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June 12, 2009

News & Features

'Natural' gas: WWU students hope their cow manure fuel technology will go far

Special to NWautos

Viking

The Viking 32, built by students and faculty at Western Washington University, runs on biofuel. (Photo by Cody Ellerd)

Dung, manure, cow pies, cow power, biogas, biomethane, "natural" gas -- whatever you want to call it, if Eric Leonhardt and his students get their way, it's going to be powering the bus you ride to the 2010 Olympics.

On the lot of Western Washington University's Vehicle Research Institute in Bellingham sits Viking 32, a car built by students and faculty that runs on biomethane. The plucky little car, painted electric blue, is one of the VRI's 40-plus vehicles built from scratch since the program was founded in 1972. And all have a forward-reaching vision toward innovation.

Viking 32, completed in 2004, is what Leonhardt, the VRI's program director, says is the world's first plug-in hybrid car powered by biogas, or fuel derived from cow manure. The car won several awards at Tour de Sol, a "green" transportation competition in the Northeastern U.S. that year. If funding comes through, the technology will be transferred to a fleet of buses running up and down the I-5 corridor in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Biogas facts
  • Most mammals, including humans, produce biogas as they digest their food. Bacteria living in the digestive system produce methane as they break down cellulose in food.
  • Biogas can be converted from nearly any waste stream containing organic matter, including pig manure and food waste.
  • Anaerobic digestion helps to keep harmful organisms from damaging watersheds.
  • Biogas plants have been installed in rural areas in Nepal, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Rwanda, China and India as an environmentally safe source of energy.

Raising cattle generates more greenhouse gases globally than driving cars, according to a 2006 United Nations report on livestock. "If we can convert that gas to something useful," says Leonhardt, "not only will we help farming, but we'll help cars."

The VRI program has about 110 undergraduates earning degrees in industrial technology, vehicle design and automotive plastics engineering. It gets its waste material from the Vander Haak Dairy in Lynden, about 40 miles south of the Canadian border. The farm was the first commercial dairy in Washington state to transform manure into electricity, which it sells to Puget Sound Energy to power homes.

The manure is put through a treatment tank -- what Leonhardt calls a "giant composting system" for wet waste -- which produces biogas. By the time the VRI classes get it, it's a clear gas with no odor. They put the gas through a refinery unit they built with the Viking 32 award money, filtering it to just methane.

The Paul Allen Foundation has put up some money to get the gas on the streets. In September, the VRI team will find out if it wins a grant it bid on through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"It's a sure thing that we'll run a bus on biomethane," Leonhardt says. "Whether it's here on campus or up and down I-5 depends on funding."

Leonhardt says he would like to see cow-powered cars, city transit and school buses transporting people across Whatcom County, which is home to 80,000 cows. He estimates that two farms could power all of the area's public buses, and two more farms could cover the rest, including school buses.

The main challenge, he says, is persuading more farms to invest in the conversion technology, which runs about $1,000 per cow in start-up costs.

"It's a tough time right now, but it's also the time to take the most risk," Leonhardt says. "We have a huge potential impact that can be made here."

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