Cows’ Burps and Farts Can Make Methane Gas To Make A Car Run (And Not Just Away)

By Gabrielle Jonas on April 18, 2014 8:43 AM EDT

Biting Off More Than She Cud Chew
This bovine is not camping, but living the green life. A catheter carries methane gas from her intestine to her backpack. It's part of a pilot program in Argentina to create energy for outlying areas. (Photo: intainforma.inta.gov)
Being Environmentally Friendly Isn't Always So A-Moo-Zing
A cow in Argentina is being milked for the methane she uses in digestion, by government pilot program. Its coordinator of animal physiology says the livestock are well-treated in the process. (Photo: intainforma.inta.gov)

The methane gas that cows produce by belching and farting can be redirected into biofuels, a pilot program in Argentina demonstrated, Fast Company reported recently  Last fall, Argentina's National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) announced it was testing a method of capturing the average 80 gallons (300 liters) of methane a cow produced before it ever left the its intestinal tract. The agency also devised a way to compress that gas into biofuel by using a low-tech method that it hopes will work well in rural, outlying areas of the country. INTA spokesman Pablo Sorondo told Fast Company the resulting methane could be used to power a farm or, through a collective, provide electricity to an entire town in remote areas of Argentina as an alternative for cooking, lighting and even driving their cars.

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Methane comprised nine percent of greenhouse gases in the U.S from 1990 to 2012, according to an EPA report out  this month. Globally, the agricultural sector, which includes the methane emanated by cows, is the primary source of CH4 emissions, according to the report, titled, "Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks Agriculture."  The emissions associated with livestock production chains account for 14.5 percent of all emissions of human origin: About 39 percent are produced during the digestion of cows and 10 percent by the decomposition of manure, says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The average cow burps or farts about 300 liters of methane a day, which can operate a 100-liter refrigerator at a temperature of between two and six degrees for a full day, according to project technician Ricardo Alberto Bualo, of the Instituto de Patobiologia. INTA researchers collected, purified and compressed the methane emitted by cattle for use as a biofuel energy source to generate electricity, heat, and biofuel for cars, and power a refrigerator to a car engine. purified and compressed biomethane said INTA's coordinator of Animal Physiology, Guillermo Berra. 

The technicians inserted a two-millimeter-diamater tube through a cow's skin and into the dorsal sac of its rumen, the largest of its digestive tracts. They connected the other end of the tube to a backpack that collected the gas, which was then condensed down into usable form. INTA claims the procedure is painless. Berra stressed that care and respect for livestock are maintained from start to finish of the gas collection process: That included conducting the micropunctures under local ansesthesia and making sure the weight of the backpacks not exceed 500 grams  -- a load no heavier than the one cattle carry in a rodeo or during pregnancy.  

INTA technicians used the industrial compound mono-ethanolamine to remove carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from the digestive gasses, obtaining a concentration of about 95 percent methane. They then compressed the gas using a bike-pump, and an exercise bike piston before put in containers. Their goal was not just to generate energy efficiently and sustainably, but to prevent the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, INTA said.

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