Question: Is it possible to store farts?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: We have seen that many of the principles of flatology are echoes of 17th century medical science. Back then, people were very concerned about the Plague, and this period produced Boyle’s Law, the study of miasma, and the development of face coverings to protect against putrid air.
During the Great Plague of London, the medical establishment contended that the deadly miasma could be neutralized with other varieties of foul air. So they advised people to fart into jars and then open the jar when they thought they had been exposed to the plague.
It remains to seen whether farts can protect against plagues, but in this post, we are interested in the fundamental question of whether farts can in fact be stored in jars.
Presumably, the answer to this question depends on the jar and on the stability of the molecules that give farts their smell, primarily hydrogen sulfide (H2S). The stability of H2S depends in turn on the material of the container – whether it reacts with or adsorbs the gas. With metal containers, hydrogen sulfide can be stable over time periods of at least 18 months, as demonstrated by Benesch, Haouchine, and Jacksier (Anal. Chem., 2004).
These data are encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether higher concentrations can be maintained, and whether a standard glass jar is up to the task. There is only one way to answer this question, and that is to fart into a jar.
Six days ago, we farted into a jar, after first placing one of our air quality meters inside. Streaming webcam footage of this fart is shown here:
The air quality sensor can be seen at the bottom, and we have now extracted the corresponding VOC readings, which are plotted here:
The first observation is that H2S does in fact remain fairly stable over this time period, deviating by around 10% from its mean value of 10.76 ppm. Nevertheless, there are some interesting dynamics over this time, as the fart smell initially decays and then recovers over a period of about four days. This is a curious phenomenon, given that the jar was carefully sealed.
Although the jar was kept indoors, there was some variation in ambient temperature, so we though that perhaps the changes in H2S concentration could be predicted from the Ideal Gas Law. The usual formulation of this law is PV = nRT, with P being pressure, V being volume, n being the amount of substance, T the temperature, and R a constant. Rearranging the terms, we get n/V = P/RT, where n/V is the gas concentration, which is thereby predicted to vary inversely with temperature.
We tested the hypothesis that the fart smell was inversely proportional to temperature by placing the jar in a colder environment, depicted here:
As shown by the red lines in the data figure above, the H2S concentration declined further during this time, which is inconsistent with an explanation in terms of the Ideal Gas Law. This could be an example of LeChatelier’s Principle, or some other mechanism by which the fart reacts with the surrounding elements in the jar. These can be quite complicated, and we are currently examining this issue in collaboration with some colleagues.
But the main conclusion thus far is that farts can indeed be stored for a long time. Indeed, most paleoflatologists believe that a fart stored in a jar during the 17th century London Plague could have survived to this day.