Thursday, September 04, 2008

Termites: Icky Saviors?

Allow me to take a breather from the RNC. (I'll watch McCain's speech later tonight and post a reaction tomorrow. I fully expect it to be less embarrassing than last night's action.)

Anyway, I recently promised a post about termites, and here it is. In this month's Atlantic, there's an article detailing how scientists are hoping to utilize the innards of the critters to curtail global warming. I know what you're thinking: Global warming is a fabrication made up by Hollywood celebrities to help elect Barack Obama, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

No, but what you're really thinking is: There's no way termites can help cool off Gaia.

That's what I thought, too, but the article quickly distracted me from such skepticism with a series of amazing-hilarious-disgusting facts about termites, like this one:
When a mound’s queen is no longer capable of reproduction, the workers may gather around her distended body and lick her to death.
Or this one, which ends in a two-word phrase that, I now realize, may be the front-runner for Grossest in the English Language:
The greatest mystery of all is found in the worker termite’s third gut, which is delineated by an intricately structured stomach valve... The size of a sesame seed, the third gut contains a dense mush of symbiotic microbes. Many of these microbes live nowhere else on Earth; they depend on adult termites to pass them on to the young by means of a “woodshake,” a microbial slurry.
Look, I'm sorry to post that, but hey, if I have to walk around with "microbial slurry" in my brain, no way in hell I'm letting you off the hook.

When it chews up wood, the termite is practicing some serious chemistry, so that the science upshot is this:
Offer a termite this page, and its microbial helpers will break it down into two liters of hydrogen, enough to drive more than six miles in a fuel-cell car. If we could turn wood waste into fuel with even a fraction of the termite’s efficiency, we could run our economy on sawdust, lawn clippings, and old magazines.
Like you, I'm sure, I was very excited at this point, picturing myself coming to the world's aid with piles of bad poetry that I wrote in college. But, not so fast:
Whatever the termites are doing may be too complicated and fragile to be useful in a large industrial process.
Harvey Blanch, a professor of chemical engineering at UC Berkeley, “thinks the termite has been overhyped, and sees this as a reflection of unrealistically high hopes for quick, painless replacements for gasoline.”

I’ve been saying for years that termites are overhyped. I’m glad to see the Berkeley engineering department catching up to me (yet again) on that one.


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