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January 09, 2009

Fat at 40,000 Feet

Famous Fat Twins
Minibikes don't discriminate.

by Sara Tucker

Whatever is heavy on the ground is even heavier in the air. That's not physics; it's economics. It's costing the airlines $538 million a year to tote our excess flab through the did the math--and that's just in terms of jet fuel. In Canada, the cost of serving overweight flyers just went up: Starting tomorrow, disabled passengers, including the severely obese, will be entitled to two seats for the price of one on domestic flights.

Our fatness is forever in the news. Bloggers loved the story of Dr. Craig Alan Bittner, the Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon who used human blubber to power his SUV, a bit of journalistic flotsam that surfaced during Christmas week, just as millions of Americans were resolving to slim down in 2009. The Beverly Hills lipodiesel story had some holes in it (Wired, for one, called Bittner's bluff; the doctor himself has skipped town). And yet the whole idea of fat-powered vehicles is just too intriguing to dismiss.

Obvious question: Why not use air travelers' excess weight to help fly the plane?

A quick search of the Internet reveals that the technology isn't new. "The Earthrace, a high-speed eco-boat that broke records last year when it circumnavigated the globe in just under 61 days, was powered partly by former love-handles," observes the Christian Science Monitor's Bright Green Blog. The boat's captain and two volunteers "donated a combined 2.5 gallons of fat, enough to power the boat for 9 miles."

Weird science, but maybe not that weird. In fact, Tyson Foods will begin turning leftover beef tallow, pork lard, chicken fat and greases into jet fuel next year. The Dynamic Fuels plant, located near Baton Rouge, is a joint venture between Tyson and Syntroleum, a producer of synthetic fuels.

"There is currently no other fuel production facility like this in the U.S., so we're very excited about building the first one," said Syntroleum exec Jeffrey Bigger when ground was broken in October.

Can lipodiesel be far behind?

"Biodiesel made from plant stock or animal fat (or a combination of the two) will likely get a lot of attention in the coming year as a potential fuel alternative to the petroleum, gasoline and kerosene polluting the environment," reports Scientific American's 60-Second Science blog.

There's a legal glitch, having to do with laws governing the disposal of medical waste. But looked at from an economic perspective, does turning human fat into fuel make sense? Blogger Gar Smith thinks so. In his essay "Tapping the Fat of the Land," he calculates that "Americans are hauling around (at minimum) the fat-equivalent of 2.92 million barrels of oil on their bodies." Add this to the fact that liposuction is the nation's "most popular cosmetic surgery (455,000 procedures in 2006 alone)," and he predicts the day will come when "patriotic Americans can boost their health and the nation's oil reserves by making voluntary donations to a Federal Liposuction Aggregation Bureau. FLAB's slogan could be: 'A waist is a terrible thing to waste.' "

Further reading:
* How Airlines Deal with "Customers of Size" (MSNBC)
* The Aggregator: News of the week in links


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