Written by Lynda Waddington for The Iowa Independent
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican known for his blunt and somewhat “countrified” way of speaking, has taken a lot of national ridicule for his suggestion that a process associated with the fermentation of beer could be used to help clean up the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It seems, however, that such ridicule is misplaced.
On a conference call with reporters last week, Grassley suggested that the government — and specifically the Obama administration — has not attempted all available options to sop up the oil now present in the gulf.
“There is a process for making beer that – I don’t know, yeast or what it is — but you can put those microscopic things on oil and it eats up the oil. And they die and all you’ve got is some Methane gas left that you have to clean,” Grassley suggested, and then added that corn cobs, hay or straw might also be useful.
The comments were immediately circulated, and somewhat taken out of context, and eventually resulted in Grassley becoming the brunt of a joke on The Daily Show by Jon Stewart.
“Beer-making ingredients? What’s the idea? Get the ocean so wasted that it throws up the oil?” asked Stewart.
While Grassley’s casual talking style doesn’t always lend itself to easy analysis, it appears that the Senator was discussing the process involved in making beer and not necessarily the exact ingredients. And, if that is the case, science supports Grassley’s assertion.
The Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University is collaborating with Massachusetts-based Modular Genetics, Inc. to develop a process aimed at manufacturing bio-dispersants from soybean byproducts that could be used to protect coastal wetlands from the harmful impacts of oil disasters.
“Modular has shown that a particular bacterium converts soybean hulls into a bio-dispersant that can potentially be used to replace the toxic chemical dispersants that were used previously in the Gulf,” said Kevin Jarrell, chief executive officer. “Modular and ISU intend to scale-up this process at ISU’s BioCentury Research Farm near Boone.
“This natural fermentation process is analogous to the well-known process of yeast fermation used to make beer. However, rather than converting sugar into beer, Modular’s bacterium converts soybean hulls into a bio-dispersant.”
According to Ponisseril Somasundaran, a professor of engineering at Columbia University, “use of bio-dispersants should stimulate the rate of natural microbial breakdownn of the oil.”
The idea is one that Somasundaran described to Lisa Jackson, administrator of the EPA, during a special meeting in New Orleans earlier this month. The approach is currently being lab tested, but, if the results are positive, the next step will be controlled field trials and larger-scale testing.