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Friday, March 25, 2011

Methane Powering a Town Near You

People who use Methane (in science fiction, at least)

Dr. Jaron Hansen has figured out how to convert waste into nearly-pure methane gas.

Hansen didn't invent the basic idea. Animals have been producing gas from 'waste' since forever. But raw gas from anaerobic digestion of waste contains more than just methane. It also contains carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.

Hydrogen sulfide is the part of gaseous and solid animal waste that stinks. It's also corrosive as all get out, which has previously made methane from waste impractical except in science fiction.

But Dr. Hansen has invented an inexpensive biogas conditioning system that removes most all the carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from waste gas. The resulting gas is 98% pure methane gas, making it affordable to create electricity and fuel from trash.

"One of the projects is with a dairy in Alberta, UT on a project to use the manure from cows as energy. The waste from 8,000 cows has the potential to generate 1.2 megawatts of electricity...enough to power 1,200 homes..."

Another project in Ogden, Utah, is using cow manure to produce biodiesel. Dr. Hansen produced the first batch just two months ago (January 2011).

I can't tell you how cool I think this is, but perhaps a story from my past will illuminate why the thought of turning manure into useful energy will suffice.

A Personal Experience with Waste

I mentioned my brief experience being a farm girl back in November (My Roots, Part 1). But I didn't tell you about the day Mom slept in.

I was kindergarten age, and my brother was about 2 years younger. While Mom slept, we gamboled about the farm, a veritable fantasy land to our tiny selves. It was full of mysterious little buildings, with arcane delights like a full set of mink paws laid out to dry in the rafters of the garage.

That day I remember playing in the broad, flat field. It was hard under our feet, and nothing grew there.

Then I came upon the hole.

In the midst of flatness, the hole stretched down into darkness. I did what any curious 5-year-old might do, unfettered by adult caution or supervision.

I jumped into the unknown.

The first sensation was sound. The splashing, sucking sound my keds made as they hit the not-solid bottom.

The second sensation was smell, as the wet, moist depths let off puffs of hydrogen sulfide.

The third sensation was fear, as I realized the walls of the hole weren't solid. I wouldn't be able to climb out.

I screamed, and my three-year-old brother peered over the edge. An eternity later, my mother peered over the edge. Moments later I was free.

I probably got hosed down and was likely asked to stay inside. Decades later I found out the rest of the story. Mom and Dad had spent the prior evening extracting a cow from the manure after it fell through the crust. Hence why she was exhausted and why there was a mysterious hole in the middle of our "play ground."

So, hooray for Dr. Hansen and his system for turning manure into useful energy. If his system had existed those decades ago, I could have enjoyed a bright, well-fueled childhood, unmarred by memories of dark terror in a sulfurous pit.


  1. My friend who works for a medium sized electric company in Tennessee tells me that methane is much more cost effective than solar or wind. Unfortunately, solar and wind are more "romantic". I guess it's understandable because of what methane is derived from, but I think we'll be hearing more about methane as an alternative energy source in the next few years.

  2. Methane would mitigate the amount of perfectly potable water currently used to flush 'waste.' I can completely see a future where it isn't considered fringe to have a loveable loo whose contents are taken to the 'recycle' drop point the way we currently recycle paper and plastic.

    Perhaps a good entry point use of such technology would be in response to natural disasters that knock out sewage and electrical systems, like what happened in Haiti or the recent disasters in Japan.

    If they were selling residential systems, I might be interested. The systems he's creating for industrial use are in the $50,000 range, but that isn't bad, compared to $100,000 for a solar system that would only produce 50% of the energy I need (estimate for a professionally installed commercial system I got from some solar website I visited this past week).