Friday, November 23, 2007

Climate change: a solution to methane?

New Zealand has a climate change problem: too many cows producing too much methane. But now we might have a path to a solution, in the form of a methane-eating bacteria:

GNS Science microbiologist Matthew Stott said the bacterium was found after tests showed a lack of methane at the surface of the geothermal area known as Hell's Gate.

"We knew methane was being produced ... We were puzzled why it wasn't reaching the surface.

"What we have found is an extremely tough methane-consuming organism that is new to science. It grows happily under extremely acidic conditions in the lab."

Unfortunately its not an immediate solution because we clearly can't put it in a cow (foreign bacteria in animals is usually known as disease). But in the long-term, it might be able to be modified to be a useful part of a cow's rumen flora, or used to modify existing bacteria to soak up the methane. But that would take decades of research. In the meantime, it can almost certainly be used to reduce emissions from old landfills (newer ones are already required to control their emissions by tapping off the gas - one of the few areas of New Zealand climate change policy which has actually been successful). But even that will require years of research to determine whether it will produce useful emissions reductions and check whether it has any harmful side-effects. Still, it could be quite a useful tool in our package of solutions.