Power Q&A: Jamie Hyneman

The Discovery Channel mythbuster and weird-energy aficionado tackles algae, grape juice, dirty diapers, and seven other wacky energy-source ideas.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons; Illustration: Otto Steininger

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On the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters, Jamie Hyneman slays urban legends with the greatest of ease. Since he’s also a weird-energy enthusiast (he once powered a small rocket with a salami), we asked him to help us separate the big ideas from the duds on the energy frontier.

Cow manureENERGY SOURCE: Cow manure
HOW IT WORKS: In an anaerobic digester, bacteria break down manure and produce methane, which is trapped and used to generate electricity.
PLAUSIBLE: It’s already being used in California. “nasa actually investigated this, because if you’re going to Mars and you’ve got people on board, you’ve got poo,” says Hyneman.

ENERGY SOURCE: Human motion
HOW IT WORKS: Create a “crowd farm” like the Sustainable Dance Club in Rotterdam.
BUSTED: JH: “Go for the babies. Just put them on a little treadmill and let ’em rip.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Magnetic motors
HOW IT WORKS: Evangelical entrepreneur Dennis Lee claims his 500%-efficient motors will bring free energy and “an abundance of wealth for worldwide end-times evangelism.”
BUSTED: There’s no sign the technology actually works, but Lee has gotten rich selling dealerships to true believers. JH: “I’ve gotten so that I can smell these things a mile away.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Unicellular green algae
HOW IT WORKS: Deprived of sulfur and oxygen, they produce high yields of hydrogen.
PLAUSIBLE: JH: “Algae are such basic, simple organisms. If you optimize them, they are going to produce massive quantities of whatever you have tailored them to.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Raindrops
HOW IT WORKS: The Atomic Energy Commission uses special plastic to convert raindrops’ falling motion into electricity.
BUSTED: JH: “A when-pigs-fly kind of scenario. It’s millions of times more efficient to collect hydroelectric power through a dam than raindrop by raindrop.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Old tires
HOW IT WORKS: Microwave enthusiast Frank Pringle found that nuking tires in a vacuum creates diesel fuel, combustible gas, carbon black, and high-strength steel.
BUSTED: JH: Tires do contain hydrocarbons, but “it requires a relatively huge amount of energy to do that conversion. I’m a little suspicious of using microwaves.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Empty space
HOW IT WORKS: Thomas Bearden says he can use vacuum energy to power a generator.
BUSTED: JH: “The universe is filled with energy, but pulling energy out of a vacuum or something—there’s no substance there as far as I’m aware.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Grape juice
HOW IT WORKS: NanoLogix uses bacteria to convert Welch’s sugar runoff into hydrogen.
PLAUSIBLE: JH: As with algae, “with microbes there is no bottleneck to slow you down.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Dirty diapers
HOW IT WORKS: A British company turns poop and plastic from diapers into gas and oil.
BUSTED: JH: “Are you really going to be able to isolate diapers in such huge volumes that you’re running your entire country off of gasoline powered by diapers? No.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Greenhouse gases
HOW IT WORKS: Los Alamos scientists propose exposing air to potassium carbonate, which absorbs carbon dioxide that is then converted into methanol, gasoline, or jet fuel.
PLAUSIBLE: JH: “How do you come up with the energy to do this conversion? If you can get it from something like sunlight, then there is your free lunch.”

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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