College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Environmental Science & Technology

UMD Scientists Turning Poultry Waste Into Energy

Millions of dollars invested for novel idea's use on industrial level
Stephanie Lansing, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmentl Science & Technology is leading two UMD studies on transforming poultry manure into energy.
Image Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

Merriam-Webster defines its more vulgar adjectival form as “petty, insignificant” and even “lacking courage, manliness, or effectiveness.”But make no mistake, two separate university projects aim to make something valuable and productive out of the manure of chickens.

Recent grants from Maryland Industrial Partnerships, an initiative of the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, approved $4.7 million for 18 projects from teams around the state, including eight from this university and five involving the conversion of chicken manure to energy.

“We’re taking waste and being more sustainable with the resources we have,” said Stephanie Lansing, an environmental science and technology professor and the leader of the two university studies on chicken manure. “People just want to throw it away or flush it down the toilet, but you have to think, ‘Wait a second, this is carbon, this is nutrients, this is a resource.’”

One project uses thermal gasification by burning chicken litter at a high temperature and low oxygen concentration for a pure burn that produces synthesis gas, which can be used as a fuel for generators.

The other project uses microbes to digest the litter, breaking break down the carbon and producing methane-rich biogas, which can be used for heating, cooking and electricity.

“Waste energy is the direction we need to be going in the future,” said Anna Kulow, a first year enivornmental science and technology graduate student. “Energy is something we need. We should make use of what we have instead of throwing it away.”

The two projects have both received grants through MIPS as part of the Innovative Technology Fund. Usually, MIPS brings university researchers together with funding from start-up companies, said Ronnie Gist, the associate director of MIPS. Companies will contribute $2.4 million and MIPS will contribute $2.3 million with additional funding from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Enivronmental Protection Agency, according to a Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute press release.

This Innovative Technology Fund is a partnership with the state’s natural resources department, which decided to put special emphasis on helping the Chesapeake Bay this year by focusing on projects relating to chicken manure, Gist said.

In recent decades, researchers have discovered excessive nitrogen concentrations in the bay. This is caused partly by runoff from farms using nitrogen-rich manure as fertilizer, and the result is an increase of algae and an inhospitable environment for fish, Kulow said.

“There was this concern that we were going to have this stockpile of poultry and dairy manure, and the state put forth the idea to deal with this surplus,” said Sarah Lane, a researcher for the state Department of Natural Resources and this university’s Center for Environmental Science researcher.

While there are other methods of producing energy from chicken manure, these have been used on a local scale and not on an industrial level, Lane said, and existing methods do nothing to take nutrients out of fertilizer. The new projects could provide a prototype for more large-scale use of this energy, and they aim to use manure to create usable fertilizer that is not overly high in nitrogen and ammonia, and an energy source.

Lansing’s lab puts the manure through an additional stage of anaerobic digestion by using denitrifying bacteria to make the manure usable for farmers by removing both nitrogen and pathogens. The nitrogen that can cause havoc as waste material then becomes nothing but a harmless gas.

Lansing’s private funding for the fertizler project is secured by Planet Found Energy Development, LLC, a company that is building waste energy facilities in Worcester County. Andrew Moss, the technical director of the startup, said he is excited about the joint opportunity the grant provides.

“That [grant] provides Stephanie’s lab with funding, and we have technical results and the foundation for designs and products that we can later use,” Moss said. “It’s a collaboration between us and the university. We’re really pleased with the opportunities and resources available.”

Planet Found plans to use Lansing’s research to implement an anaerobic digestion method for energy production and nutrient capture that can be put to use in agricultural regions around the Chesapeake.

“I know this sounds all sunshine and rainbows,” Lane said, “but it really is an effort where all the right players are at the table to find the best way to use manure for energy technology at the operational scale. So I’m optimistic.”

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