A group of Michigan State University researchers are attempting to commercialize a machine that can turn cow manure into clean water and extract nutrients from that water to serve as fertilizer.
Known as the McLanahan Nutrient Separation System, the machine takes an anaerobic digester and couples it with an ultrafiltration, air stripping and a reverse osmosis system.
The result, or at least one of the results, says MSU, is water clean enough for livestock to drink, or, at the very least, to dispose of in an environmentally friendly manner.
"If you have 1,000 cows on your operation, they produce about 10 million gallons of manure a year," said Steve Safferman, an associate professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering who is involved in the project. "About 90% of the manure is water but it contains large amounts of nutrients, carbon and pathogens that can have an environmental impact if not properly managed."
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While turning the manure into clean water makes environmental sense, the team also is conducting research on how it can make good financial sense for farmers. In some cases, MSU says, it could have a significant impact on the long-term viability of the farm.
"Here in Michigan we have a tendency to take water for granted," Safferman said. "But out west, for example, where drought remains an issue, the accessibility of clean water could make the difference between a farm remaining viable or going out of business."
Above and beyond
The process "goes beyond a typical digester," said Jim Wallace, a former MSU student who earned his doctorate under the direction of Safferman and William Bickert, former professor of agricultural engineering. It does this by extracting nutrients from the manure that can be harmful to the environment and can be re-used as fertilizer.
"For example, we're able to capture a large percentage of the ammonia that would otherwise be lost in the atmosphere," said Wallace, who now works for the McLanahan Corp., which is working to develop the technology. "Ammonia is a negative from an air-quality standpoint."
Currently the system produces about 50 gallons of water from 100 gallons of manure. Wallace said the goal is to increase that number to about 65 gallons.
Work on the project began about 10 years ago at MSU, under the direction of Bickert, who saw the potential of anaerobic digesting.
"It's a success story of a university project starting with a concept and moving all the way, hopefully, to commercial fruition," Safferman said.
Commercialization is expected by the end of this year, MSU says.
Source: MSU Today