Powerful Poo: Trapping Methane from Cow Manure to Produce Electricity

Methane (CH4) is a powerful greenhouse gas that eventually degrades into carbon dioxide and water in the atmosphere.  Methane has a large effect on climate change over a (relatively) small time period, while carbon dioxide has a smaller affect on climate change over a larger time period. Methane is generated by anaerobic respiration, which occurs when a substance is decomposing. Examples of human-produced sources of methanol release are landfills and the excrement of cows raised for human consumption.

Methods of trapping methane are in the process of being developed and perfected, but trapping the methane is useless unless there is some way of storing or using it. This has led to the development of methane digesters, which farmers can put cow manure in. The cow manure decomposes as it normally would, but the methane is stored, purified, and called “biogas,” which can then be converted into electricity. The by-product of this process can be used for cow manure, and the Swedes are developing a system of converting biogas into fuel (transportable, clean gas) to use in transportation.

High start-up costs and problems getting electric companies to buy and convert gas from their farms has so far dissuaded farmers from becoming too involved in this new biofuel. However, with potential for eventually powering farm equipment and producing their own electricity, the farming community may soon be convinced to invest more in this burgeoning industry.

It’s hard to separate fact from fancy in a technology so young (i.e. what harmful side effects or problems don’t we know about yet?), but it is promising to see a potential fuel source that supposedly reduces greenhouse gas emissions by harnessing otherwise useless waste products.

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