Science or Fiction? 

Beam it up, governor

Gov. Brian Schweitzer unveiled plans this week for one of the nation’s first coal-to-liquids plants, a privately funded $1.3 billion facility at the Bull Mountain coal mine near Roundup that would turn coal into synthetic gas and diesel fuel. The proposal has recently garnered considerable national press, with Schweitzer touting the fact that the coal’s mercury, sulfur and particulate matter would be removed during the gasification process, with the excess carbon dioxide sequestered underground.

Some environmentalists are skeptical that the process is as clean as the governor claims, but Jeff Lane has a big idea that could assuage a doubting Thomas’ concerns, and he briefly put down his copy of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything to explain it.

Lane, a small-time inventor from Mission, Kan., and self-described “science freak,” thinks Schweitzer should simply suck the nasty byproducts of coal gasification into outer space.

“The current thought of storing waste underground has its obvious drawbacks,” Lane wrote in a recent letter to Schweitzer. “My idea…is to build a tube [approximately] 6 feet in diameter and roughly 60,000 miles long, suspended in outer space, driven by propulsion and using the natural vacuum of space, [to] suck the waste gases out.”

While Lane’s idea may sound crazy, the concept has a basis in NASA-funded research toward a “space elevator.” For decades sci-fi writers and space visionaries have dreamt of a 60,000-mile-long ribbon to space on which mechanized “crawlers” could carry payloads from earth to orbit without the use of rockets. Recent developments in carbon nanotube technology have brought the idea closer to reality, and research teams from around the world will compete in a NASA-sponsored competition in Mexico this month called the “Space Elevator Games” for a $400,000 grand prize.

If an elevator to space is possible, Lane wonders, why not an interstellar garbage disposal?

Schweitzer says he’s received Lane’s proposal but doesn’t know quite what to make of it.

“Our technical people are looking into it,” he says.

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