MATT WEBER: This episode
of “The Good Stuff” is brought to you in
part by the web series “Following in
Darwin’s Footsteps.” JEFF SPENCE: So Matt, what do
we have going on down there. MATT WEBER: Well, it looks
like a bunch of dirty water. [LAUGHS] JEFF: That’s where
the bugs are working. MATT: That’s where the bugs are? JEFF: YES. MATT: All that
dirty water has come from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and
its surrounding communities. Everything washed down the drain
and everything flushed down the toilet comes here. JEFF: And how’s it
smell up here, Matt? I’ve smelled worse. It’s not that bad really. The treatment of waste water
is crucial to our modern way of life. So it’s kind of funny
that we hardly ever give it a second thought. At the Jones Island waste
water treatment plant, they’re doing more than
cleaning our waste water. They’re turning it into
something useful, fertilizer. And they’ve been doing
it for 90 years now. Since 1926. We’re celebrating our 90th
anniversary this year. MATT: This is Jeff Spence of the
Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District. He’s agreed to take
us behind the scenes and show us exactly
how they do it because not only are they
turning our poop into plant food, they’re also
turning it into power. First of all, the
plant food they make is called Milorganite. It’s a biosolids fertilizer,
and the Milwaukee metropolitan sewage district
makes about 45,000 tons of it per year. You make it here
out of the waste that comes from Milwaukee. Well, that’s a misnomer. Milorganite are actually
the tiny workers that are used to clean waste water. MATT: That dirty water is
not only filled with waste. It’s a breeding ground for all
kinds of microbes from bacteria to ciliates to amoeba. So Milorganite is not poop. It is the bugs that
clean the poop. It is the bugs that actually
ingest all sorts of solids that come in here. So you’re adding air. You’re growing bugs. They’ve got a food source in all
of the organic materials that are coming in. And as long as we’re
providing that, the bugs will
continue to replicate. We’re using ecosystems
on an industrialized scale, very similar to
what you see in nature. If you think about
a swamp and how a swamp reclaims organic
material, it’s very similar. It’s a biological process
for cleaning water. MATT: And it has been called
one of the largest recycling programs in the world. And not only are they
recycling our waste, the Milwaukee Metropolitan
Sewage District is using renewable energy
to power their facilities. By 2035, we hope to be
using 100% of our energy from renewable sources. At least one of those sources
is the bugs themselves, right? Absolutely. Well, why don’t we take
a look at the facilities here and see how it’s done? To see how this
is possible, Jeff took us inside the swamp
to give us a little behind the scenes peek
at how it all works. JEFF: Two things– it’s not as
dirty as people would think, and you don’t see
a lot of people. It’s pretty balmy in
here, a little humid. JEFF: So these units are
called belt filter presses. We’re pumping the
bugs and water, and we’re going to
squeeze out the water. So it’s sort of like
wringing out a rag. Right. And so the junk in the
water here, is that bugs? Those are bugs. MATT: Because at this
point, they’ve basically eaten up all the waste. That’s correct. And we just got
this fat bacteria. Exactly. You see the water
being squeezed out. MATT: Yeah. It just kind of looks like mud. JEFF: And people would
think that the smell will be god awful. It doesn’t smell bad at all. It just smells like dirt,
like an earthy smell. Certainly better than if
this was a bunch of poop. [LAUGHING] JEFF: OK. And that’s the material
that’s coming out. MATT: Yeah. It’s flattening it into a
little bacteria pancake. Now, why don’t we
take a look up here? It’s all right? I can touch it. Go ahead. Ew! [LAUGHS] It feels like
cake, like a sponge cake. And I see up there that it’s
called a sludge cake transport. JEFF: Yeah. Once a lot of water is squeezed
out and it’s in that form, it’s called cake. And so from here, it’s
conveying to the driers, and we’ll show you those driers. All right. This will give you a
sense of the magnitude of the size of a dryer. As you can see, they’re about
the length of a city bus and probably just as tall. I think a double-decker bus. So why don’t we take a look
at the heat dried product? Yeah. It’s hard to see,
but basically it’s like a big tumbler kind of? JEFF: Touch it. It’s warm, but it’s not hot. Yeah. It feels like pebbles kind of. And so from here, the product
is shipped to screening, and then it’s
stored in the silos. The best way to get a sense of
the silos is from the outside. So we’re going to
go outside now. These silos right here is
where the product is stored. MATT: On average, how much
Milorganite is made per day? Per day, on average, it’s
about 120 tons per day. How much turf could you
fertilize with 120 tons? That’s a great question. So a bag of 36
pounds will typically cover about 2,500 square feet. So 120 tons is a pretty
significant area of land. It’s a significant amount. MATT: OK. If I did my math right,
120 tons of Milorganite should be able to fertilize
about 17 million square feet of land in one day. So at that pace, they
should be able to fertilize an area of land the size
of Milwaukee in a little under six months. JEFF: All right. So we’re now at our South Shore
water reclamation facility. This is an anaerobic
digestion facility. MATT: Yeah. So we’re standing on
top of the digester, the anaerobic
digester, right now. It’s below our feet. That’s correct. Through this facility,
we’re generating energy to run the facility. At the other facility,
it’s an aerobic digester. We saw it as those pools of
water that were being aerated. Here, it’s anaerobic, which
means they’re basically deprived of oxygen. That correct. But it’s sort of the
same thing, right? The microbes are eating
the sludge, right? They’re eating the organic
materials that are coming in, and they’re putting
off methane gas. Yeah. And that gets burned
to make electricity. JEFF: Right. And that’s used to run
our generators here. So our goal is to run
this entire plant off of the energy, or the methane,
that’s generated here. So whenever people–
whatever they’re washing down their
sinks or in the toilet, flushing the toilet,
it’s creating power here. Yeah. MATT: I think water’s
taken for granted. It’s always supposed to
come out of the faucet. And you just let it go
away, and you don’t really think about it. And the only times you
think about it really, is when the water doesn’t
work or it’s clogged or something like that. Or you don’t have it. And a lot of communities
around the world are struggling with that issue. And we here in the Midwest,
have this plentiful resource. It’s not a never ending
resource, but it’s plentiful. And we should be good
stewards of that resource. MATT: So what do you think? Is poop the next
great power source? Or is Milwaukee
just full of shit? Let us know in the comments. This episode has been
made possible in part by “Following in
Darwin’s Footsteps.” “Following Darwin’s
Footsteps” is a web series of short films from the
University of Pennsylvania that explores our
understanding of evolution. A link to their website is
in the description below. And here’s our produce Ryan
Wolf with some more interesting facts about
particles and physics and secrets of the
universe in general. Thanks, Matt. And thank you for watching. If you liked this video, please
click like and subscribe. And if you’d like to
support us, head on over to patreon and
become a supporter. So in our last video, we
talked about the almost but not quite particle that the LHC
might have discovered back in 2015. Here’s what you guys
had to say about that. Someone775 wonders when
they are going to build a bigger and better device. That would be cool. If the LHC is unable
to find a new particle, it might be that the
energy isn’t high enough, in which case you got to
build a bigger accelerator. In fact, there was going to
be a much bigger particle accelerator called the
Superconducting Supercollider which was going to
be built in Texas, but it was canceled in 1993 due
to the government being lame. But fortunately,
Ali R pointed out that China is actually
planning on building a bigger accelerator starting in 2020
which aims to be at least twice the size of the LHC and up
to seven times as powerful. It’s probably going to take
a while to build though. So it’s possible that we’ll
have to wait until at least 2030 before any new data comes in. But it could turn out that
that accelerator won’t even be powerful enough to detect
any new fundamental particles, and it’s possible that some
of the answers that we’re looking for can’t actually be
found in particle accelerators at all. Which brings us to an
interesting thought posted by Moranauer who
writes, I sometimes wonder if what causes
more existential anguish to theoretical physicists
could be that regardless of how far we’ve come in our
understanding of the universe both a large and
a time scale, we could soon reach the
limit of our capacity to research or understand it. We’re flawed after all. This is actually kind of
a scary thought for me. Part of what makes
us human, I think, is the desire to
learn new things and explore the unexplored. If there comes a
time when there’s nothing more that
we can discover, well, that would kind of suck. I forwarded this comment
along to Andre de Gouveia who I interviewed in the last video
to see if this is something that bothers him as well. It seems like at least
from the theorist side there’s not too
much to worry about. There’s still so much
out there that we’ve observed, that we have no
proven explanation for, to keep theorists occupied
for a long, long time. However, there could be a
bit more existential anguish on the experimental
side of physics. It’s possible that there could
come a time when we’re just not able to ask new
experimental questions or observe new phenomena in
the Earth or in the cosmos. For example, we could
run out of space to build a larger particle
accelerator at some point. Or maybe there’s a limit
to how far out into space we could see. Certain theories like string
theory or the multiverse might actually be
impossible to test for. But if history has
taught us anything, it’s that whenever we think
we have things figured out, something new and
surprising always comes up. And there’s every
reason to believe that we’ll continue to come
up with new and clever ways of exploring nature. So there you go. It may actually be that
our limited understanding and our flaws ensures that
there will always be new things to learn and discover. Coming up next, Craig talks
with a man who was once a vegan but is now a butcher. Why you ask? Find out next time
“The Good Stuff.” MATT: Why do we always
end videos this way? I don’t know. It just felt right. [LAUGHS]