Manure-Fed Biofuels Might Make For New Crop At Dairy Farms

Jul 9, 2014

On a table in the front room of the milking barn here at Nordic Farms in Charlotte, you can hear the murky liquids bubbling inside a series of foot-tall Erlenmeyer flasks.

The scene seems more like a 1970s-era chemistry set than a cutting edge research facility. And in fact the set-up here is mostly for show – a larger version of the experiment is being run out of a high-tech laboratory in Burlington.

But it’s also a live demonstration of government-funded research aimed at finding out whether manure and runoff from dairy farms in Vermont could be converted into fuel oil for everything from jet engines to basement boilers. And according to officials at the government agency that funded the feasibility study, the experiment was a resounding success.

“We’ve always know that Vermont farms and Vermont dairy farms make some of the best milk in the world,” says Ted Brady, Vermont state director for rural development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But did any of us ever know that these same cows can produce fuel oil?”

"We've always know that Vermont farms and Vermont dairy farms make some of the best milk in the world. But did any of us ever know that these same cows can produce fuel oil?" - Ted Brady, Vermont director for rural development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture

The $51,000 USDA grant funded a yearlong study overseen by the Burlington-based biofuel company GSR Solutions. Dr. Anju Dahiya is the president of the company, and the brains behind the operation. At an event announcing the study’s success, Dahiya tried to explain the complex process to laypeople.

“Our effort has been to use a closed loop system that can utilize the waste coming out of the farms,” she said.

As Dahiya explains it, the waste is then fed to algae, which, under certain conditions, will then produce oil. The process also yields by-products that can be converted into fertilizer and animal feed.

There’s nothing new about algae biofuel, which is being produced in far larger quantities at test facilities around the globe. But officials said Dahiya’s enterprise is the first to produce oil by using farm waste as food for the oil-producing algae.

“This is an important first step,” says Todd Campbell, energy advisor to the U.S. secretary of agriculture. “And that’s what we’re interested in at USDA, is proving out the concept, taking small steps forward to optimizing systems.”

The hardest work for Dahiya and the industries that would benefit from her work is still ahead. And they’ll be looking for more government help as they try to launch a more than $1 million project at Nordic Farms to see whether the process works at a larger scale.

Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, said the work being done at Nordic Farms could be key to his trade organization’s goal of getting 100 percent of its product biofuels by 2050.

“So the big question we have ahead of us is, can we reach cost parity? Can we get from whatever it costs to build in a lab, and when we get to a commercial scale, can we get to three bucks a gallon? Can we get to $2.75 a gallon?” Cota says.

The process could also be used to convert waste produced at breweries and wineries.