As the reality that humans have permanently and wantonly screwed up the environment begins to sink in, lots of cockamamie ideas are being floated around that are designed to save us from ourselves. Giant sunshades in space, aerosols in the stratosphere, beaming electricity down to Earth from satellites, direct carbon capture. The list of things that are going to solve the crisis of an overheating planet is long and getting longer every day. Now there’s a new idea on the list — methane-eating bacteria.
Researchers at California University Long Beach have studied this subject and determined there are certain bacteria that thrive in methane-rich environments. They feast on methane, or CH4, and turn it into carbon dioxide and biomass. Right away, regular CleanTechnica readers will spot a issue here. The world hardly needs more carbon dioxide, does it?
Actually, no it does not. But here’s the thing. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its presence in the atmosphere has exploded (no pun intended) in the past 15 years. Many people want to blame it all on cow burps, and it’s true that the bovine digestive system does create methane in significant quantities. However, there has been a massive increase in fracking in the past 15 years as well. Could there be a connection? You decide.
Methane-Eating Bacteria To The Rescue
Researchers from California University Long Beach suggest they can remove methane using a group of bacteria known as methanotrophs to naturally convert methane to carbon dioxide and biomass. All the bacteria in this group “‘eat’ methane, removing it from air and converting part of it to cells as a source of sustainable protein,” according to the lead researcher, Mary E Lidstrom.
Methane-eating bacteria are well-known but typically function best at concentrations of 5,000 parts per million or higher. Lidstrom’s team found a strain of bacteria called methylotuvimicrobium buryatense 5GB1C that removes methane efficiently even when it is present in lower amounts. If it became widespread, the technology has the potential to help slow global heating, the researchers said.
They claim the process could lower average global temperatures by about 0.21º C by 2050. If you think that is an insignificant amount, you simply aren’t paying attention. The mess we are in now has occurred thanks to an increase of less than 1.5º C. Turning down the heat a quarter of a degree could be hugely important, especially if accompanied by other greenhouse gas lowering techniques. The research was published by PNAS on August 21, 2023.
The normal concentration of methane in the atmosphere is only about 1.9 ppm of methane, but some areas around landfills, animal waste lagoons, rice paddies, and oil wells typically have higher concentrations of about 500 ppm.
“Bacteria that rapidly eat methane at the higher concentrations found around cattle herds, etc., could make a huge contribution to cutting methane emissions, especially from tropical agriculture,” Euan Nisbet, professor of Earth sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, told The Guardian. “The bacteria oxidize the methane to CO2 and so you can even use the exhaust to pump into greenhouses and grow tomatoes,” he added.
Lidstrom said, “The biggest barrier to implementation now is technical: we need to increase the methane treatment unit 20-fold. If we can achieve that, then the biggest barriers become investment capital and public acceptance. We believe we could have field pilots tested within three to four years, and scale up would then depend on investment capital and commercialization.”
The agriculture sector is the largest source of methane emissions due to livestock manure and gastroenteric releases. Methane has more than 85 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere, and poses a particular problem as a greenhouse gas. Atmospheric methane has been rising rapidly over the past 15 years, reaching record highs, and currently accounts for at least 30% of total global heating. In 2021 several of the world’s largest economies agreed at COP26 to work together to urgently reduce methane levels. Those levels continue to rise, however, which may partially illustrate the value of such global confabs.
Implementation Will Be Daunting
To implement methane-eating bacteria on a mass scale, thousands of high functioning reactors will be needed, The Guardian says. “This may be daunting but if our survival depends on lowering atmospheric methane now the cost may be a lower priority in allocating resources. Lack of political will and understanding in the private and public sectors about the urgency of the need to reduce methane now will make global heating even worse in coming years,” said Mary Ann Bruns, professor of soil microbiology at Pennsylvania State University.
There’s another problem as well. Lidstrom warns that any emissions reduction strategies that enhance bacterial activity in natural communities may also result in an increase in nitrous oxide emissions, which have ten times the global heating potential of methane. Critically, this methanotrophic bacteria-based technology does not produce any nitrous oxide emissions.
The Introduction To The Study
The researchers preface the report about their study with this introduction:
“Atmospheric methane abundance has risen to a historically high value at 1.92 ppm in 2023 and continues to increase rapidly. A key natural sink for methane is attributed to aerobic methanotrophs that can actively oxidize methane and assimilate the carbon into biomass, and thus, they are candidates for methane removal technology.
“We demonstrate here that an extant gammaproteobacterial methanotroph, Methylotuvimicrobium buryatense 5GB1C, can grow at low methane concentrations in the range from 200 ppm to 1,000 ppm and exhibits greater methane consumption rates at both low and high methane compared to other methanotroph strains. These features make this strain a promising candidate for methane removal technology at emission sites with enriched methane in air.”
If you are a climate scientist, the prospect of lowering the Earth’s average temperature by about a quarter of a degree is exciting news. What is missing here are details such as how much this will cost and who will pay for it. As of this moment, there is very little information about what a bacteria facility might look like, how much it will cost to build, or what the neighbors might think of a couple trillion bacteria enjoying a methane smorgasbord next door.
Mary Ann Bruns warns about a lack of political will. Is there any reason to believe any of it will be found soon? The people of Hawai’i are busy pointing fingers as they seek to find someone to blame for the horrifically destructive fires that raced through Lahaina recently. It’s Hawaiian Electric’s fault, some say. I heard at lunch yesterday that a FEMA executive is to blame. (My neighbor gets his information from Faux News.)
But we who assemble here at CleanTechnica every day know the truth. The world is going to hell in a handbasket because humans are addicted to fossil fuels and don’t know how to stop gorging themselves on cheap energy made possible by burning coal, oil, and methane. Our entire society is built on the combustion of natural resources and we don’t have any idea how to stop.
Perhaps methane-eating bacteria will help. Perhaps a giant space parasol to block some of the sun’s energy will help. Perhaps beaming electricity down to Earth from satellites will help. But what will really help is substituting renewable energy for electrons from thermal generators powered by fossil fuels and ditching the infernal combustion engines that waste three-quarters of all the fuel we work so hard to provide them.
The choice is ours to make. But if past performance is any predictor of the future, we are in deep, dark, desperate trouble, even if we succeed in enlisting an army of bacteria to help our cause.
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