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MSU trustees approve plan for new source of energy

April 20, 2011

Likely not to be hitting the fan — but powering it — a new waste-based energy source is drawing the attention of MSU officials to see if it can prove to be financially viable.

The MSU Board of Trustees at its April 15 meeting approved authorization to plan for a new anaerobic digester at the Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center on South Campus Farms, next to the current Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education Center.

The preliminary cost estimate for the new facility is $3.5 million.

Anaerobic digestion is a process that converts waste products, such as animal manure and cafeteria waste, into renewable energy, said Steve Safferman, director of the Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education Center. Small organisms similar to bacteria break down the waste and turn it into methane gas that can be harnessed for energy — potentially reducing MSU’s carbon footprint, he said.

The center currently is testing 100-liter waste systems in small-scale anaerobic digestion research and will have a 250,000 gallon system running by the summer to make sure MSU has accurate data before deciding to go ahead with the project, Safferman said.

Currently, anaerobic digesters tend to pay for themselves in about 10-15 years, Safferman said. The research team is working on ways to reduce that time and make the byproducts of the process more valuable, he said.

“We want to make sure it’s a good investment,” Safferman said. “(MSU) is not just interested in revenues, but in its carbon footprint.”

The digester currently underway at the Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center is about 10 percent of the size of the full-scale proposed project, MSU specialist Dana Kirk said. The team wants to run the facility for six months to a year before making final recommendations to the Board of Trustees.

Fred Poston, vice president for finance and operations, said the project would allow the university to reuse or recycle waste that currently is going into landfills or — in the case of manure — being applied to campus fields.

“Should we increase the number of research animals that we have, we would have a problem of getting rid of manure without causing environmental concerns,” Poston said at the meeting. “It relieves pressure on those areas.”

The new digester also has the potential to bring more outside research dollars to campus, MSU Trustee Brian Breslin said.

Biosystems engineering senior Jason Smith has been working at the Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education Center for about two years. If the new facility is built, it will give students an opportunity to study what’s on the horizon in renewable energy, he said.

Safferman said anaerobic digestion technology has been around for decades. Countries in Europe, such as Germany, use anaerobic digestion much more extensively than the U.S. because they can sell greenhouse gas credits for a substantial amount of money.

“The goal is to have something that solves environmental issues and can get you revenues,” he said. “That’s a win-win.”

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