There is no plumbing on Mount Everest. When nature calls, climbers must use makeshift holes dug by sherpas, or use buckets as substitute toilets. With the ever-increasing number of climbers attempting to scale the mountain, containing all of that human waste is no small problem.
Currently, National Geographic reports, much of the excrement is carried in sealed containers on the backs of porters to the nearby village of Gorak Shep (which also lacks plumbing or sanitation facilities), where it is emptied into open pits. Up to 12 metric tons of the stuff can be hauled to Gorak Shep in a single year. But the village is running out of space for containing the mess, and last year researchers discovered that the refuse had contaminated one of the village’s two major water sources.
Seattle climber and engineer Garry Porter witnessed the problem first hand when he attempted to scale Everest ten years ago. Since then, the image of all of that waste has stuck with him. ”I couldn’t shake the feeling that my final tribute to Nepal and the people of Everest was having my waste dumped in these open pits. It just didn’t seem right,” he told National Geographic.
Porter decided to found the Mount Everest Biogas Project as a potential fix, along with Everest guide Dan Mazur.
In biogas production, bacteria feed on organic waste (like feces) and produce several gases as a byproduct. One of these is methane, which is the primary component of natural gas and can be burned for heat and light, or converted to electricity. One cubic meter of biogas provides about two kilowatt-hours of useable energy. This is enough to power a 60-watt light bulb for more than a day, or an efficient 15-watt CFL bulb for nearly six days. A biogas reactor at Gorak Shep could address the fecal contamination problem while providing the perennially low-income community with a sustainable source of methane gas for energy, especially for cooking, Porter says.
The team plans to keep the biogas digester tanks warm (they stop working if temperatures drop below freezing) with solar panels.
In addition to getting rid of all the feces, the team hopes that the biogas project will relieve some of the pressure on Everest’s natural resources. All of those poop-producing climbers also need to eat, and cooking fuel often takes the form of native plants harvested around Everest, including an endangered species, the alpine juniper. If successful, the project will be the world’s highest elevation biogas reactor and could be introduced to other high altitude areas around the world.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Mount Everest Is Not Immune to Climate Change
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