Wednesday, February 4, 2015

An article first published on the ABC website, on Tuesday the 28th of January, 2015:

Parliament to be powered by its very own FECES
By political correspondent Dau Branchazel Updated Tues 28 January, 2015.. 

 In what appears to be a world first, a group of primary school students in the Australian capital city of Canberra have teamed up with researchers, from the Australian National University to develop a new form of energy capture that has the potential to revolutionise the way we think of, and harness energy. 

 While many of the world’s greatest minds have for millennia attempted to tap into sources of unlimited energy, the grade six class of South Wanda Primary School, in an unlikely collaboration with the ANU, may have outsmarted them all. The project, already turning heads internationally, aims to be a solution to the stalemate of international climate talks and has many experts heralding it as the biggest discovery since nuclear fission and an achievable first step away from unsustainable fossil fuels towards a new energy abundance. 

 Their detailed plans for overcoming the looming energy crises facing the international community were unveiled at a press conference this morning in Sydney. The plan: to harness the power in political speech. 

 The system they have created under the working title of Facial Exhaust Capture and Enhancement System, or FECES, coming from an unlikely collaboration between enterprising eleven year olds and some of Australia’s leading scientists, has produced an exhaust extraction system that captures the methane contained in the breath of politicians. The process of extraction involves the politicians wearing face covers, resembling the oxygen masks used during surgery, whenever present in the houses of parliament. Each mask will be fitted with a microphone, and attached via two hoses, to a network which will supply oxygen whilst drawing the breath away using a gentle vacuum. The extracted breath will then be fed into a pressurised tank, after being filtered for particles, too large for the system, and other noxious gases. The methane will, at this stage, only be used to power the temperature control system and the resource intensive kitchens within Parliament House, but it is later hoped to be piped to every home in the nation’s capital. 

 Professor Carnice Modstrum, head researcher on the project, sees this as only the beginning and expects other Parliament Houses around the country to follow Canberra’s lead. There is already talk of installing the new technology for the next international climate summit, and event which he claims could, "power a small developing nation". Professor Modstrum is incredibly proud of this project and the research team involved, and particularly impressed with the hard work of his eleven year old research assistants, whom he described as, the "inventors of the new world". 

 The discovery of this new system has sprung from earlier work from Professor Modstrum and his team, which analysed the contents of various peoples’ breath, at various times and in various emotional states. After analysing the samples taken from various politicians and diplomats, it was revealed that politicians’ breath has higher than average methane content, as much as 5 times that of an ordinary person, in ordinary circumstances. The study also showed that when in the heat of parliamentary debate, the content could increase by up to 15%, making almost a third of every word spoken, methane. 

 It was four months after Modstrum’s groundbreaking research was first published in the American Journal of Chemistry, when he received a very interesting letter, from a very interesting young student. But not a student of his. The letter was from one Tal Prindal of South Wanda Primary School. The letter explained how she had heard of his research while reading a copy of New Scientist in the school library. It went on to say that she had come up with an alternative to fossil fuels using his research into methane in the breath. It just so happened that the day she read about his idea, her class was focusing on fossil fuels and the quest for alternative sources of energy. Her teacher had been discussing methane, when Tal interjected to say that politicians also produce methane when they talk. Her teacher, not aware of the latest developments in chemical analysis of breath, had thought it was just Tal being the class clown, and chastised her for disrupting the lesson, an act that, in the letter was described as, “not believing me.” The class continued, and at the end of the lesson, the students were given their homework. The task: to write a short essay on an alternative energy source.

 Tal then went home and drew a picture. A picture which has now, with the help of Modstrum and his team of researchers, reached a global audience. The picture and accompanying essay was marked incorrect when handed in to her teacher the next day. Although she praised Tal for her creativity and her talent for words, the topic was actual alternative energy sources, not pretend ones, criticism she now is embarrassed to admit having made. But in the end, it may have been the right move, because it made the young student determined to have her theory validated. With her parents help, she wrote a formal letter to the scientist whose research had inspired hers, asking him to “go over” her findings and review her work. Included in the letter was an updated version of her essay, and a “revised” copy of the original diagram, the layout of which has remained practically unchanged in what is now FECES.

Original illustration by Tal Prindal, 11, for the carbon capture device now known as FECES 

 Needless to say, all the students and their teacher are over the moon with the success of their project and Tal is now praised by her teacher, who says she "has had to eat her hat"  after all the success of her student's device. When Tal was asked about her invention, now getting so close to the stage of installation, and receiving international attention even in exclusive scientific circles, she shyly replied, “It feels good to save the world.” She then added that she and her classmates were only doing what their parents and teachers had been teaching them to do: recycle. 

 Not everyone is convinced though. Some commentators in the media have been sceptical, with an opinion piece in The Australian yesterday accusing the ANU of exploiting children for the sake of funding, going on to say that it would break the children’s hearts when they realised the dirty trick that had been played on them by the science community. It then accused the researchers of actually harming the environment by encouraging a scenario to occur whereby, if their research is true, more methane will be generated at a time when the researchers themselves advocate alternatives to greenhouse gas emitting energy sources. The authors of the project, however, have rebutted the notion, suggesting that it is statistically unlikely that levels could increase on those currently found. 

 It has also generated a lot of interest in the investment market, with big players in oil and gas keeping a close eye on the new scheme, eagerly awaiting its debut, with reports that Woodside has already contacted Professor Modstrum about a potential partnership. When contacted however, a Woodside representative refused to speculate on the matter, but confirming that, "Woodside seeks to continue developing it's reputation for being at the forefront of sustainable sources of energy." The developers have welcomed the interest and have said that the system is ready, and claim, that if given the necessary approval today, it could be ready for operation as early as mid 2016. However, there is still hot debate in the government about whether or not integrate this controversial new power generator into Parliament House. 

 The Prime Minister has stated that the government approves of the ingenuity of the young inventors, saying that it is testament to the Coalition’s commitment to science that such projects were being developed here in Australia, by Australians and getting international acclaim. He made it clear however, that the government is still undecided, and stands by its commitment to jobs created through coal and natural gas. 

 Treasurer Joe Hockey, has come out in opposition to the project on the grounds that it would be an “eyesore”, and a distraction from the serious business of getting the country’s economy back on track. Several other top level ministers have put forward their disapproval with claims that there is no proof that it will work and is therefore a poor place to invest the taxpayer’s hard earned dollar. The Federal Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, when asked on talkback radio this morning about the proposal, suggested instead that they should work on a device that captures the “fumes from the rotting economy” that the Labor Party left for the current government to fix. It does however have the support of some coalition backbenchers, eager to show their constituents their commitment to alternatives to the now discarded carbon tax, claiming this could be “Direct Action in action”. The ALP, the Greens and several independents have also shown support for the ambitious plans and with PUP leader, Clive Palmer, also coming out in favour of the proposal, it could mean, assuming his senators follow suit, that there will be enough political pressure in place to force the government to adopt the scheme. 

 Greens Leader, Christine Milne, when asked for her party’s position on FECES said, “The Australian Greens look forward to trialing the new system,” and will be pushing for its acceptance when parliament resumes later this week. She went on to say they are encouraged to see this example of the next generation of bright young Australians who are faced with the task of finding a solution to the looming energy and related environmental crises. Something, she says, that both Labor and the Coalition have failed to do. She also mentioned that she is highly anticipating the results from another interesting feature of FECES which monitors the levels of exhaust extracted from each mask, predicting that the government’s side of the chambers, will be “off the charts”. 

 All sides of politics have come out with similar responses, all trying to use FECES to their advantage, and using it in smear campaigns claiming that the people would finally see just how much pollution their political rivals release into the atmosphere. One Liberal MP suggested that if this plan was to be implemented, he might even support the reintroduction of a new carbon tax, solely on Labor’s breath, to make them pay for the damage of their former policy. 

 The CSIRO have also released an official statement that, whilst praising the research for its timeliness, it’s spirit and most importantly of all, its scientific merit, has pointed out that the only real solution to Australia and the world’s current energy and environmental woes, is a “reduction in the amount of energy consumed per capita and drastic measures taken to stabilise the remaining wild areas left to us”. Projects like this, while ingenious, may only provide more incentive to pollute, not less. The paper also stressed, that while this project is gaining a lot of warranted attention, and uses less fossil fuel subsidies than many other alternative energy sources such as solar and biofuels in their production stages, it would be “nothing more than a crutch with which to limp towards a low energy future”. 

 Whatever the merits of this new technology, it has certainly been polarising. When interviewing visitors outside Parliament House about their thoughts on this new source of energy, which polls are showing to have widespread support amongst ordinary Australian’s, many people were emphatically for the idea. There were, however, more than a handful that were sceptical, with one young man, who chose to remain anonymous, taking issue with the fact that the energy harnessed would only be used within parliament house, saying that, “It just seems to me like another opportunity for the pollies to get paid to talk shit that only benefits them.” 

 The Federal Minister for the Environment is expected to release his findings on FECES next week.

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