Gijs Schalkx knew he could build a methane powered motorcycle, but first he had to figure out where to get a giant balloon to store the gas.
“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “They’re from a sex store. They’re not condoms, but I found these images of naked women on these balloons laying around. I thought, ‘they’re almost 200 liters and they seem very strong, so that takes care of that.’”
Schalkx is an engineer and artist who built a methane powered motorcycle that runs on gas harvested from local bogs in his native Netherlands. It’s a strange and beautiful bit of inefficient engineering. Eight hours of harvesting time will let the motorcycle—called Sloot Motor, sloot means “ditch” in Dutch—run for 12 miles.
The back of the retrofitted Honda motorcycle has a giant class container filled with a condom-like balloon. Like most things about the bike’s construction, the giant fetish balloon was used out of necessity. “I used these balloons because they needed to be strong,” Schalkx said on a Zoom call with Motherboard. It’s just so happened that the sex store had the strongest balloons that would be great for storing a gaseous fuel.
Schalkx just graduated from a Dutch art institute with honors and the methane powered bike was his final project. As a poor student working his way first through engineering school then art school, the old Honda motorcycle appealed to him because he could repair it himself. “It was cooler than the newer ones, and cheaper,” he said.
Also, there’s a kind of romance to a motorcycle. “I have this very big desire to use this combustion engine,” he said. “It brings you this independence, and you get movement, and you don’t need anything else except gasoline to power it.”
He didn’t have much money so he learned to work on the bike himself. “It started two years ago when I took apart my own motorcycle and rebuilt the whole thing. I spent a lot of time, money, and effort rebuilding this 35 year old motorcycle to be good as new.” As he worked on the bike he stopped studying engineering and went to art school. It was there he got the idea for a methane powered bike. “Eventually it became my graduation project because it took so much time and research and effort to find out if it would actually work.”
As he worked on the bike, someone lent him a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book, a classic of 1970s counter-culture, is the story of a guy traveling across America on a bike while discussing his personal philosophy and explaining the joy of motorcycle repair. A big theme of the book is changing your individual relationship to technology, the main character learns to repair his motorcycle as a kind of zen meditation on becoming present with the stuff he uses in his everyday life.
Schalkx said the book spoke to him. “You work five days a week to pay rent and pay for everything in your life. You try to outsource most things you don’t know, but you become scared of all the technology you use,” he said. “I don’t know how to repair my laptop. I just accept these things are broken. It could be easily avoided if you just sometimes check these things yourself and don’t be so scared of the things you don’t know.”
According to Schalkx, he was afraid of his motorcycle when he first got it because he didn’t understand how it worked. In taking the engine apart and putting it back together, he deepened his relationship to the technology and overcame his fear. “This relationship becomes more intense and intimate because, when I pull the clutch, I know exactly which parts all move and I better understand the relationship between the objects and the way they function.”
It was an attitude that served him well as an engineering student, but he said he found school restrictive. “Engineering is boring,” he said. “There’s so many rules.”
Sloot Motor was a project that allowed him to indulge his love of motorcycles while working towards a different and more sustainable world. “You can never come up with the big solution for all the problems, but I’m going to try to find a way to keep the combustion engine alive,” he said. “Even if we might switch to other types of fields, we all drive electrical or whatever, I don’t want to give up this little bit of technology. This old technology.”
During our conversation Schalkx returned to this theme of being present with technology, of better understanding it. It’s easy to fill up a car with gas and just go, but few people stop to consider how much energy is stored in a gallon of the stuff and what a shocking miracle it is that we can use it to power society.
He stressed that he didn’t hate oil companies like Shell. After all, Sloot Motor requires a little gasoline to start the engine before the methane kicks in. “I’m also dependent on them,” he said. “I also need their services to survive within my daily life. I don’t like what they’re doing as a company but I cannot really get rid of them in my life.”
Schalkx says that the public harvesting of methane is intentional. He wants to start conversations with people about climate change and the way society works. “That’s the goal here. To get these people to turn around a bit and see that these lifestyles we’re living, we can not keep them up like this.”
After the article ran on Motherboard and in the newspaper, scientists reached out to him with tips for collecting methane faster. “Apparently wherever ducks are, there’s way more methane,” he says. “Their shit helps a lot.”