Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Moo: Cows offer options for green energy future

Posted By on Tue, Nov 9, 2010 at 12:54 PM

You know what our world needs? Our world needs people willing to think creatively about our world's problems, people who are willing to actively seek positive solutions that will benefit us all.

Researchers at South Carolina State University are doing just that:

In a few years, farmers who have battled weeds and wildflowers that were choking out their crops may actually be cultivating some of those pests - and those pests may be the answer to America's dependence on foreign oil.

Researchers at South Carolina State University recently got a provisional patent for their process of making hydrogen fuel from a combination of finely ground switchgrass and cow manure.

They worked with many inedible plants that grew wild, but eventually found the greatest success with switchgrass, said Dr. Kenneth Lewis, head of the College of Science, Mathematics and Engineering.

Switchgrass is a kind of broom straw that is drought resistant and grows freely all over the country with very little fertilizer needed, he said.

Dr. Joe Emily, who headed up the project, said researchers settled on switchgrass because it's not used for food and it's inexpensive. But he noted that any biological material - waste paper, plant material and the waste left behind by loggers - can be used to make fuel because it all has carbon and hydrogen in it.

Cow manure is being used because of the way bacteria in cows' stomachs digest cellulose in plants, Emily said.

Mammals, including cows, cannot digest cellulose, he said. "Cows eat grass and that digestion takes place through the action of bacteria in the cows' ... different stomachs. As the grass is digested, different gas byproducts are produced, with methane occurring at the last stage."

The bacteria in the cows' stomachs make hydrogen before they make methane, so the scientists have worked to stop at the stage where hydrogen is produced, Emily said. That hydrogen is then used to power a fuel cell.

Read the rest of this (Columbia, S.C.) Times and Democrat article, by Dale Linder-Altman, here.

How a hydrogen fuel cell works:

Rhiannon "Rhi" Bowman is an independent journalist who contributes snarky commentary on Creative Loafing's CLog blog four days a week in addition to writing for several other local media organizations. To learn more, click the links or follow Rhi on Twitter.

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