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The Fuel of the Future is … Pig Poop?

BY Jonathan Strickland / POSTED April 26, 2013
"Stand down, eco-warriors! We got this." | © Peter Muller/cultura/Corbis “Stand down, eco-warriors! We got this.” | © Peter Muller/cultura/Corbis

Two men enter, one man leaves! Bust a deal, face the wheel! What happened to two? It’s pretty obvious the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome left a strong impression on me. It looks like I’m not the only one — according to Phys.org, some researchers at Duke University have published a study suggesting that a fuel source featured in Beyond Thunderdome may actually work out for us. It’s pig poop.

Actually, it’s the methane from pig poop. In the movie, the city Bartertown gets all its energy from methane. Methane is an odorless, clear gas that’s a hydrocarbon and the main component in natural gas. Much of our natural gas comes to us as a byproduct of oil processing but you can find it in other places too.

Harvesting methane from animal waste isn’t a new idea. Back in 2007, North Carolina passed a law that mandated all electricity utilities to generate a small percentage of the electricity they sell from hog waste.

The Duke University study wasn’t so much about how to do this — there are plenty of methods we can use already. It was more about how to do it in an economically feasible way. It doesn’t make financial sense to spend more time, energy and effort getting methane from hog waste than it would take to generate electricity some other way. It might help the environment but it would be a financial sinkhole. Since we still have to take money into consideration until the Star Trek utopia arrives, that’s a challenge.

The study found that farmers could create an infrastructure that would make sense from an economic standpoint. But the study didn’t take into account other costs, like actually developing and running a business centered around methane harvesting. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

Even if all the hog farmers in North Carolina built a methane harvesting facility today, the electricity from that methane would only be a small offset of what the state needs to operate the way we’re used to. That might seem crappy, but every little bit helps.

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