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Turning Biomass into Biofuel: These Cows Are Making Massive Amounts of Potential Alternative Energy

Living on a farm can be smelly business. But stinky piles of biowaste can hold the key to an alternative energy solution that can have a major impact on a farm's available energy and power. Get inspired by one dairy's success and find out how you can explore the potential of turning waste, trash, and other unexpected bio sources into alternative energy.

Image from From Trash to Gas: Biomass Energy student science project
Image: The hands-on "From Trash to Gas: Biomass Energy" science Project Idea lets students experiment with the production of biogas and which sources of biomass generate the most biogas.

Know Your Biofuels!

There are three types of biofuel that often emerge in a discussion of biochemistry-based alternative energy: biogas, biodiesel, and bioalcohols. These are all green solutions, some of them straight from the farm—literally! So what's the difference?

  • Biofuel: the umbrella term for alternative and renewable fuels (liquids, solids or gases) that are derived from organic matter.
  • Biogas: fuel that is produced by the anaerobic breakdown of organic matter or waste (like manure).
  • Bioalcohols: these alcohols, like bioethanol, are created by the fermentation of carbohydrates in crops like corn and sugarcane. Bioalcohols can also be created from the fermentation of "cellulosic biomass" from non-food sources like grasses and trees.
  • Biodiesel: made from vegetable or soybean oils or other natural oils and fats, biodiesel can be used as a diesel alternative or as a diesel additive.

A recent story in the New York Times spotlighted Fair Oaks Farms, an Indiana-based, family-owned-and-operated dairy that has turned its five million pounds of daily cow manure into a sustainable stream of natural energy that powers its dairy and farm operations as well as a fleet of tractor-trailer trucks that make daily deliveries to milk processing facilities. According to the story, shifting the delivery trucks to also use the farm-produced biogas was a logical next step in Fair Oaks' alternative energy planning and helped the dairy find a way to convert potential biofuel that was being left unused into an environmentally-conscious solution—one with a marked impact on fossil fuel use and emissions. The dairy estimates that their use of biofuel for the delivery trucks will "take two million gallons of diesel off the highway each year."

For Fair Oaks, upcycling biowaste is a solution that makes sense, from the piles of manure up. They already have the bio source (the cows), and the piles of waste accumulate daily, whether they use them or not. Their success, and the amount of self-sustaining power they are generating, tells an inspiring story about the potential of biofuel. On the level of a single farm, Fair Oaks has created an ecosystem that connects their herds to the production of both their dairy products and of the energy that runs the whole operation.

Making Connections

Turning biowaste into natural gas is one approach to creating an alternative energy solution. Cow manure contains methane, a biogas, which can be captured and used for energy. Other sources of biomass are also possible for use in the production of biofuels or agrofuels. Corn for gas? Your compost bin as a source of household power?

Students who are interested in biochemistry-based alternative and renewable energy can explore issues, challenges, and possible approaches in the following hands-on science Project Ideas:

To read the full New York Times story, see: "Dairy Finds a Way to Let Cows Power Trucks."

Science Buddies Project Ideas for student exploration of energy and power are sponsored by SAIC.
Science Buddies Project Ideas in biotechnology techniques are sponsored by Bio-Rad Laboratories.


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