Dutch artist, designer, independent engineer and motorcycle enthusiast Gijs Schalkx has an odd way of getting around. His motorcycle clearly has some DIY elements on it, like the wood tacked onto the frame, a small bottle of fluid on the handlebars and a balloon housed in a big transparent cylinder standing tall behind the seat. That balloon — actually a condom — is the bike’s fuel tank. You see, the Slootmotor, as his motorcycle is called, runs on methane that Schalkx painstakingly harvests from swamps. Yes, it runs on swamp gas.
Methane is terrible for the environment. It’s a potent greenhouse gas, with 100-year global warming potential 28 to 34 times that of carbon dioxide. It’s often released from the extraction and production of other fossil fuels. It’s a byproduct of the agricultural industry, as well — livestock produce methane in their digestive process (according to UC Davis, a single cow can belch 220 pounds of methane in a year). It is also produced in landfills and rice paddies, and as a byproduct of biomass burning. Methane can also occur and find its way into the atmosphere naturally, without the involvement of humans, in the decaying of organic matter.
A lot of organic matter decays at the bottom of bogs, which is where Schalkx gets the fuel for his Slootmotor (sloot means “ditch” in Dutch). He wades in and rakes the muck at the bottom, releasing bubbles of gas, which he traps in a bucket floating upside-down on the surface of the water. He then pumps it by hand into his condom fuel tank, and uses that to run the bike’s 49cc four-stroke motor. That little jar of fluid attached to the handlebars is gasoline he uses to get the engine started when it’s cold. Other than that, it’s all swamp gas.
Schalkx calls his Slootmotor the greenest vehicle on the planet, because it burns methane that would otherwise have vented naturally into the atmosphere. The byproduct of burning it is CO2, which, as we noted earlier, has far less global warming potential than the same amount of methane, which is why you’ll often see methane flaring at oil and gas operations and at landfills. And, unlike those flare stacks, the Slootmotor is actually putting that combustion to work.
It’s not the most labor-efficient way to fuel his bike. Schalkx tells Motherboard in the video above that it takes about eight hours to collect enough gas to propel the bike for 20 kilometers (12.4 miles). Probably as important as having a cleaner form of transport is that the project answered a simple question for Schalkx: Is it possible? That answer, clearly, is yes, and he says the first 500 meters he rode using the methane he harvested were the best 500 meters of his life.
“I think the biggest motivation was this idea that every time I put [gasoline] in the tank of my motorcycle, I am sponsoring, say, big corporations, their greenwashing campaigns, and I really wanted to become independent,” he told Motherboard. He likes the idea that he can find his own fuel, and that the extra effort involved only serves to make the reward sweeter.
Check out the video above, or visit Schalkx’s website to learn more about the Slootmotor.