Cows' manure could be used as a renewable energy source powering farms. (Image Credit: Leon Ephraim)
Who knew farms could be powered by cow manure through an anaerobic digester? That's what will happen to Dickinson's College Farm in Pennsylvania as part of a project to discover new renewable energy sources. This latest concept could also lead to less food waste and toxic pollution. The digester captures the manure's methane gas as it breaks down within the system, which leads to renewable energy production. The farm hopes to start digester operations by the Summer of 2023.
Anaerobic digesters work by breaking down organic matter without any oxygen present in the system. In an environment without oxygen, the microbes break down into fermented matter, such as cow manure and leftover food. This will then generate methane gas and digestate. Anaerobic digesters can lead to more responsible manure management, helping to prevent toxic farm runoff from going into local water sources. Additionally, generated heat, fuel, and electricity can reduce a farm's need for fossil fuels.
The system combines waste and water into an airtight and warm container. From there, the microbes break down the waste into smaller parts. These are then broken down into components by small organisms, a process called fermentation. The microbes turn organic molecules into simpler types while creating methane gas that can burn as fuel or turn into electricity through a generator. It also produces digestate, which can fertilize crops.
However, the system comes with a high price tag that only large farms can afford. In that case, farms would need approximately 500 cows for a cost-effect digestive project. A Pennsylvania farm only has 85 cows on average. Meanwhile, Europe farms use small-scale digesters that offer more accessibility for 85 cows. Dickinson's College Farm special projects manager Matt Steiman wants to try the smaller digesters to determine if they can boost the economy in the States.
College farm expects to run a mid-size automated digester system thanks to over a million dollars in funds granted from the EPA, ESDA, environmental organizations, and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. When it's fully operational, the farm plans to look into how to make these systems more affordable or profitable for U.S. farms. That could involve selling excess energy to the grid or decomposing local businesses' waste.
The experiment at Dickinson's farm will involve mixing the waste from 150 cows with two tons of food waste from its dining services and other businesses. The overall goal is to generate approximately 200,000 to 300,000 kWh of electricity annually. That's sufficient to power the farm and a Farm Lab education facility. According to estimates, the project could counterbalance 150 to 300 tons of gas pollution that heats the planet every year.
Isn't this sort of what Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was all about?
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