I’ll take ‘poop powered vehicles’ for $300, Alex

June 18, 2019

Wendy Parker


Seventh- and eighth-grade students from McArthur Middle School in Santa Ana, Calif., predict the future of transportation is in poop.

Bear with me while I reflect on my own middle school days. Mrs. Hood, my Earth Science teacher, would have snatched a knot in my head if I had answered “poop” to any of her questions.

In 1980, when Mrs. Hood posed the question, “What do you think the future of transportation holds?” the smart aleck kid (me) who yelled out, “Poop!” would have been sent to the office for a detention referral.

(At the very least I would have been sent to the counselor’s office for yet another stern talking-to about my use of colorful language. Some things never change. At least I proved the counselor wrong and didn’t grow up to become a train-hopping serial killer from using the eff word too much. Ha.)

I may have gotten off topic. Where was I? Oh yes. Poop.

In 2019, forward-thinking students who discuss poop win awards. It’s not rocket science. It’s poop science, and it’s a real and true thing.

Each school year, Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) sponsors The Garrett Morgan Sustainable Transportation Competition. The competition, established in 2001 to get middle-school kids interested in transportation jobs, also piques their interest in math and science. It allows teams of kids to work together with teachers and professional transportation mentors to apply their knowledge to real-life problems.

McArthur Middle School’s team tackled the troubling trend of rising costs, both to the environment and economy, of non-renewable energy sources. The poop comes in as an extremely abundant and very renewable source of unpleasant-to-consider energy.

Their solution is harnessing enough electricity to power vehicles by trapping the energy of decomposing poop. And while it’s not an entirely new idea, it’s refreshing to know the future scientist and transportation professionals are thinking about it. (Once again, 13-year-old me rears her head and yells, “Poopbrains!” I’ll be in the counselor’s office as soon as I wrap this piece.)

Giggles aside, this is serious science. Here’s a quick break-down of how poop-power breaks down.

The key is protein. Solid waste products from both human and animals contain a substantial level of protein. Scientists turn a bunch of protein-eating bacteria loose on a smorgasbord of sh…, no wait, (we don’t want anyone to become a train-hopping serial killer) a plethora of poo. Here’s the fun part – the Bacillus subtilis chomps around and produces GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) gas. This GRAS gas breaks down to alcohol biofuels that can be used in motors to generate electricity.

There’s a lot going in in the whole process, but there’s also a lot of waste to deal with. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 2.3 billion people around the globe who still lack basic sanitation. Of these, approximately 892 million people defecate in the open. And that’s just at truck stops.

I’m kidding.

Here’s something that’s not a joke.

Municipalities have been using various forms of raw biogas to power vehicles, light their offices and offset the cost of other nonrenewable energy sources for nearly a decade. Grand Junction, Colo., led the way for U.S. cities to use the gasses they were flaring off into the atmosphere for power. Today they, and many other cities around the world, continue to use biofuels as an integral part of their power sources.

Congratulations to the McArthur Middle School team for taking second place with their own version of the “Pooh Mobile.” You (and pooh) are clearly the future of transportation. And I mean that in a good way.