Bovine Biofuel Bonanza Beckons

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When we think of clean energy, we usually conjure up vast vistas of lush green fields and cloudless blue skies. This idyllic landscape is dotted with majestic wind turbines and an occasional green building clad in sparkling solar panels.

We don’t think of cow droppings, but some enterprising folks at Hewlett Packard do.

Researchers at Hewlett Packard Co.’s HP Labs presented a paper this week to an American Society of Mechanical Engineers conference postulating on the feasibility of using cow manure from dairy farms and cattle feedlots to generate electricity. In the paper, the research team calculates that “a hypothetical farm of 10,000 dairy cows” could power a 1 MW data center housing 1,000 servers. Our friends at Computerworld report HP’s engineers believe that biogas may offer a “fresh” alternative energy approach for IT managers.

Don’t reach for your DHS-issued gas masks, yet. The HP technicians say at this point this is just a theory — no demonstration project has yet been planned. “I’ve not yet submitted a purchase order for cows,” Tom Christian, an HP researcher, told Computerworld.

Organic matter is already used to generate power through a process called anaerobic digestion that produces a methane-rich biogas. Computerworld reports that the EPA estimates there are 125 operating digester projects at commercial livestock facilities in the U.S. HP’s paper suggests the process could be extended to run a data center.

However, some observers already have noted significant stumbling blocks to this approach.

For one thing, how do you get 10,000 cows to congregate in one location? The average dairy farm in the U.S. has about 1,000 cows, and even the largest do not pen more than 5,000 of the docile milk-producing beasts. Then there is the matter of biogas energy transmission. Do site selectors looking for data center locations really want to put their new facilities next to huge manure pits? Could make the walk to the parking lot rather dicey, to say the least.

Also, since cows have two stomachs and re-chew their food, we imagine there might be some power outages at local data processing centers while everyone waits for them to do their business. Do we really want the IRS data center to have a blackout while it’s auditing our tax returns?

We’ve got a better idea: Let’s require every fast-food restaurant in the U.S. to establish a biogas conversion facility onsite.

The average American should be able to drive in, order, eat and generate the latest biofuel feedstock in less than five minutes, especially if one opts for the double-bacon, half-pound cheeseburger with supersized fries. Then we can all re-charge the batteries on our new electric cars with the results before we leave the parking lot.

Now that’s what we’d call a Happy Meal!

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