Power Q&A: Jamie Hyneman

The Discovery Channel mythbuster and weird-energy aficionado tackles algae, grape juice, dirty diapers, and seven other wacky energy-source ideas.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons; Illustration: Otto Steininger

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

On the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters, Jamie Hyneman slays urban legends with the greatest of ease. Since he’s also a weird-energy enthusiast (he once powered a small rocket with a salami), we asked him to help us separate the big ideas from the duds on the energy frontier.

Cow manureENERGY SOURCE: Cow manure
HOW IT WORKS: In an anaerobic digester, bacteria break down manure and produce methane, which is trapped and used to generate electricity.
PLAUSIBLE: It’s already being used in California. “nasa actually investigated this, because if you’re going to Mars and you’ve got people on board, you’ve got poo,” says Hyneman.

ENERGY SOURCE: Human motion
HOW IT WORKS: Create a “crowd farm” like the Sustainable Dance Club in Rotterdam.
BUSTED: JH: “Go for the babies. Just put them on a little treadmill and let ’em rip.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Magnetic motors
HOW IT WORKS: Evangelical entrepreneur Dennis Lee claims his 500%-efficient motors will bring free energy and “an abundance of wealth for worldwide end-times evangelism.”
BUSTED: There’s no sign the technology actually works, but Lee has gotten rich selling dealerships to true believers. JH: “I’ve gotten so that I can smell these things a mile away.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Unicellular green algae
HOW IT WORKS: Deprived of sulfur and oxygen, they produce high yields of hydrogen.
PLAUSIBLE: JH: “Algae are such basic, simple organisms. If you optimize them, they are going to produce massive quantities of whatever you have tailored them to.”

HOW IT WORKS: The Atomic Energy Commission uses special plastic to convert raindrops’ falling motion into electricity.
BUSTED: JH: “A when-pigs-fly kind of scenario. It’s millions of times more efficient to collect hydroelectric power through a dam than raindrop by raindrop.”

HOW IT WORKS: Microwave enthusiast Frank Pringle found that nuking tires in a vacuum creates diesel fuel, combustible gas, carbon black, and high-strength steel.
BUSTED: JH: Tires do contain hydrocarbons, but “it requires a relatively huge amount of energy to do that conversion. I’m a little suspicious of using microwaves.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Empty space
HOW IT WORKS: Thomas Bearden says he can use vacuum energy to power a generator.
BUSTED: JH: “The universe is filled with energy, but pulling energy out of a vacuum or something—there’s no substance there as far as I’m aware.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Grape juice
HOW IT WORKS: NanoLogix uses bacteria to convert Welch’s sugar runoff into hydrogen.
PLAUSIBLE: JH: As with algae, “with microbes there is no bottleneck to slow you down.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Dirty diapers
HOW IT WORKS: A British company turns poop and plastic from diapers into gas and oil.
BUSTED: JH: “Are you really going to be able to isolate diapers in such huge volumes that you’re running your entire country off of gasoline powered by diapers? No.”

ENERGY SOURCE: Greenhouse gases
HOW IT WORKS: Los Alamos scientists propose exposing air to potassium carbonate, which absorbs carbon dioxide that is then converted into methanol, gasoline, or jet fuel.
PLAUSIBLE: JH: “How do you come up with the energy to do this conversion? If you can get it from something like sunlight, then there is your free lunch.”


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend