New process can extract clean water from cow poop, and it might change the world

New process can extract clean water from cow poop, and it might change the world

By Graham Templeton May. 31, 2014 11:02 am cowpie head

Since readers of this article are very likely to live in a city, this might seem like the sort of breakthrough that could never actually affect your life — but you’d be wrong. A new technology from the University of Michigan has hit a major milestone in extracting useful, clean water from manure, and you should care. Though it can often be used helpfully as fertilizer, manure is still a big problem for farmers; a farm with 1,000 cows might produce about 10 million gallons of manure a year. That’s a lot of poop; what do we do with it?

This new solution takes advantage of the fact that manure, like almost everything else in biology, is made up mostly of water. Extracting that water can reduce the sheer volume of the poop enormously, making it easier to store and discard. What’s more, this technique lets the researchers extract some of the most useful agricultural substances in the manure, so the clean, extracted water can itself be used as a fertilizer.

With their full treatment regime, water extracted from the manure can be fed back to livestock as drinking water — no word on whether it might be good enough for people. We’ll assume it probably is, but that the team avoids mentioning that fact for fear of being buried under the weight of that stigma. Regardless, there are plenty of places in the world (and in North America) where draught is still a major problem for farmers and private citizens alike. This essentially amounts to a bovine stillsuit, a water reclamation device that helps reduce water waste.

That could have a profound impact on the profitability of beef and other farmed foods. It could also do a lot for air quality, which is damaged by release of ammonia and other molecules from these billions of gallons of manure. The team can choose to extract these chemicals from the manure, then remove them from the water in a second filtration step. Alternatively, ammonia and other nitrogen-based chemicals can be very helpful in crop rotation, and this could help keep such compounds in the soil and not in the atmosphere.

Right now, 100 gallons of manure produce about 50 gallons of clean water, but the team wants to pump that number up to 65 before long. This is the sort of basic breakthrough that could have impacts rippling down to your food prices and your tax rates, as more profitable farms need less government assistance.

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