The Greening of Burning Man

Burning Man 2007 starts next week, a festival-city of 40,000 that goes up for seven days in the Nevada desert to celebrate art, community, and the torching of a 40-ft Man. Afterwards, the city disappears in less than a week, leaving not even disturbed stones (you're supposed to rake them back in place).

Fittingly, given the festival's Leave No Trace ideology, this year's theme is environmental technology. And in response, a team of artists with an interest in alternative fuel is building a 120-foot land slug that will tool around the desert hoovering garbage like a giant Roomba. The designers' website says the chrome-plated creepy-crawly will produce fuel for natural-gas-powered cars at the event, as well as fertilize a terrarium of orchids and ferns in its body cavity. Also, its excretions will fuel a garden of flame-flowers around its middle and a fire-show out its anus.

How, you say? The Mechabolic, as it's known, has three segments—head, thorax, and abdomen—each to be outfitted with different technologies that mimic real-life biological systems. The head will have machines for grinding up garbage, the thorax will house the garden (they're drawing a connection between breathing plants and lungs), and the fuel will be produced in the abdomen by gasification of the garbage. Gasification is a process that converts carbon-based matter into carbon monoxide and hydrogen by heating it with limited oxygen, which extracts more energy than traditional combustion. The resultant synthesis gas—or "syngas"—is converted to hydrocarbons for use in specially modified engines, and the odds and ends left after combustion can be used as fertilizer. While not a new process, gasification has been receiving renewed attention since its high energy output and potential for nurturing new sources of carbon—i.e., plants—means it can actually have a net-negative carbon footprint.

The caveat to all of this is that at last look, construction photographs show only a metal skeleton mounted on a hinged platform. Presumably the machine-guts already exist and just aren't in the group's flickr album, but judging from the fact that self-locomotion plans have already been ditched for being dragged behind a tractor, this doesn't bode well for the final product.

But the group hopes to take the slug on tour after Burning Man, so the festival isn't the drop-dead date for the Mechabolic. And the greening of Burning Man extends far beyond this one project. A "World's Fair" of new environmental technologies including "interactive artistic, scientific, and educational models" will curl around the base of the Man in the Green Man Pavilion, with both artists and inventors contributing to the display. The greenhouse gases and carbon released by the building and burning of the Man will be offset by tree-plantings and other activism.

Other projects are on Burning Man's website, and soon hordes of videos and photos will flood the Net from the mobile web the organizers set up for their seven days in the desert. Keep your eyes peeled for the slug.—Veronique Greenwood

Photo courtesy burningman.com