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Grant Helps Explorers Turn Garbage Into Fuel

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Though public attention has focused on oil reserves beneath Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fossil fuels such as petroleum and coal aren’t the northern state’s only energy resources. Now, two National Geographic Emerging Explorers will receive a grant to see if microscopic life forms from the Alaskan tundra could help turn garbage into fuel in cool climates worldwide.

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T.H. Culhane of Solar CITIES and Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska Fairbanks will receive the inaugural $50,000 Blackstone Ranch Institute Innovation Challenge Grant to improve the cold-season efficiency of biogas digesters, and thus extend the geographic range where such digesters may be used to produce fuel. (A sort of compost bin, a biogas digester transforms kitchen scraps and other organic waste into fertilizer and methane gas. The methane may be burned to cook meals, boil water, heat a building, or produce electricity for lights and other uses.)

Together, T.H. and Katey hope their efforts will help establish a base for climate-friendly household- and community-scale energy independence.

Their collaborative project will use cold-loving microorganisms called psychrophiles from sediments beneath Alaskan lakes. Katey’s research has shown that, acting on the organic debris that collects on lake bottoms (as well as in melting permafrost), these tiny creatures produce substantial amounts of methane. T.H. has helped pioneer the production of inexpensive biogas digesters to transform household waste into energy, particularly in low-income communities and in locations off the conventional power grid. (We've recently described his work constructing solar water heaters and biogas digesters in Cairo's slums here on BlogWild and in National Geographic News.)

Most of the microorganisms in use in simple biogas production today become dormant at cold temperatures. This has limited efficient use of the technology to places with warmer climates. Alaskan psychrophiles could change that, and potentially provide a source of inexpensive and eco-friendly power for millions of people.

“I was thrilled to meet T.H. at the 2009 Explorers Symposium at National Geographic in June,” said Katey on learning of the award. “We happened to sit by each other at dinner one night, and within five minutes of starting a conversation, we both knew that the other person was involved with something that was a perfect fit for gaps in our research and exploration adventures. It was real synergy. We are thrilled to work with the Blackstone Ranch Institute, National Geographic, other explorers, and each other to realize this idea over the next two years at keys sites around the globe.”

“To hear that we have received this unique grant is thrilling beyond measure,” says T.H. “I'm honored to be able to explore this new trail with my visionary and ebullient fellow Emerging Explorer Katey Walter Anthony, and grateful to the Blackstone Ranch Institute for providing the activation energy and direction that will start the necessary chain reaction. As Emerging Explorers, we’re dedicated to doing everything we can to be part of the emerging solutions rather than the continuing problems.”

Blackstone Ranch Institute, in partnership with National Geographic Mission Programs, designed the Innovation Challenge Grant to “encourage new and innovative projects resulting from the collaboration of two or more National Geographic explorers, and to encourage explorers to develop new ideas, methodologies, or projects that would advance a major strand of their work in exploration, the sciences, or education.” Blackstone Ranch Institute is a Taos, New Mexico-based organization that supports projects aimed at finding solutions to environmental challenges.

Update: NPR Weekend Edition reports on Solar CITIES and the Blackstone Ranch Institute Innovation Challenge Grant.

Top image: Katey Walter Anthony ignites methane gas seeping from a hole in the ice on a frozen lake. Photograph by Marmian Grimes

Lower image: T.H. Culhane assembles a solar powered water recycling system on the roof of the Los Angeles Eco-Village in 2003. Photograph by Marlene Elias

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The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 15,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.