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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Professor awarded grant for biomass technology research

Zohrab Samani at New Mexico State University has been awarded a $60,000 grant to refine an innovative technology he created that will offer alternatives for biomass utilization. The new technology makes it faster and cheaper to process cow manure into methane gas that can then be used to generate electricity.

Zohrab Samani has received a grant for his research on processing manure for methane gas. (NMSU photo)

Samani, an associate professor of agricultural engineering, received the grant from WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development.

New Mexico, which ranks seventh in the nation in milk production, generates 3,200 tons of manure a day. When manure is moved to a different location or put into a field without composting, and even when it is composted using routine technologies, the manure loses a lot of nutrients, Samani said. Current composting processes are expensive and result in a loss of more than half of the nitrogen, he said.

Samani and his team have spent seven years working on their project. He has focused his research on manure processing for several reasons. A regulation created by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission in 2002 requires all utilities to produce at least 10 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2011. Also, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now requires licensing for the application of waste to prevent water contamination and other environmental repercussions.
The project involves a two-phase system. Manure is piled and water runs throughout the pile. Aerobic bacteria break down the manure and begin a digestion process that leads to methane gas production.

The process takes three weeks, a relatively short time compared with presently used methods of methane production. In addition, water use is lower, which is an important factor in the dry climate of the Southwest.

The process creates a higher quality of methane, 75 percent pure compared with an average of 50 percent with other technologies.

The cost is low in the field and in capital costs. Today, on average, the cost in New Mexico of properly disposing of the manure from 2,800 cows is about $1 million. Samani said the new procedure will cost less than half of that amount.

"The biggest obstacle that we have faced when dealing with these processes is economic," Samani said. "This is why our country has not made its own resources but rather has imported from other places -- economics."

Construction will begin on a pilot operating system that will be implemented this summer to prove that the technology is feasible. The pilot project will take nine months to build.

"We have the technology, we have done the research and we have projected the costs," Samani said. "We now want to prove that the technology is feasible and that it can be commercialized."

Since WERC was created in 1990, "one of the prime objectives of the program has been to solve environmental problems, which has lead to financial support for researchers, students and faculty whose work promotes this goal," said WERC Executive Director Abbas Ghassemi.

The WERC consortium includes New Mexico State University (its administrative location), New Mexico Tech, the University of New Mexico, Diné College, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories and industrial affiliates. WERC's mission is to develop human resources and technologies that assist various levels of government and private sector companies in environmental issues. For more information visit www.werc.net.