Posted: Thursday, September 29, 2011 1:00 PM
John O'Connell/Capital Press
Tim Magnuson, a microbiology professor at Idaho State University serving on a bioenergy research team with the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, agitates a culture of phototrophs growing on dairy manure in his laboratory.
Researchers explore ways to create high-energy fuel from farm waste
By JOHN O'CONNELL
A bioenergy research team with the eastern Idaho-based Center for Advanced Energy Studies is wrapping up a three-year study to improve processes for converting farm waste into fuels and other useful products.
The CAES team, comprising scientists from the Idaho National Laboratory and all three of the state's major universities, focused primarily on dairy waste. They discovered all of the microorganisms needed to break down manure into useable forms -- for making jet fuel, various gases, ethanol and even plastics -- occur naturally in manure, said Tim Magnuson, an Idaho State University microbiology professor on the team.
Magnuson believes the research demonstrates that nature usually provides the necessary tools for a job and that the process of breaking down plant biomass in manure needn't be complicated by introducing external enzymes and microorganisms. Their work is now under review for publication in trade magazines.
While some dairies already capture methane from waste for use as a fuel source, Magnuson and his colleagues are working on the next generation of waste disposal, treating manure as a commodity to replace petrochemicals.
"I can envision a local energy economy where a dairy farm could be coupled to a fuel production plant and that fuel, whether it's liquid fuels like alcohols or gas fuels like methane or hydrogen, could be distributed for use in that region," Magnuson said.
Within the same 2-liter bioreactor Magnuson has used to break down manure biomass, he's culturing naturally occurring phototrophs -- organisms that use photosynthesis to acquire energy -- to absorb nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which could be used later as a fertilizer.
Idaho's dairy and beef cattle industries have closely followed the research. Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association, said his organization gave CAES a $200,000 grant to support University of Idaho engineering professor Eric Coats' contribution to the project. Coats is working on converting manure into plastics.
"We obviously see a lot of potential value in that," Naerebout said. "We believe for producers to stay competitive we need to find additional uses for nutrients that are produced by cows."
Wyatt Prescott, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, said: "Our byproducts are used for so many different things, and it's one more example of people trying to put our resources to better use. I definitely can see a day where our plastics are produced from manure."
CAES has taken the manure samples from Reed's Dairy in Idaho Falls.
"If it helps use manure, we were happy to contribute," said Alan Reed, owner of the 260-head dairy farm. "With the amount of cows that are in Idaho and growing, it would be thrilling to be on the cutting edge of that kind of development to use that manure more productively than just turning it into compost."
The team also did some investigation involving pulp and paper waste, and Magnuson hopes to broaden his research to include new uses for potato peels.