We’ve explored a range of uses for lichens from diapers to perfume. These, however, just touch on the diverse uses for this incredibly versatile organism. Check out these to stretch your imagination.
As Jet Fuel Enhancement
First here’s a little bit of background on jet fuel. Jet fuel is often considered to be superior to all other petroleum-based fuels. Its purity and overall quality standards are necessary given the possible consequences of performance failure.
Even so, when jet fuel is heated by hot gas turbine engines, it will degrade. It accumulates into solid deposits and becomes gummy. As a result, this will negatively impact the efficient operation of aircraft engines and may cause even greater damage.
A recent experiment added a lichen-derived antioxidant compound to some jet fuel. Certain types of antioxidants are known to be gum inhibitors, so there was reason to believe this might work. The test demonstrated a significant reduction of deposits, improving the overall operations of the engines. Consequently, the use of lichens in this application is being further explored.
Use for Dating Artifacts
Radiocarbon dating may be the standard in determining the age of an artifact but it is quite expensive. It also isn’t as useful when measuring dates that are less than about 500 years old. As a result, some archeologists with tight budgets or newer artifacts have turned to an alternative technique called lichenometry.
Lichenometry uses the size of a lichen on a surface to determine the surface’s age. The process typically measures yellow members of the lichen genus Rhizocarpon. These grow slowly and can live for as long as 10,000 years.
This process is most often used in arctic and alpine areas where fewer competitors grow on the same surfaces. The catch is that you will need a local calibration of the growth rates. Fortunately, these reference records are being updated frequently and are becoming more commonplace.
Monitoring for Pollution
Lichens can be found almost everywhere, except for polluted areas of cities. They usually are not found in cities because they do not tolerate pollution well. Consequently, you can use the health of certain species to determine the local air quality.
One such example is lichen’s sensitivity to sulfur dioxide, a pollutant that results from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal or oil. Certain types of lichen absorb some of the sulfur dioxides and as a result, you can see a measurable impact on its ability to photosynthesize. The worse the health of the lichens, the worse the air pollution.
Some types are such good indicators that they are used as frequently as biweekly for monitoring pollutant deposits.
A Model for Possible Life on Mars
When trying to determine what possible types of life may have lived on Mars, lichen rises to near the top of the list as an intriguing model.
They have proven to be survivors of challenging conditions. Some lichen species have survived traveling on the European Space Agency’s satellite FOTON M3 and they have been part of an International Space Station mission. They were not only able to survive but they were also able to reproduce after being exposed to space.
In related experiments, lichens known as Xanthoria elegans have also survived simulated Martian temperatures and radiation. These studies point to clues about possible habitable locations – at least for lichen – on Mars.
I wonder how many other organisms have such an array of practical applications. Would we be more protective of them if we fully understood their potential? Sadly, without a clear value to humans, most seem to be disposable. Let’s encourage further discovery to promote enhance stewardship of all organisms.
More about jet fuel and degradation – https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA431064.pdf
Lichens to mesure pollution – https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-540-47343-5_1
As a model for life on Mars – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1754504812000098