Hyper-Thermophilic Bacteria: It's Not Just For Earthlings Anymore!

Hyper-Thermophilic Bacteria have been around since the Earth was created and soon they may very well be found on space stations and eventually Mars.

Hyper-Thermophilic bacteria thrive in areas of high temperature such as thermal geysers, heated springs and deep sea fissures. What has only been discovered in the last ten years or so is that they also can also flourish in the confines of in-vessel composting systems. These bacteria have been found to be particularly effective in breaking down tough, fiberous materials and lignin that regular composting methods often find difficult to process. Hyper-Thermophilic bacteria also decrease the amount of time it takes to compost. This has captured the interest of compost enthusiasts including the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Japan.

After becoming involved with AgraCycle it wasn’t long at all until I came under criticism for suggesting that “by harnessing the natural heat generated from bacteria in the degradation of organic waste it could propagate hyper-thermophilic bacteria, thereby increasing the processing time while producing higher grade compost.”

I admit that I was naive enough to believe that this would be welcomed by the composting community at large. After all we were all on the same team, right? We were all environmentally conscious and dreamed of a time when agriculture would truly become sustainable, right? Well,... not exactly.

What I failed to realize was that there are some companies that produce composting systems costing several hundred thousand dollars. So when a budding non-profit called AgraCycle introduced the “Vee-Stack”, a vertical composting unit that is produced for a mere fraction of thier cost, it wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms. I immeadiately began recieving e-mails that were less than complimentary, explicitly detailing "in thier opinion" why this idea would never work.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised, after all I have heard the worn out phrase time and time again, “It can’t be done”.

In 1987 I had the idea for a residential fire suppression system after nearly loosing my home to chimney fire. It was a scary experience and I kept thinking about what would have happened if I had not been at home.
In 1991, I began working for The Phurst Corporation in New York, I brought up the idea and it was quickly embraced but I only had a shoestring budget to work with. It was not fifteen minutes later I heard a co-worker say, "It' can't be done" and it did not stop there.
One of the most memorable objections came from the local Small Business Development Center that told me, “If it were possible someone would have already done it” Then a small cap investment firm told me I must have a degree in mechanical engineering and fire science before I was qualified to build something that complex. I had dozens of companies tell me that the key component that I wanted was not made and that it was impossible to get them unless I had a few hundred thousand dollars to invest in retooling. During that time I found that persistence is a remarkable thing for it led me to Mr. David Driver, owner of Atlantic Alloys. After taking the time to meet with me, he graciously appointed an engineer to design and build five bi-metallic coils with the ability to withstand a normal operating range of 900 to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. I called it the “Godzilla” of all bi-metallic coils, they really were a work of art!

Three months later I was testing the first proto-type in my kitchen. Although it was a smashing success I learned the hard way that cleaning up dry chemical media is really a pain to clean up! (My cat wasn’t very impressed either!)

Nowdays I am hearing from some detractors who claim that hyper-thermophilic temperatures are an impossibility in composting systems.
I have pondered for awhile, wondering just how and if I would respond to this. Rather than get drawn into a debate with people whose education and experience is far beyond that of myself, I decided to let a few scientists (of even greater notoriety and experience than my detractors) do it for me.

You probably won’t find this information gracing the headlines of your local newspaper, but if you are an internet and science geek or just a science fiction buff you may have already heard that composting is playing an integral role for extended space missions and for the colonization of Mars. While the following is technically a bit long for a quote, I want to give enough information to make the point without a question of taking information out of context.

“Hyper-Thermophilic bacteria can play an important role in increasing the effectiveness of the processing of human metabolic waste and inedible biomass and of converting them to fertilizer for the cultivation of plants. This microbial technology has been already well established for the purpose of processing sewage and waste materials for small local communities in Japan.
One of the characteristics of the technology is that the metabolic heat release that occurs during bacterial fermentation raises the processing temperature sufficiently high at 80–100 °C to support hyper-thermophilic bacteria. Such a hyper-thermophilic system is found to have great capability of decomposing wastes including even their normally recalcitrant components, in a reasonably short period of time and of providing a better quality of fertilizer as an end-product. High quality compost has been shown to be a key element in creating a healthy regenerative food production system. In ground-based studies, the soil microbial ecology after the addition of high quality compost was shown to improve plant growth and promote a healthy symbiosis of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.
Another advantage of such high processing temperature is the ability to sterilize the pathogenic organisms through the fermentation process and thus to secure the hygienic safety of the system.”

“On-Site Resources Availability for Space Agriculture on Mars” Masamichi Yamashita (1) Hirofumi Hashimoto (1), and Hidenori Wada (2). (1) Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, Japan (2) Space Agriculture Task Force, Japan

If you want to read more about the established science of using hyper-thermophilic aerobic bacteria in composting systems, simply search that keyword phrase and dig in.

Now I know that some folk are just never happy unless they have something to complain about, but I know that this will be sufficient to satisfy the efficacy question for most people.

So while the Japanese are getting ready to take this to space, AgraCycle will continue to take it to the streets.

If it can create a sustainable environment in a space colony, just think what it could do for local communities here on Terra Firma.

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