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Can my body generate power after I die?

With microbial fuel cell technology, your body could power devices from beyond the grave. See more renewing the grid pictures.
With microbial fuel cell technology, your body could power devices from beyond the grave. See more renewing the grid pictures.
Scott Mansfield/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

­If your body is about average, you're made up of roughly 15 percent fat.­ Through your movements and ­body heat, you're capable of generating about 11,000 watt-hours of energy every day. If 100 percent of that energy could be convert­ed into electricity, you'd produce about 163 watts just by walking around. You wouldn't power down while sleeping, either -- while asleep you produce about 81 watts [source: Baard]. But as the saying goes, you'll sleep when you're dead, right? True, unless you put your decomposing body to work. Can your body generate power after you die? It sure can.

It's not out of the ordinary to will your estate to your children and your body to science -- except instead of harvesting the organs of your donated corpse, one radical new idea would use your body to recharge batteries. The concept is part of the "AfterLife Project," by James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau of the Royal College of Art, and it's featured at MoMA's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit in New York City. It involves the use of microbial fuel cell technology.

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­­Microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology is a new method of renewable energy where organic m­atter (your decomposing body, in this case) is converted into electricity using bacteria. Bacteria are hungry organisms capable of converting a variety of organic substances into carbon dioxide, water and energy. Normally, bacteria would use the energy produced to feed their own metabolism, but through MFC technology, the energy is instead harvested in the form of electricity.

Producing energy with MFCs is not science fiction; scientists have experimented with organic matter such as pig manure, beer and wastewater. But using gastric juices from a decomposing body is a different story. The idea is that electricity generated from decomposition can be stored in rechargeable batteries. MFCs, like conventional fuel cells, have a pair of terminals, an anode (negative terminal) and cathode (positive terminal), as well as an electrolyte solution that allows ions to travel from terminal to terminal. MFCs can be used to power small devices.

­If spending your eternal life as the Energizer bunny doesn't sound like much fun to you, we have other suggestions on how to leave the planet better than how you found it.

A designer displays her environmentally friendly "Ecopod" coffin along with a papier mâ­ché acorn urn for cremains.
A designer displays her environmentally friendly "Ecopod" coffin along with a papier mâ­ché acorn urn for cremains.
Sion Touhig/Newsmakers/Getty Images

If you spend a lifetime trying to make the world a greener place, why culminate your existence with toxic embalming fluids, a nonbiodegradable casket and final rest under a chemically treated cemetery lawn?

­There are eco-friendly burial alternatives, already popular with Europeans and beginning to capture American interest. Twenty-one percent of Americans over age 50 were interested in green burials, according to a 2007 American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) poll. And nearly half of Americans over 50 wanted more information about environmentally friendly funerals, as an American Cemetery Magazine survey reported [source: Shannon].

So what makes a burial "green?" Green burials don't use formaldehyde in the embalming process, the caskets aren't made of metal or rare wood, and they don't use concrete burial vaults. The aim is to reduce the carbon footprint of your afterlife by reducing toxins, waste and carbon emissions in the interment process. In order to do so, conventional choices are supplanted by green substitutes: biodegradable caskets made from fair-trade bamboo, "Ecopods" constructed from recycled newspaper, cremation urns made from biodegradable materials and shrouds woven from unbleached, natural fibers. Toxic chemicals are removed from the process as well. Dry ice or refrigeration replaces formaldehyde, which is considered a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRAC) [source: National Cancer Institute]. Cemetery landscapes are conserved and lawns kept free from pesticides.

Choosing to have your body cremated is popular worldwide and has long been considered more eco-friendly than burial. As it turns out, that's not the case: Crematoriums consume energy to produce temperatures exceeding 1,832 degrees F (1,000 degrees C) and discharge dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere [source: Koerth-Baker and Green Burials]. Some countries in Europe are trying to change this, or at least make lemonade from lemons. Crematoriums there are experimenting with harnessing that intense heat and turning it into usable energy. The city of Helsingborg, Sweden, for example, gets 10 percent of its home heating energy from its local crematoriums [source: Koerth-Baker].

There are also some strange options for recycling human remains that are not yet widely practiced.

For those looking to keep their assets liquid even in the afterlife, consider this: Alkaline hydrolysis is the process of dissolving bodies into a sterile, brown syrup the consistency of motor oil that can be poured down the drain. A steel cylinder dissolves the body using lye, 300-degree F (149-degree C) heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch (4.2 kilogram-force per square centimeter) [source: Cheng]. It's a technique used currently only to dispose of research cadavers, human medical waste and animal carcasses in veterinary schools, university medical centers, pharmaceutical companies and by the U.S. government (which disposes of infected animal waste through the U.S. Department of Agriculture). It has piqued the interest of the funeral industry, although it isn't yet an offered service. The idea is controversial -- a bill to legalize the alkaline hydrolysis process in New York was nicknamed the "Hannibal Lecter Bill," and one Roman Catholic diocese in New Hampshire considers flushing human remains undignified [source: Cheng].

If you can't see yourself going down the drain, how about being recycled into a synthetic coral reef, graphite or even jewelry? Underwater burial at sea in artificial coral reefs takes your cremated remains, or cremains, and mixes them with concrete to create a home to marine life that's also a memorial. Alternatively, recycling carbon from your cremains into graphite gives you the option to live on eternally as a diamond, or a considerably less flashy lifetime supply of pencils.

With so many choices for your body once you've passed away, who needs to be worm food?

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • "A rival to burial: Dissolving bodies with lye." MSNBC. 2008. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24526431/
  • Baard, ­Erik. "People Power: Capturing the Body's Energy for Work On and Off Earth." SPACE.com. 2001. http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/body_power_011128-1.html
  • Beckford, Martin. "Father returns as a diamond to accompany daughter down the aisle." Telegraph. 2007. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/global/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/global/2007/03/29/ndiamond129.xml
  • "Biodegradable coffins rise up." USA Today. 2007. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-12-26-coffins_N.htm
  • Cheng, Jessica. "Green until the Very End." Popular Science. 2008. http://www.popsci.com/environment/article/2008-05/green-until-very-end
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  • Green Burial Council. http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/
  • Green Burials. http://www.greenburials.org/
  • Jardon, Mario. "Microbial Fuel Cells from Rhodopherax Ferrireducens." The Science Creative Quarterly. http://www.scq.ubc.ca/microbial-fuel-cells-from-rhodopherax-ferrireducens/
  • Jarvis, Nadine. "Carbon Copies." http://www.nadinejarvis.com/projects/carbon_copies
  • Koerth-Baker, Maggie. "10 Things Your Body Can Do After You Die." Mental Floss. 2008. http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/18096
  • Logan, B.E. "Microbial Fuel Cell Research." Penn State University. 2007. http://www.engr.psu.edu/ce/enve/mfc-Logan_files/mfc-Logan.htm
  • Pothier, Mark. "For some, a casket just isn't natural." The Boston Globe. 2005. http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2005/04/25/for_some_a_casket_just_isnt_natural/
  • "Recycling in its purest form -- among the worms." CNN. 2007. http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/12/26/green.coffin.ap/index.html
  • Shannon, Megan. "Dying to be green?" East Orlando Sun. 2008. http://www.eosun.com/article-533-dying-to-be-green.html

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