Waste to energy

$6.8 million for cow-inspired biodigesters

University of Michigan leads a collaboration of academic, municipal and private institutions to advance a renewable methane system.

waste to energy organic waste University of Michigan

Cattle are supremely efficient at digesting tough materials, and a proposed energy-production system based, in part, on cow stomachs could generate 40% more power from municipal waste streams, at a 20% reduced cost—and provide a viable alternative to sending waste to landfills.

That’s the goal of a $6.8 million effort to crank up the efficiency of how we convert organic solid waste from trash and wastewater into methane, a pipeline-ready renewable fuel. Led by the University of Michigan, the project includes partnerships with Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University and others. The U.S. Department of Energy is providing $5 million of the funding.

“It’s time for us to shift our thinking as a society. These organic materials are only waste in the sense that we bury them at landfills or compost them. We’re throwing away a valuable feedstock. We believe we’ve come up with a highly scalable solution to match the needs of an urbanizing world,” says Steve Skerlos, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of mechanical engineering at U-M and a co-principal investigator on the project.

The endeavor goes beyond developing technology to building a collaboration that will deploy the system in society and educate the workforce needed to operate it. “Over the course of the next decade, the technologies, design and operational strategies, and educational programs in this project could lead to a doubling or more of power generated from food waste in the U.S.,” Skerlos says.