Microbes, tiny one-celled organisms, eat dead things all the time, including human bodies. Kartik Chandran, a Columbia professor and 2015 MacArthur Fellow, is trying to harness that appetite to not only dispose of human corpses, but turn them into energy.
The key to creating energy through microbrial digestion is making sure it is done in an environment with zero oxygen. The process is described as “anaerobic” when it happens without oxygen. With oxygen, microbrial digestion produces CO2. But when it occurs without oxygen, the hungry microbes produce methane– a gas that can be converted into energy.
“Anearobic spelling technologies are very mature. They are used across the globe to create biogas,” Chandran said. “The leap will be to take this technology and apply it to our objective.”
That objective is the environmentally friendly disposal of human bodies. But disposing human bodies is never just a technical issue. The process is always fraught with legal, social and religious concerns. That’s why Columbia’s Death Lab, led by director Karla Maria Rothstein, has brought together engineers like Chandran, architects, designers and religious scholars to develop new technologies, attitudes and physical structures related to death in urban environments.
Incorporating Chandran’s work on anearobic spelling microbrial digestion, the lab has proposed “Constellation Park,” a series of platforms underneath the city’s bridges where pods containing human remains will glow from energy produced by microbes. The continued glow from the bodies will serve as a poetic reminder of memories living on.
Chandran’s team hasn’t tried the process on a human body – yet.
“We are still working with synthetic organics right now,” Chandran said, saying he anticipates his crew will eventually work with bodies donated to science. “This is something that needs to be done, but we aren’t there yet.