Cow pies, urine and pond scum: the messy but innovative future of energy

Cow excrement is a proven power source, with a New York company planning to build a $30 million biogas plant in Weld County next year to sell electricity to Xcel Energy, according to The Denver Post.

Now pond scum (algae, to be more precise) is on the cusp of making it as a commercially viable source of oil, according to the Durango Herald. A company growing algae on the Southern Ute reservation in southwest Colorado hopes to produce 2,000 to 2,500 gallons of oil per acre a year.

“We are growing algae and producing oil,” Solix Biofuels Inc.’s CEO Douglas Henston told the paper. “We hope that the transition of the platform to a large-scale, commercial production is right around the corner.”

So why not tap into urine? That’s a question posed by researchers quoted by The Daily Green blog:

“The basic idea here is time-honored electrolysis. It works like this: A molecule of urea (a big part of urine) has four atoms of hydrogen and two of nitrogen. Messy and smelly as it might be, you can attach a nickel electrode to your basic urine pool and produce hydrogen gas to power the world’s fuel cells. Farms could double as energy generators: Unlike us, cows and pigs don’t move around so much (especially when they’re factory farmed) so the urine is easy to collect.

Professor Geraldine Botte of Ohio University is working on the technology in miniature, but thinks it could be scaled up for commercial applications. According to a Discovery account, ‘A fuel cell, urine-powered vehicle could theoretically travel 90 miles per gallon. A refrigerator-sized unit could produce one kilowatt of energy for about $5,000 [a rough estimate].’”

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.

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