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The Museum of shit
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  Like most people, Gianantonio Locatelli—farmer, art collector, visionary—is not naturally drawn to shit. Castelbosco, his farm in the lush pastures south-west of Piacenza, northern Italy, produces dairy almost exclusively for Grana Padano cheese. Every day, enough milk flows from his 2,500 cows to make more than 130 rich, nutty wheels of the stuff.

The cows also excrete a vast amount of shit—at least 30 kilos per day. Taken together, their daily dung deposit would fill a school classroom from floor to ceiling, and weigh so much that if it was loaded onto a Boeing 737, the plane would never get off the runway.

Locally, disposing of industrial levels of farm waste can be a major problem. Globally, it is an existential threat. In 2008, Locatelli did what smart farmers do, and installed a biogas generator to turn methane from the excrement into electricity, but this still left him with huge quantities of de-methanated crap.

In a pioneering application of new technology, he began extracting urea from the waste to make plastic (otherwise made from crude oil), and using leftover slurry to make 90-percent-dung, construction-grade bricks, playfully dubbed “merdacotta,” instead of terracotta. Even the water piped around his machinery to keep it cool is being recycled, diverted to heat an entire village nearby.

Rather than leave this new poop factory as an eyesore on the Italian landscape, Locatelli then commissioned major British artist David Tremlett in 2011 to turn the site into monumental art works. Not long after that, a chat with architect Luca Cipelletti marked the birth of Museo della Merda—The Shit Museum—a public display at the farm showcasing its ground-breaking system of sustainable agriculture.

“Anyone can come and see how shit is transformed into energy, urea, plastic, bricks,” Cipelletti tells Quartz. “The point is to transform every part of the material in order to arrive at zero—where there’s no waste.”

Spread across nine rooms, each chamber of Museo della Merda hosts sculpted, stylised, or otherwise reimagined shit in installations addressed, in a fairly free way, to waste and transformation. In keeping with this latter theme, the exhibits are all temporary, but at the museum’s opening on April 27, 2015, a striking installation by Alberto Pasetti gave a taste of things to come. In a darkened room, shelves of green jars glow against one wall, illuminated by genetically engineered bioluminescent bacteria, fed by methane gas: biological, artifical light.

Cipeletti says he wants Locatelli’s museum to be a place where “we push the subject”, but a poo is a many-splendored thing, and the Museo della Merda is taking on a vast topic.

Shit, though no one wants to think about it, is one of the biggest issues facing the world today. A child dies every 15 seconds due to a lack of adequate sanitation, diarrhoea caused by ingesting feces is a bigger killer than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and measels combined, and almost two-thirds of people alive today have no access to a toilet. Perhaps Locatelli’s “zero-waste” system could be applied to human shit to the same smart, ecological effect, but sewer systems are all designed to mix shit with other toxic chemical waste and blow it out to sea.

Perhaps the only place in the world where sustainable thinking about shit has been applied is in Rwandan prisons, where inmates cook and grow all their food using biogas and fertiliser made from their own excrement.

First things first. “We’re not so pretentious that we want to solve everything,” says Cipelletti. “The most important thing is to create consciousness about the subject – that this stuff is not waste. Then we can study how to reuse human shit.”

So when will the museum’s toilet connect to the biogas digester? Cipelletti laughs: “the toilet is super normal.” For the moment, at least. 

Useable materials from waste
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The waste in your body might not be as much of a waste as you think. At a meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers have announced that they are working on a way to extract tons of valuable metals from sewage.

A study published in Environmental Science and Technology earlier this year found that the waste from 1 million Americans might contain metal (including gold, silver, titanium, lead, and zinc) worth up to $13 million. With nearly 320 million people living in the United States, that's a substantial goldmine--if scientists can figure out how sift the valuables from the sludge.

Kathleen Smith from the U.S. Geological Survey is working with several cities to analyze the solid waste for precious metals, to see exactly how much and what kinds of metals might be found at wastewater treatment plants. In some places, the concentration of gold is about the same as the amount found in a natural mineral deposit.

How does gold get into solid waste to begin with? "There are metals everywhere," Smith says in a press release, "in your hair care products, detergents, even nanoparticles that are put in socks to prevent bad odors."

Getting them back out again will be the tricky part. Smith and her colleagues are looking into leachates, chemicals that can draw metal out of rock. Leachates are generally terrible for the environment, but Smith and other researchers hope that if they are only used in wastewater treatment plants that those dangerous side effects might be contained.

"In the other part of the project, we're interested in collecting valuable metals that could be sold, including some of the more technologically important metals, such as vanadium and copper that are in cell phones, computers and alloys," Smith said.

So sometime in the future, if you say "my cellphone is a piece of crap," you might be more accurate than you care to know.

Graphene the new dimension
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The Nobel Prize winners for graphene research, Andre Geim of Manchester University and colleagues, have revealed a new application for the ultra-thin, ultra-strong material that could revolutionize fuel cell technology and open new doors for generating clean energy, reports Reuters.
Graphene, which was first isolated in 2004, is the thinnest material on Earth at just one atom thick, and is 200 times stronger than steel. It is impermeable to all gases and liquids, making it extremely useful, and its discovery paved the way for everything from corrosion-proof coating to super-thin condoms. 
In their latest research, Geim and his team have also shown that this super-material could potentially be used for "sieving" hydrogen gas from the atmosphere, for the purpose of generating electricity. The finding could make hydrogen fuel cells more viable than ever before, and even make it possible to collect fuel right out of the air.
"We are very excited about this result because it opens a whole new area of promising applications for graphene in clean energy harvesting and hydrogen-based technologies," said Geim's co-researcher on the study, Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo.
Though graphene is impermeable to even the smallest of atoms, Geim and his team found that protons, or hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons, were nevertheless capable of passing through the material. This was especially the case when the graphene was heated and when graphene films were covered with platinum nanoparticles, which act as catalysts.
Basically, this means that graphene could potentially be used in proton-conducting membranes, which are essential components of fuel cell technology. Graphene would be a superior material for these components because it does not leak — a common problem with membranes made of other materials — which would greatly improve efficiency.
Perhaps even more remarkable, however, is that this latest breakthrough means graphene membranes could be used to extract hydrogen straight from the atmosphere. When combined with fuel cells, this technology could make it possible to make mobile electric generators powered just by the tiny amounts of hydrogen in the air.
"Essentially, you pump your fuel from the atmosphere and get electricity out of it," Geim said. "Our (study) provides proof that this kind of device is possible."
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