his research, Stamets needs to keep generating new extracts from an increasingly diverse array of fungi, which explains why his quest is entangled in another cause: preserving old-growth forests. With Agarikons already rare (it recently took Stamets’s team 20 trips into the forest to find just one), he believes habitat conservation should be a vital part of the effort to cure deadly diseases such as smallpox or bird flu. “We can make the argument that we should save the old-growth forests as a matter of national defense,” Stamets says.

2. A Cultivated Taste for Diesel
In the late 1990s, Stamets and researchers from Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, conducted an experiment to see whether mushrooms could clean up pollution. They grew oyster-mushroom mycelia on wood chips, then sprinkled the chips onto a pile of soil drenched in diesel and other petroleum waste. For comparison, they coated two similar piles with pollution-fighting enzymes and bacteria and used a fourth pile as a control. After leaving the mounds alone for six weeks, Stamets returned to find a result so profound that it led to what he calls “an epiphany of my life.”

“All the other piles were dead, dark, and stinky,” Stamets said in a recent lecture. “Our pile was covered with hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms.”

The remarkable transformation was spurred by a natural process that lets fungi consume even the most toxic pollutants. When certain fungi are introduced to a new patch of soil, they release a shower of digestive enzymes. After detecting which ones do the best job breaking down the soil compounds, the fungi mass-produce those enzymes.

To capitalize on this process, Stamets and Battelle’s Jack Word gave fungi petroleum products as their only food source. They then cloned the fungi that did the best job digesting the contaminants and used them in the soil test. The fungi flourished—and that was just the beginning. The mushroom spores attracted insects, which laid eggs that became larvae. The larvae attracted birds, which brought in seeds. Soon, plants were sprouting up across the previously polluted mound. “Our pile became an oasis of life,” Stamets said in his lecture.

Stamets has used similar methods to show that fungi can remove everything—from pesticides to nerve gas—from soil and water. For example, he developed a novel way to clean coliform bacteria from streams contaminated by cattle farms. He simply fills burlap bags with wood chips covered in mycelia, then stacks those bags in the streams. As the water filters through the bags, the mycelia release enzymes that digest the bacteria. According to one of Stamets’s patent applications, the method can reduce coliform bacteria by as much as 97 percent; in one test, the mushrooms reduced bacteria from 900 colonies per 100 milliliters of water to just 30 colonies per 100 milliliters.

Stamets now wants to make this natural process part of a national cleanup system. He envisions a network of “mycorestoration” hubs where mycelia are grown before being moved to contaminated land. For this to become reality, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government bodies would have to approve it as a standard cleanup practice. And that might be a tall order.

Word says public agencies have been skittish about fungal solutions since the late 1970s, when several highly publicized attempts to use white rot fungi to clean up contaminants ended in failure. “We have an uphill battle when we try to convince others that [our methods are different from] that process,” Word says.

3. Ants on ’Shrooms
When carpenter ants invaded Stamets’s home, he didn’t call Terminix. Instead, he went to his lab and engineered an insect-eradicating fungus.

His experiment rested on a long-known fact: certain fungi can infect and kill ants and termites. But, to protect their colonies, these insects have devised morbid ways of preventing fungal poisons from spreading. Ants, for example, will identify an infected individual, then decapitate it or isolate it in a side tunnel. Companies have tried for years to come up with fungal killers that subvert these defenses. Those efforts were largely unsuccessful—until Stamets developed an ingenious solution reminiscent of the Trojan horse.

Stamets developed a fungus that is not only deadly to ants but also waits to form spores. Since ants don’t see spores when they encounter the fungus, they don’t identify it as poison. Rather, they actually mistake it for food and carry it back to their queen. By the time the fungus sporulates, it’s too late to fend it off. The fungus has already spread throughout the colony’s ants.

Stamets has received several patents for the fungal pesticide and says just five grams of the stuff can wipe out a home infestation. Even better, he claims the nontoxic solution is harmless to humans. Still, Stamets has to work out a few kinks before the product can hit the mass market.

Roger Gold, professor of urban etymology at Texas A&M, points out that it’s hard to maintain unique fungal strains over long periods of time, which could make it hard to scale up production. Stamets will also need to navigate the EPA’s approval process, an enterprise that can cost millions of dollars. He says he’s had interest from investors who might foot the bill, but he admits that some of them become hesitant once they take a closer look. Ever the contrarian, Stamets interprets those doubts as reassurance that he’s on the right course. “The fact that there are people who say this will never work is proof I’m onto something unique and novel,” he says.

4. Mail Fertility
One of Stamets’s newest schemes would use mushrooms, plants, and the U.S. Postal Service to mitigate climate change. Stamets has developed a cardboard panel dubbed the “Life Box” that’s impregnated with seeds and spores. Once planted in the ground, the panels will give rise to urban forests that soak up CO2, Stamets predicts.

Each panel contains an assortment of tree or vegetable seeds, and mycelia are added to help the seeds flourish. (Many mycelia have symbiotic relationships with plants, providing them with nutrients and water. The plants return the favor by delivering shade and food.) Sized to fit in the bottom of a standard mailing package, the panels can easily be added to mail-order shipments; whenever someone orders a copy of Stamets’s book Mycelium Running, a panel is dropped into the shipping box.

Stamets envisions recipients running out to plant the panels in their yards, giving rise to trees. It might be optimistic to think all Life Box recipients will automatically stick the panels into the ground—people can be pretty picky about their landscaping—but Stamets thinks his invention has a bright future. He has already sent the panels to refugee camps, where they could sprout corn, beans, or other food crops, and he hopes big-name retailers will someday include panels with all their shipments. “We get all these cardboard boxes in the mail,” Stamets says. “Why not turn them into food or habitat?”

5. Fungus Fuel
If Stamets’s utopian solutions ever become reality, the world will face a problem far less appetizing than the ’shrooms themselves: mountains of stinky mushroom waste. That’s because mass-producing fungal extracts would require large-scale facilities to grow mycelia on wood chips and other organic matter. Once the enzymes and other beneficial compounds were harvested, thousands of tons of the organic matter would be left to rot, and this is where Stamets’s quirky vision completes its circle. He even has a plan for how to use what would be the smelly byproduct of his success: use it to solve the global energy crisis.

When fungal sugars are mixed with yeast and other active ingredients, they turn into “myconol”—a fuel no different from the ethanol now being blended with gasoline to power cars. Stamets is working to perfect the conversion process and estimates that it takes about 48 kilograms of mycelia-laced material to produce 3.5 liters of fuel. He says myconol will be his research facility’s sole fuel source within two years. As usual with Stamets, that’s just one small step toward an earth-changing goal: he also intends to sell myconol conversion kits on his Web site, building grass-roots support for a nationwide program to fuel everything from factories to cars—not with coal or oil, but with fungus.

Why such low-tech solutions as hair mats and mushrooms may be the answer to oil-spill woes
by Alastair Bland / 01.09.08

You are what you eat—unless you’re an oyster mushroom. In that case, you can indulge in some of the most toxic, noxious petroleum products available and turn them into delicious, photogenic morsels that go wonderfully in white wine cream sauces and Japanese stir-fries with not a carcinogen remaining. Called mycoremediation, this impressive skill of the oyster mushroom has gained substantial press in the wake of the Nov. 7 Cosco Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, and many environmental activists believe that, if pursued by biotechnology developers, mycoremediation could completely rewrite how to handle the aftermath of future spills.

Mycologists have been speculating for years on the possibility of someday employing oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, in toxic-waste cleanup projects, and when the freighter Cosco Busan scraped the Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of sludgy bunker fuel, mushroom biologists from Monterey to Seattle quickly mobilized. They partnered with the San Francisco nonprofit Matter of Trust, secured a small plot of federal land in the Presidio near the Golden Gate Bridge and proceeded to spearhead a historic experiment of oil-hungry mushrooms that has attracted nationwide media scrutiny. “Nature has all the solutions. We just haven’t been paying attention,” says Matter of Trust executive director Lisa Gautier, who has been laboring tirelessly since the day of the spill, becoming somewhat of an authority on the arcane subjects of ship fuel and fungi in the process. “In nature, there really isn’t any waste. All materials get dealt with, and it’s just a matter of harnessing the technology.”

Harnessing the powers of oyster mushrooms is exactly what Gautier and a team of mycologists have done. Two months have passed since the oil spill, and there now grows a healthy colony of large and vigorous hand-sized oyster mushrooms at the Presidio project site. Scientists, who plan to run chemical analyses of the substrate beneath the mushrooms and the mushrooms themselves, expect to find few to no hydrocarbons or other trace elements common to petroleum products remaining. The mushrooms are sprouting from eight experimental 5-by-5-foot cubicles partitioned from each other with bales of hay and rubber pond liners each filled with varying mixtures of straw, sawdust, grain, oil and oyster-mushroom mycelium, the vinous, underground rootlike matter that constitutes the greater mushroom organism. Two control blocks, which were not implanted with any mushroom spores, have shown no notable activity. The experiment demonstrates how simple it could be to implement a brand-new procedure for detoxifying contaminated soil and turning it into harmless compost.

The essence of mycoremediation occurs underground, amid the tangly mycelium. In their day-to-day life, mushrooms eat forest-floor plant matter, and in doing so they break down cellulose and lignin, which occur side by side in the cell walls of plants. This plant matter is composed of hydrogen and carbon, just like petroleum products, and for the oyster mushroom there is little difference on a microscopic level between eating wood and eating nasty, sticky bunker oil; it’s all just hydrogen and carbon. Once these atoms are isolated, the fungus reconfigures them into carbohydrates, familiar molecules which many of us either love or hate. Meanwhile, fruits pop up above ground, and, assuming no heavy metals are present in the soil, the mushrooms are free of toxins. In time, the mushrooms themselves will be eaten or decay, nature will reabsorb them into the food chain, and any oil in the soil will be gone.

Humans, of course, mostly burn oil—but as concern over carbon emissions, air quality and climate change escalates, mycoremediation may begin to look more and more like the perfect alternative. Securing oil from the water or beach and transporting it to a controlled environment was among the greater obstacles in the Presidio mycoremediation process, but mats made of human hair have served as a superbly effective material for conducting this task. A barber from Huntsville, Ala., named Phil McCrory conceived of this product with a bit of experimentation in the years following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

Since 2002, McCrory’s garden-supply company Smart Grow has commercially marketed dense pads of human hair as commercial and household horticulture aids. The mats insulate soil, help retain groundwater, discourage weed growth and release essential nutrients into the soil, but in November these hair mats served for the first time ever in a large-scale oil-spill cleanup effort.
When the Cosco Busan busted its hull, Matter of Trust—which has worked with McCrory since the late 1990s—had several hundred hair mats on hand, ready for just such an occasion. With several hundred guerrilla volunteers, Lisa Gautier mopped up several thousand pounds of the black tar as it came ashore at Ocean Beach. Dressed in a HazMat suit, Gautier and others wrung the hair mats out into large dumpsters, reusing them multiple times before each was saturated and had to be finally disposed of. Gautier sent the oily refuse away with Unified Command, the government body overseeing the spill’s aftermath, intending to subsequently retrieve as much as she needed as fodder for her experimental brood of oyster mushrooms.

Gautier, meanwhile, made plans to launch the mushroom growing experiment. She has long opposed the standard government-assisted protocols of dumping or incinerating waste oil, and has concurrently admired the work of famed Washington state author, biologist and entrepreneur Paul Stamets, who has experimented with oil and oyster mushrooms in the past. Stamets happened to be in town at the time of the spill for the annual Green Festival in San Francisco, and Gautier contacted him three days after the spill, by which time she and her volunteers had secured several thousand pounds of Cosco Busan fuel. Gautier explained the situation, and the two agreed to partner up, along with Stamets’ cohort David Sumerlin and the Mycological Society of San Francisco’s Ken Litchfield. Stamets called home and ordered an immediate shipment of several hundred blocks of oyster mushroom mycelium, and so the stage was set for history.

Of course, the mainstream media was there, too. With Stamets ready to be filmed, a KTVU cameraperson prepared him for taping, urging him to speak on topic. “It’s a wonderful quirk of nature,” Stamets began, “that oyster mushrooms can break down diesel and many petroleum products, the reason being that oyster mushroom mycelium breaks down straw and wood, and wood and straw are composed, as most plants are, of long chains of carbon and hydrogen strung together to form cellulose and lignin. Well, when mycelium breaks down wood and straw, it cleaves the bonds between carbon and hydrogen, and those same carbon-hydrogen bonds are what hold hydrocarbons together—petroleum products. So the mycelium has already devised a way of breaking down those hydrogen-carbon bonds and in doing so breaks the hydrocarbons apart and remanufactures them into sugars, called carbohydrates.”

“I hate to do this to you,” the cameraman said. “We need to simplify this a lot, because it’s mainstream television.” ~
“I thought I did simplify it!” Stamets laughed. “I thought that was very simplified.” He restated the above, using fewer terms from the periodic table and basic chemistry. Gautier, standing by, suggested that he recite it still again—but without saying “mycelium.”
“Say ‘mushroom,'” she suggested.
“Yeah,” agreed the cameraman. “I don’t think everyone has a biology degree.”
“It’s really simple!” cried Stamets, exasperated to his wits’ end. Still, again, he described the experiment in painfully simplified terms. It was just what KTVU needed, and the cameraman packed his gear and departed.

Cleanup crews only collected about 19,000 gallons of oil, leaving some 39,000 gallons at large. Gautier says that the response could have and should have been much more successful. She insists that, had the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) accepted her immediate advances after the accident, when she was there on the double offering McCrory’s human hair mats, the cleanup effort could have secured nearly all the bunker fuel from the water’s surface, before it washed out to sea and before it soiled a hundred miles of Bay Area beaches. “Not only are these hair mats a green method of cleaning up oil, unlike the polypropylene sponges they usually use, but they actually work better,” Gautier says. “There’s no reason not to use them, and if they’d accepted those hair mats and used them in the beginning, they would have had all that oil cleaned up. “But the DFG has their own emergency-response system, which they stick to,” she says. “Anyway, they’re bombarded after every oil spill with green methods that don’t work at all, so they just said, ‘We’ll review your proposal and consider this,’ and went away.”

Hair-mat inventor McCrory agrees, insisting that his product—of which Smart Grow makes about 4 million each year—could have saved the bay. “If they had contained that oil spill and then put the hair mats down, that water would have been as clean as your dining room table.” The DFG’s Yvonne Addassi, who regularly oversees statewide oil-spill cleanups, says that her agency declined to use the hair mats because similar products have in the past been treated with chemicals which, though they facilitate the adsorption of oil, can contaminate water. “I wasn’t familiar with these new hair mats,” Addassi admits. “We thought they could pose their own risk of releasing these chemicals into the water.”

And so the great mass of freshly dumped Cosco Busan bunker oil traveled westward on the outgoing tide. It drifted past the bay’s islands and under the Golden Gate Bridge. It split into northward and southward regiments and began a steady assault on popular beaches, while bureaucrats in various buildings shuffled papers, straightened ties and attended meetings, wondering who should do what, where and when. Mainstream media would herald the weeks after the spill as a triumphant time of teamwork and charitable volunteers, but as is now known, most of the oil was not recovered. Dead and dying birds would wash ashore for weeks afterward.

As the finishing touches were made to the Presidio project site, authorities suddenly revoked their promise to hand over even as little as the 20-gallon sample of fuel which Gautier had collected herself, for the sludge had become potential evidence in the escalating criminal investigation of the incidents just prior to the oil spill. “I really doubt they’re going to bring 18,000 gallons of oil into a courtroom,” Gautier charges. “They could spare 20 gallons for our experiment if they really wanted to help.”

Gautier, Ken Litchfield and others suspect that various parties have been reluctant to see Matter of Trust gain access to the oil, which is being held in an Alameda shipyard, because of its plans to test it for varying intensities of toxicity. The tests would be for scientific purposes—to see how efficiently oyster mushrooms can metabolize particular molecules—but it’s likely, says Gautier, that those responsible for the oil were afraid of legal complications that might arise should the mushroom folks discover a particularly toxic chemical or heavy metal in the Cosco Busan’s fuel.
“There are millions of dollars of damages at hand,” Gautier says, “and we were planning to analyze the oil more than anyone has analyzed it. If we came up with something that hadn’t already been seen, it would have opened a whole new can of worms for them.” With no bunker fuel at the ready but with over 1,000 pounds of ravenous mycelium just dying for something poisonous to eat, the mushroom team went to Plan B: used motor oil, donated just before Thanksgiving, care of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment.

Today, the mushrooms are thriving, particularly in the experiment block containing a large addition of grain, and in hindsight, Gautier is perfectly content not to be using any of the Cosco Busan fuel anyway. It has been greatly diluted with seawater and is almost certainly not as potent as the fresh product, she says, and if the mushrooms could eat it, big deal; for the fungus to devour pure motor oil would actually be a weightier testament to the possibilities of mycoremediation. After all, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 360 million gallons of motor oil drain into the sea every year. By contrast, large ship accidents spill just 37 million gallons of bunker fuel annually. And according to the Smithsonian Institution, annual road runoff from a city of 5 million people equals approximately the amount of petroleum involved in some large oil spills, a stat that makes one wonder about a solution as simple as planting beds of oyster mushrooms along the shoulder of every highway in America to catch the toxic runoff.

Indeed, a prosperous future appears to be developing in the realm of hair mats and mycoremediation. Ken Litchfield, who owns and manages an organic farm in the East Bay hills, has high hopes for a world bettered by mushrooms. We are at the beginning of the biological century, he says. The world in the year 2100 will be as different from today as 2000 was from 1900. It was technology that drove the change in the last 100 years, but in this century, Litchfield says, biotechnology, much of it in the form of myco-technology, will change the face of civilization. “We will not be living in the same world—assuming we make it through—that we’re living in now, biologically speaking.” He tells of innovative carpenters who have experimented with fungal architecture. These builders grow mycelium in broad flat beds, then kill the organism and dry it so that a thick “board” remains, serving as organic, fungal wall insulation. Even better, says Litchfield, mushrooms may also be used someday to extract heavy metals that contaminate our soil. Theoretically, the mycelium would pick up the atoms and channel the heavy metals upward to the surface, into the mushroom’s fruit.

By the same methodology, Litchfield says, mushrooms could be used in mining operations. And what if we could engineer a strain of mushroom adept at gathering gold? The idea holds that the mycelium would dive through the rock to the mother lode and send it upward to the surface and into the eager fingers of prospectors, no dynamite or mercury needed. But is it science fiction or destiny? Without question, mycelium is running wild just under our feet, and many believe that, if only harnessed and controlled, fungi could help remedy the earth’s many problems of environmental contamination. In the Presidio, the alchemy of mushroom biology is at work, and the state-run Department of Toxic Substances Control is watching closely, tentatively interested in adopting mycoremediation technology into standard practice.

A global movement seems already to be underway. The Dec. 7 spill in the Yellow Sea, which discharged a reported 2.7 million gallons of oil just off the coast of South Korea and devastated the local fishing and aquaculture industries, is now being remedied by crews armed with Bay Area hair mats. Cleanup crews addressing the Nov. 12 oil spill in the Black Sea, which poured a thousand tons of bunker fuel into the water, have also secured hair mats from Matter of Trust and Smart Grow to better mop up the sludge. And in Ecuador, where a 2001 pipeline break on the Toachi River dumped 10,000 barrels of crude oil and left a messy legacy festering on the banks, American volunteers have revived the long-dormant cleanup effort with hair mats in hand and a fresh sense of hope. There are even stubborn remnants of the memorable 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, reported at 11 million gallons, in Alaska’s Prince William Sound that still need attention. “There’s a ton of it coming out of the ground,” says Riki Ott, a journalist and author with a Ph.D. in oil pollution. “It got buried subsurface and has been preserved.”

According to Ott, who has researched the biological and cultural effects of the Valdez spill extensively, only 5 percent of the spill was removed from the water. Ott also accuses Exxon of lying about the volume of the disaster, underestimating in order to lessen the intensity of the legal consequences. She believes 30 million gallons of oil may actually have entered the water, leaving a legacy guaranteed to linger for decades. Among the most dangerous compounds in petroleum are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and near Valdez, says Ott, those atoms are still “bio-available,” meaning that they may be ingested by organisms and dispersed into the food chain, eventually entering humans. She says that thousands of illnesses and maladies among locals in the Prince William Sound area can be attributed to PAHs, which may cause asthma, immune system failure, respiratory problems, reproductive disorders, vertigo, nausea and cancer.

But oyster mushrooms relish the dangerous molecules, and Ott hopes to channel some of Exxon’s settlement dollars from the spill—much of it yet to be paid—into hair mats and mycoremediation-development programs. Ott is also coordinating with environmentalists on the devastated West Coast of South Korea, but not without her simmering grievances against oil companies. “I’m so disappointed that the oil industry continues to operate without a viable plan to clean up their messes, whether it’s in a tiny seaport in Alaska or in a big place like San Francisco or South Korea,” she says. “It’s inexcusable, and it shows a total lack of disrespect for everyone else on the planet.”

Ott expects the oil industry to try and block such progress in systemic change. The standard polypropylene oil pads are, in fact, a profitable business product for those invested in petroleum; countless pads are produced annually to aid in cleaning up some 2,500 annual oil spills. “These people are profiting from their own messes, and they have closed eyes and ears to any suggestion of [cleaning up the oil] in some new way.” According to hair-mat inventor McCrory, synthetic mats hardly even work when compared to his seven-ounce, 10-inch-wide organic products, which are reputed to be able to soak up a quart of oil in less than two minutes. Squeezed and rung out like a wet towel, McCrory says that each mat can be used as many as 100 times, adding that the synthetic pads soak up a blend of approximately half oil, half water. Even less effective, he says, are “skimmers,” vessels that enter oil slicks and vacuum the pollutant off the surface at a 9-to-1 ratio of water to oil, fluid far too diluted with water to be recuperated, which usually gets discarded or burned.

Amidst so much oil and interest in hair mats, is there enough human hair in the world to support this new technology? Almost certainly. In the United States alone, some 320,000 hair salons produce an average of a pound of hair every day, most of which currently goes to landfill. McCrory’s hair mats are all produced at six locations in China and India, which also have ample hair resources, but Oakland’s East Bay Depot of Creative Reuse, an arts and crafts recycling nonprofit, is arranging—with the help of the tireless Gautier, of course—to purchase the required needle-punch machine, arrange a compact with Bay Area barbers and establish the first domestic hair-mat factory.

Change is in the air, and the vision shared by Stamets, McCrory, Ott, Gautier and so many other activists and mushroom fanatics seems to be materializing. The biotechnology of human hair and mushrooms is gaining support and could eventually replace antiquated, dirty methods of toxic-spill management. “The oil-cleanup business is a hard revenue stream to break into, but there’s been such a positive response,” Gautier says. “I think this is really the kind of thing that the world can grab on to. We’re all familiar with hair, oil and fungus, and this is a cheap and effective and organic system. We’re proving that it works, and I think the San Francisco Bay Area, with all that’s going on now after the spill, is going to revolutionize oil-spill cleanup.”

For nearly 30 years, New York State agencies have known about a 17 million gallon oil spill under the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Now they’re finally starting to do something about it.
by Julie Leibach / January 24, 2007

The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center slumbers on the southwest bank of Newtown Creek, a brick behemoth in a dusty concrete bed. The sun casts long shadows behind the building, where weeds clump around the weathered skeleton of a wooden boat. Along the creek’s edge, two quiet figures navigate the cracked cement ledge, surveying the murky water below where several yards of fishing line cut through the surface. Any minute now…. and then it happens: an almost imperceptible tug on the line triggers a choreographed dance as the two figures painstakingly draw their prize—a blue crab—from the depths below.

Manuel Bodón has been crabbing along the banks of Newtown Creek for ten years; his friend, Edwin Rosa, for five. On this brisk October afternoon, they’ve already caught nearly a dozen. In a few hours, most will meet a boiled demise, when Bodón makes a seafood stew. “I put all kinds of seasoning in there,” he says. “It’s nice and tasty.” Never mind that his dinner was just taken from a waterway that once coursed with petroleum. While the surface appears cleaner than it’s been in the past, a mile up from Bodón and Rosa, oil continues to seep into the creek, though far less than just a few years ago. But it’s still a glaring sign of a much bigger problem.

For over 50 years, the Greenpoint section of northern Brooklyn has been sitting atop a staggering 17 million gallons of spilled oil—almost 50 percent more oil than was spilled in the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez supertanker in Alaska—and almost nothing has been done to clean it up. But now, the oily tide seems to be turning. Over the last few years, the spill—which likely originated from several tanks that leaked over the course of nearly a century—has been drawing closer scrutiny, particularly from environmental watch dog groups, law firms, and concerned citizens who all want the cleanup to begin in earnest. And just this past summer, the state Attorney General’s office agreed to investigate the spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced a thorough study of the site as well.

While uncertainties and mistrust remain, state agencies that once seemed only passively concerned—and sometimes, even protective of the oil companies responsible—are now striving for a more comprehensive clean-up of the oil that has been plaguing not just the creek, but also a middle class neighborhood whose best interests haven’t always seemed to be a priority. “This is really a ‘tale of two cities.’ One is the community of Greenpoint…[the other is] the story of Newtown Creek, which is a story marked by the largest environmental disaster in the history of New York City, followed by a generation of cover up by the companies that did it, followed by nearly a generation of delay in taking responsibility for what needs to be done,” said Congressman Anthony Weiner, during an October press conference announcing the EPA study. “We’re finally at a point where we can take some action.”

A walk through Greenpoint reveals a town with a split personality. Blocks of row houses interlace commercial streets dotted with Dunkin’ Donuts, T-Mobiles, and ubiquitous Polish bakeries and pharmacies. And glaring at it all is the sooty face of industry: warehouses, factories, and the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant rising like an alien spaceship, its giant silver “digester eggs”—which break down sludge—shining in the sun. Greenpoint has been an industrial center for over 140 years. Petroleum refining began in about 1866, and by 1892 most of those refineries—there were more than 50 on the banks of Newtown Creek—had been consolidated into John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust. After the break-up of the trust in 1911, some of the refineries fell under the ownership of the Standard Oil Company of New York (later Mobil Oil Corporation) and became known as the Brooklyn Refinery.

In 1966, the Brooklyn Refinery shut down and was demolished. Mobil Oil sold some of its lots to companies like Amoco (now British Petroleum, which currently owns a bulk fuel storage unit on a ten-acre plot) and used the remaining lots for petroleum bulk storage until 1993, when they closed. Most of the tanks and buildings of the former Brooklyn Terminal have since been torn down. The Paragon Oil Company—a subsidiary of Texaco (now Chevron Corporation)—also owned property along the creek and operated a storage facility for a decade until 1968, when Peerless Importers, a liquor distributor, purchased the land to build a warehouse. Those early refineries were careless in their operations, and it’s likely that they started spilling almost as soon as they began operating. Unhampered by environmental laws, few refineries had containment systems to catch spills, so what was released could seep into whatever was around to soak it up. “It was a very messy industry,” says Basil Seggos, chief investigator of Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog organization.

The biggest spill of all wasn’t revealed until 12 years after the Brooklyn Refinery shut down. During a helicopter patrol over Newtown Creek in early September of 1978, the Coast Guard noticed an oil slick on the surface of the water near Meeker Avenue, by the Peerless Importers site. An investigation by Coast Guard-hired contractors Geraghty & Miller, Inc. found that the seep was part of a much larger spill—17 million gallons of oil that had saturated the soil underneath nearly 55 acres in Greenpoint. The Coast Guard stopped the seep by installing recovery sumps—or basins—to collect the oil, but until 1989, little was done to address what lay beneath the surface. That was the year Exxon Mobil accepted responsibility for the oil under the ground.

In 1990, the company agreed to begin cleaning up the spill, which existed not only under its own former property, but also under Peerless Importers’ land and an adjacent residential area as well. But those agreements, which were supervised by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, were fairly simple and “just really [required] them to take free product out of the ground,” says Bob Hernan, an environmental lawyer with the state Attorney General’s office who is studying the spill. Nor were the agreements strictly enforced—at least, so it seemed to Greenport residents. In fact, there were times during community meetings when oil representatives wouldn’t even let the state agency representatives talk, according to Christine Holowacz, a member of the Greenpoint Waterpark Association for Parks and Planning. “It was a terrible blow for the community to come into a meeting where you thought you had the agencies that were supposed to protect [you],” says Holowacz.

But over the past few years, high-profile lawsuits and public outcry have spotlighted the spill, and the agencies seem to be doing a turnaround. They’re considering new technologies such as vacuum enhanced recovery—which sucks up oil that’s hard to reach—and they’re also beginning to address an issue that community members charge the state has long ignored: the relationship between the plume and residents’ health. A sickly yellowish light tints the walls of St. Stanislaus Kostka Auditorium on Newell Street, Brooklyn. Several attractive young women instruct incomers to sign their names on a legal pad. Eventually, the room fills with people of all ages, dragging on this Monday evening but still curious, having received a pink flyer printed in Polish on one side and English on the other. The flyer’s headline: Your property may be contaminated and your health threatened due to a massive oil spill in Greenpoint.

Marion Tomczak sits quietly, her bright blue eyes scanning the room. A Greenpoint resident all her life, Tomczak, 77, used to live a block away from one of the tank farms. “Some people [in the community] have asthma. I don’t know if it’s from the oil spill or not,” she says. “I want to see what’s wrong with this whole thing.” As the crowd settles in, three men make their way onto the stage. One of them, suit-clad, steps forward to address the crowd. “For more than 50 years, dangerous petroleum products, byproducts, [and] solvents have been leaking underneath your homes, your properties, and into the Newtown Creek,” he booms, adding that the problem “has been left unabated for all of that time without Exxon Mobil and the other responsible parties taking the blame.”

After the presentation, a middle-aged woman, shrouded in a head scarf, approaches the speaker. Her eyes are heavy with despair. A Polish translator explains that the woman suffers from lung cancer. She never smoked. “[The oil] could be a reason,” says the man in the suit. “I promise to investigate it.” He is Marc Bern, an attorney from Napoli, Bern, and Ripka, and he’s recruiting Greenpoint residents to join a suit against Exxon Mobil. It’s one of two large lawsuits—in 2005, Giardi and Keese, a California-based environmental firm, also filed a suit against Exxon Mobil, as well as British Petroleum and Chevron (the firm dismissed Chevron from the suit in 2006)—alleging that the oil poses a direct danger both to the lives of citizens and the value of their homes.

Anecdotes of people suffering from asthma and other diseases have been circulating in Greenpoint for years. A news report in the New York Post in mid-October mentioned several cases of a rare bone sarcoma turning up on the same block in Brooklyn, although the area may not be directly located on the plume. (The New York State Department of Health would not return repeated phone messages to confirm the cancer claims.) One worry about living on the plume is that vapors associated with it might be wending their way into people’s homes. The talk in the community is that “you can get deadly sick from the fumes,” says Francis Flynn, 56, a life-time resident of Hausman Street, portions of which are above the plume.

So far, no study has been conducted to see if there’s a link between residents’ health problems and their homes’ proximity to the spill, although some community members are clamoring for an investigation. The state Department of Health “would like us to believe that the cancer cases are no different here than anywhere else” says Laura Hoffman, a member of the Newtown Creek Alliance. “Of course, we find that hard to believe,” she says. Vapors rising up from underground oil spills can enter a home through cracks in basements, crawl spaces, or concrete slabs—and anyone inside can be exposed to them just by breathing the indoor air. Some of the compounds often found in petroleum vapors have been linked to health problems. One such compound is benzene, which is classified as a known carcinogen by the federal government. Long-term exposure to benzene has been linked to leukemia.

This summer, a contractor for Exxon Mobil conducted a soil vapor study in Greenpoint. It took ten samples from a residential area; of five samples that detected benzene, one was from an area above the oil plume at a level below 5.4 parts per billion. The EPA estimates that breathing just 0.4 parts per billion of benzene in air over a lifetime could cause a risk of one additional cancer case for every 100,000 people exposed. In a September draft report on the study, the Exxon contractor, Roux Associates, contended that intrusion from vapors was not likely to be a problem for people living on top of the plume. It said that vapors should naturally degrade as they pass through a basement slab. By the time they reach the inside of the house, contaminant levels should be at levels typical of regular indoor air, which for benzene can sometimes range from 1.1 to 6.6 parts per billion, according to an EPA database on indoor air values cited in the Roux report. Indeed, some household items such as nail polish have benzene in them. “Your average home has plenty of indoor air quality issues,” says Kevin Hale, a geological engineer with the state DEC. “In all probability, most of them don’t come from underground.”

So far, the state has not received any complaints about strange vapors in residents’ homes. But whether or not Roux’s conclusion is actually true remains to be seen. “We always take [Exxon’s recommendations] with a grain of salt,” says Hale. And the only way to be sure that Greenpoint citizens living on or near the plume aren’t being affected by oil-associated vapors is to take soil vapor samples from inside homes; the state is currently carrying out such a study. If it finds those vapors, the steps to control them are fairly simple. An off-the-shelf radon system—which works by intercepting vapors before they enter a house and venting them into the air outside—could do the trick. Some people, however, are wary of subjecting their homes to tests in the first place. They’re worried that if vapors are discovered, their property values might go down. Still others are reluctant to participate because they’re part of a lawsuit and are waiting until they get the green light from their lawyers. “The bottom line is, the community needs to get closure on whether or not [the vapors are] an issue,” says Hernan of the Attorney General’s office. “And the only way to get closure is if they help us.” But even if vapors turn out not to be an issue in the homes, the smell of oil is still a problem on the creek, where it emanates from oily sheens on the surface.

A boat trip along Newtown Creek is a voyeuristic tour of the guts of Greenpoint. The waterway, which meanders through a motley assortment of industrial buildings aligning its banks, is not the healthiest. It’s a dark camouflage green, teeming with intestinal bacteria from the discharge of combined sewers, not to mention chemicals such as dioxin, from a now-demolished incinerator plant. Newtown Creek was once one of the busiest industrial waterways in North America—and is now one of the dirtiest, according to Riverkeeper’s Seggos. If one were to pull up a glob of sediment from the ground, it would look like “black mayonnaise,” he says. And “the further you go up the creek, the dirtier it gets.”

He’s right. Upon reaching Peerless Importers, the old Paragon Oil site, the unmistakably pungent odor of oil taints the air. Here, behind a bulkhead, is one of the sources of petroleum seepage into Newtown Creek, although there is some debate among the oil companies regarding whether or not its source is the giant plume or a secondary, smaller one. While the leaks had begun decades earlier, large amounts of oil didn’t begin seeping into the creek until the 1970s, when the neighborhood started using upstate water instead of local water pumped from underground. The groundwater table rose when local pumping ended, and “all of a sudden, this stuff [was] getting squished out in the creek,” says Hale.

The seepage is causing several interrelated problems. In addition to the vapors potentially reaching people near the water, some of the petroleum in the creek is dissolved in groundwater, which is also leaking out from the aquifer. Some of those dissolved chemicals such as benzene can seep into fish or crabs and effectually anesthetize them, according to Keith Cooper, a professor of biochemistry and microbiology at Rutgers University. Unable to move their gills in order to breathe, those creatures ultimately die. Fortunately for people who catch their dinner from the creek, meat tainted with oil has a distinctive smell and taste, which can be a warning sign.

While the original seep at the foot of Meeker Avenue was stopped, another one appeared around 1991—this time coming from the bulkhead in front of Peerless Importers. Exxon Mobil began recovering oil there in 1993, but when investigations showed that some of the recovered petroleum was more characteristic of oil used by Paragon Oil, Chevron took over by entering into a consent order with the state DEC to identify the source of the seep and put a stop to its oozing. Chevron has since deployed a system of booms and also completed a grout wall in late November, and the company has also installed a recovery system intended to extract oil from behind the bulkhead near the seep.

But no matter how many grout walls or boom systems are installed, stopping the seeps isn’t a cure-all—the leaks won’t cease until they’re traced to the source. For that to happen, though, there first needs to be a comprehensive removal of what’s inside the aquifer—not just of oil floating freely on the water table, but of the oil stuck to the sandy soil and gravel. “They gotta sincerely think about cleaning it up, because I’m sure there are a lot of people who have the same feelings I do: ‘I’m not going nowhere’” says Bob McErlean, who lives on Hausman Street and who is president of the Neighborhood Block Association. “I’m gonna be your worst nightmare.”

It’s a muggy evening as dusk settles in around the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center. The Mets are home tonight, and there’s a community meeting about the Kosciuszko Bridge, so no one is sure how many people will attend this month’s gathering of the Newtown Creek Alliance. But gradually, the seats around the oval table in the conference room fill with attendees who are interested in what’s happening to clean up their neighborhood. Katie Schmid, a 27-year-old New York University law student, sits on one side of the table next to Riverkeeper’s Seggos. “This is pretty phenomenal progress for a year’s time for a volunteer organization,” says Schmid, referring to the various lawsuits, the EPA study, and the participation of the state Attorney General’s office. “Everyone should be pretty proud of themselves because this didn’t happen for 30 years.”

In 2004, Riverkeeper filed a federal lawsuit against Exxon Mobil for violating the Clean Water Act and the Natural Resource Conservation Act. The Newtown Creek Alliance helped to give the lawsuit the legal standing it needed in order to proceed because the group consisted of local residents, Schmid said. And the lawsuit helped get the attention of the state agencies, like the DEC. Since they started cleaning up the spills—before the lawsuits—the various oil companies have recovered slightly more than nine million gallons of oil. Pumping out as much floating oil as possible is the overarching goal right now, and the state DEC is now looking at new options for future remediation. One is vacuum enhanced recovery. A project on the Peerless Importers site has tested this type of technology, whereby oil that’s harder to get to is sucked up with a type of vacuum. And Exxon Mobile has plans for another pilot project testing a similar system, according to Hale of the state DEC.

Up to now, though, the clean-up effort has centered on a more conventional approach. The main technology involves a dual-pump recovery system, which operates by creating a cone-shaped well in the ground water which draws the oil down and pumps it out. The water is also treated for dissolved contamination and, once cleaned, released back into Newtown Creek. Pumping out floating oil—or free product, as it’s also known—takes a while, but it’s a necessary step in the path toward remediation, says Hale. Only after much of the free product is removed can workers begin to address oil that has stuck to the sandy aquifer. “It’s like an infected wound,” he says. “You gotta take out the nasty stuff first and then the body will heal.”

The pumping approach—which could take up to 20 years, and —doesn’t satisfy everyone, however. “It’s fatally flawed,” says Walter Hang, President of Toxics Targeting, a company that compiles information on toxic sites. “The longer you wait to alleviate and eliminate [the] hazard, the longer it has to migrate.” But now that the Attorney General’s office is on board, there’s extra pressure to find ways of enhancing recovery. Having agreed to investigate Exxon Mobil’s remediation efforts to try to design a more thorough consent order, the Attorney General’s office will be working “hand-in-hand” with the state DEC, according to Hale. “We’ve got a very good relationship,” he says. “That was our goal…to get some of the politics aside” and handle things more scientifically, he says.

Indeed, the Attorney General’s team plans to address all aspects of the plume, from vapor intrusion in people’s homes to the extent of dissolved contamination to seepage into the creek. In addition, the EPA has begun to review past remediation efforts to make recommendations for the future. “We’re trying to restore the environment to the community out there and get closure on these risks to them,” says Hernan. “They’ve been through a lot over the last 20 years out there, and they shouldn’t have to suffer this stuff anymore.”

Next door to where Manuel Bodón crabs for his supper is an old factory building where Bill Shuck, a member of the Newtown Creek Alliance, owns a loft. Shuck takes advantage of the water’s proximity to his door; he owns a rowboat and a kayak and has been boating on the waterway for about as long as Bodón has been crabbing there. A participant in Riverkeeper’s lawsuit, Schuck has noticed an increase in awareness regarding the spill and attributes much of it to the environmental watchdog group’s involvement in galvanizing the community. “People are more interested in the creek, and they’re interested in the pollution,” he says. And while he recognizes that clean-up may take a while, he’s hopeful that there will be a time when Greenpoint residents won’t have to worry that they’re living on top of a health hazard. “I think we have a system that can do good things,” he says. “But sometimes it does take a lot of people making a really big stink.” One that might, eventually, overtake that of the oil.


Detroit wants to save itself by shrinking
BY David Runk / Mar 8, 2010

Detroit, the very symbol of American industrial might for most of the 20th century, is drawing up a radical renewal plan that calls for turning large swaths of this now-blighted, rusted-out city back into the fields and farmland that existed before the automobile. Operating on a scale never before attempted in this country, the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods. Roughly a quarter of the 139-square-mile city could go from urban to semi-rural.

Near downtown, fruit trees and vegetable farms would replace neighborhoods that are an eerie landscape of empty buildings and vacant lots. Suburban commuters heading into the city center might pass through what looks like the countryside to get there. Surviving neighborhoods in the birthplace of the auto industry would become pockets in expanses of green. Detroit officials first raised the idea in the 1990s, when blight was spreading. Now, with the recession plunging the city deeper into ruin, a decision on how to move forward is approaching. Mayor Dave Bing, who took office last year, is expected to unveil some details in his state-of-the-city address this month. “Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”

The meaning of what is afoot is now settling in across the city. “People are afraid,” said Deborah L. Younger, past executive director of a group called Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation that is working to revitalize five areas of the city. “When you read that neighborhoods may no longer exist, that sends fear.” Though the will to downsize has arrived, the way to do it is unclear and fraught with problems. Politically explosive decisions must be made about which neighborhoods should be bulldozed and which improved. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars will be needed to buy land, raze buildings and relocate residents, since this financially desperate city does not have the means to do it on its own. It isn’t known how many people in the mostly black, blue-collar city might be uprooted, but it could be thousands. Some won’t go willingly. “I like the way things are right here,” said David Hardin, 60, whose bungalow is one of three occupied homes on a block with dozens of empty lots near what is commonly known as City Airport. He has lived there since 1976, when every home on the street was occupied, and said he enjoys the peace and quiet.

For much of the 20th century, Detroit was an industrial powerhouse – the city that put the nation on wheels. Factory workers lived in neighborhoods of simple single- and two-story homes and walked to work. But then the plants began to close one by one. The riots of 1967 accelerated an exodus of whites to the suburbs, and many middle-class blacks followed. Now, a city of nearly 2 million in the 1950s has declined to less than half that number. On some blocks, only one or two occupied houses remain, surrounded by trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out homes. Scavengers have stripped anything of value from empty buildings. According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.

Several other declining industrial cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, have also accepted downsizing. Since 2005, Youngstown has been tearing down a few hundred houses a year. But Detroit’s plans dwarf that effort. The approximately 40 square miles of vacant property in Detroit is larger than the entire city of Youngstown. Faced with a $300 million budget deficit and a dwindling tax base, Bing argues that the city can’t continue to pay for police patrols, fire protection and other services for all areas. The current plan would demolish about 10,000 houses and empty buildings in three years and pump new investment into stronger neighborhoods. In the neighborhoods that would be cleared, the city would offer to relocate residents or buy them out. The city could use tax foreclosure to claim abandoned property and invoke eminent domain for those who refuse to leave, much as cities now do for freeway projects.

The mayor has begun lobbying Washington for support, and in January Detroit was awarded $40.8 million for renewal work. The federally funded Detroit Housing Commission supports Bing’s plan. “It takes a true partnership, because we don’t want to invest in a neighborhood that the city is not going to invest in,” said Eugene E. Jones, executive director of the commission. It is not known who might get the cleared land, but with prospects for recruiting industry slim, planners are considering agricultural uses. The city might offer larger tracts for sale or lease, or turn over smaller pieces to community organizations to use.

Maggie DeSantis, a board member of Community Development Advocates of Detroit, said she worries that shutting down neighborhoods without having new uses ready is a “recipe for disaster” that will invite crime and illegal dumping. The group recently proposed such things as the creation of suburban-style neighborhoods and nature parks. Residents like Hardin want to keep their neighborhoods and eliminate the blight. “We just try to keep it up,” he said. “I’ve been doing it since I got it, so I don’t look at nobody trying to help me do anything.” For others, Bing’s plans could represent a way out. Willie Mae Pickens has lived in her near east-side home since the 1960s and has watched as friends and neighbors left. Her house is the only one standing on her side of the street. “They can buy it today. Any day,” said Pickens, 87, referring to city officials. “I’ll get whatever they’ll give me for it, because I want to leave.”

Mayor Uses Census Tally Showing Decline as Benchmark in Overhaul
BY Alex P. Kellogg / February 27, 2010

This city is shrinking, and Mayor Dave Bing can live with that. The nation’s once-a-decade census, which gets under way next month, usually prompts expensive tally-building efforts by cities eager to maximize federal funding tied to the count. Detroit, which faces a population decline of as much as 150,000, has used that tactic in the past and once fought a successful court challenge to boost its count. But this time, Mr. Bing is pushing the city to embrace the bad news. The mayor is looking to the diminished tally, down from 951,270 in 2000, as a benchmark in his bid to reshape Detroit’s government, finances and perhaps even its geography to reflect its smaller population and tax base. That means, in part, cutting city services and laying off workers.

His approach to the census is a product of not only budget constraints but also a new, more modest view of the city’s prospects. “We’ve got to pick those core communities, those core neighborhoods” to sustain and preserve, he said at a recent public appearance, adding: “That’s something that’s possible here in Detroit.” Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Bing, a Democrat first elected last year to finish the term of disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, hasn’t touted big development plans or talked of a “renaissance.” Instead, he is trying to prepare residents for a new reality: that Detroit—like the auto industry that propelled it for a century—will have to get smaller before it gets bigger again.

With no high-profile census push, the city risks an undercount that would mean forgoing millions of dollars in federal funding. Nationwide, each person counted translates into about $1,000 to $1,200 in federal funding to municipal governments. But some community leaders see the hands-off approach as a sign the city’s leadership under Mr. Bing, a 66-year-old businessman and former basketball star, is prepared to face up to the depopulation problem and rethink Detroit’s future. “This is going to be hard to wrestle to the ground,” said Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation of Troy, Mich., a national philanthropy that has invested heavily in development projects aimed at salvaging the nicest remnants of the city. “He deserves enormous credit for leading the community into this.”

Soon after being elected to a full term in November, Mr. Bing began cutting back on city services such as buses and laying off hundreds of municipal workers. The mayor is now making plans to shutter or consolidate city departments and tear down 10,000 vacant buildings. And Mr. Bing is supporting efforts to shrink the capacity of the city’s school system by half. Along with the mayor, a number of academics and philanthropic groups are sketching visions of a different Detroit. One such vision has urban farms and park spaces filling the acres of barren patches where people once lived and worked. In a city of roughly 140 square miles, vacant residential and commercial property accounts for an estimated 40 square miles, an area larger than the city of Miami. “The potential of this open space is enormous,” said Dan Pitera, an architect at the University of Detroit Mercy who has done land-use studies on the city.

Thirty years ago, Mayor Coleman Young fought the census count in federal court, setting a precedent by arguing successfully that it missed tens of thousands of residents and cost Detroit millions in federal dollars. In 2000, Mayor Dennis Archer worked with schools, health clinics, neighborhood associations, charities and the like to pump up the numbers. The city even paid for census registration to be done at special block parties it helped throw. But that last count was ultimately a blow to Detroit’s pride, pinning its population below one million for the first time since the 1920s. At its peak in the 1950s, the city had been home to nearly two million people. Some experts believe the population will eventually settle just below 700,000, about the current size of Charlotte, N.C.

Long-term declines triggered by suburban sprawl, home-loan bias and racial strife have accelerated in recent years as home foreclosures and auto-industry cutbacks tear through even more stable, wealthy neighborhoods. Meanwhile, declining home values in Detroit’s better-off suburbs have made them more accessible to the city’s poorer residents, fueling the flight. The city is counting on nonprofit partners to take the lead on the census this year, rather than funding efforts itself. But with a population that is widely dispersed and largely poor and minority—two segments traditionally disinclined to fill out government paperwork—Detroit is already difficult to count. In the last census, just 62% of Detroiters responded, compared with an average of 71% statewide. “That’s why I keep telling the city, ‘you are in trouble,’ ” said Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit, an organization founded by large local philanthropies that want to help the city collect accurate demographic, housing, economic and other information. “Unfortunately, they don’t have the resources.” Erica Hill, the mayor’s census coordinator, says Detroit is in a bind. It knows an undercount would be costly, but it is too broke to promote the census the way it used to. “We need to make sure the city gets its due,” she said. But “we have to be creative and build a lot of partnerships to make this happen.”

Can farming save Detroit?
BY David Whitford / December 29, 2009

John Hantz is a wealthy money manager who lives in an older enclave of Detroit where all the houses are grand and not all of them are falling apart. Once a star stockbroker at American Express, he left 13 years ago to found his own firm. Today Hantz Financial Services has 20 offices in Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia, more than 500 employees, and $1.3 billion in assets under management. Twice divorced, Hantz, 48, lives alone in clubby, paneled splendor, surrounded by early-American landscapes on the walls, an autograph collection that veers from Detroit icons such as Ty Cobb and Henry Ford to Baron von Richthofen and Mussolini, and a set of Ayn Rand first editions. With a net worth of more than $100 million, he’s one of the richest men left in Detroit — one of the very few in his demographic who stayed put when others were fleeing to Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills. Not long ago, while commuting, he stumbled on a big idea that might help save his dying city.

Every weekday Hantz pulls his Volvo SUV out of the gated driveway of his compound and drives half an hour to his office in Southfield, a northern suburb on the far side of Eight Mile Road. His route takes him through a desolate, postindustrial cityscape — the kind of scene that is shockingly common in Detroit. Along the way he passes vacant buildings, abandoned homes, and a whole lot of empty land. In some stretches he sees more pheasants than people. “Every year I tell myself it’s going to get better,” says Hantz, bright-eyed, with smooth cheeks and a little boy’s carefully combed haircut, “and every year it doesn’t.” Then one day about a year and a half ago, Hantz had a revelation. “We need scarcity,” he thought to himself as he drove past block after unoccupied block. “We can’t create opportunities, but we can create scarcity.” And that, he says one afternoon in his living room between puffs on an expensive cigar, “is how I got onto this idea of the farm.”

Yes, a farm. A large-scale, for-profit agricultural enterprise, wholly contained within the city limits of Detroit. Hantz thinks farming could do his city a lot of good: restore big chunks of tax-delinquent, resource-draining urban blight to pastoral productivity; provide decent jobs with benefits; supply local markets and restaurants with fresh produce; attract tourists from all over the world; and — most important of all — stimulate development around the edges as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in. Hantz is willing to commit $30 million to the project. He’ll start with a pilot program this spring involving up to 50 acres on Detroit’s east side. “Out of the gates,” he says, “it’ll be the largest urban farm in the world.”

This is possibly not as crazy as it sounds. Granted, the notion of devoting valuable city land to agriculture would be unfathomable in New York, London, or Tokyo. But Detroit is a special case. The city that was once the fourth largest in the country and served as a symbol of America’s industrial might has lately assumed a new role: North American poster child for the global phenomenon of shrinking postindustrial cities. Nearly 2 million people used to live in Detroit. Fewer than 900,000 remain. Even if, unlikely as it seems, the auto industry were to rebound dramatically and the U.S. economy were to come roaring back tomorrow, no one — not even the proudest civic boosters — imagines that the worst is over. “Detroit will probably be a city of 700,000 people when it’s all said and done,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “The big challenge is, What do you do with a population of 700,000 in a geography that can accommodate three times that much?”

Whatever the answer is, whenever it comes, it won’t be predicated on a return to past glory. “We have to be realistic,” says George Jackson, CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC). “This is not about trying to re-create something. We’re not a world-class city.” If not world class, then what? A regional financial center? That’s already Chicago, and to a lesser extent Minneapolis. A biotech hub? Boston and San Diego are way out in front. Some think Detroit has a future in TV and movies, but Hollywood is skeptical. (“Best incentives in the country,” one producer says. “Worst crew.”) How about high tech and green manufacturing? Possibly, given the engineering and manufacturing talent that remains. But still there’s the problem of what to do with the city’s enormous amount of abandoned land, conservatively estimated at 40 square miles in a sprawling metropolis whose 139-square-mile footprint is easily bigger than San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined. If you let it revert to nature, you abandon all hope of productive use. If you turn it over to parks and recreation, you add costs to an overburdened city government that can’t afford to teach its children, police its streets, or maintain the infrastructure it already has.

Faced with those facts, a growing number of policymakers and urban planners have begun to endorse farming as a solution. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, now chairman of CityView, a private equity firm that invests in urban development, is familiar with Detroit’s land problem. He says he’s in favor of “other uses that engage human beings in their maintenance, such as urban agriculture.” After studying the city’s options at the request of civic leaders, the American Institute of Architects came to this conclusion in a recent report: “Detroit is particularly well suited to become a pioneer in urban agriculture at a commercial scale.” In that sense, Detroit might actually be ahead of the curve. When Alex Krieger, chairman of the department of urban planning and design at Harvard, imagines what the settled world might look like half a century from now, he sees “a checkerboard pattern” with “more densely urbanized areas, and areas preserved for various purposes such as farming.

The notion of a walled city, a contained city — that’s an 18th-century idea.” And where will the new ideas for the 21st century emerge? From older, decaying cities, Krieger believes, such as New Orleans, St. Louis, Cleveland, Newark, and especially Detroit — cities that have become, at least in part, “kind of empty containers.” This is a lot to hang on Hantz. Most of what he knows about agriculture he’s picked up over the past 18 months from the experts he’s consulting at Michigan State and the Kellogg Foundation. Then there’s the fact that many of his fellow citizens are openly rooting against him. Since word leaked of his scheme last spring, he has been criticized by community activists, who call the plan a land grab. Opponents have also raised questions about the run-ins he’s had with regulators at Hantz Financial. But Detroit is nothing if not desperate for new ideas, and Hantz has had no trouble getting his heard. “It all sounds very exciting,” says the DEGC’s Jackson, whose agency is working on assembling a package of incentives for Hantz, including free city land. “We hope it works.”

Detroit’s civic history is notable for repeated failed attempts to revitalize its core. Over the past three decades leaders have embraced a series of downtown redevelopment plans that promised to save the city. The massive Renaissance Center office and retail complex, built in the 1970s, mostly served to suck tenants out of other downtown buildings. (Today 48 of those buildings stand empty.) Three new casinos (one already bankrupt) and two new sports arenas (one for the NFL’s dreadful Lions, the other for MLB’s Tigers) have restored, on some nights, a little spark to downtown Detroit but have inspired little in the way of peripheral development. Downtown is still eerily underpopulated, the tax base is still crumbling, and people are still leaving. The jobless rate in the city is 27%. Nothing yet tried in Detroit even begins to address the fundamental issue of emptiness — empty factories, empty office buildings, empty houses, and above all, empty lots. Rampant arson, culminating in the annual frenzy of Devil’s Night, is partly to blame. But there has also been a lot of officially sanctioned demolition in Detroit. As white residents fled to the suburbs over the decades, houses in the decaying neighborhoods they left behind were often bulldozed.

Abandonment is an infrastructure problem, when you consider the cost of maintaining far-flung roads and sewer systems; it’s a city services problem, when you think about the inefficiencies of collecting trash and fighting crime in sparsely populated neighborhoods; and it’s a real estate problem. Houses in Detroit are selling for an average of $15,000. That sounds like a buying opportunity, and in fact Detroit looks pretty good right now to a young artist or entrepreneur who can’t afford anyplace else — but not yet to an investor. The smart money sees no point in buying as long as fresh inventory keeps flooding the market. “In the target sites we have,” says Hantz, “we [reevaluate] every two weeks.”

As Hantz began thinking about ways to absorb some of that inventory, what he imagined, he says, was a glacier: one broad, continuous swath of farmland, growing acre by acre, year by year, until it had overrun enough territory to raise the scarcity alarm and impel other investors to act. Rick Foster, an executive at the Kellogg Foundation whom Hantz sought out for advice, nudged him gently in a different direction. “I think you should make pods,” Foster said, meaning not one farm but many. Hantz was taken right away with the concept of creating several pods — or lakes, as he came to think of them — each as large as 300 acres, and each surrounded by its own valuable frontage. “What if we had seven lakes in the city?” he wondered. “Would people develop around those lakes?”

To increase the odds that they will, Hantz plans on making his farms both visually stunning and technologically cutting edge. Where there are row crops, Hantz says, they’ll be neatly organized, planted in “dead-straight lines — they may even be in a design.” But the plan isn’t to make Detroit look like Iowa. “Don’t think a farm with tractors,” says Hantz. “That’s old.” In fact, Hantz’s operation will bear little resemblance to a traditional farm. Mike Score, who recently left Michigan State’s agricultural extension program to join Hantz Farms as president, has written a business plan that calls for the deployment of the latest in farm technology, from compost-heated greenhouses to hydroponic (water only, no soil) and aeroponic (air only) growing systems designed to maximize productivity in cramped settings.

He’s really excited about apples. Hantz Farms will use a trellised system that’s compact, highly efficient, and tourist-friendly. It won’t be like apple picking in Massachusetts, and that’s the point. Score wants visitors to Hantz Farms to see that agriculture is not just something that takes place in the countryside. They will be able to “walk down the row pushing a baby stroller,” he promises. Crop selection will depend on the soil conditions of the plots that Hantz acquires. Experts insist that most of the land is not irretrievably toxic. The majority of the lots now vacant in Detroit were residential, not industrial; the biggest problem is how compacted the soil is. For the most part the farms will focus on high-margin edibles: peaches, berries, plums, nectarines, and exotic greens. Score says that the first crops are likely to be lettuce and heirloom tomatoes.

Hantz says he’s willing to put up the entire $30 million investment himself — all cash, no debt — and immediately begin hiring locally for full-time positions. But he wants two things first from Jackson at the DEGC: free tax-delinquent land, which he’ll combine with his own purchases, he says (he’s aiming for an average cost of $3,000 per acre, in line with rural farmland in southern Michigan), and a zoning adjustment that would create a new, lower tax rate for agriculture. There’s no deal yet, but neither request strikes Jackson as unattainable. “If we have reasonable due diligence,” he says, “I think we’ll give it a shot.”

Detroit mayor Dave Bing is watching closely. The Pistons Hall of Fame guard turned entrepreneur has had what his spokesman describes as “productive discussions” with Hantz. In a statement to Fortune, Bing says he’s “encouraged by the proposals to bring commercial farming back to Detroit. As we look to diversify our economy, commercial farming has some real potential for job growth and rebuilding our tax base.” Hantz, for his part, says he’s got three or four locations all picked out (“one of them will pop”) and is confident he’ll have seeds in the ground “in some sort of demonstration capacity” this spring. “Some things you’ve got to see in order to believe,” he says, waving his cigar. “This is a thing you’ve got to believe in order to see.”

Many have a hard time making that leap. When news of Hantz’s ambitious plan broke in the Detroit papers last spring, few people even knew who he was. A little digging turned up a less-than-spotless record at Hantz Financial Services. The firm has paid fines totaling more than $1 million in the past five years, including $675,000 in 2005, without admitting or denying guilt, “for fraud and misrepresentations relating to undisclosed revenue-sharing arrangements, as well as other violations,” according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. (Hantz responds, “If we find something that isn’t in compliance, we take immediate steps to correct the problem.”)

Hantz Farms’ first hire, VP Matt Allen, did have an established reputation in Detroit, but it wasn’t a good one. Two years ago, while he was press secretary for former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Allen pleaded guilty to domestic violence and obstructing police after his wife called 911. He was sentenced to a year’s probation. Hantz says he has known Allen for many years and values his deep knowledge of the city. “He has earned a second chance, and I’m willing to give it to him,” he says. Some of Hantz’s biggest skeptics, ironically, are the same people who’ve been working to transform Detroit into a laboratory for urban farming for years, albeit on a much smaller scale. The nonprofit Detroit Agriculture Network counts nearly 900 urban gardens within the city limits. That’s a twofold increase in two years, and it places Detroit at the forefront of a vibrant national movement to grow more food locally and lessen the nation’s dependence on Big Ag.

None of those gardens is very big (average size: 0.25 acre), and they don’t generate a lot of cash (most don’t even try), but otherwise they’re great: as antidotes to urban blight; sources of healthy, affordable food in a city that, incredibly, has no chain supermarkets; providers of meaningful, if generally unpaid, work to the chronically unemployed; and beacons around which disintegrating communities can begin to regather themselves. That actually sounds a lot like what Hantz envisions his farms to be in the for-profit arena. But he doesn’t have many fans among the community gardeners, who feel that Hantz is using his money and connections to capitalize on their pioneering work. “I’m concerned about the corporate takeover of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit,” says Malik Yakini, a charter school principal and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates D-Town Farm on Detroit’s west side. “At this point the key players with him seem to be all white men in a city that’s at least 82% black.”

Hantz, meanwhile, has no patience for what he calls “fear-based” criticism. He has a hard time concealing his contempt for the nonprofit sector generally. (“Someone must pay taxes,” he sniffs.) He also flatly rejects the idea that he’s orchestrating some kind of underhanded land grab. In fact, Hantz says that he welcomes others who might want to start their own farms in the city. “Viability and sustainability to me are all that matters,” he says. And yet Hantz is fully aware of the potentially historic scope of what he is proposing. After all, he’s talking about accumulating hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of acres inside a major American city. And it’s clear that he views Hantz Farms as his legacy. Already he’s told his 21-year-old daughter, Lauren, his only heir, that if she wants to own the land one day, she has to promise him she’ll never sell it. “This is like buying a penthouse in New York in 1940,” Hantz says. “No one should be able to afford to do this ever again.” That might seem like an overly optimistic view of Detroit’s future. But allow Hantz to dream a little. Twenty years from now, when people come to the city and have a drink at the bar at the top of the Renaissance Center, what will they see? Maybe that’s not the right vantage point. Maybe they’ll actually be on the farm, picking apples, looking up at the RenCen. “That’s the beauty of being down and out,” says Hantz. “You can actually open your mind to ideas that you would never otherwise embrace.” At this point, Detroit doesn’t have much left to lose.

CITY SERVICES,-Laptop,-or-Cell-/
Pedal-Power in Detroit: Green Gym for the Homeless
BY Roberta Cruger / 01.27.10

Between 1950 and 1980, Detroit lost 500,000 trees to Dutch elm disease, urban expansion and attrition, according to Paul Bairley, director of Urban Forestry for The Greening of Detroit. Among the city’s various environmental initiatives, it’s looking to slash residential land use by 30 percent, letting areas grow into natural greenways. There are green job initiatives, and for the homeless, a community center provides training for eco-conscious work and just opened a human-generated workout room. With green gyms popping up in Seattle and Hong Kong, why aren’t we tapping into sweat equity everywhere?

Gives new meaning to upcyling
Converting otherwise wasted energy, from the kinetic motion of treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes, into renewable energy is cost-effective and energy-efficient. That’s what a community organization in Detroit did this week with its new green gym, for people living in its transitional housing and other shelter programs, staff and volunteers. “Not only is this gym a good idea for the environment, but it will help build the general health of our clients who often struggle with diabetes or heart disease,” states Rev. Faith Fowler, the executive director.

The Cass Green Gym’s facility offers weight machines, boxing bags, a treadmill, and stationary bikes featuring Green Revolution technology that generates electricity. Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), located on Detroit’s Cass Avenue, projects that full classes with ten people, is enough power to light three homes for an entire year. It will redirect it back to the building’s electrical grid, reducing operating costs.

The company, Green Revolution, taps into pedal power, providing exercise machines and consulting to facilities, harnessing the energy of gym rats into green power. Its technology can be installed on most brands of indoor cycling equipment. At its retrofit gym in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a typical cycling class with 20 bikes has the potential to produce up to 3.6 Megawatts (3,600,000 watts) of renewable energy a year. This is equivalent to lighting 72 homes for a month, and reduces carbon emissions by over 5,000 pounds.

CCSS also links job training and permanent employment with ways to reduce the footprint. One venture, modeled after a Native American enterprise in Oklahoma, recycles old illegally dumped tires from vacant lots and converts them into mud mats. So far, formerly homeless men have collected more than 5,000 tires and sold over 2,000 mats. Another of its programs involves x-ray recycling, removing patient information from films and packaging the remains for recycling. And its document shredding effort will reuse the paper for insulation in seniors and low-income homes. As a native Detroiter, who worked a block from this center, renewal efforts are personally meaningful to me — and it should be for all of us. It was heartening to read a Time article on addressing urban post-industrial problems: “we could regenerate not just a city but our sense of who we are.”

Streets With No Name
BY James Griffioen / June 23, 2009

This past winter, the snow stayed so long we almost forgot what the ground looked like. In Detroit, there is little money for plowing; after a big storm, the streets and sidewalks disappear for days. Soon new pathways emerge, side streets get dug out one car-width wide. Bootprints through parks veer far from the buried sidewalks. Without the city to tell him where to walk, the pilgrim who first sets out in fresh snowfall creates his own path. Others will likely follow, or forge their own paths as needed. In the heart of summer, too, it becomes clear that the grid laid down by the ancient planners is now irrelevant. In vacant lots between neighborhoods and the attractions of thoroughfares, bus stops and liquor stores, well-worn paths stretch across hundreds of vacant lots. Gaston Bachelard called these les chemins du désir: pathways of desire. Paths that weren’t designed but eroded casually away by individuals finding the shortest distance between where they are coming from and where they intend to go.

photo by James Griffioen

It is an urban legend on many college campuses that many sidewalks and pathways were not planned at all, but paved by the university after students created their own paths from building to building, straying from those originally prescribed. The Motor City, like a college campus, has a large population that cannot afford cars, relying instead on bikes and feet to meet its needs. With enormous swaths of the city returning to prairie, where sidewalks are irrelevant and sometimes even dangerous, desire lines have become an integral yet entirely unintended part of the city’s infrastructure. There are hundreds of these prescriptive easements across neglected lots throughout the city. Desire lines are considered by many landscape architects to be proof of a flaw in the design of a physical space, or more gently, a sign that concrete cannot always impose its will on the human mind. But what about a physical space that no longer resembles its intended design, a city where tens of thousands of homes have been abandoned, burned, and buried in their own basements? While actual roads and sidewalks crumble with each season of freezing and thawing, Detroiters have taken it upon themselves to create new paths, in their own small way working to create a city that better suits their needs.

photo by James Griffioen

Academics around the world argue about whether the first paths were created by hunters following game trails. There are scientists who study ants to better understand highways. They have created mathematical models for trail formation. When the great cities were built, sometimes roads were built along ancient paths. The Romans imposed grids on every city but their own. In Detroit many of the streets are named for the Frenchmen whose ribbon farms stretching north from the river were covered in asphalt: Beaubien, Dequindre, Campau, Livernois, Chene. In many cities, there are streets named for dead men once revered throughout the land but now mostly forgotten (Fulton, Lafayette, Irving) and others named for men no one remembers. In Detroit, there are streets no one has named. And they belong to anyone.

photo by James Griffioen

Detroit is a city in terminal decline. When film director Julien Temple arrived in town, he was shocked by what he found – but he also uncovered reasons for hope
BY Julien Temple / 10 March 2010

When the film- maker Roger Graef approached me last year to make a film about the rise and fall of Detroit I had very few preconceptions about the place. Like everyone else, I knew it as the Motor City, one of the great epicentres of 20th-century music, and home of the American automobile. Only when I arrived in the city itself did the full-frontal cultural car crash that is 21st-century Detroit became blindingly apparent. Leaving behind the gift shops of the “Big Three” car manufacturers, the Motown merchandise and the bizarre ejaculating fountains of the now-notorious international airport, things become stranger and stranger. The drive along eerily empty ghost freeways into the ruins of inner-city Detroit is an Alice-like journey into a severely dystopian future. Passing the giant rubber tyre that dwarfs the nonexistent traffic in ironic testament to the busted hubris of Motown’s auto-makers, the city’s ripped backside begins to glide past outside the windows.

Like The Passenger, it’s hard to believe what we’re seeing. The vast, rusting hulks of abandoned car plants, (some of the largest structures ever built and far too expensive to pull down), beached amid a shining sea of grass. The blackened corpses of hundreds of burned-out houses, pulled back to earth by the green tentacles of nature. Only the drunken rows of telegraph poles marching away across acres of wildflowers and prairie give any clue as to where teeming city streets might once have been. Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the US could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth. The statistics are staggering – 40sq miles of the 139sq mile inner city have already been reclaimed by nature.

One in five houses now stand empty. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in Detroit over the last three years. A three-bedroom house on Albany Street is still on the market for $1. Unemployment has reached 30%; 33.8% of Detroit’s population and 48.5% of its children live below the poverty line. Forty-seven per cent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate; 29 Detroit schools closed in 2009 alone. But statistics tell only one part of the story. The reality of Detroit is far more visceral. My producer, George Hencken, and I drove around recce-ing our film, getting out of the car and photographing extraordinary places to film with mad-dog enthusiasm – everywhere demands to be filmed – but were greeted with appalled concern by Bradley, our friendly manager, on our return to the hotel. “Never get out of the car in that area – people have been car-jacked and shot.”

Law and order has completely broken down in the inner city, drugs and prostitution are rampant and unless you actually murder someone the police will leave you alone. This makes it great for filming – park where you like, film what you like – but not so good if you actually live there. The abandoned houses make great crack dens and provide cover for appalling sex crimes and child abduction. The only growth industry is the gangs of armed scrappers, who plunder copper and steel from the ruins. Rabid dogs patrol the streets. All the national supermarket chains have pulled out of the inner city. People have virtually nowhere to buy fresh produce. Starbucks? Forget it. What makes all this so hard to understand is that Detroit was the frontier city of the American Dream – not just the automobile, but pretty much everything we associate with 20th-century western civilisation came from there. Mass production; assembly lines; stop lights; freeways; shopping malls; suburbs and an emerging middle-class workforce: all these things were pioneered in Detroit.

But the seeds of the Motor City’s downfall were sown a long time ago. The blind belief of the Big Three in the automobile as an inexhaustible golden goose, guaranteeing endless streams of cash, resulted in the city becoming reliant on a single industry. Its destiny fatally entwined with that of the car. The greed-fuelled willingness of the auto barons to siphon up black workers from the American south to man their Metropolis-like assembly lines and then treat them as subhuman citizens, running the city along virtually apartheid lines, created a racial tinderbox. The black riots of 1943 and 1967 gave Detroit the dubious distinction of being the only American city to twice call in the might of the US army to suppress insurrection on its own streets and led directly to the disastrous so-called white flight of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The population of Detroit is now 81.6% African-American and almost two-thirds down on its overall peak in the early 50s. The city has lost its tax base and cannot afford to cut the grass or light its streets, let alone educate or feed its citizens. The rest of the US is in denial about the economic catastrophe that has engulfed Detroit, terrified that this man-made contagion may yet spread to other US cities. But somehow one cannot imagine the same fate befalling a city with a predominantly white population. On many levels Detroit seems to be an insoluble disaster with urgent warnings for the rest of the industrialised world. But as George and I made our film we discovered, to our surprise, an irrepressible positivity in the city. Unable to buy fresh food for their children, people are now growing their own, turning the demolished neighbourhood blocks into urban farms and kick-starting what is now the fastest-growing movement across the US. Although the city is still haemorrhaging population, young people from all over the country are also flooding into Detroit – artists, musicians and social pioneers, all keen to make use of the abandoned urban spaces and create new ways of living together.

With the breakdown of 20th-century civilisation, many Detroiters have discovered an exhilarating sense of starting over, building together a new cross-racial community sense of doing things, discarding the bankrupt rules of the past and taking direct control of their own lives. Still at the forefront of the American Dream, Detroit is fast becoming the first “post-American” city. And amid the ruins of the Motor City it is possible to find a first pioneer’s map to the post-industrial future that awaits us all. So perhaps Detroit can avoid the fate of the lost cities of the Maya and rise again like the phoenix that sits, appropriately, on its municipal crest. That is why George and I decided to call our film Requiem for Detroit? – with a big question mark at the end.


“It should be noted that The Michigan State land bank’s executive director Carrie Lewand-Monroe, And Development Specialist Khalilah Burt both extended themselves for a community based project in a manner that is not so commonly seen in other States. It is because of their continued interest in community stabilization, and their goal of fostering the development of the blighted, tax reverted properties that they got behind our project from the very beginning. Michigan State Land Bank- thank you for keeping Michigan a productive State.”

Michigan State Land Bank,1607,7-154-34176-200357–,00.html,1607,7-154-34176-127130–,00.html,1607,7-154-34176_37400—,00.html

Detroit homes sell for $1 amid mortgage and car industry crisis
BY Chris McGreal / 2 March 2010
One in five houses left empty as foreclosures mount and property prices drop by 80%

Some might say Jon Brumit overpaid when he stumped up $100 (£65) for a whole house. Drive through Detroit neighbourhoods once clogged with the cars that made the city the envy of America and there are homes to be had for a single dollar. You find these houses among boarded-up, burnt-out and rotting buildings lining deserted streets, places where the population is shrinking so fast entire blocks are being demolished to make way for urban farms. “I was living in Chicago and a friend told me that houses in Detroit could be had for $500,” said Brumit, a financially strapped artist who thought he had little prospect of owning his own property. “I said if you hear of anything just a little cheaper let me know. Within a week he emails me a photo of a house for $100. I thought that’s just crazy. Why not? It’s a way to cut our expenses way down and kind of open up a lot of time for creative projects because we’re not working to pay the rent.”

Houses on sale for a few dollars are something of an urban legend in the US on the back of the mortgage crisis that drove millions of people from their homes. But in Detroit it is no myth. One in five houses now stand empty in the city that launched the automobile age, forged America’s middle-class and blessed the world with Motown. Detroit has been in decline for decades; its falling population is now well below a million – half of its 1950 peak. But the recent mortgage crisis and the fall of the big car makers into bankruptcy has pushed the town into a realm unique among big cities in America.

A third of the population are unemployed. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in large parts of Detroit over the last three years. The average price of a home sold in the city last year has been put at $7,500 (£4,900). The recent financial crash forced wholesale foreclosures among people unable to pay their mortgages or who walked away from houses that fell to a fraction of the value of the loans they had taken out on them. Banks are selling off properties in the worst neighbourhoods, which are usually surrounded by empty and wrecked housing, for a few dollars each. But even better houses can be had at a fraction of their former value.

Technically, Brumit paid $95 for the land and $5 for the house on Lawley Street – which fitted what estate agents euphemistically call an opportunity. Brumit said: “It had a big hole in the roof from the fire department putting out the last of two arson attempts. Both previous owners tried to set it on fire to get out of the mortgages. So there’s a big hole about 24ft long and the plumbing had almost entirely been ripped out and most of the electrics too. It was basically a smoke damaged, structurally intact shell with a snowdrift in the attic.” Setting fire to houses to claim the insurance and kill off the mortgage is not uncommon in Detroit; a blackened, wooden corpse of a house sits at the bottom of Brumit’s street. But it is more common for owners to just walk away from their homes and mortgages.

On the opposite side of Lawley Street Jim Feltner and his workers were clearing out a property seized by a bank. “I used to be a building contractor. I was buying up places and doing them up. Now I empty out foreclosures. I do one or two of these a day all over the city,” he said. “I’ve been in Detroit 40 years and I’ve watched the peak up to $100,000 for houses that right now aren’t worth more than $20,000 tops. I own a bunch of properties. I have 10 rentals and I can’t get nothing for them, and they’re beautiful homes.”

Feltner’s workers are dragging clothes, boots and furniture out of the bedrooms and living room, and dumping them in the front yard until a skip arrives. Kicked to one side is a box of 1970s Motown records. A teddy bear lies spreadeagled on the floor. “You could get about five grand for this place,” said Feltner. “Nice house once you clean it out. All the plumbing and electricals are in it. Roof don’t leak.” Brumit said a man called Jesse lived there. “Jesse had mentioned that he was probably going to get out of there because he knew he could buy a place for so much less than he owed. That’s a drag. You don’t want to see people leaving,” he said.

The house next door is abandoned. On the next street, one third of the properties are boarded up. It’s a story replicated across Detroit. Joan Wilson, an estate agent in the north-west of the city, whose firm is offering a three-bedroom house on Albany street for $1, says that more than half of the houses she sells are foreclosures in the tens of thousands of dollars. “The vast majority of people that call to enquire, almost the first thing out of their mouth is that they want to buy a foreclosure. I have had telephone calls from people looking online that live, for example, in England or California, who’ve never set foot in the area. They’re calling about one specific house they see online. I tell them they need to look at the neighbourhood. Is it the only house standing within a mile?”

But what is blight to some is proving an opportunity to remake parts of the city for others living there. The Old Redford part of Detroit has suffered its share of desolation. The police station, high school and community centre are closed. Yet the area is being revitalised, led by John George, a resident who began by boarding up an abandoned house used by drug dealers 21 years ago and who now heads the community group Blight Busters. They are pulling down housing that cannot be saved and creating community gardens with fresh vegetables free for anyone to pick. “There’s longstanding nuisance houses, been around seven, eight, nine years. We will go in without a permit and demolish them without permission,” said George. “If you, as an owner, are going to leave something like that to fester in my neighbourhood, obviously you either don’t care or aren’t in a position to take responsibility for your property, so we’re going to take care of it for you.” Blight Busters has torn down more than 200 houses, including recently an entire block of abandoned housing in Old Redford. “We need to right-size this community, which means removing whole blocks, and building farms, larger gardens, putting in windmills. We want to downsize – right-size – Detroit,” George said.

Houses that can be rescued are done up with grants from foundations. “Detroit has some of the nicest housing stock in the country. Brick, marble, hardwood floors, leaded glass. These houses were built for kings,” George added. “We gave a $90,000 house to a lady who was living in a car. She had four children. It didn’t cost her a dime. We had over a thousand people apply for it. It’s probably worth $35,000 now.” Old Redford is seeing piecemeal renewal. One abandoned block of shops has been converted to an arts centre and music venue with cafes. One of the few remaining cinemas in Detroit – and one that’s among the last in the US with an original pipe organ – has been revived and is showing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Brumit calculates that he has spent $1,500 to buy and do up his house, principally by scavenging demolition sites. He will move in with his wife and four-month-old child once it is complete, probably in the summer. He said: “The Americans we know got ripped off by the American dream. But [the renovation] is the most like moving out of the country that we can actually do. We’re the minority in terms of ethnicity and this is a rich environment … there’s 30% open space in the city and that doesn’t include the buildings that should be torn down. You’re in a city riding your bike around and you hear birds and stuff. It’s incredible.”


(Editor’s note: This statement arrived anonymously in our inbox recently and we felt it would be of interest to our readers.)

In the “D”, “D” doesn’t really stand for “Detroit”, but “Demolition.” Take a look around and you’ll notice a great number of buildings marked on the front with a circled “D” in faint chalk. Off to the side, many of these same buildings will also have a noticeable dot, courtesy of our own native son, Tyree Guyton. These dotted buildings have stood for so long that they have become, arguably, the most memorable landmarks of our fair city. In addition to Tyree Guyton, Detroit has had more than its fair share of artists who have taken notice of this situation and done something about it. Recently, however, we have taken up a particular project that has actually netted results – faster than anyone, especially us, could have anticipated.

The artistic move is simple, cover the front in Tiggeriffic Orange – a color from the Mickey Mouse series, easily purchased from Home Depot. Every board, every door, every window, is caked in Tiggeriffic Orange. We paint the facades of abandoned houses whose most striking feature are their derelict appearance. A simple drive would show you some of our most visible targets. Just off I-75, around the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, on the west side, towers a three story house, saturated so deeply in orange that it reflects color onto the highway with the morning sun. Also, on the east side of the highway by the McNichols exit, is another house screaming orange. In that same area, where the Davison Highway and John C Lodge M-10 Highway intersect, sit a series of two houses painted orange, most visible from the Lodge side. In our only location not visible from the highway, on the Warren detour between 94 and 96 on Hancock Street, sat a house so perfectly set in its color that it garnered approval from the Detroit Police Department.

Two of four locations have already been demolished. Of the four, the building on Dequindre, by the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, remains, as does the site that intersects the Lodge and Davison. There was no “D” on any of the façades, only burnt boards, broken glass, and peeling paint. Rallying around these elements of decay, we seek to accentuate something that has wrongfully become part of the everyday landscape. So the destruction of two of these four houses raises a number of interesting points. From one perspective, our actions have created a direct cause and effect relationship with the city. As in, if we paint a house orange, the city will demolish it. In this relationship, where do the city’s motivations lie? Do they want to stop drawing attention to these houses? Are the workers simply confused and think this is the city’s new mark for demolition? Or is this a genuine response to beautify the city?

From another perspective, we have coincidently chosen buildings that were set to be demolished within the month. However, with so many circled “D”s on buildings, it seems near impossible that chance would strike twice. In any case, what will be the social ramifications of these actions? Each of these houses serves within the greater visual and social landscape of the city. If the city doesn’t rebuild, will it be better to have nothing there rather than an abandoned house? In addition, each of these houses served as a shelter for the homeless at some point in time. Now there are, at least, two less houses for them. Why didn’t the city simply choose to renovate? Everything affects not only our experience now, but also that of the next generation. So before they are all gone, look for these houses. Look at ALL the houses in Detroit. If you stumble upon one of these houses colored with Tiggeriffic Orange, stop and really look. In addition to being highlights within a context of depression, every detail is accentuated through the unification of color. Broken windows become jagged lines. Peeling paint becomes texture. These are artworks in themselves.

If you see a house that you would like to see painted orange, paint it. Afterwards, email the good people at at ws [at] thedetroiter [dot] com. These buildings aren’t scenery. Don’t look through or around them. Take action. Pick up a roller. Pick up a brush. Apply orange.

The dialogue is going. Our goal is to make everyone look at not only these houses, but all the buildings rooted in decay and corrosion. If we can get people to look for our orange while driving through the city, then they will at the same time, be looking at all the decaying buildings they come across. This brings awareness. And as we have already seen, awareness brings action.

Yours Truly,
the DDD project


Inchvesting In Detroit: A Virtual Realty
BY Sarah Hulett / March 4, 2010

For $1, you can own a piece of Detroit. It will be a small piece: 1 square inch, to be exact. But your deed to that microplot of land will also buy you passage into an online community that could yield big ideas for the city. Jerry Paffendorf is not your typical real estate developer. But then, the people lining up to buy into his project are not your typical investors. He calls them “inchvestors.” Paffendorf’s project is called Loveland. And it’s a hybrid: part virtual and part physical. “What we want to do is we want to build this wild social network of people that’s literally built out of the dirt and the ground,” Paffendorf says. The physical part is a vacant lot on Vernor Highway in east Detroit. Paffendorf bought the property at auction for $500. Then he put 10,000 square inches up for sale, and people from all over the planet began snapping them up. They’ve now all been sold to nearly 600 people. The “deeds” Paffendorf mails out are not legally valid, so the people who buy inches won’t get to vote in Detroit, or have to pay taxes.

A Real-Life SimCity
Some inchvestors have sentimental ties to the city, and they just liked the idea of having a physical stake in the place where they — or their parents or grandparents — grew up. But a lot of them are attracted by the project’s virtual possibilities and say Loveland is sort of like the SimCity computer game, but with real land. Rita King is the biggest “landholder” in Loveland, with 1,000 square inches. She works for IBM, and she’s an entrepreneur with a firm that helps companies use social media and virtual worlds. King is excited about the project’s potential to help the real city in which Loveland sits. “Because Loveland is physically located in Detroit, it takes those 500 inchvestors, and it ties us to Detroit, which means that the development of Detroit is now of critical importance to hundreds of people who don’t live or work in Detroit,” King says. “And now I, for one, am starting to look very closely at Detroit, and how can I help Detroit level up along with Loveland in our small way.” “Leveling up” is a phrase from the world of video games. It’s what happens when the character you’re playing makes it to the next level in the game. And for many, it’s an apt description of what Detroit needs to do. King says she expects the online component of Loveland to include interactive maps and stories. And proceeds from the project’s next phase are expected to be used to fund grants for nonprofit groups around Detroit.

Feedback From Locals Not Always Positive
But for all the excitement about the possibilities Loveland holds among high-minded techno-futurists, the project is also fodder for derision and mockery in some quarters. Here’s a sampling of some of the comments posted to an online discussion board called Detroit YES: “Sounds like a pyramid scheme … without the pyramid.” – “A virtual art project? That sounds to me like a project that’s almost an art project.” – “This guy’s laughing all the way to the bank.” Bill Johnson, who goes by the pseudonym “Gnome” on Detroit YES, thinks the project is just exploitation. “You know in places outside Detroit, we’ve got a bad reputation as sort of a pitiful, worthless place,” Johnson says. “And this guy’s preying on that. That’s what he’s really peddling.”

An Optimism
Paffendorf says Detroit is a place of opportunity and creativity. He shares an optimism about the city and his project with Ricki Collins. She’s 9 years old and lives next door to the empty lot Paffendorf bought. Hers is the only house left on the block. “I want people to remember this place. Remember it. And I want people to come over so we can get to know each other, learn new things about each other,” Ricki says. It’s not clear how many of the people who have bought into the project will actually visit their square-inch plots in person. But King says she intends to make the trek from New York City. She also plans to install a mailbox so people can send things to and from the site.

For Sale: The $100 House
BY Toby Barlow / March 8, 2009

Recently, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town. This struck me as a highly suspect statement. After all, we were talking about Detroit, home of corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, beleaguered General Motors and the 0-16 Lions. Compared with other cities’ buzzing, glittering skylines, ours sits largely abandoned, like some hulking beehive devastated by colony collapse. Who on earth would move here? Then again, I myself had moved to Detroit, from Brooklyn. For $100,000, I bought a town house that sits downtown in the largest and arguably the most beautiful Mies van der Rohe development ever built, an island of perfect modernism forgotten by the rest of the world. Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.

Ah, the mythical $100 home. We hear about these low-priced “opportunities” in down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland, but we never meet anyone who has taken the plunge. Understandable really, for if they were actually worth anything then they would cost real money, right? Who would do such a preposterous thing? A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances. Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah. Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.

Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee. But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends. In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.


RIOTS of 1943
BY Vivian M. Baulch + Patricia Zacharias / Detroit News / 2.11.99

“Recruiters toured the South convincing whites and blacks to head north with promises of high wages in the new war factories. They arrived in such numbers that it was impossible to house them all. Blacks who believed they were heading to a promised land found a northern bigotry every bit as pervasive and virulent as what they thought they had left behind in the deep south. And southern whites brought their own traditional prejudices with them as both races migrated northward. The influx of newcomers strained not only housing, but transportation, education and recreational facilities as well. Wartime residents of Detroit endured long lines everywhere, at bus stops, grocery stores, and even at newsstands where they hoped for the chance to be first answering classified ads offering rooms for rent. Even though the city enjoyed full employment, it suffered the many discomforts of wartime rationing. Child-care programs were nonexistent, with grandma the only hope — provided she wasn’t already working at a defense plant. Times were tough for all, but for the Negro community, times were even tougher. Blacks were excluded from all public housing except the Brewster projects. Many lived in homes without indoor plumbing, yet they paid rent two to three times higher than families in white districts. Blacks were also confronted with a segregated military, discrimination in public accommodations, and unfair treatment by police.

Woodward was the dividing line between the roving black and white gangs. Whites took over Woodward up to Vernor and overturned and burned 20 cars belonging to blacks, looting stores as they went. The virtual guerrilla warfare overwhelmed the 2,000 city police officers and 150 state police troopers. A crowd of 100,000 spectators gathered near Grand Circus Park looking for something to watch. Despite Detroit’s history of problems, the Seal of the City of Detroit offers hopeful and timeless mottoes: “Speramus meliora” (We hope for better things) and “Resurget Cineribus” (It will rise from the ashes.)”

RIOTS of 1967

“Affordable housing, or the lack thereof, was a fundamental concern for black Detroiters. When polled by the Detroit Free Press regarding the problems that contributed most to the rioting in the previous year, respondents listed “poor housing” as one of the most important issues, second only to police brutality. (Detroit Free Press 1968, Thomas 1997:130-131). In Detroit, the shortage of housing available to black residents was further exacerbated by “urban renewal” projects. In Detroit, entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for freeways that linked city and suburbs. Neighborhoods that met their fate in such manner were predominantly black in their composition. To build Interstate 75, Paradise Valley or “Black Bottom”, the neighborhood that black migrants and white ethnics had struggled over during the 1940s, was buried beneath several layers of concrete. As the oldest established black enclave in Detroit, “Black Bottom” was not merely a point on the map, but the heart of Detroit’s black community, commercially and culturally. The loss for many black residents of Detroit was devastating, and the anger burned for years thereafter.”

photo by James Griffioen

US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive
BY Tom Leonard / 12 Jun 2009

The government looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint, one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and returning the land to nature. Local politicians believe the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the dwindling population and local services into a more viable area. The radical experiment is the brainchild of Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint. Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country. Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes. Most are former industrial cities in the “rust belt” of America’s Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside. “The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we’re all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way,” said Mr Kildee. “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.” Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective programme at the University of California, Berkeley, said there was “both a cultural and political taboo” about admitting decline in America. “Places like Flint have hit rock bottom. They’re at the point where it’s better to start knocking a lot of buildings down,” she said.

Flint, sixty miles north of Detroit, was the original home of General Motors. The car giant once employed 79,000 local people but that figure has shrunk to around 8,000. Unemployment is now approaching 20 per cent and the total population has almost halved to 110,000. The exodus – particularly of young people – coupled with the consequent collapse in property prices, has left street after street in sections of the city almost entirely abandoned. In the city centre, the once grand Durant Hotel – named after William Durant, GM’s founder – is a symbol of the city’s decline, said Mr Kildee. The large building has been empty since 1973, roughly when Flint’s decline began.

Regarded as a model city in the motor industry’s boom years, Flint may once again be emulated, though for very different reasons.
But Mr Kildee, who has lived there nearly all his life, said he had first to overcome a deeply ingrained American cultural mindset that “big is good” and that cities should sprawl – Flint covers 34 square miles. He said: “The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there’s an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they’re shrinking, they’re failing.”

photo by James Griffioen

But some Flint dustcarts are collecting just one rubbish bag a week, roads are decaying, police are very understaffed and there were simply too few people to pay for services, he said. If the city didn’t downsize it will eventually go bankrupt, he added. Flint’s recovery efforts have been helped by a new state law passed a few years ago which allowed local governments to buy up empty properties very cheaply. They could then knock them down or sell them on to owners who will occupy them. The city wants to specialise in health and education services, both areas which cannot easily be relocated abroad.

The local authority has restored the city’s attractive but formerly deserted centre but has pulled down 1,100 abandoned homes in outlying areas. Mr Kildee estimated another 3,000 needed to be demolished, although the city boundaries will remain the same. Already, some streets peter out into woods or meadows, no trace remaining of the homes that once stood there. Choosing which areas to knock down will be delicate but many of them were already obvious, he said. The city is buying up houses in more affluent areas to offer people in neighbourhoods it wants to demolish. Nobody will be forced to move, said Mr Kildee. “Much of the land will be given back to nature. People will enjoy living near a forest or meadow,” he said. Mr Kildee acknowledged that some fellow Americans considered his solution “defeatist” but he insisted it was “no more defeatist than pruning an overgrown tree so it can bear fruit again”.

Daniel Kildee
email : dkildee [at] sbcglobal [dot] net

Food Among the Ruins
BY Mark Dowie / August 2009

Detroit, the country’s most depressed metropolis, has zero produce-carrying grocery chains. It also has open land, fertile soil, ample water, and the ingredients to reinvent itself from Motor City to urban farm. Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.

Right now, Detroit is as close as any city in America to becoming a food desert, not just another metropolis like Chicago, Philadelphia, or Cleveland with a bunch of small- and medium-sized food deserts scattered about, but nearly a full-scale, citywide food desert. (A food desert is defined by those who study them as a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food, or where the distance to a bag of potato chips is half the distance to a head of lettuce.) About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.

Detroiters who live close enough to suburban borders to find nearby groceries carrying fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables are a small minority of the population. The health consequences of food deserts are obvious and dire. Diabetes, heart failure, hypertension, and obesity are chronic in Detroit, and life expectancy is measurably lower than in any American city.

photo by James Griffioen

Not so long ago, there were five produce-carrying grocery chains—Kroger, A&P, Farmer Jack, Wrigley, and Meijer—competing vigorously for the Detroit food market. Today there are none. Nor is there a single WalMart or Costco in the city. Specialty grocer Trader Joe’s just turned down an attractive offer to open an outlet in relatively safe and prosperous midtown Detroit; a rapidly declining population of chronically poor consumers is not what any retailer is after. High employee turnover, loss from theft, and cost of security are also cited by chains as reasons to leave or avoid Detroit. So it is unlikely grocers will ever return, despite the tireless flirtations of City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Michigan Food and Beverage Association. There is a fabulous once-a-week market, the largest of its kind in the country, on the east side that offers a wide array of fresh meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. But most people I saw there on an early April Saturday arrived in well polished SUVs from the suburbs. So despite the Eastern Market, in-city Detroiters are still left with the challenge of finding new ways to feed themselves a healthy meal.

One obvious solution is to grow their own, and the urban backyard garden boom that is sweeping the nation has caught hold in Detroit, particularly in neighborhoods recently settled by immigrants from agrarian cultures of Laos and Bangladesh, who are almost certain to become major players in an agrarian Detroit. Add to that the five hundred or so twenty-by-twenty-foot community plots and a handful of three- to ten-acre farms cultured by church and non-profit groups, and during its four-month growing season, Detroit is producing somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of its food supply inside city limits—more than most American cities, but nowhere near enough to allay the food desert problem. About 3 percent of the groceries sold at the Eastern Market are homegrown; the rest are brought into Detroit by a handful of peri-urban farmers and about one hundred and fifty freelance food dealers who buy their produce from Michigan farms between thirty and one hundred miles from the city and truck it into the market.

photo by James Griffioen

There are more visionaries in Detroit than in most Rust-Belt cities, and thus more visions of a community rising from the ashes of a moribund industry to become, if not an urban paradise, something close to it. The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit, at least the ones who drew me to the city, were those who imagine growing food among the ruins—chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in the city, sixty thousand owned by the city), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels, vermiculture, permaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, waving wheat where cars were once test-driven, and winter greens sprouting inside the frames of single-story bungalows stripped of their skin and re-sided with Plexiglas—a homemade greenhouse. Those are just a few of the agricultural technologies envisioned for the urban prairie Detroit has become.

There are also proposals on the mayor’s desk to rezone vast sections A-something (“A” for agriculture), and a proposed master plan that would move the few people residing in lonely, besotted neighborhoods into Detroit’s nine loosely defined villages and turn the rest of the city into open farmland. An American Institute of Architects panel concludes that all Detroit’s residents could fit comfortably in fifty square miles of land. Much of the remaining ninety square miles could be farmed. Were that to happen, and a substantial investment was made in greenhouses, vertical farms, and aquaponic systems, Detroit could be producing protein and fibre 365 days a year and soon become the first and only city in the world to produce close to 100 percent of its food supply within its city limits. No semis hauling groceries, no out-of-town truck farmers, no food dealers. And no chain stores need move back. Everything eaten in the city could be grown in the city and distributed to locally owned and operated stores and co-ops. I met no one in Detroit who believed that was impossible, but only a few who believed it would happen. It could, but not without a lot of political and community will.

There are a few cities in the world that grow and provide about half their total food supply within their urban and peri-urban regions—Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Havana, Cuba; Hanoi, Vietnam; Dakar, Senegal; Rosario, Argentina; Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines; and, my personal favorite, Cuenca, Equador—all of which have much longer growing seasons than Detroit. However, those cities evolved that way, almost unintentionally. They are, in fact, about where Detroit was agriculturally around one hundred and fifty years ago. Half of them will almost surely drop under 50 percent sufficiency within the next two decades as industry subsumes cultivated land to build factories (à la China). Because of its unique situation, Detroit could come close to being 100 percent self-sufficient.

First, the city lies on one hundred and forty square miles of former farmland. Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco could be placed inside the borders of Detroit with room to spare, and the population is about the same as the smallest of those cities, San Francisco: eight hundred thousand. And that number is still declining from a high of two million in the mid-nineteen fifties. Demographers expect Detroit’s population to level off somewhere between five hundred thousand and six hundred thousand by 2025. Right now there is about forty square miles of unoccupied open land in the city, the area of San Francisco, and that landmass could be doubled by moving a few thousand people out of hazardous firetraps into affordable housing in the eight villages. As I drove around the city, I saw many full-sized blocks with one, two, or three houses on them, many already burned out and abandoned. The ones that weren’t would make splendid farmhouses.

photo by James Griffioen

As Detroit was built on rich agricultural land, the soil beneath the city is fertile and arable. Certainly some of it is contaminated with the wastes of heavy industry, but not so badly that it’s beyond remediation. In fact, phyto-remediation, using certain plants to remove toxic chemicals permanently from the soil, is already practiced in parts of the city. And some of the plants used for remediation can be readily converted to biofuels. Others can be safely fed to livestock.

Leading the way in Detroit’s soil remediation is Malik Yakini, owner of the Black Star Community Book Store and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Yakini and his colleagues begin the remediation process by removing abandoned house foundations and toxic debris from vacated industrial sites. Often that is all that need be done to begin farming. Throw a little compost on the ground, turn it in, sow some seeds, and water it. Water in Detroit is remarkably clean and plentiful.

Although Detroiters have been growing produce in the city since its days as an eighteenth-century French trading outpost, urban farming was given a major boost in the nineteen eighties by a network of African-American elders calling themselves the “Gardening Angels.” As migrants from the rural South, where many had worked as small farmers and field hands, they brought agrarian skills to vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites of the city, and set out to reconnect their descendants, children of asphalt, to the Earth, and teach them that useful work doesn’t necessarily mean getting a job in a factory.

Thirty years later, Detroit has an eclectic mix of agricultural systems, ranging from three-foot window boxes growing a few heads of lettuce to a large-scale farm run by The Catherine Ferguson Academy, a home and school for pregnant girls that not only produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but also raises chickens, geese, ducks, bees, rabbits, and milk goats.
Across town, Capuchin Brother Rick Samyn manages a garden that not only provides fresh fruits and vegetables to city soup kitchens, but also education to neighborhood children. There are about eighty smaller community gardens scattered about the city, more and more of them raising farm animals alongside the veggies. At the moment, domestic livestock is forbidden in the city, as are beehives. But the ordinance against them is generally ignored and the mayor’s office assures me that repeal of the bans are imminent.

About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.

Larger scale, for-profit farming is also on the drawing board. Financial services entrepreneur John Hantz has asked the city to let him farm a seventy-acre parcel he owns close to the Eastern Market. If that is approved and succeeds in producing food for the market, and profit for Hantz Farms, Hantz hopes to create more large-scale commercial farms around the city. Not everyone in Detroit’s agricultural community is happy with the scale or intentions of Hantz’s vision, but it seems certain to become part of the mix. And unemployed people will be put to work.

Any agro-economist will tell you that urban farming creates jobs. Even without local production, the food industry creates three dollars of job growth for every dollar spent on food—a larger multiplier effect than almost any other product or industry. Farm a city, and that figure jumps over five dollars. To a community with persistent two-digit unemployment, that number is manna. But that’s only one economic advantage of farming a city.

The average food product purchased in a U.S. chain store has traveled thirteen hundred miles, and about half of it has spoiled en route, despite the fact that it was bioengineered to withstand transport. The total mileage in a three-course American meal approaches twenty-five thousand. The food seems fresh because it has been refrigerated in transit, adding great expense and a huge carbon footprint to each item, and subtracting most of the minerals and vitamins that would still be there were the food grown close by.

photo by James Griffioen

I drove around the city one day with Dwight Vaughter and Gary Wozniak. A soft-spoken African American, Vaughter is CEO of SHAR, a self-help drug rehab program with about two hundred residents recovering from various addictions in an abandoned hospital. Wozniak, a bright, gregarious Polish American, who, unlike most of his fellow Poles, has stayed in Detroit, is the program’s financial director. Vaughter and Wozniak are trying to create a labor-intensive economic base for their program, with the conviction that farming and gardening are therapeutic. They have their eyes on two thousand acres in one of the worst sections of the city, not far from the Eastern Market. They estimate that there are about four thousand people still living in the area, most of them in houses that should have been condemned and razed years ago. There are also six churches in the section, offering some of the best ecclesiastical architecture in the city.

I tried to imagine what this weedy, decrepit, trash-ridden urban dead zone would look like under cultivation. First, I removed the overhead utilities and opened the sky a little. Then I tore up the useless grid of potholed streets and sidewalks and replaced them with a long winding road that would take vegetables to market and bring parishioners to church. I wrecked and removed most of the houses I saw, leaving a few that somehow held some charm and utility. Of course, I left the churches standing, as I did a solid red brick school, boarded up a decade ago when the student body dropped to a dozen or so bored and unstimulated deadbeats. It could be reopened as an urban ag-school, or SHAR’s residents could live there. I plowed and planted rows of every imaginable vegetable, created orchards and raised beds, set up beehives and built chicken coops, rabbit warrens, barns, and corrals for sheep, goats, and horses. And of course, I built sturdy hoop houses, rows of them, heated by burning methane from composting manure and ag-waste to keep frost from winter crops. The harvest was tended by former drug addicts who like so many before them found salvation in growing things that keep their brethren alive.

That afternoon I visited Grace Lee Boggs, a ninety-three-year-old Chinese-American widow who has been envisioning farms in Detroit for decades. Widow of legendary civil rights activist Jimmy Boggs, Grace preserves his legacy with the energy of ten activists. The main question on my mind as I climbed the steps to her modest east side home, now a center for community organizers, was whether or not Detroit possesses the community and political will to scale its agriculture up to 100 percent food self-sufficiency. Yes, Grace said to the former, and no to the latter. But she really didn’t believe that political will was that essential. “The food riots erupting around the world challenge us to rethink our whole approach to food,” she said, but as communities, not as bodies politic. “Today’s hunger crisis is rooted in the industrialized food system which destroys local food production and forces nations like Kenya, which only twenty-five years ago was food self-sufficient, to import 80 percent of its food because its productive land is being used by global corporations to grow flowers and luxury foods for export.” The same thing happened to Detroit, she says, which was once before a food self-sufficient community. I asked her whether the city government would support large-scale urban agriculture. “City government is irrelevant,” she answered. “Positive change, leaps forward in the evolution of humankind do not start with governments. They start right here in our living rooms and kitchens. We are the leaders we are looking for.”

All the decaying Rust-Belt cities in the American heartland have at one time or another imagined themselves transformed into some sort of exciting new post-industrial urban model. And some have begun the process of transformation. Now it’s Detroit’s turn, Boggs believes. It could follow the examples of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and become a slightly recovered metropolis, another pathetic industrial has-been still addicted to federal stimulus, marginal jobs, and the corporate food system. Or it could make a complete break and become, if not a paradise, well, at least a pretty good place to live.

Not everyone in Detroit is enthusiastic about farming. Many urbanites believe that structures of some sort or another belong on urban land. And a lot of those people just elected David Bing mayor of the city. Bing’s opponent, acting mayor Ken Cockrel, was committed to expanding urban agriculture in Detroit. Bing has not said he’s opposed to it, but his background as a successful automotive parts manufacturer will likely have him favoring a future that maintains the city’s primary nickname: Motor City.

And there remains a lasting sense of urbanity in Detroit. “This is a city, not a farm,” remarked one skeptic of urban farming. She’s right, of course. A city is more than a farm. But that’s what makes Detroit’s rural future exciting. Where else in the world can one find a one-hundred-and-forty-square-mile agricultural community with four major league sports teams, two good universities, the fifth largest art museum in the country, a world-class hospital, and headquarters of a now-global industry, that while faltering, stands ready to green their products and keep three million people in the rest of the country employed?

Despite big auto’s crash, “Detroit” is still synonymous with the industry. When people ask, “What will become of Detroit?” most of them still mean, “What will become of GM, Ford, and Chrysler?” If Detroit the city is to survive in any form, it should probably get past that question and begin searching for ways to put its most promising assets, land and people, to productive use again by becoming America’s first modern agrarian metropolis.

Contemporary Detroit gave new meaning to the word “wasteland.” It still stands as a monument to a form of land abuse that became endemic to industrial America—once-productive farmland, teaming with wildlife, was paved and poisoned for corporate imperatives. Now the city offers itself as an opportunity to restore some of its agrarian tradition, not fifty miles from downtown in the countryside where most of us believe that tradition was originally established, but a short bicycle ride away. American cities once grew much of their food within walking distance of most of their residents. In fact, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most early American cities, Detroit included, looked more like the English countryside, with a cluster of small villages interspersed with green open space. Eventually, farmers of the open space sold their land to developers and either retired or moved their farms out of cities, which were cut into grids and plastered with factories, shopping malls, and identical row houses.

Detroit now offers America a perfect place to redefine urban economics, moving away from the totally paved, heavy-industrial factory-town model to a resilient, holistic, economically diverse, self-sufficient, intensely green, rural/urban community—and in doing so become the first modern American city where agriculture, while perhaps not the largest, is the most vital industry.

Detroit arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape
BY Rebecca Solnit / July 2007

Until recently there was a frieze around the lobby of the Hotel Pontchartrain in downtown Detroit, a naively charming painting of a forested lakefront landscape with Indians peeping out from behind the trees. The hotel was built on the site of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the old French garrison that three hundred years ago held a hundred or so pioneer families inside its walls while several thousand Ottawas and Hurons and Potawatomis went about their business outside, but the frieze evoked an era before even that rude structure was built in the lush woodlands of the place that was not yet Michigan or the United States. Scraped clear by glaciers during the last ice age, the landscape the French invaded was young, soggy, and densely forested. The river frontage that would become Detroit was probably mostly sugar maple and beech forest, with black ash or mixed hardwood swamps, a few patches of conifers, and the occasional expanse of what naturalists like to call wet prairie—grasslands you might not want to walk on. The Indians killed the trees by girdling them and planted corn in the clearings, but the wild rice they gathered and the fish and game they hunted were also important parts of their 
diet. One pioneer counted badger, bear, fisher, fox, mink, muskrat, porcupine, rabbit, raccoon, weasel, wildcat, wolf, and woodchuck among the local species, and cougar and deer could have been added to the list. The French would later recruit the Indians to trap beaver, which were plentiful in those once-riverine territories—détroit means “strait” or “narrows,” but in its thirty-two-mile journey from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie, the Detroit River also had several tributaries, including Parent’s Creek, which was later named Bloody Run after some newly arrived English soldiers managed to lose a fight they picked with the local Ottawas.

Fort Pontchartrain was never meant to be the center of a broad European settlement. It was a trading post, a garrison, and a strategic site in the scramble between the British and the French to dominate the North American interior. Cadillac, the ambitious Frenchman who established the fort in 1701, invited members of several Indian nations to surround the fort in order to facilitate more frequent trading, but this led to clashes not just between nations but between races. Unknown Indians set fire to Fort Pontchartrain in 1703, and the Fox skirmished there in 1712. After the English took over in 1760, deteriorating relations with the local tribes culminated in the three-year-long, nearly successful Ottawa uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.

This is all ancient history, but it does foreshadow the racial conflicts that never went away in Detroit, though now white people constitute the majority who surround and resent the 83 percent black city. It’s as if the fort had been turned inside out—and, in fact, in the 1940s a six-foot-tall concrete wall was built along Eight Mile Road, which traces Detroit’s northern limits, to contain the growing African-American population. And this inversion exposes another paradox. North of Eight Mile, the mostly white suburbs seem conventional, and they may face the same doom as much of conventional suburban America if sprawl and 
auto-based civilization die off with oil shortages and economic decline. South of Eight Mile, though, Detroit is racing to a far less predictable future.

It is a remarkable city now, one in which the clock seems to be running backward as its buildings disappear and its population and economy decline. The second time I visited Detroit I tried to stay at the Pontchartrain, but the lobby was bisected by drywall, the mural seemed doomed, and the whole place was under some form of remodeling that resembled ruin, with puddles in the lobby and holes in the walls, few staff people, fewer guests, and strange grinding noises at odd hours. I checked out after one night because of the cold water coming out of the hot-water tap and the generally spooky feeling generated by trying to sleep in a 413-room high-rise hotel with almost no other guests. I was sad to see the frieze on its way out, but—still—as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape it portrays, a landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely—and sometime even beautifully—post-American.

This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya. The city, once the fourth largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild. Downtown still looks like a downtown, and all of those high-rise buildings still make an impressive skyline, but when you look closely at some of them, you can see trees growing out of the ledges and crevices, an invasive species from China known variously as the ghetto palm and the tree of heaven. Local wisdom has it that whenever a new building goes up, an older one will simply be abandoned, and the same rule applies to the blocks of new condos that have been dropped here and there among the ruins: why they were built in the first place in a city full of handsome old houses going to ruin has everything to do with the momentary whims of the real estate trade and nothing to do with the long-term survival of cities.

The transformation of the residential neighborhoods is more dramatic. On so many streets in so many neighborhoods, you see a house, a little shabby but well built and beautiful. Then another house. Then a few houses are missing, so thoroughly missing that no trace of foundation remains. Grass grows lushly, as though nothing had ever disturbed the pastoral verdure. Then there’s a house that’s charred and shattered, then a beautiful house, with gables and dormers and a porch, the kind of house a lot of Americans fantasize about owning. Then more green. This irregular pattern occurs mile after mile, through much of Detroit. You could be traveling down Wa bash Street on the west side of town or Pennsylvania or Fairview on the east side of town or around just about any part of the State Fair neighborhood on the city’s northern border. Between the half-erased neighborhoods are ruined factories, boarded-up warehouses, rows of storefronts bearing the traces of failed enterprise, and occasional solid blocks of new town houses that look as though they had been dropped in by helicopter. In the bereft zones, solitary figures wander slowly, as though in no hurry to get from one abandoned zone to the next. Some areas have been stripped entirely, and a weedy version of nature is returning. Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie—an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco.

It was tales of these ruins that originally drew me to the city a few years ago. My first visit began somberly enough, as I contemplated the great neoclassical edifice of the train station, designed by the same architects and completed the same year as Grand Central station in Manhattan. Grand Central thrives; this broken building stands alone just beyond the grim silence of Michigan Avenue and only half a mile from the abandoned Tiger Stadium. Rings of cyclone fence forbid exploration. The last train left on January 5, 1988— the day before Epiphany. The building has been so thoroughly gutted that on sunny days the light seems to come through the upper stories as though through a cheese grater; there is little left but concrete and stone. All the windows are smashed out. The copper pipes and wires, I was told, were torn out by the scavengers who harvest material from abandoned buildings around the city and hasten their decay.

On another visit, I took a long walk down a sunken railroad spur that, in more prosperous times, had been used to move goods from one factory to another. A lot of effort had gone into making the long channel of brick and concrete about twenty feet below the gently undulating surface of Detroit, and it had been abandoned a long time. Lush greenery grew along the tracks and up the walls, which were like a museum of spray-can art from the 1980s and 1990s. The weeds and beer cans and strangely apposite graffiti decrying the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement seemed to go on forever.

I took many pictures on my visits to Detroit, but back home they just looked like snapshots of abandoned Nebraska farmhouses or small towns farther west on the Great Plains. Sometimes a burned-out house would stand next to a carefully tended twin, a monument to random fate; sometimes the rectilinear nature of city planning was barely perceptible, just the slightest traces of a grid fading into grassy fields accented with the occasional fire hydrant. One day after a brief thunderstorm, when the rain had cleared away and chunky white clouds dotted the sky, I wandered into a neighborhood, or rather a former neighborhood, of at least a dozen square blocks where trees of heaven waved their branches in the balmy air. Approximately one tattered charred house still stood per block. I could hear the buzzing of crickets or cicadas, and I felt as if I had traveled a thousand years into the future.

photo by James Griffioen

To say that much of Detroit is 
ruins is, of course, to say that some of it isn’t. There are stretches of Detroit that look like anywhere in the U.S.A.—blocks of town houses and new condos, a flush of gentility spreading around the Detroit Institute of Arts, a few older neighborhoods where everything is fine. If Detroit has become a fortress of urban poverty surrounded by suburban affluence, the city’s waterfront downtown has become something of a fortress within a fortress, with a convention center, a new ballpark, a new headquarters for General Motors, and a handful of casinos that were supposed to be the city’s economic salvation when they were built a decade ago. But that garrison will likely fend off time no better
than Fort Detroit or the
 Hotel Pontchartrain.

Detroit is wildly outdated, but it is not very old. It was a medium-size city that boomed in the first quarter of the twentieth century, became the “arsenal of democracy” in the second, spent the third in increasingly less gentle decline, and by the last quarter was a byword for urban decay, having made a complete arc in a single century. In 1900, Detroit had a quarter of a million people. By midcentury the population had reached nearly 2 million. In recent years, though, it has fallen below 900,000. Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral. People thought Detroit would go on forever.

Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, reigned from 1974 to 1993, the years that the change became irreversible and impossible to ignore, and in his autobiography he sounds like he is still in shock: “It’s mind-boggling to think that at mid-century Detroit was a city of close to two million and nearly everything beyond was covered with corn and cow patties. Forty years later, damn near every last white person in the city had moved to the old fields and pastures—1.4 frigging million of them. Think about that. There were 1,600,000 whites in Detroit after the war, and 1,400,000 of them left. By 1990, the city was just over a million, nearly eighty percent of it was black, and the suburbs had surpassed Detroit not only in population but in wealth, in commerce—even in basketball, for God’s sake.”

The Detroit Pistons are now based in Auburn Hills. According to the 2000 census, another 112,357 whites left the city in the 1990s, and 10,000 more people a year continue to leave. Even three hundred bodies a year are exhumed from the cemeteries and moved because some of the people who were once Detroiters or the children of Detroiters don’t think the city is good enough for their dead. Ford and General Motors, or what remains of them—most of the jobs were dispatched to other towns and nations long agoin trouble, too. Interestingly, in this city whose name is synonymous with the auto industry, more than a fifth of households have no cars.

“Detroit’s Future Is Looking Brighter,” said a headline in the Detroit Free Press, not long after another article outlined the catastrophes afflicting the whole state. In recent years, Michigan’s household income has dropped more than that of any other state, and more and more of its citizens are slipping below the poverty line. David Littmann, a senior economist for the Michigan think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told the paper, “As the economy slows nationally, we’re going to sink much farther relative to the other states. We’ve only just begun. We’re going to see Michigan sink to levels that no one has 
ever seen.”

In another sense, the worst is over in Detroit. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city was falling apart, spectacularly and violently. Back then the annual pre-Halloween arson festival known as Devil’s Night finished off a lot of the abandoned buildings; it peaked in 1984 with 810 fires in the last three days of October. Some of the arson, a daughter of Detroit’s black bourgeoisie told me, was 
constructive—crackhouses being burned down by the neighbors; her own respectable aunt had torched one. Between 1978 and 1998, the city issued 9,000 building permits for new homes and 108,000 demolition permits, and quite a lot of structures were annihilated without official sanction.

Even Ford’s old Highland Park headquarters, where the Model T was born, is now just a shuttered series of dusty warehouses with tape on the windows and cyclone fences around the cracked pavement. Once upon a time, the plant was one of the wonders of the world—on a single day in 1925 it cranked out 9,000 cars, according to a sign I saw under a tree next to the empty buildings. Detroit once made most of the cars on earth; now the entire United States makes not even one in ten. The new Model T Ford Plaza next door struck my traveling companion—who, like so many white people born in Detroit after the war, had mostly been raised elsewhere—as auspicious. But the mall was fronted by a mostly empty parking lot and anchored by a Payless ShoeSource, which to my mind did not portend an especially bright future.

When I came back, a year after my first tour, I stopped at the Detroit Institute of Arts to see the Diego Rivera mural commissioned in 1932 by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. The museum is a vast Beaux-Arts warehouse—“the fifth-largest fine arts museum in the United States,” according to its promotional literature—and the fresco covered all four walls of the museum’s central courtyard. Rivera is said to have considered it his finest work.

It’s an odd masterpiece, a celebration of the River Rouge auto plant, which had succeeded the Highland Park factory as Ford’s industrial headquarters, painted by a Communist for the son of one of the richest capitalists in the world. The north and south walls are devoted to nearly life-size scenes in which the plant’s gray gears, belts, racks, and workbenches surge and swarm like some vast intestinal apparatus. The workers within might be subsidiary organs or might be lunch, as the whole churns to excrete a stream of black Fords.

Rivera created this vision when the city was reveling in the newfound supremacy of its megafactories, but Detroit had already reached its apex. Indeed, the River Rouge plant—then the largest factory complex in the world, employing more than 100,000 workers on a site two and a half times the size of New York City’s Central Park—was itself built in suburban Dearborn. In 1932, though, capitalists and Communists alike shared a belief that the most desirable form of human organization—indeed, the inevitable form—was not just industrial but this kind of industrial: a Fordist system of “rational” labor, of centralized production in blue-collar cities, of eternal prosperity in a stern gray land. Even the young Soviet Union looked up to Henry Ford.

But Detroit was building the machine that would help destroy not just this city but urban industrialism across the continent. Rivera painted, in a subsidiary all-gray panel in the lower right corner of the south wall, a line of slumped working men and women exiting the factory into what appears to be an endless parking lot full of Ford cars. It may not have looked that way in 1932, but a lot of the gray workers were going to buy those gray cars and drive right out of the gray city. The city-hating Ford said that he wanted every family in the world to have a Ford, and he priced them so that more and more families could. He also fantasized about a post-urban world in which workers would also farm, seasonally or part-time, but he did less to realize that vision. Private automobile ownership was a double blow against the density that is crucial to cities and urbanism and against the Fordist model of concentrated large-scale manufacture. Ford was sabotaging Detroit and then Fordism almost from the beginning; the city had blown up rapidly and would spend the next several decades simply disintegrating.

Detroit was always a rough town. When Rivera painted his fresco, the Depression had hit Detroit as hard as or harder than anywhere, and the unemployed were famished and desperate, desperate enough to march on the Ford Motor Company in the spring of 1932. It’s hard to say whether ferocity or desperation made the marchers fight their way through police with tear-gas guns and firemen with hoses going full bore the last stretch of the way to the River Rouge plant. Harry Bennett, the thug who ran Ford more or less the way Stalin was running the Soviet Union, arrived, and though he was immediately knocked out by a flying rock, the police began firing on the crowd, injuring dozens and killing five. The battle of the Hunger March or the huge public funeral afterward would’ve made a good mural.

No, it wasn’t cars alone that ruined Detroit. It was the whole improbable equation of the city in the first place, the “inherent contradictions.” The city was done in by deindustrialization, decentralization, the post–World War II spread of highways and freeways, government incentives to homeowners, and disinvestment in cities that aided and abetted large-scale white flight into the burgeoning suburbs of those years. Chunks of downtown Detroit were sacrificed early, in the postwar years, so that broad arterial freeways—the Edsel Freeway, the Chrysler Freeway—could bring commuters in from beyond city limits.

All of this was happening everywhere else too, of course. The manufacturing belt became the rust belt. Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo, and other cities clustered around the Great Lakes were hit hard, and the shrinking stretched down to St. Louis and across to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Newark. Now that it has entered a second gilded age, no one seems to remember that New York was a snowballing disaster forty or fifty years ago. The old textile district south of Houston Street had emptied out so completely that in 1962 the City Club of New York published a report on it and other former commercial areas titled “The Wastelands of New York City.” San Francisco went the same way. It was a blue-collar port city until the waterfront dried up and the longshoremen faded away.

Then came the renaissance, but 
only for those cities reborn into more dematerialized economies. Vacant lots were filled in, old warehouses were turned into lofts or offices or replaced, downtowns became upscale chain outlets, janitors and cops became people who commuted in from downscale suburbs, and the children of that white flight came back to cities that were not exactly cities in the old sense. The new American cities trade in information, entertainment, tourism, software, finance. They are abstract. Even the souvenirs in these new economies often come from a sweatshop in China. The United States can be mapped as two zones now, a high-pressure zone of economic boom times and escalating real estate prices, and a low-
pressure zone, where housing might be the only thing that’s easy to come by.

This pattern will change, though. The forces that produced Detroit—the combination of bitter racism and single-industry failure—are anomalous, but the general recipe of deindustrialization, depopulation, and resource depletion will likely touch almost all the regions of the global north in the next century or two. Dresden was rebuilt, and so was Hiroshima, and so were the cities destroyed by natural forces—San Francisco and Mexico City and Tangshan—but Detroit will never be rebuilt as it was. It will be the first of many cities forced
to become altogether something else.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is in one of those flourishing parts of Detroit; it is expanding its 1927 building, and when I said goodbye to the Rivera mural and stepped outside into the autumn sunshine, workmen were installing slabs of marble on the building’s new facade. I noticed an apparently homeless dog sleeping below the scaffolding, and as I walked past, three plump white women teetered up to me hastily, all attention focused on the dog. “Do you have a cell phone?” the one topped by a froth of yellow hair shrilled. “Call the Humane Society!” I suggested that the dog was breathing fine and therefore was probably okay, and she looked at me as though I were a total idiot. “This is downtown Detroit,” she said, in a tone that made it clear the dog was in imminent peril from unspeakable forces, and that perhaps she was, I was, we all were.

I had been exploring an architectural-salvage shop near Rosa Parks Boulevard earlier that day, and when I asked the potbellied and weathered white man working there for his thoughts on the city, the tirade that followed was similarly vehement: Detroit, he insisted, had been wonderful—people used to dress up to go downtown, it had been the Paris of the Midwest!—and then it all went to hell. Those people destroyed it. My traveling companion suggested that maybe larger forces of deindustrialization might have had something to do with what happened to the city, but the man blankly rejected this analysis and continued on a tirade about “them” that wasn’t very careful about not being racist.

On the Web you can find a site, Stormfront White Nationalist Community, that is even more comfortable with this version of what happened to the city, and even less interested in macroeconomic forces like deindustrialization and globalization: “A huge non-White population, combined with annual arson attacks, bankruptcy, crime, and decay, have combined to make Detroit—once the USA’s leading automotive industrial center—
into a ruin comparable with those of the ancient civilizations—with the cause being identical: the replacement of the White population who built the city, with a new non-White population.” It could have been different. “In more civilized environs, these facilities might have easily been transformed into a manufacturing and assembly center for any number of industrial enterprises,” writes the anonymous author.

A few months before the diatribe in the salvage yard, I’d met a long-haired counterculture guy who also told me he was from Detroit, by which he, like so many others I’ve met, meant the suburbs of Detroit. When I asked him about the actual city, though, his face clenched like a fist. He recited the terrible things they would do to you if you ventured into the city, that they would tear you apart on the streets. He spoke not with the voice of a witness but with the authority of tradition handed down from an unknown and irrefutable source. The city was the infernal realm, the burning lands, the dragon’s lair at the center of a vast and protective suburban sprawl.

The most prominent piece of public art in Detroit is the giant blackened bronze arm and fist that serve as a monument to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who grew up there. If it were vertical it would look like a Black Power fist, but it’s slung from cables like some medieval battering ram waiting to be dragged up to the city walls.

Deindustrialization dealt Detroit a sucker punch, but the knockout may have been white flight—at least economically. Socially, it was a little more complex. One African-American woman who grew up there told me that white people seemed to think they were a great loss to the city they abandoned, “but we were glad to see them go and waved bye-bye.” She lived in Ann Arbor—the departure of the black middle class being yet another wrinkle in the racial narrative—but she was thinking of moving back, she said. If she had kids, raising them in a city where they wouldn’t be a minority had real appeal.

The fall of the paradise that was Detroit is often pinned on the riots of July 1967, what some there still refer to as the Detroit Uprising. But Detroit had a long history of race riots—there were vicious white-on-black riots in 1833, 1863, 1925, and 1943. And the idyll itself was unraveling long before 1967. Local 600 of the United Auto Workers broke with the union mainstream in 1951, sixteen years before the riots, to sue Ford over decentralization efforts already under way. They realized that their jobs were literally going south, to states and nations where labor wasn’t so organized and wages weren’t so high, back in the prehistoric era of “globalization.”

The popular story wasn’t about the caprices of capital, though; it was about the barbarism of blacks. In 1900, Detroit had an African-American population of 4,111. Then came the great migration, when masses of southern blacks traded Jim Crow for the industrialized promised land of the North. Conditions might have been better here than in the South, but Detroit was still a segregated city with a violently racist police department and a lot of white people ready to work hard to keep black people out of their neighborhoods. They failed in this attempt at segregation, and then they left. This is what created the blackest city in the United States, and figures from Joe Louis and Malcolm X to Rosa Parks and the bold left-wing Congressman John Conyers—who has represented much of the city since 1964—have made Detroit a center of activism and independent leadership for African Americans. It’s a black
 city, but it’s surrounded.

Surrounded, but inside that stockade of racial divide and urban decay are visionaries, and their visions are tender, hopeful, and green. Grace Lee Boggs, at ninety-one, has been politically active in the city for more than half a century. Born in Providence to Chinese immigrant parents, she got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940 and was a classical Marxist when she married the labor organizer Jimmy Boggs, in 1953. That an Asian woman married to a black man could become a powerful force was just another wrinkle in the racial politics of Detroit. (They were together until Jimmy’s death, in 1993.) Indeed, her thinking evolved along with the radical politics of the city itself. During the 1960s, the Boggses were dismissive of Martin Luther King Jr. and ardent about Black Power, but as Grace acknowledged when we sat down together in her big shady house in the central city, “The Black Power movement, which was very powerful here, concentrated only on power and had no concept of the challenges that would face a black-powered administration.” When Coleman Young took over city hall, she said, he could start fixing racism in the police department and the fire department, “but when it came time to do something about Henry Ford and General Motors, he was helpless. We thought that all we had to do was transform the system, that all the problems were on the other side.”

As the years went by, the Boggses began to focus less on putting new people into existing power structures and more on redefining or dismantling the structures altogether. When she and Jimmy crusaded against Young’s plans to rebuild the city around casinos, they realized they had to come up with real alternatives, and they began to think about what a local, sustainable economy would look like. They had already begun to realize that Detroit’s lack of participation in the mainstream offered an opportunity to do everything differently—that instead of retreating back to a better relationship to capitalism, to industry, to the mainstream, the city could move forward, turn its liabilities into assets, and create an economy entirely apart from the transnational webs of corporations and petroleum. Jimmy Boggs described his alternative vision in a 1988 speech at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit. “We have to get rid of the myth that there is something sacred about large-scale production for the national and international market,” he said. “We have to begin thinking of creating small enterprises which produce food, goods, and services for the local market, that is, for our communities and for our city. . . . In order to create these new enterprises, we need a view of our city which takes into consideration both the natural resources of our area and the existing and potential skills and talents of Detroiters.”

That was the vision, and it is only just starting to become a reality. “Now a lot of what you see is vacant lots,” Grace told me. “Most people see only disaster and the end of the world. On the other hand, artists in particular see the potential, the possibility of bringing the country back into the city, which is what we really need.” After all, the city is rich in open space and—with an official unemployment rate in the mid-teens—people with time on their hands. The land is fertile, too, and the visionaries are there.

photo by James Griffioen

In traversing Detroit, I saw a lot of signs that a greening was well under way, a sort of urban husbandry of the city’s already occurring return to nature. I heard the story of one old woman who had been the first African-American person on her block and is now, with her grandson, very nearly the last person of any race on that block. Having a city grow up around you is not an uncommon American experience, but having the countryside return is an eerier one. She made the best of it, though. The city sold her the surrounding lots for next to nothing, and she now raises much of her own food on them.

I also saw the lush three-acre Earth Works Garden, launched by Capuchin monks in 1999 and now growing organic produce for a local soup kitchen. I saw a 4-H garden in a fairly ravaged east-side neighborhood, and amid the utter abandonment of the west side, I saw the handsome tiled buildings of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a school for teenage mothers that opens on to a working farm, complete with apple orchard, horses, ducks, long rows of cauliflower and broccoli, and a red barn the girls built themselves. I met Ashley Atkinson, the young project manager for The Greening of Detroit, and heard about the hundred community gardens they support, and the thousands more food gardens that are not part of any network. The food they produce, Atkinson told me, provides food security for many Detroiters. “Urban farming, dollar for dollar, is the most effective change agent you can ever have in a community,” she said. Everywhere I went, I saw the rich soil of Detroit and the hard work of the gardeners bringing forth an abundant harvest any organic farmer would envy.

Everyone talks about green cities now, but the concrete results in affluent cities mostly involve curbside composting and tacking solar panels onto rooftops while residents continue to drive, to shop, to eat organic pears flown in from Argentina, to be part of the big machine of consumption and climate change. The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place.

After the Panic of 1893, Detroit’s left-wing Republican mayor encouraged his hungry citizens to plant vegetables in the city’s vacant lots and went down in history as Potato Patch Pingree. Something similar happened in Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed and the island lost its subsidized oil and thereby its mechanized agriculture; through garden-scale semi-organic agriculture, Cubans clawed their way back to food security and got better food in the bargain. Nobody wants to live through a depression, and it is unfair, or at least deeply ironic, that black people in Detroit are being forced to undertake an experiment in utopian post-urbanism that appears to be uncomfortably similar to the sharecropping past their parents and grandparents sought to escape. There is no moral reason why they should do and be better than the rest of us—but there is a practical one. They have to. Detroit is where change is most urgent and therefore most viable. The rest of us will get there later, when necessity drives us too, and by that time Detroit may be the shining example we can look to, the post-industrial green city that was once the steel-gray capital of Fordist manufacturing.

Detroit is still beautiful, both in its stately decay and in its growing natural abundance. Indeed, one of the finest sights I saw on my walks around the city combined the two. It was a sudden flash on an already bright autumn day—a pair of wild pheasants, bursting from a lush row of vegetables and flying over a cyclone fence toward a burned-out building across the street. It was an improbable flight in many ways. Those pheasants, after all, were no more native to Detroit than are the trees of heaven growing in the skyscrapers downtown. And yet it is here, where European settlement began in the region, that we may be seeing the first signs of an unsettling of the very premises of colonial expansion, an unsettling that may bring a complex new human and natural ecology into being.

This is the most extreme and long-term hope Detroit offers us: the hope that we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will not punish us, that it will welcome us home—not with the landscape that was here when we arrived, perhaps, but with land that is alive, lush, and varied all the same. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” was Shelley’s pivotal command in his portrait of magnificent ruins, but Detroit is far from a “shattered visage.” It is a harsh place of poverty, deprivation, and a fair amount of crime, but it is 
also a stronghold of possibility.

That Rivera mural, for instance. In 1932 the soil, the country, the wilderness, and agriculture represented the past; they should have appeared, if at all, below or behind the symbols of industry and urbanism, a prehistory from which the gleaming machine future emerged. But the big panels of workers inside the gray chasms of the River Rouge plant have above them huge nude figures—black, white, red, yellow, lounging on the bare earth. Rivera meant these figures to be emblematic of the North American races and meant their fistfuls of coal, sand, iron ore, and limestone to be the raw stuff of industrialism. To my eye, though, they look like deities waiting to reclaim the world, insistent on sensual contact with the land and confident of their triumph over and after the factory that lies below them like an inferno.


Wardenclyffe Foreclosure Proceedings, pp.177-179; Nikola Tesla for Defendant—Direct:
“Yes. You see the underground work is one of the most expensive parts of the tower. In this system that I have invented it is necessary for the machine to get a grip of the earth, otherwise it cannot shake the earth. It has to have a grip on the earth so that the whole of this globe can quiver, and to do that it is necessary to carry out a very expensive construction.”



Tesla Lab: $1,650,000
5 Randall Road, Shoreham, N.Y., between Tesla Court and Randall Road
AVAILABLE: The only surviving workplace of Tesla, commemorated by a plaque in the laboratory, could be preserved if money can be raised to buy the site.
SIZE: 15.69 acres
ZONING: Two-acre residential
PROS: Complex of 14 industrial buildings, including historic Tesla laboratory. Property can be delivered fully cleared and level.
CONS: Property was a New York State Superfund cleanup site, with the main concerns being silver and cadmium. Remediation was completed last year, but the site still requires semiannual groundwater monitoring as well as periodic inspections of two soil areas of concern, to ensure that they undergo no disturbance.

[Mark Twain, frequent laboratory guest]




BY William J. Broad / May 5, 2009

In 1901, Nikola Tesla began work on a global system of giant towers meant to relay through the air not only news, stock reports and even pictures but also, unbeknown to investors such as J. Pierpont Morgan, free electricity for one and all. It was the inventor’s biggest project, and his most audacious.

The first tower rose on rural Long Island and, by 1903, stood more than 18 stories tall. One midsummer night, it emitted a dull rumble and proceeded to hurl bolts of electricity into the sky. The blinding flashes, The New York Sun reported, “seemed to shoot off into the darkness on some mysterious errand.” But the system failed for want of money, and at least partly for scientific viability. Tesla never finished his prototype tower and was forced to abandon its adjoining laboratory.

Today, a fight is looming over the ghostly remains of that site, called Wardenclyffe — what Tesla authorities call the only surviving workplace of the eccentric genius who dreamed countless big dreams while pioneering wireless communication and alternating current. The disagreement began recently after the property went up for sale in Shoreham, N.Y.

A science group on Long Island wants to turn the 16-acre site into a Tesla museum and education center, and hopes to get the land donated to that end. But the owner, the Agfa Corporation, says it must sell the property to raise money in hard economic times. The company’s real estate broker says the land, listed at $1.6 million, can “be delivered fully cleared and level,” a statement that has thrown the preservationists into action.

The ruins of Wardenclyffe include the tower’s foundation and the large brick laboratory, designed by Tesla’s friend Stanford White, the celebrated architect. “It’s hugely important to protect this site,” said Marc J. Seifer, author of “Wizard,” a Tesla biography. “He’s an icon. He stands for what humans are supposed to do — honor nature while using high technology to harness its powers.” Recently, New York State echoed that judgment. The commissioner of historic preservation wrote Dr. Seifer on behalf of Gov. David A. Paterson to back Wardenclyffe’s preservation and listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

On Long Island, Tesla enthusiasts vow to obtain the land one way or another, saying that saving a symbol of Tesla’s accomplishments would help restore the visionary to his rightful place as an architect of the modern age. “A lot of his work was way ahead of his time,” said Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center, a private group in Shoreham that is seeking to acquire Wardenclyffe. Dr. Ljubo Vujovic, president of the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, said destroying the old lab “would be a terrible thing for the United States and the world. It’s a piece of history.”

Tesla, who lived from 1856 to 1943, made bitter enemies who dismissed some of his claims as exaggerated, helping tarnish his reputation in his lifetime. He was part recluse, part showman. He issued publicity photos (actually double exposures) showing him reading quietly in his laboratory amid deadly flashes. Today, his work tends to be poorly known among scientists, though some call him an intuitive genius far ahead of his peers. Socially, his popularity has soared, elevating him to cult status.

Books and Web sites abound. Wikipedia says the inventor obtained at least 700 patents. YouTube has several Tesla videos, including one of a break-in at Wardenclyffe. A rock band calls itself Tesla. An electric car company backed by Google’s founders calls itself Tesla Motors. Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, sees the creator’s life as a cautionary tale. “It’s a sad, sad story,” Mr. Page told Fortune magazine last year. The inventor “couldn’t commercialize anything. He could barely fund his own research.” Wardenclyffe epitomized that kind of visionary impracticality.

Tesla seized on the colossal project at the age of 44 while living in New York City. An impeccably dressed bon vivant of Serbian birth, he was widely celebrated for his inventions of motors and power distribution systems that used the form of electricity known as alternating current, which beat out direct current (and Thomas Edison) to electrify the world. His patents made him a rich man, at least for a while. He lived at the Waldorf-Astoria and loved to hobnob with the famous at Delmonico’s and the Players Club.

Around 1900, as Tesla planned what would become Wardenclyffe, inventors around the world were racing for what was considered the next big thing — wireless communication. His own plan was to turn alternating current into electromagnetic waves that flashed from antennas to distant receivers. This is essentially what radio transmission is. The scale of his vision was gargantuan, however, eclipsing that of any rival.

Investors, given Tesla’s electrical achievements, paid heed. The biggest was J. Pierpont Morgan, a top financier. He sank $150,000 (today more than $3 million) into Tesla’s global wireless venture. Work on the prototype tower began in mid-1901 on the North Shore of Long Island at a site Tesla named after a patron and the nearby cliffs. “The proposed plant at Wardenclyffe,” The New York Times reported, “will be the first of a number that the electrician proposes to establish in this and other countries.” The shock wave hit Dec. 12, 1901. That day, Marconi succeeded in sending radio signals across the Atlantic, crushing Tesla’s hopes for pioneering glory.

Still, Wardenclyffe grew, with guards under strict orders to keep visitors away. The wooden tower rose 187 feet over a wide shaft that descended 120 feet to deeply anchor the antenna. Villagers told The Times that the ground beneath the tower was “honeycombed with subterranean passages.” The nearby laboratory of red brick, with arched windows and a tall chimney, held tools, generators, a machine shop, electrical transformers, glass-blowing equipment, a library and an office.

But Morgan was disenchanted. He refused Tesla’s request for more money. Desperate, the inventor pulled out what he considered his ace. The towers would transmit not only information around the globe, he wrote the financier in July 1903, but also electric power. “I should not feel disposed,” Morgan replied coolly, “to make any further advances.”

Margaret Cheney, a Tesla biographer, observed that Tesla had seriously misjudged his wealthy patron, a man deeply committed to the profit motive. “The prospect of beaming electricity to penniless Zulus or Pygmies,” she wrote, must have left the financier less than enthusiastic. It was then that Tesla, reeling financially and emotionally, fired up the tower for the first and last time. He eventually sold Wardenclyffe to satisfy $20,000 (today about $400,000) in bills at the Waldorf. In 1917, the new owners had the giant tower blown up and sold for scrap.

Today, Tesla’s exact plan for the site remains a mystery even as scientists agree on the impracticality of his overall vision. The tower could have succeeded in broadcasting information, but not power. “He was an absolute genius,” Dennis Papadopoulos, a physicist at the University of Maryland, said in an interview. “He conceived of things in 1900 that it took us 50 or 60 years to understand. But he did not appreciate dissipation. You can’t start putting a lot of power” into an antenna and expect the energy to travel long distances without great diminution.

Wardenclyffe passed through many hands, ending with Agfa, which is based in Ridgefield Park, N.J. The imaging giant used it from 1969 to 1992, and then shuttered the property. Silver and cadmium, a serious poison, had contaminated the site, and the company says it spent some $5 million on studies and remediation. The cleanup ended in September, and the site was put up for sale in late February. Real estate agents said they had shown Wardenclyffe to four or five prospective buyers. Last month, Agfa opened the heavily wooded site to a reporter. “NO TRESPASSING,” warned a faded sign at a front gate, which was topped with barbed wire.

Tesla’s red brick building stood intact, an elegant wind vane atop its chimney. But Agfa had recently covered the big windows with plywood to deter vandals and intruders, who had stolen much of the building’s wiring for its copper. The building’s dark interior was littered with beer cans and broken bottles. Flashlights revealed no trace of the original equipment, except for a surprise on the second floor. There in the darkness loomed four enormous tanks, each the size of a small car. Their sides were made of thick metal and their seams heavily riveted, like those of an old destroyer or battleship. The Agfa consultant leading the tour called them giant batteries. “Look up there,” said the consultant, Ralph Passantino, signaling with his flashlight. “There’s a hatch up there. It was used to get into the tanks to service them.” Tesla authorities appear to know little of the big tanks, making them potential clues to the inventor’s original plans.

After the tour, Christopher M. Santomassimo, Agfa’s general counsel, explained his company’s position: no donation of the site for a museum, and no action that would rule out the building’s destruction. “Agfa is in a difficult economic position given what’s going on in the global marketplace,” he said. “It needs to maximize its potential recovery from the sale of that site.” He added that the company would entertain “any reasonable offer,” including ones from groups interested in preserving Wardenclyffe because of its historical significance. “We’re simply not in a position,” he emphasized, “to donate the property outright.”

Ms. Alcorn of the Tesla Science Center, who has sought to stir interest in Wardenclyffe for more than a decade, seemed confident that a solution would be worked out. Suffolk County might buy the site, she said, or a campaign might raise the funds for its purchase, restoration and conversion into a science museum and education center. She said the local community was strongly backing the preservation idea. “Once the sign went up, I started getting so many calls,” she remarked. “People said: ‘They’re not really going to sell it, are they? It’s got to be a museum, right?’”

Sitting at a reading table at the North Shore Public Library, where she works as a children’s librarian, Ms. Alcorn gestured across a map of Wardenclyffe to show how the abandoned site might be transformed with not only a Tesla museum but also a playground, a cafeteria and a bookshop. “That’s critical,” she said. Ms. Alcorn said the investigation and restoration of the old site promised to solve one of the big mysteries: the extent and nature of the tunnels said to honeycomb the area around the tower. “I’d love to see if they really existed,” she said. “The stories abound, but not the proof.”

Wardenclyffe Foreclosure Proceedings, pp.177-179

Nikola Tesla for Defendant—Direct.
A. Yes. You see the underground work is one of the most expensive parts of the tower.  In this system that I have invented it is necessary for the machine to get a grip of the earth, otherwise it cannot shake the earth.  It has to have a grip on the earth so that the whole of this globe can quiver, and to do that it is necessary to carry out a very expensive construction.  I had in fact invented special machines.  But I want to say this underground work belongs to the tower.

By Mr. Hawkins:
Q. Anything that was there, tell us about.
A. There was, as your Honor states, a big shaft about ten by twelve feet goes down about one hundred and twenty feet and this was first covered with timber and the inside with steel and in the center of this there was a winding stairs going down and in the center of the stairs there was a big shaft again through which the current was to pass, and this shaft was so figured in order to tell exactly where the nodal point is, so that I could calculate every point of distance.  For instance I could calculate exactly the size of the earth or the diameter of the earth and measure it exactly within four feet with that machine.

Q. And that was a necessary appurtenance to your tower?
A. Absolutely necessary.  And then the real expensive work was to connect that central part with the earth, and there I had special machines rigged up which would push the iron pipe, one length after another, and I pushed these iron pipes, I think sixteen of them, three hundred feet, and then the current through these pipes takes hold of the earth.  Now that was a very expensive part of the work, but it does not show on the tower, but it belongs to the tower.
Nikola Tesla for Defendant–Direct.

By Mr. Fordham:
Q. Was the hole really one hundred and twenty feet deep.  did you say?
A. Yes, you see the ground water on that place is about one hundred and twenty feet.  We are above the ground water about one hundred and twenty feet.  In the well we struck water at about eighty feet.

By the Referee:
Q. What you call the main water table?
A. Yes, the main well we struck at eighty feet, but there we had to go deeper.

By Mr. Hawkins:
Q. Tell the court generally, not in detail, the purpose of that tower and the equipment which you have described connected with it?
Mr. Fordham: How is that material?
The Referee: I will take it.
Mr. Fordham: We except.
A. Well, the primary purpose of the tower, your Honor, was to telephone, to send the human voice and likeness around the globe.

By the Referee:
Q. Through the instrumentality of the earth.
A. Through the instrumentality of the earth.  That was my discovery that I announced in 1893, and now all the wireless plants are doing that.  There is no other system being used.  And the idea was to reproduce this apparatus and then connect it just with a central station and telephone office, so that you may pick up your telephone and if you wanted to talk to a telephone subscriber in Australia you would simply call up that plant and the plant would connect immediately with that subscriber, no matter where in the world, and you could talk to him.  And I had contemplated to have press messages, stock quotations, pictures for the press and these reproductions of signatures, checks and everything transmitted from there throughout the world, but—-

from Wizard, ch 33, p. 291
“At the base of the edifice, deep below the earth, along the descending spiral staircase, was a network of catacombs that extended out like spokes of a wheel.  Sixteen of them contained iron pipes which protruded from the central shaft to a distance of three hundred feet.  The expense for these “terrestrial grippers” was notable, as Tesla had to design “special machines to push the pipes, one after the other” [Nikola Tesla On His Work With Alternating Currents . . . , Foreclosure Proceedings] deep into the earth’s interior.

”Also in the well were four stone-lined tunnels, each of which gradually rose back to the surface.  Large enough for a man to crawl through, they emerged like isolated, igloo-shaped brick ovens three hundred feet from the base of the tower.

”Although the exact reason for the burrows has not been determined, their necessity was probably multifaceted.  Tesla had increased the length of the aerial by over a hundred feet by extending the shaft into the earth.  Simultaneously, he was able to more easily transmit energy through the ground with this arrangement.  It is possible that he also planned to resonate the aquifer which was situated slightly below the bottom of the well.  The insulated passageways which climbed back to the surface may have been safety valves, which would have allowed excess pressure to escape.  They also provided an alternative way to access the base.  Tesla may have planned to fill other shafts with salt water or liquid nitrogen to augment transmission.  There may have also been other reasons for their construction.” — Marc Seifer, Wizard : the life and times of Nikola Tesla, p. 291 [After “Dig for Mystery Tunnels Ends With Scientist’s Secret Intact,” Newsday, Feb. 13, 1979, p. 24, and “Famed inventor, Mystery Tunnels Linked,” Newsday, March 10, 1979, p. 19.]

Ron Short Correspondence:

From: Ron Short
To: Gary Peterson
Subject: TWP
Date: Thursday, February 07, 2002 12:45 PM

Hello, I am presently a student at the State University at Buffalo, New York and I was wondering if you could help me with a few questions.  I grew up in Shoreham, NY and have always been inherently interested in Tesla and his experimentation, especially his links with the now-defunct Radio Central, located only 5 miles south of his Wardenclyffe plant.

For a few years back, I have heard constant rumors, through friends and colleagues, that an extensive tunnel network had stretched from the beaches off of Shoreham, to Tesla’s laboratory (Now Peerless Labs), and further to a building in RCA.  This is interesting because I have also heard rumors that old equipment was stored down here (possibly some of Tesla’s?!).  These tunnels were rumored to have originated during the civil war; used to transport goods from the beach clandestinely to surrounding communities, and again in WWI to avoid any German intelligence gathering.  These tunnels, which still do exist, were enormous in width and height (when they were building the Shoreham-Wading River fire house (which lies right next to the old Tesla site), a crane FELL IN the underlying tunnel.  This I have seen the pictures of.

With all of this information, however, I have not been able to “dig up” any information locally, or via the internet, on these famed tunnels.  The last tidbit I heard was that, in order to prevent injuries or lawsuits, the entrance at Shoreham Beach was collapsed, and they are apparently now therefore inaccessible.  However, with the now overlying towns that did not exist when they were built, it is highly unlikely that that took the time to collapse the entire length of the tunnels.  In fact, a friend has a neighbor whose house is relatively old, and in his basement, on opposite walls, lies a huge, red-brick arched tunnel entrance, which is now walled off by cinder blocks.  He stated that his children used to go and “play” in the tunnels until they encountered a dead dog, and he walled off the entrance himself.  It is also rumored that the Peerless Laboratories used these tunnels to dispose of harmful photochemicals, which now may be why the old Tesla site is one of the most prominent EPA superfund sites in the country.  This is also why there has been no development on that land.  The EPA deemed it safer and more cost-effective to leave the site in its present state than to clean it up.  This is also why I am afraid that the sight might never be recognized as an Historical Site, if only for the reason to avoid an environmental scandal.

I have dragged on, but I have nowhere else to turn.  Hopefully, you will be able to help me in my search for further information  on the tunnels.

Sincerely yours,
Ron Short

From: Gary Peterson
To: Ron Short
Subject: Re: TWP
Date: Tuesday, February 19, 2002 5:49 PM

Thank you for contacting me about the mysterious “Tesla tunnels” that have worked their way into the folklore which surrounds Tesla’s experimental work at Wardenclyffe.  I too am intrigued by this story and would like to learn the truth behind the rumors.

Let me start out by comparing some pieces of your account with what I have heard.  Regarding the firehouse incident, I was told that an underground chamber was exposed during excavation and a dead dog was found there.  And it is said that some of Tesla’s Colorado Springs apparatus had been put into a tunnel at the site.  As for the disposal of chemicals by Peerless, it’s my understanding the present concern is that chemicals may have been dumped down the 120 foot central shaft which was part of the underground portion of the wireless communications tower.  (Not directly related is a report from another Shoreham native of Wardenclyffe-related artifacts residing in an old landfill now partially under a parking lot, located near and in Gill’s Gully (near Gill’s Rock and Shoreham Shore Club), said to have been used by the Wardenclyffe Hotel, now Briarcliff School.)

This brings me to another aspect of the story that leads to even further confusion.  In trying to piece together an account of Tesla’s activities at Wardenclyffe it has been said that the rumored tunnel had been build by Tesla himself, dug between the lab building and the tower foundation.  While Agfa has looked for this tunnel without success, there is a written description and photographic documentation of two approximately 12″ round conduits for air and electrical power lines connecting the two points.  There is no doubt that Tesla did some major excavation in assembling his L. I. facility.  The tower shaft alone involved the moving of some 14,400 cubic feet of earth, at least.

Your account of the tunnels dating back to the Civil-War era is new to me.  Up to this point I had assumed the story was a corruption of eyewitness accounts of Tesla’s 1901 activities — the Shoreham Firehouse account not withstanding.  Of particular interest to me is the walled-off tunnel entrance in your friend’s basement.  Do you know how old the house is, i.e., was it built circa 1860-65?  Do you think he would be willing to have the cinder blocks removed to allow for exploration?

Getting back to the ongoing Peerless-Site cleanup, we have been in touch with the fellow at the N.Y.S. Dept. of Environmental Conservation’s office in Stony Brook who is in charge of monitoring the cleanup.  He says that Agfa is committed to the performance of any required remedial actions needed to eliminate the existing problem.  I understand the public input part of the process might occur this summer.  Is it possible that you might be able to participate at that time?

Gary Peterson

From: Ron Short
To: Gary Peterson
Subject: Re: Update on new info
Date: Thursday, February 28, 2002 10:16 AM

Hello again.  First, I would like to thank you for graciously taking some time out to reply to me concerning the tunnels.  I have e-mailed many others concerning this, but you were the only one who has replied as of the present.  Now, for the new information.

I have been in constant contact with a couple of close friends that are as interested in the tunnels as you and I.  Conveniently, one of them lives in Shoreham.  He and another have recently begun investigating the exact location of these tunnels.  We have recently learned that the tunnels did, in fact, extend to the beach, and existed intact until 1965, when the beach entrance was collapsed and permanently sealed.  The location of this entrance, not surprisingly, was about 500 feet west of the present day Shoreham Club House.  I have been unable to find, however, any records from either the town or the state regarding this event.  My friend surmised the location, and is at present attempting to determine whether the tunnels are at all intact in that site.  Further (which corroborates with the story you had mentioned to me about the landfill), my friend says that he thinks he may have encountered an outcropping of machinery very near the clubhouse and therefore the rumored entrance to the tunnel.

As for your question about the age of the house with the tunnel outline in the basement, it dates back at least the the first decade of the 1900’s.  We have also obtained an old map of Wardenclyffe approx.  1905, and the house is clearly shown on the map.  The house, however, was said to be a speakeasy, which make me wonder whether the basement anomalie was a tunnel entrance, or simply a secret “hiding place” for liquor or other contraband.  We are, at present, attempting to get permission from the owner to observe this entrance first-hand.

Another new tidbit is that concerning a medical complex directly across from the Tesla site.  In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, the complex was an orphanage.  There have surfaced many stories about the children going into the basement, and emerging hundreds of feet from the building actually in the Peerless site (undoubtedly another reason for the tunnels to be closed.)

Summarily, it seems that finally we are getting some concrete proof of the tunnels’ existence.  I have also recently spoke to an ex-employee of Grumman, and he stated that the tunnels were known about for YEARS by the employees of Grumman, and they even actually went down them in the past.
So now, the next step is to attempt to gain access.  This, of course, might not be possible, but I am attempting every legal route I can think of.  I don’t think anyone wants a trespassing charge on their record (especially me, I am currently applying for my PhD in psychology).  If proof of the existence of these tunnels can be found, I think that it would do wonders for the Wardenclyffe site and hopefully compel a further official investigation of the site.

Anyhow, if you have any more information (web sites, e-mail contacts), it would be greatly appreciated.  Hopefully, the existence of these tunnels will not remain shrouded in mystery for long.

Sincerely yours,
Ron Short

From: Gary Peterson
To: Ron Short
Subject: Re: Contact Information
Date: Monday, April 15, 2002 11:26 AM

Hi Ron,
Here is Tesla’s own description of the underground work associated with the tower from the 1923 Foreclosure Proceedings:
. . . In this system that I have invented it is necessary for the machine to get a grip of the earth, otherwise it cannot shake the earth.  It has to have a grip on the earth so that the whole of this globe can quiver, and to do that it is necessary to carry out a very expensive construction.  I had in fact invented special machines.  But I want to say this underground work belongs to the tower.
There was . . . a big shaft about ten by twelve feet goes down about one hundred and twenty feet and this was first covered with timber and the inside with steel and in the center of this there was a winding stairs going down and in the center of the stairs there was a big shaft again through which the current was to pass, and this shaft was so figured in order to tell exactly where the nodal point is, so that I could calculate every point of distance.  For instance I could calculate exactly the size of the earth or the diameter of the earth and measure it exactly within four feet with that machine.
. . . the real expensive work was to connect that central part with the earth, and there I had special machines rigged up which would push the iron pipe, one length after another, and I pushed these iron pipes, I think sixteen of them, three hundred feet, and then the current through these pipes takes hold of the earth.  Now that was a very expensive part of the work, but it does not show on the tower, but it belongs to the tower.  . . .

The as-built underground installation appears to have included a 120′ vertical 10′ x 12′ shaft with an additional 300′ of iron pipe pushed straight down to a depth of 420′.  It’s not surprising he spent so much time in this area considering the overall complexity of the job.

As for EPA info, as early as 1994 the had NYDEC listed Peerless as an “Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site.” The report gives, CLASSIFICATION CODE: 2, REGION: 1, SITE CODE: 152031 & EPA ID: NYD002044139.

From: Ron Short
To: Gary Peterson
Subject: Re: Thank you for the communication
Date: Monday, May 27, 2002 4:42 PM

Gary, concerning the company Cornell-Petsco, it is a real estate company.  I researched online, but was unable to find any info.  regarding the sale of the Telsa property.  It is apparent, however, that AGFA is looking to sell the property, whether it be a building or as a whole.

My associate on long island that I had mentioned in prior letters has, in fact, been talking to a gentleman who was contracted to install duct work around approximately 1982.  This gentleman was able to give my friend a relatively detailed map of a tunnel underground that matched the descriptions I have heard about for some time now.  This tunnel led underground in a westerly fashion from the laboratory building to a single-story office building.  He described the tunnels as being black in color (probably carbonized) and as seeing workstations along the sides of the tunnels with purple-color lights (probably used for photographic purposes).  The tunnels were, though, constructed of stone mortared together and apparently when he drilled the anchors for the HVAC, it was quite difficult.

This is the first real concrete eyewitness map we have encountered as of yet, and will investigate this further, hopefully.
Actually, out of curiosity, I was wondering if is is true that AGFA and Peerless are owned by the same parent company, Bayer?  Either way, I appreciate your continued contact and information.  My friend and I will continue further research and will contact you soon.

Thank you.
Ron Short

Nikola Tesla’s Wireless Work : a ground-based system for wireless transmission

“The tower was destroyed two years ago but my projects are being developed and another one, improved in some features, will be constructed. . . . My project was retarded by laws of nature. The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time, but the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.” Nikola Tesla, My Inventions, 1919

The Creation of a Monument to Nikola Tesla
by Gary Peterson

I. Introduction
Radio communications, fluorescent lighting and AC power, these are all familiar and vital components of life as we know it in the latter part of the twentieth century and all were contributions of the prolific turn-of-the-century inventor Nikola Tesla. In spite of their exceptional significance, there are additional inventions which this remarkable man left to the world with the capacity to be of an equivalent or perhaps even greater value to society. Much of Nikola Tesla’s legacy, that which can be read about, built and used, is in the form of these inventions—much but not all.

Near the North Shore Long Island community of Shoreham, New York there remains a sturdy 94 by 94 foot red brick structure which is another, no less significant reminder of this great man’s work. Its importance lies not so much in the technology which it represents nor in the engineering clues that remain buried there. It is in the fact that the Wardenclyffe Power Plant / Office Building, designed by the well renowned architect Stanford White, is the last of Dr. Tesla’s own work places to remain standing anywhere in the world. The saga of the building’s history, from its construction in 1902 alongside a 187 foot companion tower to house the various components of a prototype world broadcasting and communications facility to later less glamorous uses, is a story yet to be fully told. And, there is history in the making as well. For a movement is underway which, if successful, will result in the establishment of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe—a permanent monument to this great creative genius and his work.

II. Background
Just to the east of Manhattan, Nikola Tesla’s principle place of residence from 1884 until his death in 1943, is another somewhat larger body of land known as Long Island. Extending about 115 miles along the Atlantic shoreline of the United States, this 12 mile wide island is bounded by Long Island Sound to the north, and the East River, New York Bay and the Narrows to the west. It was formed due to the effect of glaciations, with its geography being defined by the deposition of two glacial moraines and associated outwash plains. Settlement of the area started in the late 1600s and continued on through the year 1800, after being purchased from the indigenous people known as the Montauks. The occupations of the residents were mainly related to farming, a character which the area retains to this day. A cordwood industry eventually developed as well, with logs of chestnut, oak and pine being shipped by sailing vessel to heat homes and fuel brickyard kilns in nearby New York City. Around 1850 the effects of an increasing demand for fuel along with a chestnut blight combined, resulting in forest depletion. The introduction of coal as wood’s replacement occurred at the same time.

III. Wardenclyffe-On-Sound
About 50 years later, having just returned to New York from a productive scientific expedition at the edge of the Colorado Rockies, Nikola Tesla was anxious to put a mass of new found knowledge to work. His vision was focused on the development of a prototype wireless communications station and research facility, and he needed a site on which to build. Long Island was already home to more than one-and-a-quarter million people when in 1901 he cast his eyes some 60 miles eastward to the north-shore village of Woodville Landing. Only six years before the northern branch of the Long Island Railroad had opened, reducing travel time to the locality from a horse-drawn five hours to less than two. Seeing an opportunity in land development a western lawyer and banker by the name of James S. Warden had purchased 1400 acres in the area and started building an exclusive summer resort community known as Wardenclyffe-On-Sound.[1] With an opportunity for further development in mind, Warden offered Tesla a 200-acre section of this parcel lying directly to the south of the newly laid track. It was anticipated that implementation of Tesla’s system would eventually lead to the establishment of a “Radio City” to house the thousands of employees needed for operation of the facility. The proximity to Manhattan and the fairly short travel time between the two, along with the site’s closeness to a railway line must surely have been attractive features and Tesla accepted the offer.

The Wardenclyffe World Wireless facility as envisioned by Tesla was to have been quite different from radio broadcasting stations as they presently exist. While there was to be a great similarity in the apparatus employed, the method in which it was to be utilized would have been radically different. Conventional transmitters are designed so as to maximize the amount of power radiated from the antenna structure. Such equipment must process tremendous amounts of power in order to counteract the loss in field strength (P = 1/R2) encountered as the signal radiates outward from its point of origin. The transmitter at Wardenclyffe was being configured so as to minimize the radiated power. The energy of Tesla’s steam driven Westinghouse 200 kW alternator was to be channeled instead into an underground structure consisting of iron pipes driven from a point 120 feet beneath the tower’s base.[2] This was to be accomplished by combining an extremely low frequency signal (ELF) with the higher frequency signal coursing through the transmitter’s master oscillator and helical resonator. The low frequency current in the presence of an enveloping corona-induced plasma of free charge carriers would have “pumped” the earth’s charge.[3] It is believed the resulting ground current and its associated wave complex would have allowed the propagation of wireless transmissions to any distance on the earth’s surface with as little as 5% loss due to radiation. The terrestrial transmission line modes so excited would have supported a system with the following technical capabilities:

1. Establishment of a multi-channel global broadcasting system with programming including news, music, et cetera;
2. Interconnection of the world’s telephone and telegraph exchanges, and stock tickers;
3. Transmission of written and printed matter, and data;
4. World wide reproduction of photographic images;
5. Establishment of a universal marine navigation and location system, including a means for the synchronization of precision timepieces;
6. Establishment of secure wireless communications services.[4]

Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Powerplant & Laboratory
The plan was to build the first of many installations to be located near major population centers around the world. If the program had moved forward without interruption, the Long Island prototype would have been followed by additional units the first of which being built somewhere along the coast of England.[5] By the Summer of 1902 Tesla had shifted his laboratory operations from the Houston Street Laboratory to the rural Long Island setting and work began in earnest on development of the station and furthering of the propagation research. Construction had been made possible largely through the backing of financier J. Pierpont Morgan who had offered Tesla $150,000 towards the end of 1900.[6] By July 1904, however, this support had run out and with a subsequent major downturn in the financial markets Tesla was compelled to pursue alternative methods of financing. With funds raised through an unrecorded mortgage against the property, additional venture capital, and the sale of X-ray tube power supplies to the medical profession, he was able to make ends meet for another couple of years.[7] In spite of valiant efforts to maintain the operation, income dwindled and his employees were eventually dropped from the payroll.

Still, Tesla was certain that his wireless system would return handsome rewards if it could only be set into operation and so the work continued as he was able. A second mortgage in 1908 acquired again from the Waldorf-Astoria proprietor George C. Boldt allowed some additional bills to be paid, but debt continued to mount and between 1912 and 1915 Tesla’s financial condition disintegrated. The loss of ability to make additional payments was accompanied by the collapse of his plan for high capacity trans-Atlantic wireless communications. The property was foreclosed, Nikola Tesla honored the agreement with his debtor and title on the property was signed over to Mr. Boldt. The plant’s abandonment sometime around 1911 followed by demolition and salvaging of the tower in 1917 essentially brought an end to this era. Tesla’s April 20, 1922 loss on appeal of the judgment completely closed the door to any further chance of his developing the site.

Another Time And Another Use
Little is known about the next 17 years of the building’s history. In 1919 the Radio Corporation of America established an overseas communications facility in the area. As part of this system a high power transmitter was build only two miles away in the adjacent town of Rocky Point. It is possible the building saw use as a storage warehouse in conjunction with this operation. Then, on April 24, 1939 a story about Tesla’s building appeared in the news. It was reported the property had been sold to new interests, specifically a Mr. Walter L. Johnson of Brooklyn, New York.[8] Within a few months the building was in the hands of Peerless Photo Products, Inc., it having been selected “due to its location in a smoke and smog free environment with an abundant supply of pure water and high grade, intelligent labor.”[9] Shortly thereafter on-site manufacturing operations that would span the next 48 years had begun. The primary activities at the Peerless Photo Products plant were related the production of photographic emulsions used in the manufacture of photographic film and the emulsion coating of photographic paper.

In July 1987 all manufacturing operations at the Peerless Photo Products site ceased and decommissioning of the plant began. The bulk of the decommissioning process would require more than three years. The first step involved the removal of some remaining semi-solid material from an onsite wastewater treatment plant and its shipment to a permitted disposal site. About the same time, remaining treatment chemicals were also disposed of in a similar fashion. In addition, various unused chemicals associated with the actual manufacturing processes along with some salvaged materials were shipped off of the site. In the next stage all of the tankage and piping from emulsion manufacture through wastewater treatment plant were thoroughly flushed with a hot high pressure wash system and the rinse water removed. The floors in areas of chemical use and coating machinery operation were also cleaned and the labs were washed down, with all of the resulting wastewater once again being shipped off site for disposal. The usable process equipment was dismantled for later shipment and other less easily cleanable pieces of equipment were removed. As an additional measure the septic tanks were completely pumped to remove any residuals from in house operations. The final phase of decommissioning saw the removal of eight underground storage tanks. [10]

A New Beginning For An Historic Building
The third period in the history of Nikola Tesla’s laboratory can be said to have opened on March 3, 1967 with the recommendation of a research committee appointed by Brookhaven Town Supervisor Charles W. Barraud that the building be designated as an historic site. At that time, just about 50 years after the tower’s demolition, the historical significance of the property as it relates to Nikola Tesla’s engineering legacy was officially recognized. The American bicentennial year of 1976 saw an even greater revival of interest in Nikola Tesla and his work. A number of notable events entered into the historical record during this year.

One of the first was the establishment by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE) of the Nikola Tesla Award. On January 27, 1976 the first award was presented to Leon T. Rosenberg for his outstanding contributions in the field of generation and utilization of electric power. This was followed a few days later by the IEEE’s “Nikola Tesla Symposium” conducted during their January 30, 1976 meeting at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in New York City. Presenters included Robert W. Flugum, Assistant Director—Transmission Division of Electric Energy Systems, USERDA; Frank A. Jenkins, Duke Power Company; Prof. Vojin Popovic, Beograd Yugoslavia; Tomo Bosanac and Lazar Ljubisa; J. R. Morin, GTE Sylvania Inc.; Charles L. Wagner, Manager, Transmission Systems Engineering, Westinghouse Electric Corp.; John J. Dougherty, Director, Transmission & Distribution Division, EPRI; Dean B. Harrington and Karl F. Drexler; Veljko Korac; and, J. C. White, General Electric Company.

About five months later, on July 7, 1976, ceremonies timed to coincide with the 120th anniversary of Tesla’s birth were begun at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. The event included a symposium co-chaired by Vasa Veskovic, Council General of Yugoslavia and R. C. Anderson, Assistant Director, BNL and organized with cooperation of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Among the scheduled speakers were Frank A. Jenkins, President IEEE Power Engineering Society; Walter H. Bales, Westinghouse Electric Corporation; Gorden D. Friedlander, Senior Editor, IEEE Spectrum; and, Eric B. Forsyth, head of BNL’s Power Transmission Project. That same day, with the cooperation of the Brookhaven Town Historic trust, an historical marker was dedicated and placed near the entrance of the Tesla Laboratory building.[11] The plaque, donated by Yugoslavia, bore the following inscription:


The following Saturday, July 10, 1976, a 5 dinar stamp was issued by Yugoslavia, marking the 120th anniversary of Tesla’s birth on July 10, 1856. Designed by Andreja Milenkovic, it carried an image reflecting the Tesla monument in front of the Electrical Engineering Facility in Belgrade against a background of Niagara Falls. Another effort this year was the July 24 dedication of the Nikola Tesla statue on Goat Island adjacent to Niagara Falls. One further action which took place in 1976 was the first application seeking to have the property containing the Tesla Laboratory Building and the Communications Tower Foundation placed on the New York State Register, and National Register of Historic Places. This important act would set the stage for future efforts directed towards preservation of the historic Wardenclyffe landmark.

In the Spring of 1994 at the request of Dr. Ljubomir Vujovic of the Tesla Memorial Society, noted Tesla historian Leland Anderson contacted the various Tesla-named organizations here in the United States. The mailing was to encourage the initiation of a letter writing campaign once again advocating placement of the Wardenclyffe site on the National Register of Historic Places. It was requested that letters be directed towards three specific U.S. Government offices.

The first office was that of the Vice President of the United States. It is significant that Vice President Gore is presently aware of Dr. Tesla’s achievements in the areas of electrical and mechanical engineering. The second was the National Park Service, Cultural Resources, U.S. Department of the Interior. The National Park Service oversees the preservation of federal historic sites and administration of buildings programs. Their programs include the placement of properties on the National Register of Historic Places plus grant and aid assistance. The third entity was the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. This agency advises the President and Congress on historic preservation issues. It reviews and comments on federal projects and programs affecting historic, architecture, archaeological, and cultural resources.

What ensued over the course of the next few months was an outpouring of support by individuals from across America. At the advice of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, follow-up letters were addressed to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. It should be noted that National Historic designation is always preceded by historic designation at the state level. By mid-October 1994, a second Application for Technical Assistance had been filed with New York State on behalf of the historic Wardenclyffe building and tower foundation sites. This reinitiated the formal nomination process which, if entirely successful, will result in placement of the Wardenclyffe sites on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Subsequently the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation conducted an on-site inspection which established that the sites meet with the seven New York State criteria for Historic Designation. Up until May 1995 much of this work had been conducted by members of an ad hoc group called the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project Committee. By that time it was apparent that we needed to coalesce into a formal institution in order to successfully achieve our growing set of objectives.

On May 6, 1995 the first meeting of the Board of Directors was held and it was agreed that the ad hoc committee would be re-established as the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, Inc. The Directors were confirmed and its Officers were elected. At the same meeting a Technical Advisory Board was established. This group presently includes such notable individuals as Leland Anderson, Margaret Cheney, James Corum, Harry Goldman, William Terbo, and George Westinghouse, IV. Our most important objective was, and still is, acquisition of the 16.2 acre parcel in Shoreham upon which are located the Wardenclyffe building and the transmitting / receiving tower foundation.

The present owners, AGFA Corporation, had stated their intention to divest themselves of the property after completion of a final cleanup. Furthermore, they indicated that donation of the entire facility to a properly configured receiver would be a cost-effective way for them to proceed. It is with this in mind that we initiated discussions with an Eastern Long Island group known as The Friends of Science East, Inc. This not-for-profit corporation was created in January 1996 with the mission of establishing a regional science center in their area. The Peerless Photo Products site was among the possible locations being considered in that regard. (Please note that in addition to the 10,000 square foot Tesla Laboratory Building an additional 90,000 square feet of floor space exist at the Peerless site.)

What Does The Future Hold?
Since a primary goal of the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project is to acquire Tesla related memorabilia with the hope of establishing a Tesla museum in the lab building and that of the Friends of Science East is to establish a science museum, it is felt that a common interest exists in the acquisition of the property. Ongoing discussions between the two groups have resulted in the development of a common vision for the site’s future. This is centered around the concept to establish a joint operating entity called Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe. While AGFA has expressed an interest in seeing the site conserved for a future use that is in harmony with its historical nature and has stated that donation of the property for such purposes is under consideration, the company will not make a final decision in this regard until their present decommissioning activities have been completed.

If the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is successful in its bid to acquire Tesla Laboratory Building, a vast field of possibilities will be opened up. Defined in the broadest terms, its mission will be the reintegration of Nikola Tesla back into the mainstream of science and academia, and to instill visitors with a greater interest in the sciences in general. Once plans for the Nikola Tesla Museum, the Nikola Tesla Library and Historical Archives, and the Science Museum are sufficiently advanced it is felt that restoration and placement of the building and the adjacent tower foundation on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places will naturally follow.

IV. Conclusion
As more and more commercial and residential development takes place across America and around the world, much greater importance becomes attached to the preservation of such rare sites as Wardenclyffe for the benefit of the present and future generations. While considerable progress has been made in advancing our program, many formidable challenges still lie ahead. Working together, the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project and the Friends of Science East have established an open dialogue with the building’s owners, and strong assurances have been received that we are prime candidates to acquire the property.

How do you the reader fit into all of this? The Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, Inc. is a small but growing institution. We are registered as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt membership organization and are actively seeking additional people to fill out our ranks. If you have something to offer the Project, whether it is in the form of financial support through a membership contribution, access to a particular talent, or simply your vote of confidence, then please take some time from your schedule to send us a note or make a phone call. A plan to steer the destiny of an important historical landmark on the North Shore of Long Island, New York is now underway. We are working to earn your support and would very much like to hear from you. All correspondence should be addressed to:

The Tesla Wardenclyffe Project
P.O. Box 8041
Breckenridge, CO 80424-8041
United States of America
or call: (970) 453-9293.

Suffolk County is looking into the possibility of making renowned scientist
Nikola Tesla’s Shoreham lab into a science museum.
BY Alison Snyder / North Shore Sun / February 6, 2009

The former research lab of famed inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla in Shoreham has taken a step closer to becoming the science center and museum that advocates have long dreamed of. Legislation sponsored by Suffolk County Legislator Daniel Losquadro (R-Shoreham) and passed by the legislature enables the county to begin the planning process to acquire the 16.2-acre site off Route 25A between Randall Road and Tesla Street. “We’re going to take the lead on this,” said Mr. Losquadro. “Everyone has been saying all along they want this property to be preserved.” The move comes nearly two years after the cleanup of the contaminated site wrapped to a close. The site is owned by Afga-Gevaert, a Belgian photographic film company.

The county now will contact Afga and begin the appraisal process and discussions to possibly acquire the property, Mr. Losquadro said. He added that he wants to see the government be proactive about it, instead of a reactive effort he fears would follow if an entity offered to purchase the property without preservation in mind. Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, the nonprofit organization formerly known as Friends of Science East, said she is happy to see some movement toward transforming the 10,000-square-foot former research lab on the property into a museum. “We just hope that all the involved parties come to an amicable agreement and allow this to go forward and become a museum,” she said.

The group envisions a museum with a permanent exhibit highlighting Tesla, who pioneered the alternating current power system and invented radio and the bladeless steam turbine, which harnessed hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls. Mr. Tesla is believed by many to be the most important scientist and inventor of the modern age. His famous Wardenclyffe tower and laboratory in Shoreham were built between 1901 and 1905. The tower was dismantled in 1917. Ms. Alcorn said she also wants the museum to foster a wider interest in science with other science-related exhibitions, Saturday science programs, seminars and lecture series, science-related films and a playground that teaches children about physics as they play. She would also like to see the museum serve as a community center for gatherings and meetings. “The idea is we’d like to have something that’s useful for the community as well as providing scientific education,” she said.

Despite the difficult economic times, Mr. Losquadro said the county has dedicated land preservation funds — which can’t be spent on anything else — available for purchasing the site. And now would be a good time to purchase the property, he added. “With the economy in a downturn, we have the ability to preserve important lands when they’re worth less,” he said. If the county ends up purchasing the land and the building, Mr. Losquadro acknowledged that both would require a significant amount of money for restoration and upkeep and said the county likely wouldn’t do more than owning the property. What he is looking for, he said, is a public-private partnership with the Tesla Science Center, which would be responsible for the building and developing the site. He said corporate sponsorships of a museum would also be possible, since Tesla did a lot of pioneering work with wireless communications technology.

Neither Mr. Losquadro or Ms. Alcorn had an indication of what type of time frame it might take to acquire the property and turn it into a museum, citing the willingness of Afga to sell the property to the county. The company is aware of the goal to purchase the property and turn the research lab into a museum, Ms. Alcorn said. Mr. Losquadro said the county’s planning and real estate departments are now in charge of the matter and will be contacting the company.

Cleanup Reaches Milestone
BY Jane Alcorn / The Sound Observer / May 25, 2007

The cleanup at the Agfa-Peerless Photo Products site in Shoreham reached a milestone recently when all the physical removal of contaminated material was completed, and final testing was done. According to Agfa representative Charlene Graff, the removal of soils and remediation was completed over a month ago, and the cleaned areas were tested for safety. “The preliminary test results are good,” she said. Levels of cadmium and other chemicals that were dumped on the grounds from the photo emulsion processing conducted on the site years ago led to it being placed on a list of places requiring cleanup under the supervisions of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC).

The Agfa staff will be working on writing the reports that describe the completed work and test results over the next six weeks, and plan to send the reports for review by the DEC and the state and county health departments. These agencies will examine the reports, and make recommendations for changes, clarifications, or improvements in the reports. When all of the paperwork is done, the DEC will release the site from its list of contaminated sites and allow Agfa to make a decision as to its future use. This process could take several months. There will be ongoing monitoring for years of several places on the property where remediation included stabilization of soils, resulting in restrictions on the future use for some of the land.

Graff said the company plans to remove some of the remaining buildings on the site: the wastewater treatment plant, the administration building, and the old white house facing Route 25A are slated for demolition due to asbestos and structural issues. These activities do not require the oversight of the DEC. Additional structures on the site may also be removed after assessment of their safety and usefulness. On May 18, Graff and Girish Desai of the DEC conducted a brief tour of the property for New York State Assemblyman Mark Alessi, Brookhaven Councilman Kevin McCarrick and their assistants. “We walked the property and were shown where work had been done,” said John Kreutz, assistant to McCarrick. “They’re doing an assessment of what the place is worth.”

“They are looking to find out what the property is worth,” agreed Kaitlin Boyd, chief of staff for Alessi. “They said it was a unique property in a residential area. There is nothing to compare it to, and it is hard to come up with a price.” Peter Scully, regional director of the DEC, was also on the tour of the grounds. “The good news is that the cleanup of the site has followed the plan.” said Scully. “What remains to be seen is how the property will be treated as a real estate asset. I’m interested in how the plans of town and other public officials who have shown an interest in its future will play out.” The property is the site of scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla’s turn-of-the-century laboratory. Tesla’s lab, a 94’x94′ square brick building, was designed by his friend, renowned architect Stanford White. The brick building still stands. Also on the site is the remains of the base of Tesla’s 187-foot tower that was intended to be a wireless transmissions tower. The tower was demolished in 1917 when Tesla encountered financial difficulties. The tower base was one of the places where contamination remediation caused particular problems. The base was originally dug 120 feet down. After the tower was removed, subsequent occupants of the property used the large hole in the ground for dumping unwanted material, some of it hazardous. Agfa and the DEC arranged for the tower base contamination to be stabilized through injecting a cement-like slurry into the area that solidified the soil and discarded material, and prevents any spread of contamination. As to the future disposition of the property, many suggestions have been made, among them a plan to convert the Tesla laboratory into a science museum and Tesla archive.

Friends of Science East, a local group, has been following the cleanup for over ten years, while maintaining contact with Agfa, in hopes of realizing their goal of the museum. “We envision a Tesla Science Center that brings the excitement of science to the people of Long Island. That excitement drove people like Tesla at the dawn of our modern age of electricity and communication, and it is very much alive on Long Island today,” said Chris Wesselborg, secretary of FSE. “Tesla’s laboratory in Shoreham is an important historic landmark. It testifies to his fundamental contributions to some of our key technologies. What better way to celebrate Long Island’s heritage than with a regional science and technology center and museum at that site,” he said. Tesla was the developer and inventor of the alternating current induction motor, neon lighting, radio wave remote-controlled devices, and the formative patents for radio, Tesla was declared to be the “father of radio” by the Supreme Court, his patents superseding Guglielmo Marconi’s. The Shoreham laboratory, called Wardenclyffe, was planned by Tesla to be the center of his World Wireless System, where he planned to send wireless communications and to transmit energy without wires.

No decision has been made by Agfa regarding the future use of the site. One potential owner is a coalition of the state and town. “We’re not going to make any decisions until all the paperwork is done and the state (DEC) signs off on it,” said Graff. “First I want to be sure the cleanup is done properly. I want to see the reports,” said Alessi. “I really think the site is of historic significance, and I would like to see the Tesla building preserved.” “I would like to hear from the community about what the property should become overall,” he said. “There is so much history surrounding what Tesla has done there in terms of electrical experiments. Shoreham has a legendary past, this is part of it, and I don’t want to see that lost,” said Alessi. “I’m happy we’re at the point where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel regarding the remediation process. Now maybe the town get together with Agfa to begin a negotiation process,” said McCarrick. “Everybody [on the tour] was in agreement to take whatever steps were necessary to preserve the historic Stanford White-designed laboratory. This property has the potential to become an education center and to be a testimony to Nikola Tesla’s legacy on Long Island,” said Kreutz.

Wardenclyffe, An Historical Landmark

“We would like to see Wardenclyffe placed on both the New York State and National Historic Registers. The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the nation’s cultural resources worthy of preservation. Authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Register is part of a federal program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect our historic and archeological resources. Placing Wardenclyffe on the National Register of Historic Places will provide the world with a tangible reminder of Dr. Tesla’s work. Wardenclyffe’s importance lies not so much in the technology which it represents or in the engineering clues buried there—it is in the fact that Wardenclyffe is the last of Dr. Tesla’s work places to remain standing anywhere in the world. The saga of the building’s history, from its design by Stanford White, to its contruction to house a prototype world communications facility to its later adaptation for other commercial uses, is a story yet to be fully told.

Efforts to have the property placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places were begun in September 1994 by the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project through contact with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Our application has subsequently received approval after a finding that the site meets with the seven New York State criteria for listing. Efforts for National Historic Designation will be greatly facilitated if the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project / Friends of Science East coalition is successful in acquiring the property from its current owners.”


The three fundamental principles behind the operation of Tesla’s wireless system are:
1. Low frequency alternating current can be transmitted through the inhomogeneous earth with low loss due to the fact that the net resistance between antipodes of the earth is considerably less than 1 ohm.  The electrical displacement takes place predominantly by electrical conduction through the more conductive regions.  The electrical energy also propagates through the earth by means of displacement current.
2. Low frequency high voltage alternating current can be transmitted through the atmosphere with low loss.  The electrical displacement takes place by a) electrostatic induction, b) electrical conduction, or a combination of these two.
3. The earth possesses a naturally existing negative charge or DC electrostatic potential, on the order of 400,000 volts, with respect to the conducting region of the atmosphere beginning at an elevation of about 50 kilometers, and near the earth’s surface there is a ubiquitous downward directed E-field of about 100 V/m. The Tesla coil transmitter can create a disturbance in this charge, which is manifests itself as an annular distortion of the background electric field around it.
My experiments . . . in Colorado showed that at a height of 1 mile it is plenty enough rarefied to break down under the stress and conduct the current to the distant points. . . . My patent says that I break down the atmosphere “at or near” the terminal. If my conducting atmosphere is 2 or 3 miles above the plant, I consider this very near the terminal as compared to the distance of my receiving terminal, which may be across the Pacific. . . . I have constructed and patented a form of apparatus which, with a moderate elevation of a few hundred feet, can break the air stratum down.  You will then see something like an aurora borealis across the sky, and the energy will go to the distant place. . . . An apparatus which permits displacing a certain quantity of electricity in the terminal—we shall say so many units—will produce an electric potential at a distance of 5 miles, and the fall of electric potential per centimeter will be equal to the quantity of electricity divided by the square of the distance. . . . Now, I have satisfied myself that I can construct plants in which I may produce, per kilometer of the atmosphere, electric differences of potential of something like 50,000 or 60,000 volts, and at 50,000 or 60,000 volts that atmosphere must break down and will become conductive. . . .

The earth is 4,000 miles radius.  Around this conducting earth is an atmosphere.  The earth is a conductor; the atmosphere above is a conductor, only there is a little stratum between the conducting atmosphere and the conducting earth which is insulating. . . . Now, you realize right away that if you set up differences of potential at one point, say, you will create in the media corresponding fluctuations of potential. But, since the distance from the earth’s surface to the conducting atmosphere is minute, as compared with the distance of the receiver at 4,000 miles, say, you can readily see that the energy cannot travel along this curve and get there, but will be immediately transformed into conduction currents, and these currents will travel like currents over a wire with a return.  The energy will be recovered in the circuit, not by a beam that passes along this curve and is reflected and absorbed, . . . but it will travel by conduction and will be recovered in this way.

Tesla earth pump

With Additional Comments by Henry Bradford and Gary Peterson

Atmospheric Conduction Method
Energy Transmission By Means of a Spherical Conductor Transmission Line With an Upper Half-space Return Circuit.

Tesla’s ideas about electrical conduction through the “natural media” fall into two categories: closed circuit and open circuit. [Henry Bradford]

In 1932 journalist John J. O’Neill conducted an interview with Tesla in which he talked about the difference between the wireless transmission of electric energy using what Mr. Bradford describes as either “closed circuit” or “open circuit” principles.

I also asked him if he is still at work on the project which he inaugurated in the ’90’s of transmitting power wirelessly anywhere on earth.  He is at work on it, he said, and it could be put into operation. . . . He at that time announced two principles which could be used in this project.  In one the ionizing of the upper air would make it as good a conductor of electricity as a metal.  In the other the power is transmitted by creating “standing waves” in the earth by charging the earth with a giant electrical oscillator that would make the earth vibrate electrically in the same way a bell vibrates mechanically when it is struck with a hammer.  “I do not use the plan involving the conductivity of the upper strata of the air,” he said, “but I use the conductivity of the earth itself, and in this I need no wires to send electrical energy to any part of the globe.” [“Tesla Cosmic Ray Motor May Transmit Power ‘Round’ Earth,” Brooklyn Eagle, July 10, 1932.]

The closed circuit system consists of a large Tesla coil transmitter, an ionized path connecting the transmitter to the upper atmosphere, the upper atmosphere, a second ionized path connecting the upper atmosphere back down to a receiving location, and the receiver itself.  The circuit back to the transmitter is completed through the earth.  The upper atmosphere, like any low-pressure gas, is not an ohmic conductor, but will conduct electricity if broken down; i.e., ionized.  The portion of the upper atmosphere between the transmitter and the receiver would then conduct current like a neon tube of planetary proportions.  It would require a certain amount of energy to maintain the electrical discharge through it.

The earth is 4,000 miles radius.  Around this conducting earth is an atmosphere.  The earth is a conductor; the atmosphere above is a conductor, only there is a little stratum between the conducting atmosphere and the conducting earth which is insulating. . . . Now, you realize right away that if you set up differences of potential at one point, say, you will create in the media corresponding fluctuations of potential.  But, since the distance from the earth’s surface to the conducting atmosphere is minute, as compared with the distance of the receiver at 4,000 miles, say, you can readily see that the energy cannot travel along this curve and get there, but will be immediately transformed into conduction currents, and these currents will travel like currents over a wire with a return.  The energy will be recovered in the circuit, not by a beam that passes along this curve and is reflected and absorbed, . . . but it will travel by conduction and will be recovered in this way. [NIKOLA TESLA ON HIS WORK WITH ALTERNATING CURRENTS AND THEIR APPLICATION TO WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY, TELEPHONY AND TRANSMISSION OF POWER, Leland I. Anderson, Editor, Twenty First Century Books, 1992, pp. 129-130.]

In operation, the electrical energy flowing through the air is characterized by its high voltage and low current, and through the earth by its high current and low voltage.  For any given power level, the I2 R losses in the plasma transmission line is proportional to the value of the resistance (R) of the ionized path between the two stations, and inversely proportional to the amount of current (I) flowing along this path.  The voltage drop (E) across R is given by Ohm’s law, E = IR.  There is an inverse relationship between voltage and current, so for any given load, increasing the transmission line voltage would reduce the current.  For any given load, with a constant transmission-line resistance, lowering the current that flows through the transmission line would also reduce the voltage drop.  This equates to greater transmission-line efficiency.  In Tesla’s words,

. . . by such means as have been described practically any potential that is desired may be obtained, the currents through the air strata may be rendered very small, whereby the loss in the transmission may be reduced. [SYSTEM OF TRANSMISSION OF ELECTRICAL ENERGY, Sept. 2, 1897, U.S. Patent No. 645,576, Mar. 20, 1900.]

Tesla’s wireless transmitter-receiver station was designed to develop extremely high potentials on the elevated terminal in order to minimize the loss due to the plasma transmission line resistance.

Another characteristic of the Tesla apparatus is that a high current flows in the conductor that connects the oscillator to the earth.  Looking at an entire atmospheric conduction system, each of the transmitter-receiver stations serves, in a sense, as a lever and a fulcrum that converts the power flowing through the air and ground paths. [Corum & Corum]

An independent power source is required at the receiving location to sustain the conducting path to the upper atmosphere.  Both the transmitter and the receiver have to be capable of ionizing the upper atmosphere out to some distance, in much the same way that a corona discharge ionizes the air out to a radius at which its electric field falls below the breakdown value for air, or the leader in a lightning discharge ionizes the air ahead of the bolt.

Tesla described the ionization process like this:

For example, a conductor or terminal, to which impulses such as those here considered are supplied, but which is otherwise insulated in space and is remote from any conducting-bodies, is surrounded by a luminous flame-like brush or discharge often covering many hundreds or even as much as several thousands of square feet of surface, this striking phenomenon clearly attesting the high degree of conductivity which the atmosphere attains under the influence of the immense electrical stresses to which it is subjected.  This influence is however, not confined to that portion of the atmosphere which is discernible by the eye as luminous and which, as has been the case in some instances actually observed, may fill the space within a spherical or cylindrical envelop of a diameter of sixty feet or more, but reaches out to far remote regions, the insulating qualities of the air being, as I have ascertained, still sensibly impaired at a distance many hundred times that through which the luminous discharge projects from the terminal and in all probability much farther. [SYSTEM OF TRANSMISSION OF ELECTRICAL ENERGY, Sept. 2, 1897, U.S. Patent No. 645,576, Mar. 20, 1900.]
Both wireless stations would be individually capable of ionizing the upper atmosphere in their vicinities out to distance that is based upon four physical parameters.  Tesla identified these as the “electromotive force” of the transmitted impulses, the atmospheric density, the height of the elevated terminal above the ground, “and also, apparently, in slight measure, . . . the degree of moisture contained in the air.”  By using a vertical ionizing beam the requirement for very tall towers is reduced.
I have also found it practicable to transmit notable amounts of energy through air strata not in direct contact with the transmitting and receiving terminals, but remote from them, the action of the impulses, in rendering conducting air of a density at which it normally behaves as an insulator, extending, as before remarked, to a considerable distance. . . . [Ibid.]

Tesla also spoke about instances in which the connection between the elevated terminals is, in part, by electrostatic induction.

In some cases when small amounts of energy are required the high elevation of the terminals, and more particularly of the receiving – terminal D, may not be necessary, since, especially when the frequency of the currents is very high, a sufficient amount of energy may be collected at that terminal by electrostatic induction from the upper air strata, which are rendered conducting by the active terminal of the transmitter or through which the currents from the same are conveyed. [Ibid.]
This means that a wholly conductive path between the transmitting and the receiving stations is not an absolute requirement.  A portion the transmitter’s energy can be collected at the receiver by electrostatic induction alone.  This also suggests that a flow of energy may occur between the two high-altitude ionized regions by means of electrostatic induction, that is to say, by so-called displacement current.  Once the initial atmospheric connection is established by the means of true conduction and displacement currents, each high-altitude ionized region might grow in size in the direction of its counterpart with the passage of time,

I have likewise observed that this region of decidedly-noticeable influence continuously enlarges as time goes on, and the discharge is allowed to pass not unlike a conflagration which slowly spreads, this being possibly due to the gradual electrification or ionization of the air or to the formation of less insulating gaseous compounds. [Ibid.]

To accomplish this would be a stupendous undertaking.  It strikes me that Tesla’s concept of transmitting electric power wirelessly via electrical conduction through a closed circuit consisting of the earth and the atmosphere is not promising from a practical viewpoint.  This is because of the enormous voltages needed to reach to useful distances from the transmitter through the atmosphere, and the power requirements for maintaining the air path in an ionized state.

Wireless power transmission by means of the atmospheric method appears to be feasible.  It can be accomplished exactly as Tesla said it could without violating the known laws of physics.  It has not been adopted for economic reasons, and because certain basic engineering challenges that Tesla addressed while developing the system have not been revisited.  Tesla spoke about the commercial establishment of a wireless system in which the transmitted energy is utilized in at least three different ways—high-frequency lighting, turning electric motors, and wireless telecommunications.
Wireless communications is not as demanding as the transmission of power.  Tesla seems to have favoured carrier frequencies in the range of tens of kilohertz or so, which would be reasonable for transmission of information at a useful rate.  He had in mind transmitters and receivers as those shown in his patent drawings, communicating through the earth via current from the ground terminal of the transmitter and the partially or wholly ionized path described above.  This raises the question of whether the current from the ground terminal of a Tesla transmitter, which definitely would exist, would have a range comparable to or greater than that of a radio wave from a radio transmitter of the same power and frequency, and the induced earth current that would accompany it.

The principal difference between Tesla’s system, either closed or open circuit, and open circuit low frequency radio systems is that a radio transmitter is designed primarily to emit energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation from its antenna, whereas the Tesla communications transmitter is designed primarily to inject an electrical current into the earth at its ground terminal.  The mode of propagation for both systems appears to me to be the same; i.e., earth currents and surface charge coupled to a vertical electric field in the Earth-ionosphere cavity.

Mr. Bradford describes the mode of propagation for both the Tesla system and LF radio systems as, “earth currents and surface charge coupled to a vertical electric field in the Earth-ionosphere cavity.”  While this is not a description of space wave electromagnetic radiation, it is, however, consistent with the definition of the electromagnetic field associated with an electrical current flowing through a transmission line.  Of course there is also a space wave component associated with the emissions of an LF radio transmitter in the form of electromagnetic radiation launched from its antenna.  Tesla argued the emissions from the great low frequency AM radio transmitters of the early 20th century were, predominantly, in the form of transmission line surface waves.

The principal difference between the Tesla-produced and radio-produced disturbances appears to be the difference in the configuration of currents and fields close to the transmitter.

The basic idea is that the earth currents and charge-coupled electromagnetic field associated with Tesla coil transmissions gradually decouple from the associated charge carriers and become ordinary radio waves as a function of the distance from the transmitter.  Mr. Bradford states,

I do not believe that the theory for it has been worked out, but in principle it is a straightforward application of electromagnetic theory.

An alternative hypothesis is one in which the configuration of the electromagnetic field associated with an ordinary radio antenna changes as it moves out of the near-field zone, as described by presently accepted antenna and propagation theory, while the configuration of the electromagnetic field associated with a Tesla coil transmitter remains unchanged as it moves out beyond the near-field zone, through the far-field zone, all the way to a well grounded phase-conjugate or synchronized Tesla coil receiver.

There are two distinctly different forms of electromagnetic-wave propagation.  The first is by means of electromagnetic radiation or ordinary radio waves, such as emitted by an ordinary dipole radio antenna.  The second is by ordinary electrical conduction, such as takes place when a current flows through a transmission-line accompanied by a charge-coupled electromagnetic field.

There are three types of transmitter-antenna excited propagation modes.  The first is by means of an ordinary radio wave launched by a dipole antenna in the form of electromagnetic radiation.  The second is a combination of the radio wave and the transmission-line charge-coupled electromagnetic wave launched by a grounded or counterpoise monopole antenna, i.e., the Marconi-type antenna, the emissions of which more or less predominate as electromagnetic radiation plus the second component.  In addition to space waves, Marconi antennas also appear to launch the type of surface wave described by Arnold Sommerfeld and Johann Zenneck.  This surface wave is different from the well-known Norton Surface Wave that is the result of the interaction of the ground wave part of a radio antenna’s radiated space wave with the earth’s surface.  The third is by means of the transmission-line wave launched by a high voltage, pulse-driven, top loaded helical resonator in the form of earth currents and a charge-coupled electromagnetic field.  A small radio-wave component might also be present, but this is viewed as an energy loss.

My guess is that at very large distances from the transmitter, the two disturbances would be indistinguishable.

If, as predicted, the two disturbances are distinctly different then the effects at a distance will be very much distinguishable.  In fact, the emissions of a Tesla coil transmitter should be practically undetectable when using an ungrounded radio receiver with a balanced magnetic loop antenna.
So it would boil down to which method of producing the disturbance is the most efficient and cost effective.  One disadvantage of very long distance radio is that VLF transmitting antennas tend to be very large and inefficient, which is one reason why long distance radio communications mostly switched from long wave to short wave in the 1930’s.  One thing bothers me.  If the Tesla earth currents propagate to long distances at low frequencies, why don’t the earth currents from the ground terminals of low frequency radio transmitters do likewise, or do they?

According to Tesla they do.  Some portion of the earth current associated with the excitation of a well-grounded LF radio-transmitting antenna propagates to great distances.

 You say radio engineers put too much energy into the radiating part. What, as a matter of fact, according to your conception, is the part of the energy that is received in the receivers in the present system? . . . To illustrate my question, take for instance the energy used at Sayville [Long Island, New York] and the reception of that at Nauen [Germany]. I want to know whether it is your idea that the reception there is due to the earth currents that you have described or to the radiated energy.

It is far more due to the earth currents than to the radiated energy. I believe, indeed, that the radiated energy alone could not possibly produce the effect across the Atlantic. It is simply because they are incidentally sending a current through the globe—which they think is their current—that the receiver is affected. The current produces variations of potential at the earth’s surface in Germany; these fluctuations of potential energize the circuit, and by resonance they increase the potential there and operate the receiver. But I do not mean that it is absolutely impossible to use my apparatus and operate with electromagnetic waves across the Atlantic or Pacific. I only say that according to calculations, for instance, which I have made of the Sayville plant, the radiated energy is very small and cannot be operative. I have also calculated the distribution of the charge on the antenna. I am told that the Sayville antenna is without abrupt changes of capacity. It is impossible. There are changes even in a cylindrical antenna; but particularly in that form at Sayville—there are very abrupt changes. [NIKOLA TESLA ON HIS WORK WITH ALTERNATING CURRENTS AND THEIR APPLICATION TO WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY, TELEPHONY AND TRANSMISSION OF POWER, Leland I. Anderson, Editor, Twenty First Century Books, 1992, pp. 142.]

A grounded radio transmitter generates an earth current, and observations of it might help to answer questions about the range of earth currents.  However, distinguishing current from the ground terminal from earth current induced by the radio wave (or part of the wave, depending on how you look at it) might be difficult.  The two types of earth current might be distinguishable because earth current from the ground terminal of a radio transmitter should be free from the variations in the strength of the radio wave (e.g., day-night) caused by the ionosphere.  I am not aware of such observations.  On the other hand, VLF to MF radio transmitters often use some sort of counterpoise instead of a ground connection, and do not produce an earth current directly.  The most reliable answers would come from a computer analysis.

It is conceivable that a powerful Tesla coil earth resonance transmitter operated at a non-earth-resonance frequency might result in the creation of radio waves somewhat as predicted by Mr. Bradford.  In the operation of a Tesla coil transmitter, earth resonance results from the constructive interference of outgoing Tesla waves with the reflection of preceding Tesla waves returning from the antipode.  If the transmission frequency were to be precisely adjusted so that the interference were to be wholly destructive instead of constructive, then radio waves might result.  Going out on a limb even further, rather than a gradual transition from Tesla waves to Hertz waves with an increase in distance from the transmitter, the radio wave emissions would be global in nature and ubiquitous.
“The chief engineer shook his head slowly, “all radio stations went off the air at seven-fifty-one, and nobody can discover why.  We’ve called the electronic laboratory of the State Science Institute.  They said it looks like radio waves, but of a frequency never produced before, never observed anywhere, never discovered by anybody.  It looks like a wall of radio waves jamming the air, and we can’t get through it, we can’t touch it, we can’t break it.  What’s more, we can’t locate its source, not by any of our usual methods.  Those waves seem to come from a transmitter that makes any known to us look like a child’s toy!  That’s it, Dr. Stadler, it can’t be possible, it shouldn’t be possible, but there it is.” [Atlas Shrugged]

Ionospheric effects like the day-night variations indicate that the radio signal received is mainly accounted for by radio waves.  Is it that low frequency radio transmitters generally use counterpoises rather than actual earth connections?  Is it that the currents from the ground terminals of the transmitters (as opposed to induced currents in the electrical disturbance in the Earth-ionosphere cavity; see the next section) do not propagate to a significant distance?  Once again, the answers to these questions, like all the other questions, could be found theoretically by straightforward computations made on a realistic model of the transmitter, receiver, and intervening medium.
Construction and operation of full-size Tesla transmitting and receiving apparatus, as described in his patents and elsewhere, would also facilitate this computer analysis.  The creation of a realistic model demands the collection of empirical data related to the performance of actual functioning Tesla coil transmitters, and active and passive Tesla coil receivers.  At the same time these data were being collected it might be shown that radio waves are not involved with the transfer of electrical energy between the Tesla transmitting and receiving stations.  This would be attempted using a radio receiver with a balanced magnetic loop antenna, which is tunable to the Tesla coil transmitter’s operating frequency.  The radio receiver’s antenna would be configured in such a way so that would interact more efficiently with radio waves than it would with the non-radiating emissions of the Tesla coil transmitter.  Grounded monopole and low-counterpoise radio antennas could not be used.  Even the vertical 1/2-wave dipole antenna, with or without loading coils and suspended high above the ground to minimize capacitive coupling to the earth might be compromised in its performance.  Appropriate antennas for this purpose are the tuned air loop antenna and the tuned ferrite loop-stick antenna.

The Schumann Cavity Resonance Hypothesis
Proposed Energy Transmission By Means of a Concentric Spherical Shell Waveguide
Tesla spoke about the wireless transmission of electric energy utilizing some type of terrestrial resonance mode.  Three different forms of terrestrial resonance have been identified.  These are the “single-wire transmission line” resonances (for lack of a better term), the transverse cavity resonances, and the Schumann cavity resonances.  As their names suggest, the latter two are resonances that can be excited in the concentric spherical shell waveguide formed from the earth and the ionosphere.  Of these three, only transmission systems utilizing the transmission line resonances and the Schumann resonances are under consideration for power transmission.  Both mechanisms fall under Mr. Bradford’s so-called “open circuit” category.

Natural lightning excites the Schumann resonances.  They are observed at the lowest few resonance frequencies (about 8 Hertz and multiples of that).  Their measured Q’s of order 5 – 10 suggest that the electrical disturbances produced by lightning make a few circuits of the Earth before damping out, and create a fairly definite terrestrial standing wave of a few cycles duration.  What is wanted for wireless transmission of power is for the electrical load connected to the receiver to draw power from the transmitter via the standing wave.  I.e., when the load is switched on, the transmitter should “feel” the load, as it would in a closed circuit, and respond by providing more power via the standing wave.  According to my estimates, this would require an Earth-ionosphere cavity Q of order ~10^6 or 10^7 at the lowest Schumann resonance frequencies, whereas it appears the actual value is more like 5 or 10.  Cavity Q is defined here as the ratio of the electric field energy stored in the Earth-ionosphere cavity per cycle of the oscillation to the average power input to the cavity from the transmitter.
This estimate of the required Q is based on the requirement that the current induced in the input impedance of the receiver should reciprocally induce power in the output impedance of the transmitter similar to the power that was transmitted initially.  This is a way of expressing the coupling between the transmitter and receiver required for the transmitter to “feel” the load on the receiver.  The Q in my estimate is the value that produces an electric field in the cavity strong enough to induce the required current in the input impedance of the receiver.  At higher frequencies, the required Q is larger, but I expect that the Q of the Earth-ionosphere cavity probably decreases because propagation losses in the Earth and ionosphere increase.  So my opinion is that Schumann electrical oscillations would not allow efficient transfer of power from the transmitter to the receiver over long distances.

The concept of transferring power with small losses in this manner will not work because the standing wave would occur in the Earth-ionosphere cavity, which is too lossy (Q too small) to enable a standing wave of sufficient amplitude to be generated. This limitation is independent of the power of the transmitter.  In order for the transmitter to feed power to the receiver as efficiently as it would in a closed low-loss circuit, the power transferred to the receiver should be able to transfer power of the same order of magnitude reciprocally to the transmitter.  This is a necessary condition for the transmitter to “feel” the load connected to the receiver, and to supply power to it via the standing wave.  In order to do this, the required Q of the Earth-ionosphere cavity is of the order of 10^6 or so at the lowest Earth-ionosphere cavity Schumann resonant frequency of about 8 Hz, according to my estimates, whereas measurements based on the spectrum of natural electrical radio noise yield a Q of only about 5 to 10.  I believe that the situation only gets worse at higher frequencies because of increasing energy losses in the earth and ionosphere, as is the case in radio transmission.
In my opinion the reason Tesla believed that he could generate very high Q whole-earth oscillations was that he did not know about the existence of the ionosphere and its damping effect.  He also dismissed the practicality of long-range radio because he was unaware of the ionosphere and its reflecting properties.

On the other hand, it has been pointed out that wireless energy transmission using the concentric spherical shell model, as discussed above, is not consistent with the Tesla type transmitter.

The conceptual difficulty with this model is that, at the very low frequencies that Tesla said that he employed (1-50 kHz), earth-ionosphere waveguide excitation, now well understood, would seem to be impossible with the either the Colorado Springs or the Long Island apparatus (at least with the apparatus that is visible in the photographs of these facilities). [“Spherical Transmission Lines and Global Propagation, An Analysis of Tesla’s Experimentally Determined Propagation Model,” K. L. Corum, J. F. Corum, Ph.D., and J. F. X. Daum, Ph.D. 1996, p. 10.]

The maximum recommended operating frequencies of 25 kHz as specified by Tesla is far above the highest easily observable Schumann resonance mode (the 9th overtone) that exists at approximately 66.4 Hz.  Tesla’s selection of 25 kHz is wholly inconsistent with the operation of a system that is based upon the excitation of a Schumann resonance mode.

Another terrestrial propagation mode is far more promising.

The Earth Resonance Method
Energy Transmission By Means of a Spherical Conductor “Single-wire” Surface Wave Transmission Line
The type of transmitter used to excite this propagation mode is described and illustrated in Tesla’s patent ART OF TRANSMITTING ELECTRICAL ENERGY THROUGH THE NATURAL MEDIUMS, May 16, 1900, U.S. Patent No. 787,412, Apr. 18, 1905 and elsewhere. It is essentially the same as the transmitter used for the atmospheric conduction method, connected to the ground and to an elevated terminal, with the elevated terminal having the modified spherical shape seen in a number of photographs and artistic renderings of the Wardenclyffe wireless station prototype.  A similar rendering of a Wardenclyffe-type structure appears in the specifications of Tesla’s APPARATUS FOR TRANSMITTING ELECTRICAL ENERGY, Jan. 18, 1902, U.S. Patent 1,119,732, Dec. 1, 1914 in which this terminal is drawn as a modified torus.

It is apparent from documents on file at the U.S. Patent Office pertaining to U.S. Patent No. 787,412 that Tesla collected actual performance data.  In response to a question from U.S. Patent Examiner G.C. Dean regarding three stated requirements that, “seem essential to the establishment of the resonating condition” Tesla’s attorneys responded,

These three requirements, as stated are in agreement with his numerous experimental observations.  .  .  .  we would point out that the specification does not deal with theories, but with facts which applicant has experimentally observed and demonstrated again and again, and in the commercial exploitation of which he is engaged. [“Spherical Transmission Lines and Global Propagation, An Analysis of Tesla’s Experimentally Determined Propagation Model,” K. L. Corum, J. F. Corum, Ph.D., and J. F. X. Daum, Ph.D. 1996, p. 3n.]

Tesla determined that the time required for a transmitted pulse or wave train to travel from the transmitter to the antipode and back again is .08484 seconds.  This equates to a fundamental earth resonance frequency of 11.786892 Hz.  He believed that by incorporating a portion of the earth as part of a powerful earth-resonance Tesla coil transmitter an electrical disturbance could be impressed upon the earth and detected, “at great distance, or even all over the surface of the globe.”

Tesla also made an assumption that Earth is a charged body floating in space.

A point of great importance would be first to know what is the capacity of the earth? and what charge does it contain if electrified?  Though we have no positive evidence of a charged body existing in space without other oppositely electrified bodies being near, there is a fair probability that the earth is such a body, for by whatever process it was separated from other bodies—and this is the accepted view of its origin—it must have retained a charge, as occurs in all processes of mechanical separation. [ON LIGHT AND OTHER HIGH FREQUENCY PHENOMENA , Nikola Tesla, Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla, 1894, pp. 294-373.]

Tesla was familiar with demonstrations that involved the charging of Leiden jar capacitors and isolated metal spheres with electrostatic influence machines.  By bringing these elements into close proximity with each other, and also by making direct contact followed by their separation the charge can be manipulated.  He surely had this in mind in the creation of his mental image, not being able to know that the model of Earth’s origin was inaccurate.  The presently accepted model of planetary origin is one of accretion and collision.

If it be a charged body insulated in space its capacity should be extremely small, less than one-thousandth of a farad. [Ibid.]

We now know that Earth is, in fact, a charged body, made so by processes—at least in part—related to an interaction of Earth’s magnetosphere with the continuous stream of negatively charged particles called the solar wind, flowing outward from the center of our solar system.

But the upper strata of the air are conducting, and so, perhaps, is the medium in free space beyond the atmosphere, and these may contain an opposite charge.  Then the capacity might be incomparably greater. [Ibid.]

We also know one of the upper strata of Earth’s atmosphere, the ionosphere, is conducting.
In any case it is of the greatest importance to get an idea of what quantity of electricity the earth contains. [Ibid.]

Earth possesses a naturally existing negative charge with respect to the conducting region of the atmosphere beginning at an elevation of about 50 kilometers.  The potential difference between the earth and this region is on the order of 400,000 volts.  Near the earth’s surface there is a ubiquitous downward directed E-field of about 100 V/m.  In LIGHTNING PROTECTOR, May 6, 1916, U.S. Patent 1,266,175, May 14, 1918 Tesla referred to this charge as the “electric niveau” or electric level.
It is difficult to say whether we shall ever acquire this necessary knowledge, but there is hope that we may, and that is, by means of electrical resonance.  If ever we can ascertain at what period the earth’s charge, when disturbed, oscillates with respect to an oppositely electrified system or known circuit, we shall know a fact possibly of the greatest importance to the welfare of the human race.  I propose to seek for the period by means of an electrical oscillator, or a source of alternating electric currents. . . .  [Ibid.]

A Tesla coil earth resonance transmitter creates a local disturbance in the earth’s charge that manifests itself as an annular deviation in the density of the background electric field.  This disturbance propagates away from the transmitter and diminishes in intensity as the distance from the transmitter increases.  A sufficiently powerful transmitter produces a field distortion that propagates all the way to the antipode, at which point the energy is reflected back towards its point of origin.  The transmission of electrical energy across the entire globe and its reflection all the way back to its source is the basis of Tesla’s earth resonance method.

While the atmospheric conduction method requires that both transmitting and receiving apparatus be placed into operation, a properly tuned and sufficiently powerful earth resonance transmitter, on the other hand, can be made to operate exactly as intended without any man-made Tesla-type receivers being activated.  The earth itself fulfills the important requirement that a synchronized receiver be present.

Long-distance wireless transmission by means of the Atmospheric Conduction Method is quite feasible, defying none of the known laws of physics.  The hypothesized Schumann Cavity Resonance Method, unto itself, is totally unworkable.  Wireless transmission by means of the Earth Resonance Method may be possible, a feasibility study using a sufficiently powerful and properly tuned Tesla coil earth-resonance transmitter being called for.


Advanced Concepts for Wireless Energy Transfer
BY Prof. Dr.-Ing. Konstantin Meyl

It will be shown that scalar waves, normally remaining unnoticed, are very interesting in practical use for information and energy technology for reason of their special attributes. The mathematical and physical derivations are supported by practical experiments. The demonstration will show:

1. the wireless transmission of electrical energy,
2. the reaction of the receiver to the transmitter,
3. free energy with an over-unity-effect of about 3,
4. transmission of scalar waves with 1.5 times the speed of light,
5. the inefficiency of a Faraday cage to shield scalar waves.

Tesla radiation
Here is shown extraordinary science, five experiments, which are incompatible with textbook physics. Following my short lecture I will present you the transmission of longitudinal electric waves.

It is a historical experiment, because already 100 years ago the famous experimental physicist Nikola Tesla has measured the same wave properties, as me. From him stems a patent concerning the wireless transmission of energy (1900)1. Since he also had to find out that at the receiver arrives very much more energy, than the transmitter takes up, he spoke of a „Magnifying Transmitter“. By the effect back on the transmitter Tesla sees, if he has found the resonance of the earth and that lies according to his measurement at 12 Hz. Since the Schumann resonance of a wave, which goes with the speed of light, however lies at 7.8 Hz, Tesla comes to the conclusion, that his wave has 1.5 times the speed of light2.

As founder of the diathermy Tesla already has pointed to the biological effectiveness and to the possible use in medicine. The diathermy of today has nothing to do with the Tesla radiation; it uses the wrong wave and as a consequence hardly has a medical importance.

The discovery of the Tesla radiation is denied and isn’t mentioned in the textbooks anymore. For that there are two reasons:
1. No high school ever has rebuilt a „Magnifying Transmitter“. The technology simply was too costly and too expensive. In that way the results have not been reproduced, as it is imperative for an acknowledgement. I have solved this problem by the use of modern electronics, by replacing the spark gap generator with a function generator and the operation with high-tension with 2-4 Volts low-tension. I sell the experiment as a demonstration-set so that it is reproduced as often as possible. It fits in a case and has been sold more than 200 times. Some universities already could confirm the effects. The measured degrees of effectiveness lie between 140 and 1000 percent.
2. The other reason, why this important discovery could fall into oblivion, is to be seen in the missing of a suitable field description. The Maxwell equations in any case only describe transverse waves, for which the field pointers oscillate perpendicular to the direction of propagation, as I have just explained.

Vortex model
The Tesla experiment and my historical rebuild however show more. Such longitudinal waves obviously exist even without plasma in the air and even in vacuum. The question thus is asked, what the divergence E describes in this case? How is the impulse passed on, so that a longitudinal standing wave can form? How should a shock wave come about, if there are no particles which can push each other? I have solved this question, by extending Maxwell’s field theory for vortices of the electric field. These so-called potential vortices are able to form structure and they propagate in space for reason of their particle nature as a longitudinal shock wave. The model concept bases on the ring vortex model of Hermann von Helmholtz, which Lord Kelvin did make popular. In my books3 the mathematical and physical derivation is described.

In spite of the field theoretical set of difficulties every physicist at first will seek for a conventional explanation. He will try two approaches:

Resonant circuit interpretation
Tesla had presented his experiment among others to Lord Kelvin and he already 100 years ago has spoken of a vortex transmission. In the opinion of Kelvin it however by no means concerns a wave but radiation. He had recognized clearly, that every radio technical interpretation had to fail, because alone the course of the field lines is a completely different one.

If both electrodes of the capacitor are pulled apart, then between both is stretching an electric field. The field lines start at one sphere, the transmitter, and they bundle up again at the receiver. In that way a higher degree of effectiveness and a very tight coupling can be expected. In this manner without doubt some of the effects can be explained, but not all.

The inductance is split up in two air transformers, which are wound completely identical. If a fed in sinusoidal tension voltage is transformed up in the transmitter, then it is again transformed down at the receiver. The output voltage should be smaller or at maximum equal the input voltage– but it is substantially bigger! There can be drawn and calculated an alternative wiring diagram, but in no case the measurable result comes out, that light-emitting diodes at the receiver glow brightly (U>2Volt), whereas at the same time the corresponding light-emitting diodes at the transmitter go out (U<2Volt)! To check this both coils are exchanged.

The measured degree of effectiveness lies despite the exchange at more than 100 percent. If the law of conservation of energy should not be violated, then only one interpretation is left: The open capacitor withdraws field energy from its environment. Without consideration of this circumstance does the error deviation of every conventional model calculation lie at more than 90 percent. There one rather should do without the calculation. It will concern oscillating fields, because the spherical electrodes are changing in polarity with a frequency of approx. 7 MHz. They are operated in resonance. The condition for resonance reads: identical frequency and opposite phase. The transmitter obviously modulates the field in its environment, while the receiver collects everything what fulfils the condition for resonance.

Also in the open question for the transmission velocity of the signal the resonant circuit interpretation fails. But the HF-technician still has another explanation at the tip of his tongue:

Near field interpretation
In the near field of an antenna effects are measured, which on the one hand go as inexplicable, because they evade the normally used field theory, which on the other hand come the by me shown scalar wave effects very close. Everyone knows a practical application: e.g. at the entrance of department stores, where the customer has to go through in between of scalar wave detectors.

New problems will occur to the HF-specialist, when in my experiment the distance between the transmitter and the receiver is 10-times more than the near zone. Students of the TU-Berlin have shown and proofed this. Tesla as well had demonstrated a power transmission over 30 miles, whereas his near field was less than half a mile. I have shown how vortices are forming and how they come off the dipole, that the fields in the near zone of a Hertzian dipole are longitudinal scalar wave fields. But the scalar waves of Tesla and of my experiment show even more.

The vortex decay however depends on the velocity of propagation. Calculated at the speed of light the vortices already have decayed within half the wavelength. The faster the velocity, the more stable they get, to remain stable above 1.6 times the velocity. These very fast vortices contract in the dimensions. They now can tunnel. Therefore speed faster than light occurs at the tunnel effect. Therefore no Faraday cage is able to shield fast vortices.

Since these field vortices with particle nature following the high-frequency oscillation permanently change their polarity from positive to negative and back, they do not have a charge on the average over time. As a result they almost unhindered penetrate solids. Particles with this property are called neutrinos in physics. The field energy which is collected in my experiment, according to that stems from the neutrino radiation which surrounds us. Because the source of this radiation, all the same if the origin is artificial or natural, is far away of my receiver, every attempt of a near field interpretation goes wrong.

At the function generator I adjust frequency and amplitude of the sinusoidal signal, with which the transmitter is operated. At the frequency regulator I turn so long, till the light-emitting diodes at the receiver glow brightly, whereas those at the transmitter go out. Now an energy transmission takes place.

If the amplitude is reduced so far, till it is guaranteed that no surplus energy is radiated, then in addition a gain of energy takes place by energy amplification.

If I take down the receiver by pulling out the earthing, then the lighting up of the LED´s signals the mentioned effect back on the transmitter. The transmitter thus feels, if its signal is received.

The self-resonance of the Tesla coils, according to the frequency counter, lies at 7 MHz. Now the frequency is ran down and see there, at approx. 4.7 MHz the receiver again glows, but less bright, easily shieldable and without discernible effect back on the transmitter. Now we unambiguously are dealing with the transmission of the Hertzian part and that goes with the speed of light. Since the wavelength was not changed, does the proportion of the frequencies determine the proportion of the velocities of propagation. The scalar wave according to that goes with (7/4.7=) 1.5 times the speed of light!

If I put the transmitter into the aluminium case and close the door, then nothing should arrive at the receiver. Expert laboratories for electromagnetic compatibility in this case indeed cannot detect anything and that, although in spite of that the receiver lamps glow! By turning of the receiver coil it can be verified that an electric and not a magnetic coupling is present although the Faraday cage should shield electric fields. The scalar wave obviously overcomes the cage with a speed faster than light, by tunnelling!

1 Nikola Tesla: Apparatus for transmission of electrical energy.
US-Patent No. 645,576, N.Y. 20.3.1900.
2 Nikola Tesla: Art of transmitting electrical energy through the natural mediums, US-Patent No. 787,412, N.Y. 18.4.1905.
3 Konstantin Meyl: Scalar Waves, INDEL-Verlag.

Konstantin Meyl
email: meyl [at] k-meyl [dot] de


With the current RFID technology the transfer of energy takes place on a chip card by means of longitudinal wave components in close range of the transmitting antenna. Those are scalar waves, which spread towards the electrical or the magnetic field pointer. In the wave equation with reference to the Maxwell field equations, these wave components are set to zero, why only postulated model computations exist, after which the range is limited to the sixth part of the wavelength. A goal of this paper is to create, by consideration of the scalar wave components in the wave equation, the physical conditions for the development of scalar wave transponders which are operable beyond the close range. The energy is transferred with the same carrier wave as the information and not over two separated ways as with RFID systems. Besides the bi-directional signal transmission, the energy transfer in both directions is additionally possible because of the resonant coupling between transmitter and receiver. First far range transponders developed on the basis of the extended field equations are already functional as prototypes, according to the US-Patent No. 787,412 of Nikola Tesla, New York 1905 [1].

[title credit : caution]



(February 2003) – “The aquarium strain of Caulerpa taxifolia is an extremely invasive seaweed that is currently infesting tens of thousands of acres in the Mediterranean Sea and has now been found in two coastal water bodies in southern California. The aquarium strain of C. taxifolia was first found in the Mediterranean Sea off Monaco, adjacent to the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, around 1984. Since then, C. taxifolia has spread along the Mediterranean coast and dramatically altered and displaced native plant and animal communities. Early eradication was not attempted in the Mediterranean, and the infestation is now considered beyond control. As of 2001, it was estimated that C. taxifolia had infested over 30,000 acres of seafloor in Spain, France, Italy, Croatia and Tunisia.

Prevention of new infestations: Aquarium water and other contents should never be emptied into or near any gutter, storm drain, creek, lagoon, bay, harbor, or the ocean. Aquarium water should be disposed of only in a sink or toilet. Rock and other solid material from an aquarium should be disposed of in a trash can. C. taxifolia from an aquarium (and anything it is attached to), should be placed in a plastic bag, put in a freezer for at least 24 hours, and then disposed of in a trash can.

“Bickering over whether the species was natural or invasive, and whether the museum had released it or not, contributed to a delay that allowed the plant to spread beyond control. The museum continued to deny releasing the plant, although former director Jacques Cousteau eventually expressed the belief that it was the only reasonable explanation. C. taxifolia has no natural predators or competitors in the Mediterranean. It crowds out other fish and plants, and contains a strong toxin that is distasteful to most species around the world. Regions that have been invaded by the plant now show that about half the expected number of fish have disappeared.”

“Over the years that we have observed this Caulerpa in the Mediterranean, we have never seen evidence of sexual reproduction,” says Meinesz. The only reproductive cells it releases are male, fostering a suspicion that all C. taxifolia in the Mediterranean are clones of a single aquarium plant.”



“Geologists view crude oil and natural gas as the product of compression and heating of ancient organic materials (i.e. kerogen) over geological time. Today’s oil formed from the preserved remains of prehistoric zooplankton and algae, which had settled to a sea or lake bottom in large quantities under anoxic conditions (the remains of prehistoric terrestrial plants, on the other hand, tended to form coal). Over geological time the organic matter mixed with mud, and was buried under heavy layers of sediment resulting in high levels of heat and pressure (known as diagenesis). This caused the organic matter to chemically change, first into a waxy material known as kerogen which is found in various oil shales around the world, and then with more heat into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons in a process known as catagenesis.”

“Fourth generation biofuels is a term that I’ve seen presented as various different technologies so it’s hard to really define exactly what these fuels are. One definition of a fourth generation biofuel is crops that are genetically engineered to consume more CO2 from the atmosphere than they’ll produce during combustion later as a fuel. Another definition is genetically engineered crops similar to the ones just mentioned but combined with synthesized microbes that will convert the biofuels produced into even more efficient fuel. For example a plant could be grown then converted into a fuel which is then exposed to a microbe that changes it directly into gasoline. Yet another definition is genetically modified or synthesized microbes that convert CO2 in the atmosphere directly into usable fuels.

With all these different definitions of what a fourth generation biofuel is its no wonder that it can be so hard to find a solid explaination. The answer is that no one really knows what a fourth generation biofuel is yet except everyone seems to agree it involves genetic modifications. However, even though it involves genetic modifications that can’t be the sole definition. Let me recap the different biofuel generations for you. First generation biofuels are the fuels currently in use such as biodiesel. Second generation biofuels are similar fuels but produced from non-food crops. Third generation biofuels are genetically modified crops that capture more CO2 from the atmosphere resulting in a carbon neutral fuel. This third generation is why fourth generation has to be more than simply genetically modified crops. So, what is a fourth generation biofuel then? I would define a fourth generation biofuel as biofuels that result in a negative carbon impact when combusted. Since third generation biofuels result in a carbon neutral impact and many examples of a fourth generation biofuel mention more carbon being consumed than is released during use this seems like a suitable definition.”

from Green Dreams
BY Joel K. Bourne, Jr.  /  October 2007

“Pacheco traces another line on his chart, at twice the altitude of the first. It represents the ultimate biofuels dream: enough green fuel to make the U.S. energy independent. It is where we might be, says Pacheco, if we greatly increase vehicle efficiency while churning out cellulosic ethanol, or, more tantalizing, “if we make algae work.” There is no magic-bullet fuel crop that can solve our energy woes without harming the environment, says virtually every scientist studying the issue. But most say that algae—single-celled pond scum—comes closer than any other plant because it grows in wastewater, even seawater, requiring little more than sunlight and carbon dioxide to flourish. NREL had an algae program for 17 years until it was shut down in the mid-1990s for lack of funding. This year the lab is cranking it back up again. A dozen start-up companies are also trying to convert the slimy green stuff into a viable fuel.

GreenFuel Technologies, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is at the head of the pack. Founded by MIT chemist Isaac Berzin, the company has developed a process that uses algae in plastic bags to siphon carbon dioxide from the smoke-stack emissions of power plants. Algae not only reduce a plant’s global warming gases, but also devour other pollutants. Some algae make starch, which can be processed into ethanol; others produce tiny droplets of oil that can be brewed into biodiesel or even jet fuel. Best of all, algae in the right conditions can double in mass within hours. While each acre of corn produces around 300 gallons (1,135 liters) of ethanol a year and an acre of soybeans around 60 gallons (227 liters) of biodiesel, each acre of algae theoretically can churn out more than 5,000 gallons (19,000 liters) of biofuel each year.

“Corn or soybeans, you harvest once a year,” says Berzin. “Algae you harvest every day. And we’ve proved we can grow algae from Boston to Arizona.” Berzin’s company has partnered with Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, to test algae production at APS’s natural-gas-burning Redhawk power plant just west of Phoenix. Algae farms around that one plant, located on 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of bone-dry Sonoran Desert, could double the current U.S. production of biodiesel, says Berzin.

The energy farm, as GreenFuel calls it, isn’t much to look at, just a cluster of shipping containers and office trailers next to a plastic greenhouse structure longer than a football field and perhaps 50 feet (15 meters) wide. Outside the greenhouse, rows of large plastic tubes filled with bubbling bright green liquid hang like giant slugs from hooks. After making a few calls to his boss, GreenFuel’s security-conscious head of field operations, Marcus Gay, allows me to inspect this “seed farm,” which grows algae for the greenhouse. Everything else is off-limits. The company guards its secrets closely.

With good reason: Only perhaps a dozen people on the planet know how to grow algae in high-density systems, says Gay. Algae specialists, long near the bottom of the biology food chain, are becoming the rock stars. Two of Arizona’s largest universities recently started algae programs. Their biggest challenge, as with cellulosic ethanol, is reducing the cost of algae fuel. “At the end of the day for this to work, this has to be cheaper than petroleum diesel,” says Gay. “If we’re one penny over the cost of diesel per gallon, we’re sunk.” (In July, rising costs and technical problems forced GreenFuel to shut down the Redhawk bioreactor temporarily.)

Hard numbers—supply, efficiency, and, most important, price at the pump—will determine the future of ethanol and biodiesel. But for now green fuels have an undeniable romance. In the garage of his office complex in downtown Phoenix, Ray Hobbs, a senior engineer for APS who is leading the company’s fuel initiative, walks past a small fleet of electric cars, hybrids, even a hydrogen-powered bus. He climbs into a big diesel Ford van and turns the key. The exhaust, unlike a typical diesel’s, is invisible, with just the faintest whiff of diesel smell from the algae biodiesel made at the Redhawk pilot plant. The superslick plant oil has also quieted a little of that annoying diesel rattle.

“The way I think about these things is I’m sitting in a river in a canoe,” says Hobbs. “Now do I want to paddle upstream, or do I want to go with the flow? Algae is downstream, with the flow. We have processes in nature that are honed for us, that have evolved. So we can take those processes and make them faster and more efficient and harness that power. We can’t wait generations to screw around with this. We have to do it now.”

Hobbs says he has fielded dozens of calls from power companies interested in building an algae plant of their own to scrub emissions and help meet their renewable fuels mandate. The lure of plant fuels even seems to have reached the petroleum-rich sands of the Middle East, where the United Arab Emirates has launched a 250-million-dollar renewable energy initiative that includes biofuels—perhaps a sign that even the sheikhs now realize that the oil age won’t last forever. As precedents for such collective effort, people sometimes point to the Manhattan Project to build a nuclear weapon or the Apollo Program to put a man on the moon. But those analogies don’t really work. They demanded the intense concentration of money and intelligence on a single small niche in our technosphere. Now we need almost the opposite: a commitment to take what we already know how to do and somehow spread it into every corner of our economies, and indeed our most basic activities. It’s as if NASA’s goal had been to put all of us on the moon.”


ENERGY FARMING,28804,1733748_1733754_1735703,00.html
The Fuel Generation
BY Kobi Ben-Simhon  /  17/05/2008

When Dr. Isaac Berzin talks about algae, he forgets everything else. He starts talking a mile a minute, and sometimes he talks about true love. “When I look at them through the microscope, I see them doing belly dances, and they have this small mustache that they wave. They are really cute,” he says with a passion that he makes no effort to hide. He laughs and then pauses to reflect for a moment. “But because I am not a biologist I can look at them a little like a child,” he tries to explain. “Where a biologist would talk about filaments and other technical terms, I see a mustache and behavior. I am constantly dumbfounded by this plant. This little thing is the baseline for the production of oxygen in the world; it knows how to use carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen. It amazes me that despite this, algae are not given enough respect, and instead are treated like green slime.”

When Berzin looks at algae, he sees a new world and a revolution. Dr. Berzin, 40, is wearing a blue suit, and his hair is held in place with glistening gel. Eight months ago he returned to Israel from the United States after generating a research breakthrough that changed his life. Berzin, the founder of GreenFuel Technologies – a U.S. company that produces green fuel from algae – discovered that “green slime” contains one of the keys to the alternative fuel the world is seeking. His company is the first ever to develop and produce biofuels from algae that are bred on gases emitted by power plants.

It might sound like some sort of magic trick to put algae, CO2 and sunlight into a box and come out with fuel, but Berzin did it. “I feel a bit like Thomas Edison, who invented the light bulb,” he says. “He tried thousands of materials until he arrived at the filament. My intuition, too, told me that it was possible to do something that people were only dreaming of – to build a device from algae to produce energy at market-compatible costs.

“It’s logical, really, when you think about it,” Berzin continues, “because all liquid fuels are compressed ancient organic matter, the outcome of photosynthesis. The liquid fuels that are pumped out of the earth are ancient plants. There are no miracles here. We just accelerated the process. A quarter of the weight of algae is vegetable oil from which biofuel can be produced, and the point was to control the biology. My goal was to adapt the algae to the local water and the local profile of the gases – to ensure they would be happy.”

In a large conference hall at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Berzin declares that the world is on the threshold of a vast change. “An era has ended,” he asserts without hesitation. “Until now we found a reserve of fuel and used it up. In comparison to the evolutionary process, we are at the transition from the stage of the collectors of food to the situation in which humanity began to engage in agriculture and grow food. That is what we are doing today: we are starting to grow our fuel. Our generation will go down in history as the ‘fuel generation.’ That generation is over. Man is moving from a situation in which he uses up the sources of energy to one in which he grows energy.”

Berzin’s odyssey began in 1999, immediately after he obtained his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Ben-Gurion University. He then embarked on postdoctoral studies at MIT. That was a formative moment in his career. “I was in one of the world’s leading technological institutions. I was part of a NASA project to plan a facility for growing cells in the international space station. I had reached the cutting edge of the most prestigious project in NASA,” he says in an unsatisfied but emphatic tone. “I was working with the best and most brilliant minds that were dealing with a hallucinatory problem: how to grow cells in the space station. At the time, buses were blowing up every day in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That preoccupied me. I thought to myself: Dear God, fuel is killing us. After all, those terrorists are funded by fuel powers. I felt it was off the wall to be dealing with cells in space, that I should be engaged with a problem whose solution would change the world: the problem of energy.”

On his desk at the time was a document issued by the U.S. Department of Energy. The idea of producing fuel from algae was not new. “It was known that vegetable oil is the original material of fuel,” Berzin explains. “In the 1970s and 1980s, in the wake of the fuel crises that were spawned by political crises, the national laboratory for alternative energy in the United States decided to try to produce fuel from algae. The idea was to use power plants that emit carbon dioxide in order to raise algae and produce green fuel from them. After 20 years of research and tens of millions of dollars, they concluded that it wouldn’t work. When I looked at their research, I discovered that they had actually taken carbon dioxide in a bottle and shaken it. They had not taken genuine gas emissions from power plants. I discovered that they had worked for 20 years and produced zero gallons of fuel. Twenty years and how many scientific articles? Hundreds. I realized that the project was an academic platform for them, that no one there was really determined to make fuel from algae.”

Berzin decided to act. He left MIT eight years ago and founded GreenFuel, whose professed aim is to produce green fuel from algae. The Israeli researcher was intent on solving the riddle that the best American researchers in the field had labored over for two decades. GreenFuel began to develop a distinctive method of reproducing algae, one that does not use up agricultural land or clean water, while at the same time consuming a considerable quantity of carbon dioxide, one of the most pernicious of the greenhouse gases. “In the technological world it was a crazy decision,” he admits. “You have to be crazy to leave an institution like MIT for an uncertain future.”

Berzin had no money to launch his ambitious project, so he borrowed $200,000 from two close friends. “Looking back on it today,” he says, “I understand how much I didn’t know. Because my instincts as a scientist were not suited to the business world. As a scientist, I thought that technological excellence was the key to success. Well, it’s not. A scientist who discovers something immediately rushes to tell the world; in the business world you keep your mouth shut and rush to the patent office. Berzin’s parents are academics: his father, an engineer, worked for Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), and his mother is an electrical engineer. “My father was an inventor, a very unconventional person. I had a passion for his work, so our home was always filled with broken machines and wrecked gears. In the 1980s, for example, there was an arrangement at IAI whereby if you come up with an efficiency proposal that saved money for the plant, you got 10 percent of the amount that was saved in the first year. My father made a lot of money that way.”

Berzin established his first energy farm adjacent to the power plant at MIT. That was the inception of a historic event, because at the end of the process, fuel was produced from carbon dioxide for the first time. “I introduced the gases into the system as they were and started to grow the algae in transparent plastic pipes. In effect, you become an ‘energy farmer.’ The algae grow on the liquid base. In the next stage of my experiments I grew the algae in a shallow, plastic-covered pool. The algae grow in the water and divide at a wild rate. In the morning the water is green and by evening it is already black. Afterward the algae are separated from the water. Every day I harvested a third of 10 centimeters, you pump out the liquid, and every day a third of the volume is taken.”

And the fuel is produced from the pulp of the algae? “Exactly. You separate the algae from the water, and then you have pulp, a green sludge from which the oil is extracted. Back then, all the existing technologies to separate algae from water were too expensive. I had to find a different technology. A researcher’s life is frustrating. I bear the scars of unsuccessful experiments, of a search for solutions and of failures. I remember a moment when I thought I was on the right track, and then I suddenly made a calculation and understood that the effort I had made to compress the gas was in vain. I realized that I was actually losing energy rather than producing energy.”

And then? “It was terribly difficult. You believe you have something, and in a split second you understand that you have nothing. And that was after building devices and investing a great deal of money. There was a crisis. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. Anyone who wants to reach the top of a hill will follow every path; sometimes the path leads to a downturn, but you must not continue just because the landscape is pretty. As soon as you identify the mistake, you have to change course. We succeeded in finding a different path,” Berzin goes on. “I remember skeptics who told me I would never achieve what I wanted. ‘Do you know how much it costs to grow algae today?’ they said. That in fact was a crucial stage in the chain of challenges that prevented this from being a true and profitable technology. But we did it. From an installation of one square kilometer we are now producing five million liters of green fuel a year. After the technology was demonstrated at MIT, the next stage was to take it to a real power plant. Until then I had raised enough money to do it on a small scale. Now it was time to go big. So I went to Arizona.”

What had seemed to be science fiction became a thriving, measured business. Berzin has registered 12 patents that enshrine his rights to the technology connecting an energy farm to a power plant. In 2005, in the heart of the Arizona desert, he chalked up another achievement when he set up the world’s first trial project adjacent to a power plant of APS, Arizona’s largest electrical utility company. The director of the advanced fuels program of APS, Raymond Hobbs, relates that his Ford has been cruising the streets of Phoenix on green fuel since 2006. “My mandate is to burn fuel and produce electricity, but we have a problem called CO2,” he notes. “The good thing about Itzik’s [Isaac’s] technology is that we are recycling the toxin and creating a new industry. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. It’s not every day that you make a hole in the smokestack of a power plant that is worth billions of dollars and start to grow algae. I did it because I believed in Itzik. The first time we met, he showed up at my office with three people and said that was his whole company. I say that the size of a company does not determine the size of the head. One person’s idea can bring about tremendous change. I am certain that his technology will bring mankind lots of fuel, food and peace.”

But it turns out that persuading Hobbs was no easy task. “I came out of the MIT hothouses with a technology and a business model, but without any money,” Berzin says. “It was very hard for the electricity companies to put money into an idea like this. When Raymond first saw me enter his power plant in a suit, he muttered that he was in a hurry to get to another meeting. But in the end, if there is someone, such as me, for example, who in return for partnership in the business asks the electricity company only for the CO2 and its lands, the answer is very quickly yes. If they face no professional or economic risk, but only profit, they work with you straightaway.”

Financing for Berzin’s project actually came from Europe, where, he says, “quality of the environment” is a genuine, deep commitment. “In Europe they made a strategic decision to shift to green, so there is billions available for green projects. To sign contracts of $300 million to build an energy farm in Arizona and a second farm in Spain at a cost of $92 million, I found European partners willing to put up the money.”

Some will be critical of your partnership with power plants that are polluting the atmosphere. “People who develop green technologies are considered either hallucinatory types or enemies of the free market – people who demand to work for the environment with no economic logic. I don’t believe that is the right direction. The industry is aware of the environmental problem it is creating, and its alternative solution is to compress the CO2 as pure gas into the depths of the earth. But dumps like that might be released one day and cruise to the nearby city and kill millions of people before they fall to earth. Because carbon dioxide is a necessary byproduct in the burning process, the electricity companies are scared stiff, so they fight the Al Gores of the world. I am proposing a solution that not only does not cost them money, it makes money. I have turned things upside down – there is no punishment and no risk. So what’s the problem? I understood that I had to solve a tremendous problem of the industry in order to actualize my green technology.”

Does the fuel produced from algae compete with green fuels made from corn and soy? “It turns out that the biofuels produced from corn or soy seeds – fuels that are considered the future substitute for pollutant fuel – cause environmental damage themselves. It is also not economically viable: to grow the soy beans you need leaves and roots, a whole system that supports the beans from which the oil is produced. No such system is required to grow algae. Their rate of growth is 10 to 100 times that of any other biological system. So if you have a unit of land, you can achieve orders of production that are many times higher. This is a process that does not compete for land and water resources – algae can grow in saltwater and in sewage.”


Biofuel made from power plant CO2
BY Phil Mckenna  /  06 October 2006

“If you’re working at a power plant, you just saw your carbon dioxide turned into something you can drive home with.” So says Isaac Berzin of GreenFuel Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is developing a way of producing biofuel from the noxious emissions of power plants.

Two of the world’s greatest energy users are electricity generation and transport. Both are responsible for huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, as most power plants and vehicles still rely on fossil fuels. Now GreenFuel and others are hoping to marry the two together with an emerging technology that uses a by-product of one to supply fuel to the other. Doing so could dramatically reduce their overall carbon dioxide emissions.

At the heart of the technology is a plastic cylinder full of algae, which literally sucks the CO2 out of a power plant’s exhaust. The algae can in turn be converted into biofuel, creating a cycle that takes the carbon from the smokestack to the gas tank before it enters the atmosphere.

If successful, the technology could capture all of a power plant’s CO2 emissions. “Right now, when you say CO2, people want to hide under the table. Carbon dioxide is not something you want to pump underground, it’s something you want to reuse,” says Berzin.

To produce fuel from CO2, the flue gases are fed into a series of transparent “bioreactors”, which are 2 metres high and filled with green microalgae suspended in nutrient-rich water. The algae use the CO2, along with sunlight and water, to produce sugars by photosynthesis, which are then metabolised into fatty oils and protein. As the algae grow and multiply, portions of the soup are continually withdrawn from each reactor and dried into cakes of concentrated algae. These are repeatedly washed with solvents to extract the oil.

The algal oil can then be converted into biodiesel through a routine process called transesterification, in which it is processed using ethanol and a catalyst. Enzymes are then used to convert starches from the remaining biomass into sugars, which are fermented by yeasts to produce ethanol.

GreenFuel is testing a pilot facility at the Redhawk power station in the Arizona desert. The size of a couple of trailers, it treats a only a tiny fraction of the plant’s exhaust, but it works, and has so far produced several gallons of algal oil, which the company is planning to convert into biodiesel for the first time this week. A second, larger prototype of around 1300 square metres is now under construction.

This new facility will also capture the heat produced by the plant and use it to help dry the algae before the oil is extracted and converted to biodiesel. This excess heat could also make it easier to recover the solvent from the oil after extraction. “The main energy requirement is recovering the solvent from the oil once it is extracted,” says Berzin. “Seventy per cent of a coal-burning plant’s energy is lost as heat. That’s a lot of waste heat to use.”

GreenFuel has so far received more than $18 million in venture capital funding, and hopes to install a full-scale algal farm at least 1 kilometre square near the Redhawk plant by 2009. Berzin calculates that if the farm has enough algae to absorb all the CO2 produced by the 1000-megawatt plant, GreenFuel could ultimately produce more than 150 million litres of biodiesel and 190 million litres of ethanol a year. To do this, it would need a farm of between 8 and 16 square kilometres.

The idea of producing biofuel from algae is not new. The US Department of Energy began investigating algae in the 1970s during the global oil shortage. Researchers scoured the US, collecting more than 3000 different strains of “extremophile” algae that could withstand the high temperatures, salinity and pH required to absorb the exhaust from power plants.

The Aquatic Species Program, as it was known, grew the algae in open pond test sites in Hawaii, California and New Mexico, but was mothballed in 1996 when lower crude oil prices made it difficult for alternative fuels to compete. “It’s an entirely different world now,” says John Sheehan, an analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, who worked on the project. “I’ve had a call or email a week enquiring about it.”

Although ahead of the competition in terms of developing prototype bioreactors, GreenFuel is not the first to use algae to produce samples of biofuel from power plant exhaust. In March Laurenz Thomsen and his team at the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Project at the International University Bremen in Germany used microalgae to produce 10 millilitres of biodiesel. Thomsen is now working on a possible joint venture with GreenFuel to develop algae farms at CO2-belching coal-fired plants in eastern Europe.

“Using technology based mainly on GreenFuel, we can mitigate 50,000 tonnes of CO2 per square kilometre per year,” he says. Building a 1-square-kilometre facility would cost approximately $20 million, he estimates, but the payoffs would be equally large. “I think we are close to the point where we can gain $5 to $10 million a year by selling the fuel.”

Another company building a pilot algae reactor is New York-based Greenshift. The company plans to begin testing its reactor at a bioethanol plant in Iowa in early 2007, where waste CO2 is emitted when corn is converted into ethanol. “Roughly one-third of the corn that goes into a facility comes out as ethanol,” says Kevin Kreisler of Greenshift. “With algae and other technologies we can increase that to two-thirds.” Like GreenFuel, the company eventually plans to use the technology at power plants.

Instead of exposing the algae directly to sunlight, Greenshift uses an array of mirrored troughs and fibre optics to carry sunlight to the plants. Algae don’t need strong sunlight for photosynthesis, so the bioreactors could feasibly be housed in buildings or underground. “It’s all about efficiency,” says Kreisler. “By diffusing the light we can take one square metre of sunlight and spread it out over 10 square metres of growth plates, thus reducing the amount of land we need by a factor of 10.”

Indeed, one key advantage of algae farms over other sources of biofuel such as corn and soybeans is that they need much less space (New Scientist, 23 September, p 36). In Germany, where rapeseed is the primary crop used for biodiesel, it would take up to 33 times as much land as is needed by the algae bioreactors to produce the same amount of fuel, Thomsen says. What’s more, unlike other biofuel crops, algae do not require precious commodities like fresh water or fertile land. That makes the technology suitable for use in the deserts of the American south-west and China. “If you really want to make an impact on CO2, you have to look at the US and China,” Berzin says.

If the technology is to be successful, though, the energy industry will need to be convinced. Barry Worthington of the US Energy Association in Washington DC, which represents the electricity generators, says the economics of algal biofuel still have to be borne out. But he is optimistic about its potential. All the conventional ways of reducing CO2 emissions are considered a cost, he says. “This changes the dynamics dramatically.”

Algae Oil Maker Solazyme Gets $45.4 Million More
BY Michael Kanellos  /  August 26, 2008

Solazyme is continuing to move away from the pack in algae oil. The South San Francisco-based company has raised $45.4 million in a Series C funding, according to PE Hub. Investors included Braemar Energy Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Harris & Harris group. The total includes $6.4 million in convertible securities. That brings the total raised by Solazyme, when grants and everything is mixed in, to close to $70 million by some estimates.

The company is both one of the oldest algae oil companies (dating way back to the first half of the decade) and one of the most novel. Rather than grow algae in ponds or closed-in water tubes called bioreactors through phototsynthesis, the company has identified species that grow by feeding off sugars in the dark. Solazyme effectively puts these algae and discarded plant matter into kettles and brews up algal blooms. The algae is then harvested for oil. Solazyme also genetically optimizes the natural strains of algae. By eliminating the need for water, Solazyme doesn’t have to worry about separating the algae from the water to harvest oil, a big problem. It can also control the growth of algae. The company initially tried to grow algae through photosynthesis but switched.

Solazyme also likes to point out that it has made oil, barrels of it, unlike many of the twenty plus algae companies out there today. It also has a development deal with Chevron. The company will also sell oil to the cosmetic industry and likely the food industry. I actually tried some brownies made with algae oil. They were good. The money will be used to scale up their existing manufacturing facilities. (Right now, the company is housed in a building that once served as an ice cream factory.)

Critics, though, note that sugar isn’t free, and say that the ecomonics of growing algae with water and free sunlight may win out. So we must wait and see. The company also isn’t the only one working on novel extraction or growing techniques. OriginOil is concocting a system that will force feed algae and then extract oil from the hapless critters with microwaves. Synthetic Genomics, meanwhile, is working on genetically modified algae that will expurgate their own, like sea cucumbers.


Jonathan Wolfson
email : jwolfson [at] solazyme [dot] com

Harrison Dillon
email : hdillon [at] solazyme [dot] com

Solazyme Showcases Jeep Fueled By Worlds First Algal-Based Renewable Diesel  /  Jan 27, 2009

Solazyme will feature a Jeep Liberty fueled by the world’s first algal-based renewable diesel, Soladiesel RDTM, at CALSTART Target 2030: Solutions to Secure California’s Transportation Energy and Climate Future in Sacramento, Calif.

The fuel, which is a drop-in replacement for standard petrodiesel (#2 Diesel), has passed American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) D975 specifications and will also be on display at the event. Both Soladiesel RDTM and Soladiesel BDTM, a FAME biodiesel that meets the (ASTM) D6751 specifications, have been successfully road tested unblended (100 percent) for thousands of miles in standard unmodified diesel engines.

The Jeep, which will be available for rides throughout the event, illustrates the compatibility of the fuel with current infrastructure. “With new elected officials across the country, now is an ideal time for events like CALSTART Target 2030, which look at energy solutions that will serve us in the long term,” said Jonathan Wolfson, co-founder, and CEO of Solazyme.

“We are proud to be in California, a state known for leading energy policy, and are pleased to showcase our solutions which include clean and scalable renewable fuels derived from algae that meet today’s demanding performance and regulatory specifications, while dramatically reducing the carbon footprint versus petroleum based-fuels.”

Solazyme’s unique process grows algae in the dark using standard industrial bioproduction equipment, where the algae are fed a variety of non-food and waste biomass materials including cellulosic biomass and low-grade glycerol. This allows the company to produce oil with a very low carbon footprint efficiently in a controlled environment.

Solazyme’s fuels have already been road tested in unmodified vehicles for thousands of miles. Solazyme also recently announced that it has produced the world’s first algal based jet fuel which met all eleven of the tested key criteria for (ASTM) D1655 (Jet A-1). Additionally, Solazyme’s process is the very first bridge from non-food carbohydrates and certain industrial waste streams to edible oils and oleochemicals.


Directed evolution is a term used to describe a broad class of proprietary and public domain methods that can be used to optimize biological functions. From single proteins to single metabolic pathways to whole cell functions involving interrelated pathways, the directed evolution process is a highly efficient way to engineer an organism to perform a desired function. The process at its most fundamental level involves two steps. The first step involves generating one or more genetic changes in a population of otherwise genetically homogeneous organisms or gene sequences. The second step involves determining which organism or gene from the mutated population performs the desired function better than the strain or gene before the genetic change was made. In preferred formats the process is iterative, where improved organisms or genes are further evolved to perform the desired function at an even higher level.

The directed evolution process as practiced by Solazyme is significantly automated through the use of robotic technology. Robotic technology serves to not only speed the process of assembling and testing large populations of mutated organisms of genes, but also to standardize the assay process. With robotic technology, tens of thousands of individual mutant organisms can be tested for an enhanced function in a matter of hours. The ability to perform such mass screening increases the number of improved organisms or gene sequences identified in an assay.

Even with robotic technology, directed evolution is not optimal unless the screening process is performed under commercial deployment conditions. This means that an organism selected for commercial bioproduction should be tested for optimal function under conditions that mimic, as closely as possible, the envisioned commercial production system. Solazyme’s proprietary screening systems are designed to closely mimic such conditions.

Algae Biodiesel: It’s $33 a Gallon
Drying, breeding and growing algae – particularly in large quantities – isn’t there yet, which means your fishtank is not a gold mine.
BY Michael Kanellos  /  February 3, 2009

You can grow algae with carbon dioxide and sunlight, but that doesn’t mean it’s free. Although many believe that algae will become one of the chief feedstocks for diesel and even hydrocarbon-like fuels, growing large amounts of algae and then converting the single-celled creatures remains expensive, said experts at the National Biodiesel Conference taking place in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Algae biofuel startup Solix, for instance, can produce biofuel from algae right now, but it costs about $32.81 a gallon, said Bryan Wilson, a co-founder of the company and a professor at Colorado State University. The production cost is high because of the energy required to circulate gases and other materials inside the photo bioreactors where the algae grow. It also takes energy to dry out the biomass, and Solix uses far less water than other companies.

By exploiting waste heat at adjacent utilities, the price can probably be brought down to $5.50 a gallon. By selling the proteins and other byproducts from the algae for pet food, the price can be brought to $3.50 a gallon in the near term. But that’s still the equivalent of $150 a barrel of oil. “We we’re excited in July [when oil was approaching that level],” he joked. “But we knew it wasn’t sustainable.”

It’s only in phase II of Solix’s business plan that it will be able to drop production costs to $3.30 to $1.57 a gallon, or around $60 to $80 a barrel. Solix has set a goal of cutting the cost of making algae by 90 percent. Is algae a good feedstock? Yes, he insisted. Ultimately, algae could yield 5,000 to 10,000 gallons an acre, far higher than other feedstocks. Soy is only good for around 40 to 50 gallons an acre. Touted plants like jatropha might only produce 175 gallons an acre, he said.

But algae comes with trade-offs. Wild algae grows fast, but it doesn’t yield tremendous amounts of oil naturally – two thirds or more of the body weight of wild algae will be proteins and carbohydrates instead of oil. Genetically modified algae can boost the oil content, but that slows the growth process. Closed bioreactors – i.e., sealed plastic bags placed in the sun — cost more than open ponds, but it’s tough to keep invasive species from taking over open ponds and out-competing algae optimized to produce oil. “There’s a dance between the growth rate and lipid content,” Wilson said.

Much of the cost reduction for Solix will be accomplished through extraction techniques the company hasn’t discussed yet. And algae companies will have to harvest everything their microorganisms produce. “We don’t have the solutions that are publicly discussed that give us the costs that we need,” he said, adding, “The value of the co-products have to be captured and the value of the co-products could exceed the value of the oil.”

Some companies, like Solazyme, are exploiting genetic science and fermenting techniques to accomplish the task. In fermentation, specific species of algae are locked into brewing kettles with sugars derived from old plant matter. When the time is right, Solazyme takes out the microbes and squeezes out the oil. It’s cheaper to get large volumes of feedstock oil through fermentation than growing algae in ponds or bioreactors, said CEO Jonathan Wolfson. Genetically modifying the algae can boost the lipid, or oil, content to 70 percent of the organism’s weight. In a sense, Solazyme practices indirect photosynthesis: the algae doesn’t grow by having sunlight shone upon it but by eating sugars that were grown in the sun.

“Algae is by far the best organism on the planet for converting fixed carbon into oil,” he said. “But economically, others are more efficient at taking sunlight and carbon dioxide and turning it into oil.” Solazyme says it will be capable of producing competitively priced fuel from algae in 24 to 36 months. Solazyme actually uses photosynthesis for growing some algae, but only higher value oils for the cosmetic or other industries.

Another, Phycal, is trying to harvest oil from algae without killing the algae. Instead, Phycal bathes the algae in solvents which can suck out the oil. Some strains of algae can go through the process four times or more. “Think of it as milking algae rather than sending it to the slaughterhouse,” said senior scientist Brad Postier. “By not killing the cells, we don’t have to grow the biomass again.”

Bryan Willson
email : Bryan.Willson [at] colostate [dot] edu

Bradley Postier
email : bpostier [at] biology2.wustl [dot] edu


High Density Vertical Bioreactor
The Holy Grail in the renewable energy sector has been to create a clean, green process which uses only light, water and air to create fuel. Valcent’s HDVB algae-to-biofuel technology mass produces algae, vegetable oil which is suitable for refining into a cost-effective, non-polluting biodiesel. The algae derived fuel will be an energy efficient replacement for fossil fuels and can be used in any diesel powered vehicle or machinery. In addition, 90% by weight of the algae is captured carbon dioxide, which is “sequestered” by this process and so contributes significantly to the reduction of greenhouse gases. Valcent has commissioned the world’s first commercial-scale bioreactor pilot project at its test facility in El Paso, Texas.

Current data projects high yields of algae biomass, which will be harvested and processed into algal oil for biofuel feedstock and ingredients in food, pharmaceutical, and health and beauty products at a significantly lower cost than comparable oil-producing crops such as palm and soyabean (soybean).

The HDVB technology was developed by Valcent in recognition and response to a huge unsatisfied demand for vegetable oil feedstock by Biodiesel refiners and marketers. Biodiesel, in 2000, was the only alternative fuel in the United States to have successfully completed the Environmental Protection Agency required Tier I and Tier II health effects testing under the Clean Air Act. These tests conclusively demonstrated Biodiesel’s significant reduction of virtually all regulated emissions. A U.S. Department of Energy study has shown that the production and use of Biodiesel, compared to petroleum diesel, resulted in a 78.5% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

Algae, like all plants, require carbon dioxide, water with nutrients and sunlight for growth. The HDVB bioreactor technology is ideal for location adjacent to heavy producers of carbon dioxide such as coal fired power plants, refineries or manufacturing facilities, as the absorption of CO2 by the algae significantly reduces greenhouse gases. These reductions represent value in the form of Certified Emission Reduction credits, so-called carbon credits, in jurisdictions that are signatories to the Kyoto Protocol. Although the carbon credit market is still small, it is growing fast, valued in 2005 at $6.6 Billion in the European Union and projected to increase to $77 Billion if the United States accepts a similar national cap-and-trade program.

Valcent’s HDVB bioreactor system can be deployed on non-arable land, requires very little water due to its closed circuit process, does not incur significant labor costs and does not employ fossil fuel burning equipment, unlike traditional food/biofuel crops, like soy and palm oil. They require large agricultural acreage, huge volumes of water and chemicals, and traditional farm equipment and labor. They are also much less productive than the HDVB process: soybean, palm oil and conventional pond-grown algae typically yield 48 gallons, 635 gallons and 10,000 gallons per acre per year respectively.

Inside Sapphire’s Algae-Fuel Plans
BY Michael Kanellos  /  October 13, 2008

Sapphire Energy has been something of a mystery in the algae-fuel world. There are over 50 companies now touting that they will convert pond scum into liquid fuel (up from around four companies in 2006). Most of them, however, can’t get funding and many seem to be plying “me too” ideas borrowed from early algae advocates like GreenFuel Technologies.

So when Sapphire announced it had landed over $100 million in funding from, among others, Cascade Investment (the venture firm founded by Bill Gates) it drew attention. Only a few other algae companies – GreenFuel, Solazyme – have raised the tens of millions needed to move toward prototype production. The attention further magnified the fact that Sapphire has been somewhat tight lipped on its technology.

Last week, Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs for the company, filled in some of the details. I’ve also included comment and speculation from some competitors. As a prelude, I’d like to point out that algae companies like to snipe at each other, similar to the way CIGS companies or Intel and AMD like to point out each others’ flaws. It will make a algae conference taking place next month in Seattle next month interesting.

Overall, Sapphire differs in that it plans to grow algae that will produce hydrocarbons – i.e., crude oils that can be somewhat quickly refined into liquid fuels, Zenk said. It believes it can produce crude algal oil, once in mass manufacturing, for $60 to $80 a barrel. “We’re very focused on fuels that are an exact replacement for gas, diesel and jet fuel,” he said. “You will get an exact replica of light, sweet crude.”

Most other algae companies are raising algae that will produce lipids, or naturally occurring fats. Lipids can be made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrocarbons only include hydrogen and carbon. (Lipid defines a quality of dissolving in fat but not water while hydrocarbon is a chemical definition.) Converting a lipid into a gas replacement or other type of fuel can take additional processing. Still, the lipid algae companies say they can produce oil in at the same range.

How does Sapphire get algae to produce substances that are less natural for it to produce? Genetic engineering. The company comes out of research conducted at The Scripps Research Institute and the University of California San Diego by Stephen Mayfield and others. You can call UCSD Bacteria U. It has been a center of biotech research for years and now is spawning a number of biofuel and green chemistry companies all based around using microorganisms as chemical factories. Sapphire has already produces samples of a fuel equivalent to 91 octane gas.

Some sources have said that Arch Venture Partners commissioned the original research and then formed the company around that research. Arch partner Robert Nelsen has been involved in several early biotech startups. I still need to confirm this last point about Sapphire’s birth.

Genetic engineering also influences how Sapphire will grow its algae. It wants to grow the algae in open, saline ponds, rather than sealed bioreactors, like Greenfuel. The company also says that it has minimized the danger of rogue algal blooms from its genetically enhanced algae ponds as well as the risk that natural strains will out-compete its algae or eliminate its special qualities through hybridization. “We will optimize it to live only in certain conditions,” Zenk said.

Algae execs at competitors tend to scoff at this notion. The challenges keeping wild species at bay, getting consistent results generation to generation represent massive problems. And one can only imagine the land-use hearings when Sapphire says it wants to build a pond to raise GMO algae. Again, it is their job to scoff,  but they have a point.

Eliminating the salt water from the algae is a doable problem, added Zenk. Water extraction techniques from other industries will be borrowed. Again, many competitors (and scientists at NREL) have said that water extraction has been one of the lingering problems in algae fuel.

Money is not an issue, he added. The company has raised far in excess of $100 million. That figure has cause many to speculate if some of the funding is contingent. Typically, biotech companies only get a limited amount of money – $15 million or so – until the science has been proven. Then the big dollars flow in. If you look at the filings with the California Department of Corporations, it says that in August Sapphire sold $18.7 million worth of stock as part of a $11.7 million Series B round of fundraising. The California filings do not contain all of the contributions to the round. The SEC document, which you can get if you are in Washington, has more information. Either way, Zenk was fairly unambiguous about the company having the money.

In a swipe at competitor Solyazme, Zenk said that brewing algae fuel by feeding algae sugars won’t be tenable at a large scale. “There isn’t enough farm land in the world” to grow the sugar. In a video a few weeks ago, Solazyme said that growing algae in ponds wasn’t tenable: The company tried it before switching to sugars.

Lastly, Sapphire says that it hopes to be able to prove its main concept – that genetically optimized algae grown in outdoor ponds that produce hydrocarbons on a large scale – within three to five years. Note, he didn’t say they will produce oil in three to five years. He said they could prove the concept. Thus, when Sapphire can produce fuel is still a bit murky. If the concept can be proven, expect even a bigger flood of investors. Then again, other algae comapanies say they could well be in production by then, which could make it a real horse race.

Trying to Turn San Diego into the Green Houston
BY David Washburn  /  Jan. 1, 2009

San Diego, already home to dozens of companies involved in solar or wind energy, would be a major player in the nation’s multi-trillion-dollar energy economy if a group of local researchers succeed in turning algae into a commercially viable transportation fuel, something they think they can do within a decade. “[It] is the scientific challenge of our generation,” said Stephen Mayfield, a cell biologist and associate dean at the Scripps Research Institute, referring to the need to cure America of its 200-billion-gallon-a-year oil addiction. “And algae is the answer.”

And a top-notch research infrastructure, a thriving biotech sector and proximity to cheap land in Imperial County, where the plant could be grown on a large scale with plenty of sun, combine to give San Diego a strong foundation for building on algae’s future. Mayfield is one of several scientists at both Scripps institutions and the University of California, San Diego who are considered among the word’s foremost algae researchers. Other prominent names are Steve Kay, dean of the division of Biological Sciences at UCSD, and B. Gregory Mitchell, a biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The consensus is that the technology exists to make algae-based fuels commercially viable within five to 10 years. Others say it could be less than four years. But there are daunting economic and political obstacles, including the stubbornly high cost of extracting oil from algae, and a strong lobby that wants corn to be the primary source of biofuel production in this country.

A growing number of venture capitalists are acknowledging these obstacles, yet banking on them being overcome. San Diego is home to several algae start-ups, the largest being Sapphire Energy, which was founded with Mayfield’s help and has 80 employees and more than $100 million in venture capital funding. Kay is a founder of Biolight, which has received funding from Bay Area-based CMEA Ventures. “Long term, I see great potential,” said Michael Melnick, a partner in CMEA Ventures. “(But) it will take longer than people think, and take a lot of government support.”

In recent years some of the area’s biggest players have decided they want a piece of the green spongy stuff. And, after abandoning algae as a viable biofuel in the 1990s, the federal government is again funding research.

General Atomics and SAIC, two of the region’s largest defense contractors, have algae programs, and last month each received a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Defense Department to develop jet fuel from the plant. General Atomics has about 40 people dedicated to its algae program, and expects to receive $40 million from the Pentagon over the next three years.

“If we are successful at this it will not only solve the fuel problem, it will solve the economy problem,” said David Hazlebeck, the biofuels program manager for General Atomics. “It could translate into several trillion (dollars) in economic activity.”

Kay estimates that research and development activities in San Diego County and large-scale growing operations in Imperial County could combine to create jobs in the tens of thousands. “Our vision is that San Diego will become the green Houston of the world,” he said, referring to the tens of billions of dollars annually that oil and gas exploration contributes to Houston’s economy.

However, a lot has to happen before these visions can become real. Algae companies are a long way from having the same local impact as Qualcomm, the wireless communications giant, or even that of San Diego-based Amylin, the biotech that developed a diabetes drug based on the saliva of a Gila monster.

“It is important not to overhype algae,” said Lisa Bicker, president of CleanTECH San Diego, a green industry association. “We are excited about it, but it is early.”

Biofuels in general have yet to live up to the hype. There is a broad consensus that the industrialized world’s addiction to petroleum is leading us down a path toward both environmental and economic destruction. But finding a cheap and efficient way to produce mass quantities of fuel out something other than oil has proven difficult.

Corn-based ethanol, the oil alternative that has garnered the most attention — not to mention billions of dollars in government subsidies — is now considered by many to be a bad idea. For one thing, every acre of corn used for ethanol is an acre that can’t be used for food. The result has been years of steep inflation in the price of corn-based staples, which has disproportionally hurt the poorest on the planet.

Corn ethanol has been a bust environmentally as well. Though the final product burns cleaner than petroleum, its carbon footprint isn’t greatly different from oil when all of the greenhouse gases emitted while it is being fertilized and harvested are taken into account. “When it is all said and done you only get a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gases with corn,” Kay said.

Cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from wood, grasses and the non-edible parts of plants, is better environmentally than corn ethanol, but it requires lots of fertile land and lots of irrigation. And ethanol, no matter where it comes from, is far more corrosive than petroleum and would require a significant investment to either retrofit or replace pipelines, experts say.

Algae, on the other hand, can be grown almost anywhere there is water, sunlight and carbon dioxide, including stagnant ponds, wastewater treatment plants or any number of other godforsaken places. “The Salton Sea is 378-square miles of crap, that is a good place for algae,” Mayfield said.

It also wins on several other levels. It is a carbon-neutral energy source because the carbon dioxide it consumes while growing counterbalances the emissions from the burning of algae-based fuel. And the process by which the oil is extracted from algae (similar to the process of separating the liquid from a grape) is also carbon-neutral, unlike the harvesting of corn. Finally, the oil produced by algae can be shipped via the existing pipeline structure.

The rub with algae is the cost. Right now, extracting the oil from algae is an expensive process — producing a gallon of algae-based gasoline, diesel or jet fuel can cost $30. It has to get down to under $2 per gallon before it will be a viable alternative to petroleum.

More than a decade ago, the U.S. government concluded that it couldn’t be done. The Department of Energy had an algae program from 1978 to 1996, and in the end found that “even with aggressive assumptions about biological productivity, we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs.”

The academics and the folks at General Atomics think they can prove the government wrong within a few years. Hazlebeck, the General Atomics biofuels chief, said the company has developed a plan to build a 40-acre demonstration plant that would produce algae fuel for $1 per gallon within three years. That does not, however, mean that motorists will be pumping algae into their tanks by 2011.

That will take government help. And the most difficult obstacle may be political — specifically the nine corn-growing states, whose 18 U.S. Senators (including President-elect Obama) have consistently voted as a block in favor of subsidies for corn ethanol. The algae industry lacks such a coalition, and will not be able to move from the prototype to mass production phases without subsidies, said Kay and others. “Algae should have the same subsidies as corn,” Kay said. “The good news is momentum is building for us, but it is still David v. Goliath.”

Stephen Mayfield
email : mayfield [at] scripps [dot] edu

Steve Kay
email : skay [at] ucsd [dot] edu

Greg Mitchell
email : gmitchell [at] ucsd [dot] edu

David Hazlebeck
email : david.hazlebeck [at] gat [dot] com

BioFuels – Cellulosic and Algal Feedstocks / BAA08-07
Archive Date: November 29, 2008

DARPA is soliciting innovative research proposals in the area of technologies that enable the affordable production of a surrogate for petroleum based military jet fuel (JP-8) from agricultural or aquacultural crops that are non-competitive with food material. This current solicitation expands the scope of the BioFuels program described in BAA06-43 ( to additionally focus on: (1) processes for the affordable and efficient conversion of cellulosic materials to JP-8, and (2) processes for the affordable and efficient production of algal feedstock material for conversion to JP-8. Proposed research should investigate innovative approaches that enable revolutionary advances in science, devices, or systems. Specifically excluded is research that primarily results in evolutionary improvements to the existing state of practice.

Douglas Kirkpatrick
email :

US military funds $35M in research of algae-based jet fuel
BY Emma Ritch  /  2008-12-22

A sector of the U.S. Department of Defense has signed nearly $35 million in contracts with two San Diego companies to develop biofuel derived from algae for use in Air Force jets and Army vehicles. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) signed a $14.9 million deal with Science Applications International to work on making the algae-based jet fuel commercially and technically feasible. DARPA also signed a $19.9 million deal with General Atomics to research algae-based fuel. The two agreements are expected to last through 2010.

For several years, the U.S. Department of Defense has been searching for an alternative to its Jet Propellant 8 (JP-8) fuel for military jets. In 2006, DARPA signed an 18-month, $5 million contract with the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota to develop a JP-8 substitute. The EERC plans to participate in the new research with General Atomics.

Another General Atomics partner is UOP, a Honeywell company, which received $6.7 million in funding frrom DARPA to in June 2007 accelerate research and development on making military jet fuel out of vegetable and algal oils. Other partners in the General Atomics reserach are the Scripps Institutions of Oceanography, Arizona State University, Blue Sun Biodiesel, Texas A&M AgriLIFE, Hawaii Bio Energy, and Utah State University.

DARPA says that more than 90 percent of the fuel used by the Department of Defense is JP-8, amounting to 71 million barrels and a cost of $6 billion in 2006. The kerosene-based fuel is less flammable and less hazardous than other fuel options, allowing for better safety and combat survivability. JP-8 is also used to fuel heaters, stoves, tanks, and other vehicles in military service. Commercial airliners use Jet A and Jet A-1, which is also kerosene-based.


Continental completes first US test of biofuel
BY Megan Kuhn  /  08/01/09

Continental Airlines today completed the first alternative fuels trial in the US with a twin engine aircraft powered in part by a biofuel blend consisting of algae. Continental pilots operated a Boeing 737-800 using a blend of 50% jet fuel and 50% biofuel derived from algae (2.5%) and jatropha plant (47.5%) oils to power the right CFM International CFM56-7B engine. The left engine flew on 100% jet fuel. “It went absolutely textbook,” Continental flight test captain Rich Jankowski says, adding that he did not expect that much difference between the fuels.

During the roughly two-hour trial in Houston, Continental recorded various flight parameters and ran acceleration and deceleration checks, two inflight engine shut-downs and restarts–one wind milling start and one starter assist–and a simulated landing and go-around, Jankowski says. The aircraft also simulated the highest, most difficult altitude the airline flies, Quito, Ecuador, he adds. Findings include the thrust setting of the engines was the same, but fuel flow and exhaust gas temperature was slightly less for the engine using the biofuel blend, Jankowski says.

The biofuel-blend-powered engine burned slightly less fuel than the engine powered by Jet A for the same thrust setting, Continental manager of training standards captain Jackson Seltzer explains. The right engine used 3,600lbs of the biofuel blend and the left engine burned 3,800lbs of jet fuel, he says. Both fuels emit roughly the same amount of CO2 inflight, but overall emissions savings are realized during the production of biofuels, which unlike Jet A, absorb CO2, Continental chairman and CEO Larry Kellner says.

The aircraft, which operated with an experimental aircraft type certificate, will return to revenue service by midday tomorrow after a borescope inspection of the engine, fuel filters are changed and the fuel tank is washed out with Jet A, Seltzer says. Continental does not have plans to participate in a second trial and while other carriers have expressed interest, it is unlikely additional demonstrations will occur this year after a 30 January test by Japan Airlines.

“We’re encouraging people to look at the data collected to see what’s missing before [new trial] flights,” Boeing managing director for environmental strategy Billy Glover says, adding he does not expect fuel-certifying organization ASTM International to request additional commercial aircraft alternative fuel demonstrations. Instead, Glover says he expects ASTM will request endurance testing on specific engine components.

Turning algae into ethanol, and gold
BY Carli Ghelfi  /  2008-06-11

Is it, in fact, a watershed in biofuels from algae? Naples, Fla.-based Algenol Biofuels says it has found a way to inexpensively bring third-generation biofuels to industrial scale. And, unlike most algal biofuel companies, it’s apparently got a licensing deal for an $850 million project to show for it.

The company believes its seawater-based process can generate up to a billion gallons of algal ethanol per year from a facility in Mexico. “We’re not in the biodiesel business, the lipids business or oil business,” according to CEO Paul Woods. “We believe we have the most advanced third-generation technology. Our process is completely different.”

Algenol claims to use algae, sunlight, CO2 and seawater in closed bioreactors to produce ethanol, not the biodiesel most conventional algae companies are pursuing. Woods told Cleantech Group today that because his company does not use freshwater and does not harvest the algae, the process is much less expensive. “You have to do it cheaply, or you have no process,” said Woods.

Woods did not specify how cheap, however. With a reported 11 years of research and 10 years of patents under its belt, Algenol formally introduced itself and an $850 million project with Sonora Fields S.A.P.I. de C.V., a wholly owned subsidiary of Mexican-owned BioFields.

The privately-funded company said it is expecting yields of 6,000 gallons per acre per year, and expects to increase that figure to 10,000 by year end. By contrast, corn yields approximately 360 gallons per acre per year, and sugarcane 890 gallons, according to Woods. “Basically we can take in 1.5 million tons of CO2 and convert it into 100 million gallons of ethanol,” said Woods. “We will be the largest consumer of CO2 on the planet.”

The Algenol process occurs in bioreactors that are three-feet by fifty-feet and shaped like soda bottles, said Woods. According to Woods, during the process, algae consumes sunlight and more than 90 percent of the system’s CO2 through photosynthesis, wherein the sugars are converted into ethanol. The ethanol is immediately pumped out and evaporates into the bioreactor which is captured every night. “This process overcomes the enormous problems other companies face,” said Woods. “We don’t use food. We don’t use feedstock. We don’t use freshwater,” emphasized Woods. “All this really helps the cost structure.”

Woods said a production facility in Sonora, Mexico is expected to be online at the end of 2009, scaling to an anticipated 1 billion gallons in four-and-a-half years, involving some 3.5 million bioreactors. The licensing agreement with Mexico’s Biofields reportedly involves a deal to sell the ethanol to the Mexican government. “We’re making a significant departure from other technologies because we’re making ethanol now, and will be selling it next year,” continued Woods. “I think we will be supplying the cheapest fuel on the planet.”

In an effort to make waves with the U.S. government, Woods visited Washington D.C. last week to formally introduce his technology and explain how there are other ways to ethanol than just cellulosic ethanol. Since its inception in 2006, the privately funded company has seen $70 million in investments, with zero venture capital money to its name, said Woods. He explained that the majority of the money comes from the founders, of whom the majority has made successful exits as former CEOs from the natural gas and pharmaceutical industries.

Ethanol Producer Algenol Bets On New Production Method
BY Steve Gelsi  /  9/23/2008

Paul Woods traces the origins of Algenol Biofuels to his college days in the mid-1980s, with the idea of alternative energy sustained by memories of the oil embargo of the prior decade. At around that time, gasohol started taking root in the U.S., but then it quickly faded as oil prices fell. But Woods stayed at work on the idea of using algae to produce ethanol. Along the way, Woods managed to build up and sell his natural-gas company, United Gas Management, and channel those resources into algae. He formed Algenol in 2006 along with Craig Smith and Ed Legere. Now, armed with patents, several test facilities around the world, and some $70 million in private backing, Woods is targeting his first large-scale ethanol production facility with output that may rival that of some of the category’s largest U.S. players.

Algenol inked a partnership with BioFields, which has committed $850 million to build an industrial-scale ethanol facility in Mexico on 102,000 acres of desert located near the Pacific coast and not far from Cabo San Lucas. “We don’t use farm land, we don’t consume any food and [we use] no fresh water,” reported Woods, who has said hopes to bring the plant on line by the end of next year. “It’s time to focus on California, Texas and Florida. We want to have a major plant on U.S. soil. Cheap energy is a matter of national security.”

Woods holds a half-full plastic bottle of Gatorade sideways to illustrate the functioning of the firm’s 5-feet-by-20-feet plastic holding tanks. Using a patented algae, Alegenol fills each tank with seawater and places the water-based plant inside. As the algae grows, Alegenol will tap into carbon dioxide from a nearby power plant and funnel it into the tanks. The algae takes the gas and converts it into oxygen and evaporated alcohol, which is then removed and concentrated for use as fuel. Unlike other algae players that make diesel oil by processing algae itself, Algenol doesn’t spend time or energy removing the algae. It uses the ethanol vapors that the plant emits.

Algenol forecasts sales from the Mexico plant by the end of 2009 at price levels comparable to other U.S. ethanol makers. It says the plant will have a capacity of 1 billion gallons per year, much of which will be transported by ship to Mexican oil refineries nearby to be blended into gasoline. So far, Algenol’s test facilities have yielded 6,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year, with yields expected to grow to 10,000 gallons of ethanol per year by the end of 2008. The company formally met with Wall Street for the first time Monday at the UBS Global Life Sciences Conference in New York as a step toward a possible financing round down the road. Algenol plans to seek federal, state and local assistance to bring U.S. facilities on line. Refiners are interested in buying ethanol because it’s cheaper than buying crude oil in many cases, he said.

Algenol sees itself helping the U.S. reduce its oil imports, it has said, while adding to the ethanol supply from fellow ethanol makers such as VeraSun Energy (VSE), Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Aventine Renewable (AVR). Privately-held Poet, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., bills itself as  the largest ethanol producer in the world, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, with 24 production facilities in the United States and more than 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol annually. “We see ourselves as standing on the shoulders of the corn-ethanol business,” said Algenol Chief Operating Officer Craig Smith. “We want to expand the market. There will be enough demand for ethanol and other biofuels for all producers. It’s an insatiable market.”


Carbon dioxide is not the only waste substance algae can convert into biofuel. Algae also like to munch on the organic matter in human waste, producing a carbon-rich oil. Aquaflow Bionomic of Marlborough, New Zealand, is extracting oil from the algae that grow naturally in wastewater treatment facilities. In May the company produced its first 300-millilitre test batch of biodiesel, and hopes to have enough to fuel a vehicle test drive this year. “There is a certain elegance to unlocking the waste flow and turning it into a significant asset,” says Nick Gerritsen of Aquaflow. “If you leave a bucket outside your back door anywhere in the world it will turn green with algae. We are basically leveraging existing assets, because sewage ponds exist all over.”

Nigerian Converts Septic Tank into a BioReactor  /  April 30, 2008

Olatubosun Obayomi Adeleke reports on his progress in converting a septic tank into a biogas reactor at a guest house in Abuja, Nigeria. The major idea and inspiration of this effort is that septic tanks can be converted over to bioreactors for a very minimum cost in Nigeria to provide energy and fertilizer for the gardens. The focus of the project is to demonstrate how a biogas facility can be developed using local organic waste to produce electricity. This innovative project if developed into a best practice could potentially be a low cost way to increase power reliability in regions like Nigeria where power outages are an common event.

About the Digester and the Process
A particular kind of reactor; an Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket design is used. The UASB is basically a system that uses the build up (that’s sludge blanket) of solids granules in wasteflows to filter solids. It works at very low pressures as the flow of incoming effluent forces the effluent forward into the system. The solids particles are digested by bacteria as they flow through the sludge blanket. As the bacteria digest them, they release gas (biogas), which flow to the top of the digester and is then piped out as a energy source. When the solids granules are fully digested (about 30 days), they are discarded by the mat/sludge blanket in much the same way an animal excretes what it now sees as spent matter or waste. These granules then mixed again with the effluent and flow out into outflow pipe of the digester for further processing. In this particular configuration he is using a Horizontal design. It works the same way with the vertical UASBs, but the flow of wastes is horizontal while the gas still flows vertically. It has a baffle to retard wastes for a longer period to form the slugde banket as the vertical cone does in the vertical UASB.

Converting Septic Tanks to Transform Waste into Resources
Normally the septic tank encourages growth of pathogens and drains directly into the ground through what are called Lateral Lines (a series of pipes diffusing the septic tank effluent flow into the ground). By converting the septic tank into biodigester BOD is reduced by 60%. The second chamber is designed to expose effluent to sunlight to enable a further reduction in BOD while draining. The digester opening will be sealed with cement and will only be opened for repairs.

Collection of Solids in the Manhole for use in the Gardens
In these kind of digesters, there is a element called a Manhole. It is a box on the side and in some digesters it is the point of solids collection. The solids can then be used to fertilize gardens. After the waste is processed in the digester, it enters the manhole where the solids settle at the bottom. A pipe then links the manhole to the drainage chamber where the effluent is allowed to settle into the ground.

Pre-mixing the Waste
All pipes from the residences of the 8 residence addition to the resort will be connected directly to the digester system. However the occupants will not provide enough biomass production to satisfy the digester and so a nearby farm has been selected as a source for animal waste that will be added and mixed with the human excrement and kitchen wastes. In the system there is a separate, premix chamber where the farm waste will be added. The mason is seen working on the premix chamber (Picture 19). By Obayomi’s estimate the waste mixture will be: 10% Human excrement; Kitchen waste 10%; and animal wastes 80%. The plan is to supply the wastes in bags in a dried state, to avoid odor in transportation.

Biofuel: a tankful of weed juice
It has been blamed for using up food stock, but biofuel is now being made from otherwise useless plant waste
BY Mark Harris  /  May 25, 2008

In recent months biofuels have earned a reputation blacker than the crude oil they are meant to be replacing. No sooner do we learn that rainforests from Indonesia to Brazil are being razed to farm “green” fuels for the West than intensive production of biofuels is blamed for the current crisis in world food prices. And apparently some biofuels create more potentially harmful ozone than petrol does.

Before we give up on alternative fuels and dive back into an ever-shallower pool of crude oil, though, let’s spare a thought for a new batch of biofuels being cooked up in laboratories worldwide. They hold the promise of more efficient, cleaner energy sources that don’t compete with forests or food crops for growing space. Airbus, the maker of the A380, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, announced last week that it expects these second-generation biofuels to make up (eventually) a third of all aviation fuel.

Getting new biofuels off the ground is taking some doing. Starchy and sugary crops such as wheat and sugar cane make good biofuels because they are easily converted to ethanol, while oily sunflower and palm plants can readily be made into biodiesel. It would make much more sense, however, to produce biofuels from weeds growing on land that can’t be farmed, or from agricultural waste, old wood chips or even secondhand paper.

The world’s biggest second-generation biofuel factory is due to open in Georgia, USA, next year. Range Fuels’ Soperton plant is expected to produce 16m gallons of ethanol biofuel annually from logging waste and grasses. This may not sound a lot in global terms but it is the start of something much bigger: a 13 billion-gallon ocean of second-generation biofuels that the USA is aiming to produce by 2022.

Meanwhile, Warwick HRI, the horticultural research division of Warwick University, is doing its bit in Britain. It is working on ways to turn worthless material such as straw into valuable fuel right on the farm, using a combination of bacteria and fungi.

Guy Barker, the research leader, says, “If we could break down straw into a liquid form on the farm, it could then be shipped straight to a refinery, like crude oil. Any leftover material on the farm could be worked back into the ground to sustain future crops.”

The Warwick process, which is still some way from commercial viability, will be slower than the enzyme system preferred by the Americans. “But do you want speed or do you want efficiency?” Barker asks. “Transporting large amounts of waste biomass to factories becomes a real problem, and the cost is high.”

While the new fuels do not threaten rainforests or food supplies, they are not without problems. Scientists at the Global Invasive Species Programme, an international group dedicated to monitoring and tackling invasive plants and animals introduced from one region to another, warned last week that countries importing plants for biofuels could also be importing a host of problems. It estimates that alien species cost the world economy £700 billion every year. It instances plants such as the giant reed, Chinese silvergrass and the sawtooth oak as species that are being cultivated in Europe despite being highly invasive.

We have recently learnt that every environmental solution brings its own set of problems. Fair trade or transport miles? Fossil-fuel power stations or carbon-free nuclear ones? Genetic crop engineering or pesticides? Biofuels or food riots?

You can’t win ’em all, so it’s a matter of choosing the least worst option. Right now that looks like second-generation biofuels.

Guy Barker
email : Guy.Barker [at] [dot] uk

Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol
BY Chris Ayres   /  June 14, 2008

“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.” He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls “renewable petroleum”. After that, he grins, “it’s a brave new world”.

Mr Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil (£70) from Saudi Arabia obsolete. “All of us here – everyone in this company and in this industry, are aware of the urgency,” Mr Pal says.

What is most remarkable about what they are doing is that instead of trying to reengineer the global economy – as is required, for example, for the use of hydrogen fuel – they are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that this “Oil 2.0” will not only be renewable but also carbon negative – meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.

LS9 has already convinced one oil industry veteran of its plan: Bob Walsh, 50, who now serves as the firm’s president after a 26-year career at Shell, most recently running European supply operations in London. “How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to grow a multi-billion-dollar company?” he asks. It is a bold statement from a man who works in a glorified cubicle in a San Francisco industrial estate for a company that describes itself as being “prerevenue”.

Inside LS9’s cluttered laboratory – funded by $20 million of start-up capital from investors including Vinod Khosla, the Indian-American entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Micro-systems – Mr Pal explains that LS9’s bugs are single-cell organisms, each a fraction of a billionth the size of an ant. They start out as industrial yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli, but LS9 modifies them by custom-de-signing their DNA. “Five to seven years ago, that process would have taken months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “Now it can take weeks and cost maybe $20,000.”

Because crude oil (which can be refined into other products, such as petroleum or jet fuel) is only a few molecular stages removed from the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast or E. coli during fermentation, it does not take much fiddling to get the desired result. For fermentation to take place you need raw material, or feedstock, as it is known in the biofuels industry. Anything will do as long as it can be broken down into sugars, with the byproduct ideally burnt to produce electricity to run the plant.

The company is not interested in using corn as feedstock, given the much-publicised problems created by using food crops for fuel, such as the tortilla inflation that recently caused food riots in Mexico City. Instead, different types of agricultural waste will be used according to whatever makes sense for the local climate and economy: wheat straw in California, for example, or woodchips in the South.

Using genetically modified bugs for fermentation is essentially the same as using natural bacteria to produce ethanol, although the energy-intensive final process of distillation is virtually eliminated because the bugs excrete a substance that is almost pump-ready. The closest that LS9 has come to mass production is a 1,000-litre fermenting machine, which looks like a large stainless-steel jar, next to a wardrobe-sized computer connected by a tangle of cables and tubes. It has not yet been plugged in. The machine produces the equivalent of one barrel a week and takes up 40 sq ft of floor space.

However, to substitute America’s weekly oil consumption of 143 million barrels, you would need a facility that covered about 205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago. That is the main problem: although LS9 can produce its bug fuel in laboratory beakers, it has no idea whether it will be able produce the same results on a nationwide or even global scale. “Our plan is to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010 and, in parallel, we’ll be working on the design and construction of a commercial-scale facility to open in 2011,” says Mr Pal, adding that if LS9 used Brazilian sugar cane as its feedstock, its fuel would probably cost about $50 a barrel.

Are Americans ready to be putting genetically modified bug excretion in their cars? “It’s not the same as with food,” Mr Pal says. “We’re putting these bacteria in a very isolated container: their entire universe is in that tank. When we’re done with them, they’re destroyed.” Besides, he says, there is greater good being served. “I have two children, and climate change is something that they are going to face. The energy crisis is something that they are going to face. We have a collective responsibility to do this.”

Shrimp solving the energy crisis?
BY Jessica M. Sibley  /  November 29, 2008

During an age where fuel efficiency and environmental sustainability sit at the forefront of concerned citizens’ minds, Clemson University (CU) biochemists and students are being led by Professor David Brune, expert in aquaculture, on a journey to find, harvest and use alternative fuels that will benefit the economy in the future.

The two key items necessary in turning that hope into reality are algae and brine shrimp, Brune said. Commonly known as “sea monkeys,” these tiny aqua creatures are the final piece of a puzzle that Brune has been working on for many years. In addition to renewable resources like peaches, wind and oils from beans, CU is working on extracting oils from algae to convert into biodiesel.

However, even though algae have been proven to produce 100 times more fuel than soybean oil, it’s very difficult to extract and convert into usable fuel. That’s where the shrimp come in. Thanks to Brune, food scientist Feng Chen and chemist Lance Beecher, these small organisms are working hard to extract algae oils that one day, could be the answer to our fuel crisis. “I originally started my focus on oils for food,” Brune said. “But as the government’s interest changed, the push for alternative fuels changed the direction to where we are now.”

The first step in extracting oils from algae starts with the growing of algae at a very high rate. CU uses a paddle wheel-driven system that is used to push the water around in a certain path, which ultimately, increases the aqua growth rate immensely. Then, the brine shrimp are introduced to start harvesting the algae and easy-to-extract oils are then retrievable. Trials completed in the designated ponds at CU have shown that brine shrimp, which feed on micro algae, can produce up to 500 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year with little environmental waste.

“The brine shrimp can eat the algae and convert it into a consistent, high quality protein and oil,” Brune said. “Then, we separate the proteins from the oils and have what was unreachable at one point in time.” And because the brine shrimp’s biomass is a light oil that can be easily made into biodiesel, Brune said the final decision will be up to the masses on whether or not these oils will be the next option for consumers battling the fuel market. “The only issue is that the biomass in a brine shrimp oil is actually more valuable than fuel,” he said. “Done on a low volume, it would not make sense. It would make more sense to combine the uses for animal feeds, additives in human food and fuel.”

“Because of that, it’s going to be a matter of scale. If that’s done, then we’ll completely saturate the food and feed markets and roll the material over into fuels. That’s a priority here.”

David Brune
email : debrune [at] clemson [dot] edu

Plankton to Provide Clean New Oil
BY Tito Drago  /  Aug 4 2006

A system for producing energy from marine algae, to replace fossil fuels and reduce pollution, has been developed by Spanish researchers and will be operational in late 2007, according to its backers. Bernard Stroiazzo-Mougin, president of Biofuel Systems SL (BFS), the Spanish company developing the project, told IPS that “the system will produce massive amounts of biopetroleum from phytoplankton, in a limited space and at a very moderate cost.” On pointing out that biodiesel is already being produced in other countries, the executive explained that the photo-bioreactor to be produced by his company is not the same thing.

BFS, with the support of the University of Alicante, “has designed a totally new system for producing biopetroleum – not biodiesel – by means of an energy converter,” he explained. The new fuel will have all the advantages of petroleum, including the possibility of extracting the usual oil derivatives, “but without its disadvantages, because it will not contribute to CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, but will in fact reduce them. It will not emit SO2 (sulphur dioxide) and there will be hardly any toxic by-products.”

The raw material for the new fuel is phytoplankton – tiny oceanic plants – that are photoautotrophic, depending only on light and CO2 for their food. Among them are diatoms, a group of unicellular algae, also found in fresh water on land masses, and on moist ground. Phytoplankton produces 98 percent of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. According to Stroiazzo-Mougin, BFS’s system will produce 400 times more oil than any other source of biofuel.

For example, he said, “a surface area of 52,000 square kilometres can yield 95 million barrels of biopetroleum per day, in other words an amount equivalent to the entire world production of crude oil at present, and at a considerably lower price.” The system, he added, will ensure a permanent, inexhaustible source of energy, which also uses up excess CO2, thus helping to curb the greenhouse effect and global warming, of which CO2 is one of the main causes. In order to replace 40 percent of the world’s present consumption of petroleum with biodiesel from plant sources, the area of land currently under cultivation would have to be multiplied by three, which is “totally impossible and counterproductive for the global economy,” Stroiazzo-Mougin said.

BFS’s new fuel will be similar to the fossil petroleum that was formed “millions of years ago under immense pressure and temperature and in the context of great seismic and volcanic activity, starting from the same plant elements that we will be using now (mainly phytoplankton),” he explained. It was “biodegradation of certain plant organic compounds (fatty acids and hydrocarbons) that gave rise to petroleum, and our system will be similar to that process,” the president of BFS added.

With respect to the surface areas needed to produce biofuels, he indicated that soya produces 50 cubic metres per square kilometre per year, colza (rape seed) produces 100 to 140 cubic metres, mustard yields 130 and palm oil 610 cubic metres, while algae produce 10,000 to 20,000 cubic metres of biofuel per square kilometre per year.

BFS is also planning to develop technology to increase production of algae per hectare, before completing construction of its first factory, to be located on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Production will occur in a closed circuit including vats on land, although there are plans to develop processors offshore. Asked whether BFS will be offering the formula and processing system to other countries, whether they will forge alliances with other companies, or sell the patent, or whether it will all be free, Stroiazzo-Mougin replied that “all these aspects are being carefully studied, from the point of view of the commercial structure of the company.”

“Because of the importance of the system, these are aspects that must be analysed in depth, and we do not have an answer as yet,” he said. Talking about the initiative, the coordinator of the non-governmental organisation Ecologists in Action, Luis González Reyes, told IPS that the situation “with regard to climate change is extremely problematic, and we need to buy time to move towards societies that consume much less energy, and where energy consumption is environmentally friendly.”

With regard to the BFS project in particular, “I am not fully aware of the details,” said the activist. “The CO2 emission rate for the whole system should be evaluated – that is to say, the difference between the amount of CO2 fixed by the algae and the amount released later on during extraction, processing and fuel burning. The possible release of other toxic substances during burning must also be investigated,” he said.

In any case, the environmentalist said, “what’s important, as well as lowering energy consumption, is that new options should be sought and investigated, as BFS and the University of Alicante seem to be doing.” Stroiazzo-Mougin emphasised that the process would markedly lower CO2 emissions and that no other toxic substances would be released, as explained by the chemists and marine biologists who participated in the research project.


Macro-algae (seaweeds) are cultivated at sea, mainly by simply tying them to anchored floating lines. Seaweeds do not require soil, and are already provided with all the water they need, a major advantage over land production of biofuels since water is the most limiting factor for most agricultural expansion, especially with climate change.

One concern is that harvesting massive amounts of naturally occurring seaweed for bioenergy could have comparable effects on atmospheric carbon dioxide and habitat loss or fragmentation as large-scale deforestation. But cultivation is a different matter. In Costa Rica and Japan, seaweed farming has been re-established to produce energy. It can quickly yield large amounts of carbon-neutral biomass, which can be burnt to generate electricity. High-value compounds — including some for other biofuels — can be extracted beforehand.

We have calculated that less than three per cent of the world’s oceans — that’s about 20 per cent of the land area currently used in agriculture — would be needed to fully substitute for fossil fuels. A small fraction of that sea area would be enough to fully substitute for biofuel production on land.

As with land-produced biofuels, the contribution to carbon dioxide reduction would come from cutting net carbon dioxide additions via equivalent decreases in fossil fuel combustion. This happens because biofuels — fuels derived from recent photosynthesis — are basically carbon neutral because all carbon released by burning has recently been taken from the atmosphere. In contrast, fossil fuels come from ancient photosynthesis, thus the carbon released by burning had been stored for ages and thus represents a net addition into the atmosphere.

The main input needed for the large-scale farming this would require is nutrients — because large quantities of them will be removed at harvest. Common agricultural fertilisation — costly and energy consuming — could add large amounts of nutrients to the oceans, with unknown results.

But there is a great and grossly misused nutritional source on hand: domestic wastewaters or the product after their treatment. Growing large seaweed fields for energy using nutrients from wastewater could be an economically-sound use for the millions of tonnes of untreated wastewater dumped daily into our seas worldwide — and the seaweed helps clean it up in the process.

This idea has been tested successfully using human wastewater in experiments at US institutions, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.

As with agriculture, considering that seaweed production is economical for food and other products, it follows that at least some of the options should also be economical for biofuels and bioenergy. However, the analogy with agriculture does not stop there, and a careless farming of the seas could be as damaging as careless agriculture.

But the greatest spin-off from switching biofuels production to the oceans would be the return of land to food production, making food and nutrition more easily available to the world’s poor.

{Ricardo Radulovich is director of the Sea Gardens Project at the University of Costa Rica, which is funded by the World Bank.}

Ricardo Radulovich
email : ricardo.radulovich [at] maricultura [dot] net

“As land on which to cultivate such crops is limited, researchers are looking to the sea for alternative fuel resources. In March, Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, the Mitsubishi Research Institute, and several companies announced a project to develop bioethanol from seaweed. The plan is to cultivate Sargasso seaweed in an area covering 3,860 square miles in the Sea of Japan. This will be harvested and dissolved into ethanol aboard ships, which will carry the biofuel to a tanker. The process is expected to yield 5 billion gallons of bioethanol in 3-5 years.”

Invention: Biofuel from the oceans
BY Justin Mullins  /  21 January 2009

Almost all commercially produced liquid biofuels come from either sugary crops like sugar beet or cane, or starchy ones like potatoes or corn. But every acre used to cultivate those crops uses one that could grow food – potentially causing food shortages and pushing up prices. Using woody material instead of crops could sidestep this to some extent by using biomass from more unproductive land. And producing biofuels from freshwater algae cultivated in outdoor ponds or tanks could also use land unsuitable for agriculture. But neither approach has been made commercially available.

Now a group at the Korea Institute of Technology in South Korea has developed a way to use marine algae, or seaweed, to produce bioethanol and avoid taking up land altogether. The group says seaweed has a number of advantages over land-based biomass. It grows much faster, allowing up to six harvests per year; unlike trees and plants, it does not contain lignin and so requires no pre-treatment before it can be turned into fuel; and it absorbs up to seven times as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as wood.

The group’s patent suggests treating all sizes of algae – from large kelp to single-celled spirulina – with an enzyme to break them into simple sugars, which can then be fermented into ethanol. The resulting seaweed biofuel is cheaper and simpler to produce than crop or wood-based fuels, and will have no effect on the price of food, says the group.









Algae have gotten short shrift in the decade or so since the Clinton administration axed its research funding at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But could these tiny, ubiquitous plants, which come in a rainbow of colors and varieties, get us off of foreign oil some day? “One of the big challenges — price, price, price,” said Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas. Right now, he said, algae could make fuel for around $10 a gallon, whereas the objective is to get the price down to $1.

The University of Texas is home to what is probably the world’s largest algae collection, with close to 3,000 different strains. Many are little green or red plumes in tubes; others sit in a liquid nitrogen deep-freeze — so cold that if you were to stick a finger in there for a few seconds, it might get lopped off if you banged it against something, according to Jerry Brand, the collection’s director.

Algae — whose predecessors helped make oil tens of millions of years ago — are already used in vitamins and other nutritional supplements. But the price is too high and the scale too small to meet the nation’s energy needs. “The trick is to transform what we know about algae already into these better prices and larger scales for our energy. That’s just starting,” said Mr. Webber. Land- and water-use impacts will also require further study. A number of start-ups are trying to commercialize algae for fuels, as my colleagues Clifford Krauss and Matthew Wald have reported.

Algae could be better positioned as a fuel than ethanol because their lifecycle carbon footprint — the energy and emissions required to grow them — seems likely to be lower, since algae grow so easily. Another advantage is that biodiesel derived from algae can usually be transported in pipes, unlike ethanol which often must be trucked.

Mr. Webber argued that Texas was well positioned to work on algae because it had three key ingredients in abundance: carbon-dioxide (Texas is the nation’s larger emitter — ironically an advantage here); sunlight; and brackish or saline water. Algae biofuels plants could potentially be located near waste-water treatment facilities, cleaning up the wastewater while also providing fuel, said Mr. Webber. The industry is still in the early stages, but interest is picking up. One sign of the times: the Department of Energy is hosting a workshop this week to discuss how to accelerate algae research.

Michael Webber
email : webber [at] mail.utexas [dot] edu

Jerry Brand
email : jbrand [at] mail.utexas [dot] edu

Super-biofuel cooked up by bacterial brewers
BY Colin Barras  /  08 December 2008

Bacteria have been genetically rewired to produce “non-natural” alcohols that would make ideal biofuel. In a new study, researchers show that it is possible to push bacterial metabolism beyond its natural limits in the search for cheap ways to produce useful chemicals. It is another example of how synthetic biology is helping to redefine life. Living cells have already been engineered to metabolise unusual sugars, and James Liao’s team at the University of California, Los Angeles, has now engineered bacteria to convert standard sugars into unusually long-chained alcohols.

‘Promiscuous’ enzymes
Bacteria such as Escherichia coli – a bug commonly linked to food poisoning outbreaks – naturally convert sugar into alcohol, but those alcohols tend to be short-chain molecules. Long-chain alcohols, each containing more than six carbon atoms, are more energy dense – packing more power into a smaller space – and hence make better fuels. They are also easier to isolate than short-chain alcohols because they are less soluble in water. So Liao’s team looked closely at the metabolism of E. coli to see if it could be redesigned to produce these longer chains.

Enzymes in the bacterium encourage one particular keto acid – a precursor to an amino acid – to undergo an “elongation cycle”, increasing its carbon content. The researchers reasoned that those enzymes might be “promiscuous” enough to elongate a different keto acid. The product could then be converted to a six-carbon alcohol using two more enzymes – one borrowed from another bacterium and another from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is commonly used in baking and brewing.

Tricky process
So the researchers engineered E. coli to over-express all of these enzymes, and tests confirmed that it could then convert glucose into the target six-carbon alcohol, known as 3-methyl-1-pentanol. Production levels were low, however. When fed 20 grams of glucose, these bacteria produced just 6.5 milligrams of the target alcohol. To improve that figure and reduce the quantity of unwanted by-products, Liao’s team had to engineer the two foreign enzymes. That enabled the bacteria to produce 384 milligrams of fuel from the same dose of sugar.

Optimising the process is tricky, because this is a non-natural metabolic pathway, says Liao. But he thinks that further research will improve on the initial success. “This work shows that one can take a synthetic biology approach – integrating efforts in metabolic engineering and protein engineering – to construct novel biosynthetic pathways,” says Jim Collins at Boston University, who was not involved in the study. Liao’s work will open the door for engineering microbes to produce many novel chemicals and materials, he adds.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0807157106, in press)
BY Kechun Zhanga, Michael Sawayab, David Eisenbergb, James Liaoa

Nature uses a limited set of metabolites to perform all of the biochemical reactions. To increase the metabolic capabilities of biological systems, we have expanded the natural metabolic network, using a nonnatural metabolic engineering approach. The branched-chain amino acid pathways are extended to produce abiotic longer chain keto acids and alcohols by engineering the chain elongation activity of 2-isopropylmalate synthase and altering the substrate specificity of downstream enzymes through rational protein design. When introduced into Escherichia coli, this nonnatural biosynthetic pathway produces various long-chain alcohols with carbon number ranging from 5 to 8. In particular, we demonstrate the feasibility of this approach by optimizing the biosynthesis of the 6-carbon alcohol, (S)-3-methyl-1-pentanol. This work demonstrates an approach to build artificial metabolism beyond the natural metabolic network. Nonnatural metabolites such as long chain alcohols are now included in the metabolite family of living systems.

James Liaoa
email : liaoj [at] seas.ucla [dot] edu

Montana researcher finds diesel-producing fungus
BY Susanne Retka Schill  /  Nov. 12, 2008

Gary Strobel has dubbed his discovery myco-diesel — a hydrocarbon-producing fungus he found growing in a tree in a Patagonian forest. The endophytic fungus, Gliocladium roseum has been shown to produce many of the same hydrocarbons found in diesel, growing on cellulosic material.

Strobel, a professor in the plant sciences and plant pathology department at Montana State University, explained that many organisms produce the shortest chain hydrocarbon, methane, and a number of organisms make longer-chain hydrocarbons that become increasing wax-like as the carbon chains get longer. However, in an extensive search of the literature, no other organism has been identified that produces as many short-chain hydrocarbons as Gliocladium roseum.

“How long it will take to make it practical to use is anybody’s guess,” Strobel said. “My son is doing the genetic profile and genetic sequencing. Perhaps these genes could be moved into other organisms like yeast or E coli that grow faster.” His son, Scott Strobel, is chair of Yale University’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.

Strobel’s paper detailing his discovery was published in the November issue of Microbiology. After a week of numerous phone calls following the publication of the paper, Gary Strobel is off to the rain forests of Borneo to look for more interesting specimens to test. Shortly after that trip, he will return to Patagonia. In his work, he has identified a number of potentially useful organisms that produce antibiotics, anti-fungal agents and other compounds. “Here I am 70 years old and still tromping around,” Strobel said. “I want to teach people in tropical countries how to do this so the pressure builds to save native forests.”

Gary Strobel
email : uplgs [at] montana [dot] edu

Scott Strobel
email : scott.strobel [at] yale [dot] edu

Tree fungus could provide green transport fuel
BY Alok Jha  /  4 November 2008

A tree fungus could provide green fuel that can be pumped directly into tanks, scientists say. The organism, found in the Patagonian rainforest, naturally produces a mixture of chemicals that is remarkably similar to diesel. “This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said Gary Strobel, a plant scientist from Montana State University who led the work. “We were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons.”

In principle, biofuels are attractive replacements for liquid fossil fuels used in transport that generate greenhouse gases. The European Union has set biofuel targets of 5.75% by 2010 and 10% by 2020. But critics say current biofuels scarcely reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cause food price rises and deforestation. Producing biofuels sustainably is now a target and this latest work has been greeted by experts as an encouraging step.

The fungus, called Gliocladium roseum and discovered growing inside the ulmo tree (Eucryphia cordifolia) in northern Patagonia, produces a range of long-chain hydrocarbon molecules that are virtually identical to the fuel-grade compounds in existing fossil fuels. Details of the concoction, which Strobel calls “mycodiesel”, will be published in the November issue of the journal Microbiology. “The results were totally unexpected and very exciting and almost every hair on my arms stood on end,” said Strobel.

Many simple organisms, such as algae, are already known to make chemicals that are similar to the long-chain hydrocarbons present in transport fuel but, according to Strobel, none produce the explosive hydrocarbons with the high energy density of those in mycodiesel. Strobel said that the chemical mixture produced by his fungus could be used in a modern diesel engine without any modification.

Another advantage of the G. roseum fungus is its ability to eat up cellulose. This is a compound that, along with lignin, makes up the cell walls in plants and is indigestible by most animals. As such, it makes up much of the organic waste currently discarded, such as stalks and sawdust. Converting this plant waste into useful fuels is a major goal for the biofuel industry, which currently uses food crops such as corn and has been blamed for high food prices. Normally, cellulosic materials are treated with enzymes that first convert it to sugar, with microbes then used to ferment the sugar into ethanol fuel.

In contrast, G. roseum consumes cellulose directly to produce mycodiesel. “Although the fungus makes less mycodiesel when it feeds on cellulose compared to sugars, new developments in fermentation technology and genetic manipulation could help improve the yield,” said Strobel. “In fact, the genes of the fungus are just as useful as the fungus itself in the development of new biofuels.”

“Fungi are very important but we often overlook these organisms,” Tariq Butt, a fungus expert at Swansea University, said: “This is the first time that a fungus has been shown to produce hydrocarbons that could potentially be exploited as a source of fuel in the future. Concept-wise, the discovery and its potential applications are fantastic. However, more research is needed, as well as a pilot study to determine the costs and benefits. Even so, another potential supply of renewable fuel allows us to diversify our energy sources and is certainly an exciting discovery.”

John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre, also welcomed the discovery but noted it is at its earliest stage of development. “This appears another encouraging discovery that natural processes are more capable of producing materials of real value to mankind than we had previously known. It’s another piece of evidence that there is real potential to adapt such processes to provide energy sources that can help reduce our need for, and dependence on, fossil fuels.”

The next stage for Strobel’s work will be to refine the extraction of mycodiesel from the fungus. This requires more laboratory work to identify the most efficient ways to grow the organism and, perhaps, genetic modification of the fungus to improve yields. If successful, Strobel’s technology will then need to be tested in a large-scale demonstration plant to solve any problems in scaling up to to commercial production.

Strobel also said that his discovery raises questions about how fossil fuels were made in the first place. “The accepted theory is that crude oil, which is used to make diesel, is formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that have been exposed to heat and pressure for millions of years. [But] if fungi like this are producing mycodiesel all over the rainforest, they may have contributed to the formation of fossil fuels.”

The Future
BY Chris Davis / 6 Nov 1998

When scientists first measured how much of the energy of sunlight was
being converted by plants into biomass, they were surprised to find
that only something like 1% of incident energy was being used to
produce new plant material. They were surprised at how “inefficient”
life was. But such “inefficiency” supposes that plants are working to
maximize their size and numbers, to reproduce as rapidly as possible.
They were supposing that Nature, like a farmer, was trying to maximize
the yield of its fields, and the size of its flocks. Is Nature a
farmer? If it was, would there be any need for human farmers to cross-
breed and select and cultivate in order to produce what the natural
world has not produced in 500 million years of evolution? But if
plants, as Idle Theory suggests, are trying to minimize effort, the
conversion of a mere 1% of incoming solar energy into plant mass
indicates a very high degree of “efficiency” of the kind that hundreds
of millions of years of evolution might be expected to produce.

If there is any truth to Idle Theory, then laziness is a virtue, not a
vice. A disinclination to work is not a disorder, but an indispensable
survival trait that evolved with the earliest forms of life. If so,
the modern attempt by governments, industrialists, economists, and the
like, to keep people busy and “usefully employed” runs entirely
contrary to the nature, not only of human beings, but of life itself.
This may begin to explain the anomie of modern Western culture.

“The story of the modern epoch, at least on the level of mind, is
one of progressive disenchantment… Translated into everyday life,
what does this disenchantment mean? It means that the modern
landscape has become a scenario of “mass administration and blatant
violence,” a state of affairs now clearly perceived by the man in the street.
The alienation and futility that characterized the perceptions of a
handful of intellectuals at the beginning of the century have now come
to characterize the consciousness of common man at its end. Jobs are
stupefying, relationships vapid and transient, the arena of politics
absurd. In the vacuum created by the collapse of traditional values,
we have hysterical evangelical revivals, mass conversions to the
Church of the Reverend Moon, and a general retreat into the oblivion
provided by drugs, television, and tranquilizers. We also have a
desperate search for therapy, by now a national obsession, as millions
of Americans try to reconstruct their lives amidst a pervasive feeling
of anomie and cultural disintegration. An age in which depression is a
norm is a grim one indeed.” (Morris Berman. The Reenchantment of the
World. Bantam 1984)

From the point of view of Idle Theory, modern human society is being
organized to work against real human interests, and such cultural
disintegration is inevitable. Instead of society being organized to
minimize work, it has become organized to maximize work. The mismatch
between what people are culturally required to do – to work -, and
their natural inclination – to play -, results in deepening
psychological conflict, breakdown, and disorder.

An intense sense of guilt characterizes modern life. People feel that
they ought to be happy, and feel inadequate because they are not.
Blaming themselves, they try to reform themselves through counselling,
therapies, guidance. And when that fails, they seek oblivion in drugs
and TV. The therapies all fail because there is actually nothing wrong
with them, and everything wrong with the society in which they find
themselves. It is simply not possible for people to live happy lives
in a society which is organized as a labour camp. It is no more
possible for anyone to live a happy or fulfilled life in modern
Western society than it was for the inmates of such camps.

As Idle Theory sees it, the problem began at the outset of the modern
epoch when Western society abandoned the goal of Christian salvation
of ‘fallen’ humanity – the liberation of humanity from work -, and
began to regard human life as already liberated, as a kind of game,
and the economy as an arena in which human free agents chose to work
manufacturing and trading luxuries and amusements which enhanced
their ‘standard of living’. The inevitable result was that, with the goal of
liberation from work discarded, human life in Western society became
one of increasing rather than decreasing toil. It became ever more
stressed, rushed, hurried, and urgent. Technological innovation simply
acted to shift obligatory work from the production of necessities to
production of luxuries. And the resultant vast absurd productive
effort now loots the world’s resources and poisons its seas and its

Underpinning all this is not science, but an irrational post-Christian
ideology, which is itself arguably a Christian heresy. Almost all
modern economic and political and ethical thinking is built upon this
ideology. And it is precisely because this ideology has no basis in
science, that science holds out the principal hope for its overthrow.
For it requires an explanation of the world which is at least as
coherent and general to replace such an ideology. For science and the
ideological humanities – ethics, politics, and economics – have always
been rigidly separated. The cultural ideologues began to set out their
stall in the late 17th century, with Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith. The
scientists – Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and their successors – pursued
entirely separate enquiries. Their science had nothing at all to say
about life, human society, ethics, or economics. It has only been in
the past century or so that science has even begun to take a grip upon
the nature of life.

Seen from Idle Theory, what is most needed by modern Western society
are realistic economic theories, which distinguish wants from needs,
and whose primary goal is the minimizing of human toil, rather than,
as at present, the maximizing of production. With effective economic
control, the present obligation for many people to produce luxuries in
order to buy necessities would vanish. The overheated modern economy
would effectively shut down, and the pollution of the planet, the
depletion of resources, and sweated labour would end. It would mean
the end of Big Business and the start of Big Idleness. With little
work, and a great deal of disposable free time, people would be able
to easily acquire the necessities of life. Many people would freely
choose to use this disposable time to make and trade luxuries. They
would determine their own “standard of living”, either opting for a
simple life with few possessions and a great deal of idle time, or a
choosing to work for a materially richer existence, with less free

Human society evolves. Human technology, in the past few centuries,
has broached abundant new energy sources – in coal, gas, oil,
hydroelectricity, and nuclear power. Once machines could perform the
work of men, slavery became unnecessary, and the medieval social
organization of masters and slaves became redundant. Contemporary
human society is in transition from a medieval serf culture to an
automated culture in which most work is performed by intelligent
machine tools, and in which humans themselves will be largely idle.
Politically, this has meant the rise of democracies in which everyone
had a say, and not just the erstwhile slaveowners. Economically,
exponentially multiplying technologies have resulted in a increase in
production and trade unprecedented in human history, and equally
unprecedented economic puzzles and problems, ranging from
unemployment to boom and bust, inflation and stagnation. Socially, it
has meant that, since fewer human hands are needed to drive industry,
previously high human reproduction rates are unnecessary, and the
human families that produced the human workforce redundant. Those
religions which asked their adherents to look forward to bliss in an
afterlife are being replaced by new religions that reach for bliss right
now. War, subjection, and enslavement – the traditional means of
increasing wealth for a minority – have become counter-productive.

The scale of contemporary change in human society is so great, and
disturbs so many aspects of traditional human life, that it has
produced a conservative reaction which seeks to restore traditional
life. Since the family has been the centre of human life for
millennia, attempts are made to bolster the flagging institution.
Since work, from childhood to old age, has been the norm of human life
since remotest antiquity, attempts are made to invent new forms of
employment. Contemporary conservatism attempts to maintain and
restore traditional values, and traditional ways of life, in the face of
social, political, and economic forces which destroy all traditions.
At the same time, much of contemporary thought is still medieval in
character, assuming the values and circumstances of a previous era. A
master-slave mentality still permeates political thought and political
structures. Human technology has far outstripped human political and
ethical and economic thought. This is a time when everything needs to
be rethought, when imagination is at a premium, and when everyone can
contribute. The impending world is one of a human freedom which has
never been experienced in the entirety of human history.



BY Chris Davis / 12 May 2001

A forest fire exhibits metabolism: it burns. Such a fire can also grow
and develop. And it can reproduce itself, by sending out blazing
sparks to ignite new fires. The flame of a fire is a complex, highly
organized, recognizable entity. The fire moves as it burns through the
forest: it moves. The fire responds to external stimulus: it follows
the wind, and is doused by water. And eventually, when it has consumed
all the fuel it can, it dwindles and dies. A forest fire thus exhibits
many of the components of a living creatures!

But a forest fire might not be said to be self-regulating – it is
largely determined by the quantity of fuel available to it. As more
fuel becomes available, it burns more fiercely. Also forest fires do
not evolve over time. They begin in some tinder-dry forest, perhaps
from a lightning strike, the focus of sunlight, or the discharge of
static electricity. And then they burn, producing secondary fires,
until finally they have exhausted the available timber, baulked by
seas, rivers, wastelands, mountains. Forest fires may burn for weeks,
even months, but they eventually burn themselves out. They are like
some life form which grows and multiplies, and then one by one its
offspring die, and it becomes extinct, leaving no further generations.

But not all fires burn with the intensity of forest fires. Slow-
burning, cooler, smouldering embers, that show no flame, can slowly
eat through dry wood, consuming over hours what a blazing fire might
consume in minutes. It is possible to imagine such fires slowly eating
their way through a forest, or some fuel source. And because they burn
slower and cooler, they burn much longer. Such fires might burn for
years, or centuries. And if, in some forest, new plants grew up behind
them, such slow fires might be sustained indefinitely by new plant
growth. The cooler and more slow-burning the fire, the longer it would
burn, compared with hot, quick-burning wildfires.

And it then must be remembered that very, very slow fires burn in
every cell of every plant and animal. In this combustion process,
glucose and oxygen “burn” to produce carbon dioxide and water, and
enough energy to power the continuation of the combustion process,
just like in a forest fire. But in cells, the combustion process is
slowed into a multitude of stages, at a much lower temperature, so
that the energy of combustion (respiration) is released very
gradually, through a series of enzyme-catalyzed reactions, rather than
all at once.

If glucose is burned in air, it produces carbon dioxide, water, and heat.
C6H12O6 + 602 -> 6CO2 + 6H2O – 686 kcal/mole
But in cells, the reaction synthesizes energy-rich ATP molecules which
are used to power the sysnthesis of cell constituents, molecule
transport, and muscle contraction.
C6H12O6 + 602 + 36ADP -> 6CO2 + 6H2O + 36ATP

Each bond of ATP represents 7.3 kcal/mole, so 36 ATP molecules
represent 263 kcal/mole, a conversion efficiency of 38%. ATP is
synthesized in cell mytochondria. When ATP releases its energy (to
power muscular contraction or whatever), it breaks one phosphorus
bond, and becomes ADP, which is cycled back round to mytochondria to
get the phosphorus bond restored to make more ATP. If the reaction of
glucose and oxygen were to proceed as it does in air, plants and
animals would catch fire or explode. Slowing the reaction by taking it
through a series of stages, and using it to synthesize packets of
energy in the form of ATP, makes for a kind of slow burn.

The Natural Selection of Fire
Big, hot, blazing forest wildfires multiply and burn themselves out
very fast. Small, creeping, cool fires last far longer. The slowest,
coolest fires of all may last indefinitely. Life is such slow fire.
And it begins to become possible to consider life as being result of
the evolution of ever cooler, ever-slower-burning, longer-living fire.
With a variety of different fires, those which burn hot and fast lived
brief lives, while slower burning fires last longer. Then what is
called Life is the product of the evolution of fire to burn ever
slower and cooler, and live longer and longer. For paradoxically it is
the least energetic, slowest growing, and slowest reproducing
processes that gradually come to predominate – because high-energy,
fast reproducing processes burn out fast. Somehow, one kind of
continuous hot combustion, by degrees, gave rise to the cooler,
catalyzed reactions that take place in the cells of living creatures.

In plant life, solar-powered photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide
and water into glucose and oxygen, in the endothermic (heat-requiring)
reverse reaction to the combustion of glucose and oxygen. Thus
photosynthesis in plant cells continually feeds the glucose-oxygen
fires that “burn” within them. A forest of plants is already slowly
ablaze, before any forest wildfire overtakes it. And plants which are
made largely of cellulose – linked chains of glucose – in turn provide
the fuel for grazing animals to burn. Such grazing animals act like
forest fires, slowly consuming plants as they grow.

There are plenty of other exothermic (heat-producing) combustion
processes apart from that of glucose and oxygen. The first terrestrial
combustion processes may have involved neither of these. There does
not have to be timber and oxygen for combustion to take place, fires
to burn. If so then the first fire was of cataclysmically explosive
dimensions, and has been succeeded by successively slower and cooler
fires. The first fire was perhaps what we now call the Big Bang, and
the stars were secondary slower-burning cooler fires, and terrestrial
life is a fire several orders of magnitude slower and cooler. The
stars themselves have lifetimes which reflect those of forest fires,
with the largest and brightest stars burning out the fastest, the
smaller and cooler ones lingering longer, replicating themselves in
supernovas whose shock waves create new stars.

From this perspective, life started with the Big Bang, and has
continued ever since, in ever cooler, slower-burning fires. There
never was an origin of life on this inert and hitherto-lifeless
planet, but simply a continuation of the same process. What we call
“life”, the plants and animals that inhabit the surface of this
planet, are simply slow-burning fires which reflect, rather dimly,
their ancestral stars. In this approach, there isn’t really anything
special about terrestrial life. It’s just another kind of combustion
process. It was not that life started on this planet 600 million years
ago, but rather that some 6 million years after the planet had formed,
another kind of self-sustaining combustion process got under way. It
was not the first, and it won’t be the last.

The Internal Combustion model of Idle Life
Idle Theory’s original model of life was that of a continually-running
internal combustion engine which periodically pumped fuel into its own
fuel tank. When the engine was pumping fuel into its tank, it revved
up, and the frequency of combustion – and engine power output –
increased. When the engine idled, the frequency of combustion reduced
to whatever power was required to merely turn the engine itself
against its own frictional resistance.

In this model of life, the internal combustion engine actually
incorporates fire in the combustion of gasoline (refined from crude
oil made up of compressed fossil plants) and oxygen in its cylinders.
Internal combustion “life” fed not on living forests, but upon
subterranean fossilized forests. More deeply, in this conception of
life, the engine “died” when the combustion process ceased, and the
engine stalled. While the fire exploded in its cylinders, the engine
lived – once combustion ceased, the engine died.

In Idle Theory’s energy model of life a living creature works (burns
fuel to provide motive power) to acquire more fuel to sustain the
process. But it does so in a discontinuous duty cycle – first working
to fill itself up with fuel, then idling until falling fuel levels
require another bout of refuelling. The most efficient forms of this
kind of life were those which did the least work (or idled the most)
to keep their motors fueled and running.

Idle life – life that worked the minimum – was in some sense life that
burnt the slowest and coolest. Busy life, hard-working life, was life
in which combustion frequency was high, and which ran the hottest.
Idle life, leisured life, was life in which the combustion frequency
was low, and which consequently ran cool. Busy life was fast bright
fire, and Idle life was slow cool fire.


“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion,
butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance
accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders,
give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new
problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight
efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert


BY Chris Davis / 16 Nov 1998

Underlying Idle Theory is the incomprehension and disquiet that this
writer felt, looking on this industrious world. Technology, as he saw
it, was meant to free men from work. The whole point, he felt, of
yoking an ox to a plough, was to get the ox to perform the work of
turning earth which would otherwise have had to be carried out by men
with spades and hoes. And those spades and hoes were themselves tools
which enabled men to dig the soil more effectively and speedily than
they ever could with bare hands. And if technology in the form of
spades, hoes, and yoked oxen, and later powered tractors, served
primarily to speed men’s work, to free men from work, then would not
the result be, as technology improved, that men would live
increasingly more idle and leisured lives, free to do as they wished?
And yet this has not happened. Men work just as hard as they ever did.
In Western societies, instead of technology bringing leisure, it
appears instead to have increased the pace of life, so that it has
become ever more frenetic, hurried, leisureless. Why has this
happened? Why is that humanity working so hard, when they ought to be
hardly working at all?

This question is not addressed by political leaders, or economists, or
philosophers, or religious leaders, or even by their political and
economic opponents. For them, the whole point of spades and hoes and
oxen and tractors was not to reduce the labour of men, but to increase
production. If a spade enabled a man to dig a field in half the time
it took for him to dig it with bare hands, they had it that a man
could dig two fields in the same time, and produce twice the crop. And
with yoked oxen he could plough ten fields. And with a tractor he
could plough a hundred. And the 99 other men freed from the land could
then be set to work to make other goods, of great diversity and in
great numbers. Thus men would be supplied not only with food, shelter,
but any number of amusements, toys, games, diversions. They would
have a wealth, not of leisure time, but of possessions, which is – it was
held – what people really wanted. The political goal of contemporary
society is full employment in wealth creation. And the harder everyone
works, the richer they get. The only serious argument is concerned
with the distribution of this pile of goods, with some (the Left)
arguing that the social produce should be divided equally, and others
(the Right) arguing that with an ever-growing pile of goods even the
poorest in an unequal society would be far richer than they would
otherwise be.

These two views of the nature and purpose of economic systems are
radically different. In the first view, humanity is understood as
having to work, and technology in the form of spades, ox-drawn
ploughs, tractors and combine harvesters, acts to reduce their work.
In the second view, the economy is not driven by necessity, but by a
desire not just for food and shelter, but for all the good things in
life. In the first view, it is the physical need for food and shelter
to sustain their life which obliges men to work. In the second view,
it is their psychological disposition, their desire for possessions
and pleasures, which powers the economy.

Economic philosophy, in recent centuries, has been written by men who
saw the economy in this second way. This view also underpins the
principal ethical theory of the age, Utilitarianism, which had men
seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – both of which are psychological
states. It followed from this psychological account of human life,
that if one wanted to understand human nature, one had to understand
the workings of the human mind. This belief is so deep that many
scientists believe that, if science is ever to explain human life, it
will do so by explaining the inner workings of the human brain. This
belief also underpins a whole raft of modern political movements which
hold that if enough people change themselves, adjust their mentality,
the world would be a better place – that all that is required for
change is for enough people to want change. The conviction that
psychological adjustment is the key to a better world drives the use
of psychotropic drugs, and of a whole range of psychotherapies ranging
from Freudian psychoanalysis to meditation and yoga. Change the man,
and you change society.

Modern economic philosophy is not science. It does not grow from a
physical understanding of human life, but from a subjective
psychological account. We simply don’t have an economic science which
is an extension of physical science – real science. Idle Theory,
instead of starting out with a psychological account of human life,
begins instead with a physical account of life. It begins with a life
which must perform physical work to maintain itself. The role of mind
is one of directing that work. Psychological feelings of hunger, or
thirst, or cold, arise in response to real physiological conditions –
low blood sugar levels, dehydration, heat loss. And because they arise
in response to physical states, these psychological events are
secondary. They serve simply to prompt an individual to eat, to drink,
to find shelter.

This sort of approach to life is relatively new. It is found in
ecological studies of the energy flows in biotic systems. It sees life
in terms of energy. The idea of energy only emerged in physics in the
mid-19th century. It only began to be applied to living organisms in
the mid-20th century. Idle Theory is a variant of this approach. The
distinctive feature of idle theory is its description of life as
alternating between being idle and being busy working to maintain

Although Idle Theory started out as an economic idea, it rapidly
became an ethical and political and legal, and even religious idea.
The goal of human society was freedom from necessary work, and human
society, its moralities, laws, political organizations, religions, and
economy, all worked, more or less effectively, towards that end. And
since living creatures in general, as opposed to humans in particular,
fell under the same imperative of acting to increase idleness, the
whole of the natural world of plants and animals came to fall within
the province of Idle Theory. The survival of the fittest became the
survival of the idlest.

Idle Theory is a way of seeing. In Idle Theory, all life is seen as
attempting primarily to stay alive with minimal effort. The first
photosynthetic plants discovered how to capture the abundant radiant
energy of the sun. The first herbivores discovered an easier life
tapping the energy stored in plants. The first predators discovered an
idler existence by capturing the energy stored in herbivores.
Multicellular life was more idle than unicellular life. Human life is
simply another variant form of life, that acts to minimize effort.
Human society, the division of labour, tools, ethical codes, laws, and
trading systems have all acted to increase human idleness. The
subjection of humans by other humans in slavery was, for millenia, the
only way in which some people (the slaveowners) could lead an idle
life at the expense of others.




BY Chris Davis / January 2007

“There is no doubt that if the human race is to have their dearest
wish and be free from the dread of mass destruction they could have,
as an alternative, what many of them might prefer, namely, the
swiftest expansion of material well-being that has ever been within
their reach, or even within their dreams. By material well-being I
mean not only abundance but a degree of leisure for the masses such as
has never before been possible in our mortal struggle for life. The
majestic possibilities ought to gleam and be made to gleam before the
eyes of the toilers in every land and ought to inspire the actions of
all who bear responsibility for their guidance.” (Sir Winston
Churchill at the opening of Parliament, November 1953)

It might be remarked that the Idle Theory of Evolution is only a
slight variant of modern evolutionary theory (sans Darwin), and that
Idle Theory’s ethics is only a variant of Utilitarianism (sans
Utility). But Idle Theory’s Economics offers a radically different,
and perhaps mysterious, account of economic systems to that set out by
Classical and NeoClassical economic theorists.

Probably the principal difference is that, while it is orthodox
economic doctrine that the primary purpose of an economy is as far as
possible to provide work for everybody, in Idle Theory the primary
purpose of an economy is quite the opposite: it is to as far as
possible relieve everybody of the need to work. This is an inversion
of understanding that is perhaps as great as the change from thinking
that the Sun goes round the Earth to thinking that the Earth goes
round the Sun. Such an inversion will strike many people as being
completely upside down, and entirely contrary to common sense, and
with alarming consequences that extend far beyond the confines of
economics. And indeed they do.

The Economic Orthodoxy
Orthodox economic thought, Classical or NeoClassical, might be
described as being primarily concerned with the generation of Wealth –
where what is meant by Wealth is almost exclusively ownership or
access to material goods and services of every variety. The rich
typically own large villas or mansions on large private estates
serviced by maids, chefs, butlers, and gardeners; own a variety of
expensive cars, yachts, and private jets; are dressed in the finest
clothes; eat the choicest foods; drink the finest wines; live long
lives with the best medical care; etcetera, etcetera. By contrast, the
poor live in shacks or hovels; travel on foot; dress in cheap clothes;
eat bad food; drink contaminated water; and die young with inadequate
or non-existent medical care. The rich are held to enjoy a high
‘standard of living’, and the poor a low ‘standard of living’.

And the orthodox political goal of economic growth is to raise
standards of living, by increasing available wealth. If there is
political dissent over the goals of economic growth, it is almost
entirely concerned with the distribution of wealth. Socialist
political systems are generally concerned with lifting the poorest
members of society out of poverty, providing them with housing, roads,
services, education, and medical care, usually at the expense of the
richest members of society. In the extreme, socialist political
systems aim for an almost exact equality of wealth across society. By
contrast, extreme liberal laissez-faire political systems are
unconcerned with the distribution of wealth within society, and regard
personal wealth as the just reward for enterprise, innovation, and
hard work – with the poor usually being dismissed as lazy or feckless.
In between these extremes, there are a variety of political systems
which try to both reward enterprise with wealth, but also to ensure
that the poorest members of society are provided with some sort of
‘safety net’ to keep them from utter destitution.

Regardless of the distribution of wealth within society, socialist or
laissez-faire political systems tend to advocate policies of ‘full
employment in wealth creation’. The busier people are in creating
wealth, the more wealth there is to go round. If the gross national
product of a country is regarded as a cake – as it frequently is -,
then full employment in wealth creation means making a bigger and
better cake, regardless of quite how it is sliced up and divided
within society.

The formal study of the operation of economic systems, in which goods
and services are manufactured and traded, has been an oddly late
development within Western laissez-faire societies. And it has also
been one which has been subject to a variety of radical changes of
approach, which amount almost to fashions, usually associated with
single individuals such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes,
Milton Friedman, or some other guru. In the 18th century Classical
theories of value of economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, David
Ricardo, and the like, the exchange value or price of goods was
generally regarded as being a function of the time and effort taken to
manufacture or otherwise acquire them. This is usually known as the
Labour Theory of Value (where ‘value’ means ‘exchange value’)

“If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice
the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver
should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer. It is natural that
what is usually the produce of two days or two hours labour, should be
worth double of what is usually the produce of one day’s or one hour’s
labour.” (Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations. B.I, Ch 6.)

One consequence of this theory was highlighted by Karl Marx in the
19th century, who pointed out that if goods exchanged at their costs
of production, then it followed that the labour employed in the
production of goods would also be sold at its cost of production, and
that wages must therefore tend to fall to subsistence levels that
simply kept labourers alive. However, at more or less the same time as
Marx was writing, another group of economic thinkers, the NeoClassical
theorists, who included Jevons, Walras, Menger, and others, began to
suppose that the price of goods was not so much determined by their
cost of production, but instead by their value in use, or their
utility – the pleasure or satisfaction derived from their use. Neither
school of theorists, however, had a very good explanation for profit –
the tendency for goods to be sold at prices higher than their cost of
production. At present, profit is generally explained as being the
compensation for the risks taken by entrepreneurs in making and
selling goods in volatile markets. Others have said that it was simply
the consequence of naked greed. Profit was, and has remained,
something of a dirty word.

Idle Theory
At the foundations of both Classical and Neoclassical economic thought
there lies the largely unstated assumption that the time needed to
perform work is the everyday datum of human life – that everyone is in
some sense given a lifetime, to freely dispose of as they will. And if
they are able to freely dispose of this time, it follows that such a
lifetime is a lifetime of leisure. And indeed Neoclassical economic
thinkers have frequently stated this quite explicitly, asserting that
when work is performed, leisure is foregone.

It is this assumption that Idle Theory rejects. The simple fact is
that a human lifetime is no sort of gift at all. Humans have to work
to survive. They have to grow food, haul water, build houses, weave
garments, without which they would starve or freeze to death. And
because they must work, on pain of death, there is no sense in which
their lives can be described as lives of leisure. On the contrary,
given that many societies have historically had one sabbath day of
leisure a week, it would be more accurate to describe such societies
as 1/7th leisured, rather than entirely leisured. To this it might be
added that it is around work, rather than leisure, that human life
revolves. As children they are taught the skills needed for a life of
work, which as adults they perform, and from which they retire in
frail old age.

And so the true reality of human life is that it is made up not solely
of leisure, but partly of leisure and partly of work, and is thus
inherently dual in its nature. And the fundamental dimension of this
part-busy, part-idle life is the degree to which it is idle (or
conversely and symmetrically, busy). And this degree of idleness is
one that can range from a minimum of zero idleness – a life of
unremitting toil completely devoid of leisure – to a maximum of
perfect or unit idleness – a life of complete leisure completely
devoid of toil. In addition, it may be added that a life of zero
idleness, or continual work, is a life lived at the threshold of
death. For if living should get any harder, and more work needs to be
done to survive, there will not be enough hours in a day to do it.
Conversely, the more idle a life anyone lives, the greater their
cushion against the prospect of death. In times of difficulty, which a
busy man might not survive, a relatively idle man merely finds himself
working harder.

And also, it must be pointed out that in work, an individual is
constrained to some particular necessary activity – ploughing fields,
drawing water -, and it is only in their idle time or leisure time
that they can freely choose between a range of leisure activities
which are theoretically infinite in number. And so work corresponds to
complete constraint, and leisure to complete freedom. Or, more
starkly, leisure corresponds with life, and work with death. And this
introduces an ethical dimension. Work and leisure are not
interchangeable. Men who naturally prefer life over death must also
prefer leisure over work. And this, in real life, they regularly do.

The primary economic problem is not the production and distribution of
wealth as it is ordinarily understood, but the emancipation of
humanity from toil, and their liberation into a life of the highest
degree of leisure. Given such leisure, people may well choose to
forego leisure in the manufacture and exchange of luxuries and
amusements, which are valued for the pleasure or satisfaction that
they afford. But this Neoclassical luxury economy is entirely
secondary in nature, and dependent on the amount of leisure available
in society. If no leisure, then no luxuries.

The Origin of Money and Profit
The economic goals of humanity, as described by Idle Theory, are thus
in direct contradiction of the economic goals of humanity as set out
by modern economic orthodoxy. Instead of seeking to keep everybody
busy working to create wealth, Idle Theory seeks to keep everybody as
idle and leisured as possible, while allowing that in their leisure
time they may choose to make and trade amusements and luxuries.

In what ways may individuals reduce their work, and increase their
idleness? One principal way is through the use of tools that speed or
otherwise assist them in their work. For example, if in the course of
their work, someone is required to carry 100 large fruits from one
place to another in a return journey that takes 10 minutes, then if
only one can be held in each hand, it will take 50 journeys and 500
minutes to move them all. But if a bag can used, which will hold 20
fruit, then only 5 journeys and 50 minutes will be needed to move all
the fruit. Thus, in this case a bag will save 450 minutes of work. And
in this saving lies the value of the bag in use. Of course, it will
take some time to manufacture such a bag, but even if it costs 50
minutes of effort to make a crude bag, and it disintegrates after 5
trips, the net saving of time will still be 400 minutes.

In this manner, a small outlay of time – the cost of making the bag –
will yield a larger return in the time it saves in carrying fruit –
the value of the bag -. And what is true of bags will also be true of
ropes, knives, hammers, spades, and every other variety of useful,
time-saving tool. And if someone makes such a bag, but does not use
it, but a second person desires to use it for the same task, then the
first may sell the bag to the second at some price, which may take the
form of a promise by the buyer to work for some period of time for the
seller. At what price should the bag be exchanged? Its cost to the
seller was the 50 minutes it took to make it, and any lower price than
this would result in a net loss of time for the seller. The value of
the bag to the buyer is the 450 minutes of work it will save in
carrying fruit, and any price higher than this will result in a net
loss of time to the buyer. But at some price in between these two
extremes, both buyer and seller will gain approximately equally from
the transaction, and it will be on some such equitable price that they
will settle.

In this manner, both buyer and seller profit from the transaction,
even though the bag has been sold at a price – say 150 minutes – which
is over three times its cost. And herein lies a robust and simple
justification of the origin and necessity of profit in exchange. If
the phenomenon of profit has regularly appeared inexplicable, and
therefore reprehensible, it is because the Classical economic
theorists recognised only the cost, and not the value of some
commodity. Thus while Adam Smith could see the cost to the hunter of
killing a deer, he could not see the value to its buyer of its flesh
as food, nor its skin as clothing. And the value of some item of food
is that it provides the energy required to power continued life for
some period of time.

The monetary unit of such exchanges need not, of course, be unreliable
promises of work. If a fruit, or a knife, or a piece of metal are
customarily bought with some amount of work, then conversely these
commodities can buy the same amount of work, and be used as monetary
units. But fruit rot, and knives are large, and so it much more likely
that highly divisible metal bars come to be used as money, and in the
longer term non-rusting metals such as gold. It is possible to explore
the logic of such economic systems by building computer simulation
models of them, using imaginary tool costs and values. It is also
possible to consider them analytically. Using such models it is
possible to begin to build a theoretical understanding of the
behaviour of such economic systems, and the various malaises that can
afflict them.

The Dual Nature of Economic Systems
As men make and trade useful time-saving tools in a primary, idleness-
generating economy, and thereby increase their idleness, they begin to
have long periods of time in which they have nothing to do. But in
such idle time they can invent and play games, create art and music
and poetry and literature. And as they come to make things like bats
and balls and sculptures and paintings, these also may be exchanged
for money, in exactly the same way as useful tools. And thus a
secondary, idleness-using economy may come into existence, in which
luxuries and amusements are manufactured and exchanged. And such a
secondary economy is the economy described by Neoclassical economic
theorists. And should any economy attain perfect idleness, so that the
primary economy ceased to exist, the resulting secondary economy would
be perfectly well described by modern Neoclassical economic theory.

In the secondary economy, the value of luxuries and amusements lies
not in any work time that they save, but in the pleasure which they
afford to their owners. In many ways, all such amusements simply
provide ways of disposing of idle time. A book takes hours or days to
read. A movie takes an hour or two to watch. A game of cricket may
last for days. A painting or a sculpture may be closely examined for
hours. Such a secondary economy might be regarded as acting in a
completely opposite sense to a primary economy, disposing of idle time
rather than producing it. It is perhaps helpful to think of a primary
economy as being akin to a supply of pure fresh water into a
household, which is subsequently used in drinking, washing, cooking,
and a thousand other ways, before finally being disposed of as waste
water through drains.

In some ways, this analogy with pure and waste water may be more apt
than it might otherwise seem, in that it suggests that just as the
supply of pure water should be kept separate from the waste water
drainage, so also the primary idleness-generating economy should
equally be kept separate from the secondary idleness-using economy.
The two economies, primary and secondary, ought furthermore to be of
entirely different characters. The primary economy is a matter of
profound seriousness, and of cold calculation, and absolute necessity,
and also – as far as possible – entirely equitable in its distribution
of the idle time it generates. The secondary economy ought, by
contrast, to be convivial, playful, optional, and inequitable.

The primary economy ought to be equitable in that everybody in society
has an equal stake in it, and an equal claim to an idle time that is
the foundation of their existence as free agents. But if, in their
idle time, some people choose to busy themselves making and selling
luxuries and amusements, while others opt to do nothing but sit and
talk, then there can be no requirement or necessity for the
industrious former to share their wealth with the indolent latter. Or,
put another way, nobody ought to get rich, in the ordinary
conventional sense, by making and selling the necessities of life; but
anyone may get rich by making and selling luxuries and amusements.

The Modern Dragon Economy
In the ideal progress of society, an innovative and dynamic primary
economy would act to steadily increase social idleness, progressively
and gradually emancipating its members from toil. And as the idleness
of society rose, a separate playful and convivial secondary economy
would gradually emerge to fill idle time with amusements and
diversions and pastimes.

But, in the present day, both primary and secondary economies are
entirely confused together with one another. And the result is neither
equitable nor convivial. The principal problem would seem to be that
in present day economies, a great many luxuries and amusements, which
properly belong in a secondary economy, are sold so as to acquire the
necessities of life generated in the primary economy. There are
artists and authors and musicians who earn their daily crust through
their art. This means that it has become a matter of necessity for
people to make and sell luxuries. And it never ought to be necessary
to perform such unnecessary work. If such a thing is happening, it is
most likely because monopoly producers of the necessities of life
(food, clothing, shelter, etc.) are selling them at such high prices
that they are obliging consumers to work far harder than they would if
prices were reduced through competition to something approaching costs
of production. While monopolies exist, and prices remain sky high, the
result is that a great deal of social idle time ends up in the pockets
of monopolists, who spend it buying the luxuries and amusements that
others are obliged to make, in what is called a ‘trickle-down
economy’. The result is a society with idle and super-rich people at
one end, and toiling poor people at the other, and a great many people
in the middle trying desperately to move from poverty to wealth by any
means possible.

In this kind of ‘dragon’ economy, in which pretty much everybody is
dragooned into work, almost all social idle time is converted into
luxuries and amusements. Dragon economies generate a wide range of
consumer choice, but very little time in which to choose what to do.
And an economic system which should be liberating people from work is
instead forcing them to work, and sometimes to work harder and harder.
And one result of this is that as the primary economy grows, and
generates more idle time, this idle time is simply converted into yet
more luxuries and amusements. And so economic growth, which should be
increasing social idleness, instead results in the ever-increasing
production of luxury consumer goods. And this vast, overheated
economic engine chews its way through natural resources, forests, oil
and gas reserves, and spews out wastes and toxins, at an ever-
increasing pace.

And since ultimately, according to Idle Theory, a society’s survival
demands that it seek to be as idle as possible, it follows that the
harder a society is perversely working, the nearer it approaches
disintegration and collapse. In seeking ‘full employment in wealth
creation’ our political and economic orthodoxies have set the ship of
state on course for the rocks. What is really needed is to reverse
course, and throttle back our overheated, overstressed, overworking
economies. If that were done, then if present day advanced economies
are nominally (rather than actually) over 80% idle (this is a wild
guess), then over 80% of the work now being done, in the obligatory
production of luxuries, would cease. Most factories would cease
production, cease consuming resources, and cease generating wastes.
Real human idleness, as experienced by humanity, would leap from its
present approximate one day a week (14%) to perhaps something like six

days a week (86%). There would be less choice, but far more choosing.

However, given an almost universal economic orthodoxy which regards
full employment in wealth creation as being benign rather than malign,
it is unlikely that any such step will be taken. But if there is a
single iota of truth in the economic vision of Idle Theory, then it
follows that our economic orthodoxy is fundamentally mistaken about
the nature of economic systems, and that we do not have a realistic
economic science, and thus have little or no real control over
economic events. So most likely our vast, overheated, overworking
economies will simply keep barreling on, making life worse and worse
for everyone, rich and poor alike, until they finally hit the rocks.

Idle Theory’s fundamental dualism of busy and idle time results in a
dualistic vision of economic systems. They are regarded as made up of
primary economies which produce idle time, and a secondary economies
(or trading systems) that consume idle time. A primary economy is a
matter of necessity, in which an approximate equality of outcome is
sought, and in which goods are valued in terms of the time labour cost
of making them, and their time value in the labour that they save. A
secondary economy is, or ought to be, a matter of pleasure, in which
there is no requirement for an equality of outcome, and in which goods
are valued according to the pleasure they provide, or the time that
they waste. These two economies, which are entirely different, and
indeed opposite in nature, ought properly to be separated from each
other. And it is when they become enmeshed together that economic
maladies of one sort break out.

And Idle Theory’s vision may be helpful in clarifying the modern left-
right divide between those who, on the one hand, seek a regulated
economy that produces complete social equality, and those who, on the
other hand, believe that the economy should be allowed to take its own
course, throwing up winners and losers. The main problem here is that
the two sides of this argument are generally arguing over the same
single economy. If the economy is divided in two, then the primary
economy is one that should be regulated to produce equality (left),
and the secondary economy is one that should be entirely unregulated
(right). Left and right should learn to stop arguing over these apples
and oranges: they are completely different things.

Idle Theory doesn’t at present propose ways of regulating economic
systems. In the absence of a fully developed economic science, such
regulatory devices are going to be rather hard to find. What is needed
is a complete economic theory, of which Idle Theory is, at best,
another single small foundation stone. In many ways, the principal
conclusion of Idle Theory is that we really don’t know very much about
the behaviour of economic systems, despite the best and honest efforts
of over 200 years of economic thinkers. We are, quite simply,

A further conclusion of Idle Theory is that nobody is to blame for our
present state of affairs. In their ignorance, men blunder around doing
stupid and often murderous things. They are forever acting out of a
partial understanding of the world, and one whose partiality and
incompleteness and uncertainty frequently drives them to become
paradoxically dogmatic. It seems to be almost a law of nature that,
the less mankind knows about something, the more obtusely dogmatic
they become about it. And so none of the foregoing is intended to
point any finger of blame at anyone whatsoever. Our greatest problem
is not human greed, or lust for power, or anything else. Our greatest
problem is human ignorance.

Finally, it might be added that it was in constructing this rather
perverse and upside down view of economic systems that Idle Theory was
born. Everything else – the physics, the theory of evolution, the
ethics, the politics, the law, and the religion – were simply a series
of afterthoughts to its peculiar economic vision. I searched the
libraries for this vision, but never found it. And so I concluded that
it was in some sense my duty to myself try to set out its strange and
paradoxical perspectives.

How to unplug from the grid
BY Gaia Vince / 03 December 2008

“I HAVEN’T paid an electricity bill since 1970,” says Richard Perez
with noticeable glee. He can afford to be smug. While most of us
fretted over soaring utility bills this year, he barely noticed. Nor
is he particularly concerned about forecast price hikes of 30 to 50
per cent in 2009. Perez, a renewable-energy researcher at the
University at Albany, State University of New York, lives “off-grid” –
unconnected to the power grid and the water, gas and sewerage supplies
that most of us rely on. He generates his own electricity, sources his
own water and manages his own waste disposal – and prefers it that
way. “There are times when the grid blacks out,” he says. “I like the
security of having my own electricity company.”

Perez is not alone. Once the preserve of mavericks, hippies and
survivalists, there are now approximately 200,000 off-grid households
in the US, a figure that Perez says has been increasing by a third
every year for the past decade. In addition, nearly 30,000 grid-
connected US households supplement their supply with renewables,
according to the non-profit Interstate Renewable Energy Council. In
the UK there are around 40,000 off-grid homes: the number has also
risen in recent years due to escalating house prices and now to more
expensive home loans, both of which have driven buyers far from
conventional utility networks in search of properties they can afford.

For people who live off-grid, self-sufficiency means guilt-free energy
consumption and peace of mind. “It feels brilliant to use clean, free
energy that’s not from fossil fuels,” says Suzanne Galant, a writer
who lives off-grid in rural Wales. “And if something goes wrong, we
can fix it ourselves.” Now even urbanites are seeing the appeal of
generating some if not all of their own power needs. So is energy
freedom an eco pipe-dream or the ultimate good life?

Whether you live in town or the middle of nowhere, the first
consideration for any wannabe off-gridder is to calculate how much
energy it takes to run your home and whether it is feasible to replace
this with alternative sources of power where you live. The good news
is that the energy you require is likely to be a fraction of what you
presently use, says Tony Brown, head engineer at the UK’s Centre for
Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Powys. The average UK
household uses around 4500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity
annually, plus some 18,000 kWh of gas for cooking, hot water and
domestic heating. In the US the figure varies considerably from region
to region. For example, households in New York City use around 4700
kWh a year, whereas those in Dallas use 16,100 kWh: there are a lot of
air conditioners in Texas. In chillier regions where people use gas
for heating and cooking, on the other hand, they can burn up an extra
28,000 kWh or so per household.

It would be a struggle to generate this much energy from renewables
alone, so an important first step is to dramatically reduce wasted
energy. This may be less fun than installing shiny new energy-
generating gadgets, but it is almost as effective in cutting your
reliance on fossil fuels and the grid. The biggest energy savings will
come from properly insulating your home to minimise heat loss. That
done, you’ll need to work out what is eating up the rest of the power
you consume. The easiest way to do this is to buy an energy monitor
that can provide a live display of your total energy consumption or
that of individual appliances (see “What’s guzzling the juice?”). This
will help you focus on reducing consumption to the bare minimum, not
just by switching to low-energy light bulbs and energy-efficient white
goods, but also by turning unused appliances right off rather than

leaving them in standby mode. With a bit of effort and investment, you
should be able to get by on a few hundred kilowatt-hours of
electricity a year.

Now you are ready to start replacing this with home-grown energy. Some
80 per cent of off-gridders rely on the sun to do this, with good
reason: it blasts our planet with enough free energy every hour to
power the world for a year and you don’t need to live in the middle of
nowhere to get it. The simplest way to tap into this is to use a solar
collector for your domestic heating or hot water. In the summer, solar
thermal devices installed on a south-facing roof or wall (north-facing
in the southern hemisphere) could provide all your hot-water needs.
Even in winter, solar collectors can make a worthwhile dent in heating
bills, even if the water needs top-up heating from the grid or from a
stove that runs on logs, wood pellets or other biomass.
The sun blasts our planet with free energy and you don’t need to live
in the middle of nowhere to get it

For electricity generation, photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are also a
good option. They convert the sun’s rays into direct-current
electricity with up to 20 per cent efficiency, and most are guaranteed
to retain at least 80 per cent of their original efficiency after 25
years. A 2-square-metre panel rated to give 1 kW per square metre in
peak conditions could provide up to 1500 kWh per year in the UK. In
more southerly and reliably sunny latitudes – somewhere like Texas,
say – it would probably provide 2000 kWh per year.

With enough solar panels it is possible to cover all your electricity
needs with PV, year round; the downside is that it requires a
significant investment up front. Installing 8 square metres of PV
panels, enough to sustain a family of four in the UK, plus storage
batteries and accessories such as inverters to convert DC into
alternating current, can cost tens of thousands of pounds and will
take up more space than is available to most urban households. Until
the cost comes down substantially, switching to a grid supplier that
gets its energy from renewables may be a more realistic alternative –
although it will not free you from the risk of supply interruptions.

Outside towns and cities, though, there are more options. If you have
access to a nearby river or stream with a reliable flow, hydro is an
excellent, cheap source of power, and flow rate is usually greater in
winter when you need more power. Galant’s home, a five-bedroom house
in the second-wettest part of Europe, is powered by a fast-flowing
mountain stream that drives a turbine, plus solar water heating and PV
panels. All this reliably supplies her with around 5500 kWh per year.
“If you came to my house, you wouldn’t know it was off-grid,” she
says. “It’s always lovely and warm and there’s always plenty of hot

Anyone who has an exposed windy hillside can exploit wind power. Tony
Marmont, an off-grid pioneer from Loughborough, in the English
Midlands, gets 40,000 to 50,000 kWh per year from his two 25 kW
turbines. People with a lot of land can benefit from a ground source
heat pump, which works in the same way as a refrigerator, using
electricity to transfer heat from a cool space (the ground, in this
case) to a warm one (the house). A typical installation, with 500
metres of underground piping, will stabilise the temperature of a well-
insulated home, keeping further heating or cooling requirements to a
minimum. If, like Marmont, you have a lake to store the pipes, so much
the better: it saves the trouble of digging up the lawn.

Being completely off-grid, however, does mean you need to store excess
energy for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Most
off-gridders use bulky, expensive lead-acid batteries for this
purpose. These can store electricity only for a couple of days and
their performance degrades over time, but for now they are the best
available option. A few pioneers, like Marmont, use excess electricity
to produce hydrogen by electrolysing water; the gas is then stored in
tanks and used to power fuel cells when needed. This allows
electricity generated in summer to be used in winter, but it is
prohibitively expensive for most: a system like Marmont’s will set you
back around £1 million. What’s more, the hydrogen tanks take up a lot
of space.

For most of us, the energy-storage issue is a major stumbling block to
going completely off-grid. And it’s one reason why, for most people,
it’s not yet worth pulling the plug. Cost is likely to be another show-
stopper – though not for those who live in really remote locations.
“If you live more than a quarter of a mile from the grid, then
installing your own systems works out considerably cheaper than
connecting to the grid,” says Otto van Geet of the US National
Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Perez, for example,
was told it would cost him $280,000 to be connected, which made the
decision to install $25,000-worth of PV panels an easy one. Both of
these barriers are coming down, albeit slowly. Engineers are working
on reducing the size and cost of renewable-energy installations, while
fuel-cell and battery manufacturers are trying to increase power
output and storage life. The cost of generating and storing your own
energy will fall as the commercial and domestic generation market
grows and as new technologies emerge: thin-film PV panels, for
instance, are cheaper to make than existing PV cells, which use
crystalline silicon. For many, the transition is becoming easier and
less costly as newly built houses are increasingly offered for sale
with some of the infrastructure for renewables, such as inverters for
PV panels, already installed.

In the meantime, one way to beat the problem of how to store surplus
power and make good on your investment is to stay connected to the
grid – or connect if you are already off-grid – and sell what you
don’t use to a utility company. It may not be the energy freedom you
had in mind, but it does means that the grid effectively becomes your
battery – there when you need more electricity, and able to take your
excess power. The return you will receive for this varies widely, but
Germany has already shown that such a system can work. There,
homeowners selling back renewably generated power are guaranteed to
get four times the market rate charged to consumers for electricity.
As a result, Germany has a thriving market in domestically generated
energy, with 200 times the solar electricity output of the UK. The UK
is planning to bring in a similar “feed-in tariff” system in 2009,
although it is not yet clear what sort of price power-generating
homeowners can expect. In the US, California and New Jersey are
leading the way with feed-in tariffs in the range of 8 to 31 cents per
kWh, depending on the contract and the time of day when the power was
generated. Most other states have a long way to go.

There is no doubt that being off-grid has its problems and it is not
always the cheapest way to get your energy. Even so, pioneers like
Galant, Marmont and Perez have proved that it can be done, and without
giving up a 21st-century lifestyle. “I’ve got five computers, two
laser scanners, two fridge-freezers, a microwave, a convection oven,
vacuum cleaners – you name it,” says Perez. “There’s an external beam
antenna on the roof for the cellphone and a bidirectional satellite
for internet connection. I’ve got 70 kWh stored in batteries that
could last me five days. I have too much electricity.” Too much
electricity and no more bills. That’s got to be worth aiming for.

BY Chris Davis / 18 Dec 1998

Idle Theory is a slowly expanding way of seeing. A lot of the essays
on this website deal with the remote past, both in those parts
concerned with the theory of evolution, but also those which deal with
early human life. In many ways, Idle Theory as it presently stands has
yet to arrive at the present day, and the modern human circumstance.
This makes it difficult for any conclusions to be drawn. But some
tentative lines can be sketched out. One of these is that human
religious value systems look like they took shape in the remotest
antiquity, long before any modern religion had appeared. They are
survival values. They are values which got humanity through many
difficult times. They are wholly practical in character. They are the
values of low idleness societies – societies in which life was one of
near-continuous work simply to survive. In modern (and by “modern” is
meant of the last 500 years or so) Western society, human idleness has
risen sharply, largely thanks to technological innovations – steam
engines, internal combustion engines, nuclear power, computers. This
has tended to render the ancient values redundant, and has brought the
rise of a liberalism which sets out to overthrow ancient taboos and
restrictions. There is, as a result, a deep collision taking place
between conservatism and liberalism. The collision is more apparent
than real.

Probably the most pressing modern problem is to understand the nature
of economic systems. Almost all current problems are economic in
character: we can put astronauts on the moon, but we can’t feed and
clothe our own people. There remain enormous disparities in wealth
across the planet, and these seem to widen rather than narrow.
Usually, these disparities get put down to “greed” or “human
nature” (by which is meant greed). But, as Idle Theory sees it,
economic systems have their own logic, in which greed plays a minimal
role. As Idle Theory sees it, the inherent purpose of the economy is
to free people from work, and as such “unemployment” is what
economies ought to generate. In the view of Idle Theory, almost all the
economic theory generated over the past 200-300 years makes the
over-optimistic assumption that human life is largely idle, and that
wealth is created by setting people to work.

Idle Theory’s economic model is an attempt to construct another
understanding of economic systems – of values, prices, profits, etc.
But it is very simple, and almost entirely undeveloped. But it offers
an outline way of looking at economies, not seeing them as generating
“wealth”, but instead freeing people from work, providing them with
the leisure in which to do what they want to do rather than what they
must do. The modern economic problem is that technological innovation
has freed people from the production of necessities – only to oblige
them to produce luxuries. The result is that modern Western culture is
no more idle and leisured now than it has ever been.

I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the human future. If we
can understand, and then control, our economic systems, it seems
perfectly possible that there could be a human future of leisure for
everybody, in which luxuries are manufactured and traded because
people want to, and not – as at present – because they have to. In
that time, the vast engine of industry will more or less shut down.
And in shutting down, it will cease to pollute the world. The immense
pressure for everyone to somehow find work will vanish, and with it
all the stress-related psychological and physical disorders that
attend work and the search for gainful employment. At the same time,
the necessity to rob, cheat, steal (which is a form of gainful
employment) will also dwindle. In that idle world, life will become
99% play.

I have no idea what such a world would be like, because I don’t live
in such a world. I have no idea what people would do in such a world.
Since there are perfectly good explanations why some people rob and
cheat in our present condition, I see no reason to suppose that such
people would continue to behave that way in an idle world. There are
no Bad Guys in Idle Theory: there are only ignorant busy people. But
the absence of any realistic understanding of the nature of economic
systems at present is cause for pessimism in itself: economic chaos is
set to continue, for the time being. And war will accompany that
chaos. And since now, as for the past 3000+ years, weapons
development remains paramount, next to no effort will be put into
improving the human state. And human numbers are rising towards
unsustainable levels.




BY Chris Davis / September 2003

The only wealth I’ll ever have is the profound and sweet freedom to
sit idly by some river and gaze across its eddies and ripples on the
sliding water to the far green shore, to pick up and study a few worn
pebbles and leaves, to stroll along the bank and catch the scent of
nameless flowers.

It’s not the river and the pebbles and the flowers and trees that make
up this wealth. No. It’s just as sweet a freedom to gaze across some
parking lot filled with cars and trucks, pick up and study some
discarded hub cap, and smell the odour of oil and gasoline. The sweet
freedom is to be able to choose to gaze, to pick things up, to study,
to stroll around, to do this or that or the other. It is the freedom
to do what one wants to do. It is the freedom to do nothing at all. It
is the freedom to just be.

But human life – this interval between birth and death – has never
entirely consisted of such freedom. Instead it has almost always been
one of choiceless toil: to sow and reap plants, to shepherd flocks, to
grind and bake and eat bread, to haul water, to spin wool and weave
cloth and sew garments. There was little time to sit by rivers
watching the water slip by. If that sweet freedom was ever
experienced, it was mostly on public holidays on which all work was

All that work, all the sowing and reaping, the grinding and hauling,
the chopping and hammering, only ever had as its goal the sweet
freedom to choose what to do. It was never that Sunday was just a day
on which to recover from the far more important and meaningful working
week. No, that idle sabbath day was the reward and purpose of the
working week. Everything else, everything that is ordinarily called
“wealth”, is only icing on the cake of this fundamental freedom to
choose. All those fast cars, elegant clothes, fine houses, landscaped
gardens, swimming pools and tennis courts, are a mere thin veneer upon
the substantive mass of that primary freedom – like the mantle of
vegetation upon the vast sphere of this planet.

And all these things are anyway the product of idle time. A society
that has no idle time can produce no luxuries. For all luxuries are
made from idle time foregone in work to make them. And all these
luxuries require idle time for their enjoyment. What point a tennis
court, if there is no time to play the game. All these things provide
a wider range of choice: that instead of porridge every day, we can
eat bread or fish or lamb rogon josh or Kentucky fried chicken. But an
ever-increasing range of choice is not the same as an ever-increasing
ability to choose. And it is the ability to choose, not the range of
possible choices, that matters. Freedom does not consist in the
ability to choose from a wide range of products on a supermarket
shelf: freedom is the ability to continually choose.

A country is rich to the extent that its people are able to freely
choose how to dispose of their time, not to the extent that they have
the widest range of choice of toys and amusements. And indeed, to the
extent that wealth is identified with wider choice, any increase in
the range of choice only comes with a decrease in the ability to
choose. For all these various delights and pleasures are only ever
bought by surrendering the freedom to choose, by setting idle hands to
work to make them. And therefore it must be the primary purpose of any
society, not to increase the range of choice open to its members, but
instead to expand their ability to choose, by shortening the working
week, and correspondingly expanding the idle weekend. If, on extensive
idle weekends, some people choose to busy themselves making and
trading toys and amusements, so let them – if that is what they choose
to do. And if any society abandons the pursuit of idleness, and
instead sets up some other ambition, it will inevitably become busier
and busier, poorer and poorer, until it can no longer sustain itself,
and disintegrates and dies.

Chris Davis
email : author [at] idletheor [dot] .info

BY Chris Davis / 2 Mar 1998

Physicists have been curiously reluctant to produce a physical model
of life. It is not possible to flick through a physics textbook and
find a chapter on Life Processes appended to those concerned with the
Kinetic Theory of matter, or Thermodynamics, or Newton’s laws of
motion. The omission may be purely an accident of history, that the
study of life became, very early on, the province of naturalists,
biologists, ecologists, and more recently geneticists. Physicists,
with enough on their hands already, were perhaps content to leave the
matter in their hands. Yet one strange result is that, despite
constant complaints that the life sciences are reductionist and
mechanistic, there exists no mechanistic description of life. There
isn’t even agreement as to what constitutes Life. Thus the Idle Life
model will not be found in any physics textbook. Although its
description of life adopts the terminology of physics, it is no part
of the formal edifice of physics.

The Idle Life model attempts to mirror the behaviour of real life. It
has a metabolism that acquires and expends and stores energy. It can
grow and reproduce. It can die. Given such a model of life, it becomes
possible to construct populations of theoretical idle lifeforms, that
correspond to plants, grazers, predators, and simulate variation and
natural selection, and to do so knowing that the unfolding scene is
not physically implausible. Without some sort of model, such
theoretical explorations are impossible. The Idle Life model is a
simple, idealised model of life. There are probably no real living
creatures which are so simple. But a great many real living creatures
appear to behave in roughly the manner it describes. And that is
enough to begin with. Idle Theory is only concerned with the broadest
behaviour of life, not with particular details.

Life. In Idle Theory, life is treated in terms of energy. In Idle
Theory, living creatures are understood to be constantly decaying and
constantly repairing themselves. This is physical work. And in order
to repair themselves they have to extract fuel and raw materials from
their surrounding environment. This also is physical work. In physical
discussions of life, living creatures are quite ordinarily described
as having a power income and a power expenditure . But these incomes
and expenditures are usually implicitly continuous. In Idle Theory
power income and expenditure are discontinuous or intermittent.

The only reason that life manages to keep functioning is because the
amount of energy expended in maintenance and food capture over some
period of time is less than the amount of energy stored in the food it
can acquire from its environment over that period of time. The
creatures can only stay alive because they can acquire energy faster
than they expend it. And if life can acquire energy faster than it
expends it, then life need only work part-time acquiring energy. The
rest of the time it is idle. In Idle Theory, life alternates between
busy and idle states.

Two assumptions underlie the Idle Life model.
1. The creatures are assumed to work continuously at maintaining or
replacing their constituent components. This work is regarded as a
continual background activity, the intensity of which depends upon the
ease or severity of the environment in which these components exist –
temperature, salinity, acidity, etc.
2. The creatures work intermittently to acquire from their
environment the energy needed to power their maintenance work.

One argument for such intermittency lies in a the intermittent
availability of energy in the environment: plants can only acquire
solar energy during daylight hours, and many animals require daylight
by which to find food. Another argument is that even if energy is
continuously available in the environment, the creatures are likely to
be able to meet their energy requirements in a relatively short time.
Included in the assumption of intermittent work is an assumption that
the creatures have a constant sustainable work rate. This is a
simplification. But it reflects the important truth that, although
creatures may be able to increase their work rates by an order of
magnitude, they cannot sustain such work rates for long.

A further argument for intermittency is that if the creatures simply
worked continuously, at whatever rate required, to acquire energy to
power self-maintenance, they would have no need to store energy. But
in the natural world, creatures typically maintain substantial energy
stores, in the form of sugars, fats, starches.

Given these assumptions, it is possible to write some simple
Assume some lifeform continuously works at a rate Pm repairing itself.
Assume that it is able to work at a rate Pe to acquire energy to power

When it works to acquire energy, it acquires a power income of Pi. The
power income, Pi, that the creature gets for its expenditures is
dependent on the energy density of its environent. In an energy-rich
environment, Pi will be larger than in an energy-poor environment.

At equilibrium, it alternates between being busy acquiring energy for
Tbusy time, and being idle for Tidle time, and its energy store level
cycles between a maximum and a minimum.
At equilibrium, over unit time period, energy expended = energy

Energy received = Pi.Tbusy
Energy expended = Pe.Tbusy+ Pm
So Pi.T busy = Pe.Tbusy+ Pm
and T busy = Pm / (Pi – Pe)

and I = 1 – ( Pm / (Pi – Pe)) ( 1 )
where I is Idleness or Tidle/unit time, and 0 <= I < 1.

A variant of this equation is:
I = 1 – ( Pm / Pe(G – 1)) ( 2 )
where G is the energy gain per unit expended, and Pi = G.Pe

Given these assumptions, the Idleness of a lfeform is independent of
the length of the cycle. It makes no difference whether it maintains
its store at a high mean level, or allows its store to cycle more
slowly from a high level to a low level.

The power consumption of this lifeform over the cycle is given by:
(1 – I).Pi ( 3 )
Idle time need not be devoted to inactivity. A life form can work
during idle time to acquire an energy surplus. The power surplus or
work capacity of the life form is:
I.(Pi – Pe) ( 4 )
Where a creature is growing in size, or reproducing, the extra power
expenditure for reproduction, Pr is added to maintenance power
expenditure, and (1) becomes
I = 1 – ((Pm + Pr) / (Pi – Pe)) ( 5 )

Living creatures operate in the range 0 to 1 idleness. 0 (0r 0%)
idleness means working all the time. 1 (or 100%) idleness means they
are idle all the time. In practice, 100% or perfect idleness cannot be
achieved, because no combination of non-zero values of Pm, Pr, Pe, and
Pi can produce I = 1. Zero idleness, by contrast can be very easily
achieved. Inert matter might be construed as perfectly idle, since
(Pm, (Pr and (Pe are zero, and I = 1.

The creatures die when their energy stores empty, and no further
maintenance work or energy-acquisition work can be done, and the
unmaintained creatures disintegrate.

Taking Pm and Pe as constant, then as Pi rises, idleness approaches 1.
In this circumstance a creature spends next to no time meeting its
maintenance energy needs. But as Pi falls, idleness falls, and
continues to fall until idleness reaches zero. At this point, a
creature is spending all its time working to meet its maintenance
energy needs. If Pi falls further, the creature becomes unable to meet
its maintenance energy needs, because it can work no harder. In this
circumstance, it loses energy, and its energy store empties. Thus zero
idleness (I = 0) is the threshold of death for any lifeform. In Idle
Theory, reaching zero idleness is therefore usually taken to entail
death, even though there will be an interval while energy stores are
finally depleted.

All solutions of the equation I = 1 – ( Pm / (Pi – Pe)) with values
greater than zero and less than 1 correspond to life. All other values
(I 1) correspond to death. In practice, these absurd values
convert to zero idleness.

Reaching zero idleness is the only way that any life form in Idle
Theory ever dies:
Death by starvation results when the power income, Pi, falls
because there is less energy available in the environment, and
idleness is reduced to zero.
Death by disease entails increasing maintenance power, Pm, to
include feeding parasitic bacteria, which results in idleness falling
to zero.
Accidental damage may result in the stored energy rapidly being
lost – effectively increasing Pm -, or by disabling the lifeform so
that it is able to do less work to get food – reducing Pe -. Again, if
the damage is sufficient, idleness may fall to zero.
Old age entails an increasing inability to work to acquire food –
Pe steadily falls -. At some point, idleness reaches zero.