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NMSU researches biohydrogen production

Imagine an energy source that is efficient, pollution-free, and will never run out. Now, imagine that fuel comes from ordinary dairy cows - specifically, from their manure.

From left, Ph.D. candidate Ramana Gadhamshetty, postdoctoral researcher Maung Myint and civil engineering professor Nirmala Khandan work in Khandan's laboratory on campus. One of Khandan's research projects looks at using cow manure to produce hydrogen. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Professors at NMSU are attempting to use cow manure and other organic solid wastes to produce hydrogen - an energy source for fuel cells that could potentially replace non-renewable fossil fuels - in a way that is affordable.

Hydrogen can be produced by three different processes: thermo-chemical, electrochemical or biological. Biological processes are the least energy-intensive and the most environmentally friendly and sustainable of the three.

Current methods of hydrogen production, such as electrolysis or biomass gasification, are not cost-effective because of the amount of energy needed as well as the use of non-renewable energy. Electrolysis uses electricity produced from fossil fuels to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen, while biomass gasification uses a high-temperature process by which hydrogen can be produced after several steps.

However, recent research has suggested that biological production of hydrogen - biohydrogen, made from organic matter - could be possible for a much better price. The biological process the researchers are proposing relies only on sunlight for external energy.

The principal investigator for the project is civil engineering professor Nirmala Khandan. The co-principal investigators are chemical engineering professor Shuguang Deng and biology professor Geoffrey Smith. Their research is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The researchers will develop and demonstrate a two-stage process to produce hydrogen from cattle manure. In the first stage, hydrogen will be produced through anaerobic hydrolysis and fermentation. In the second stage, additional hydrogen will be produced through photo-fermentation of the products of the first stage.

Khandan explained the process. "We are using microorganisms that can break down the cattle manure, which is a solid, and convert it to a liquid form. That's the hydrolysis part. Microorganisms can feed on only liquids; they cannot consume solids directly. They have a mechanism by which they can convert the solids into liquid first, and then consume the liquid. They consume the liquid to get energy for themselves, while producing hydrogen and other chemicals as byproducts. We want to capture the hydrogen that they are producing."

The team's research will also lead to the construction of a reactor for hydrogen production. The reactor will be a unique configuration with two stages, one for each process.

"It's a new process configuration, a new method that has not been done in many places," Khandan said. "As far as I know, only about three other universities in the United States are doing this kind of work."

Results of this research will have many benefits, including conserving fossil fuels, protection of water and air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and minimizing dependence on foreign energy sources.

The researchers plan to develop a multimedia simulation model to educate the community, including K-12 students and regional policymakers, on the basics of fuel cell technology and hydrogen, and show how waste material from local dairies can be converted into energy.

They also plan to work with the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum to set up a permanent display that will highlight how hydrogen technology can reduce oil and gas exploration and production in our state, improving environmental quality.

For more information contact Khandan at (505) 646-5378.