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17 Cows per Tank
Aaron Ferster, EPA Science Writers’ Circle

17 Cows per Tank While most college seniors are eager to share the gaudy power specs of their favorite muscle car, Western Washington University’s Matt Joplin and Sean Parent are just as happy to talk cowpower as they are horsepower.

The budding engineers have calculated that it takes 17 cows per day to produce the amount of methane needed to fill the tank of the sporty, racing-striped Viking-32, a compressed natural gas-electric hybrid car they recently displayed at the National Sustainable Design Expo on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The showing helped Western’s research team claim EPA’s P3 Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The P3 Award Competition is a national student design contest administered by EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. The goal is to foster sustainability education in the nation’s colleges and universities while tapping the creative energy of undergraduate and graduate student design and research teams.

Established in 2004, the P3 competition has two phases. In phase I, student teams and their faculty advisors submit research proposals for a chance to earn up to $10,000 in seed money to research and develop their design projects during the academic year.

For phase II, all P3 grantees are invited to the National Mall in Washington DC each spring to present their projects at the National Sustainable Design Expo. The National Academy of Engineers, advisors to the nation on engineering, convenes a panel to evaluate the projects. The panel’s evaluations are passed on to EPA officials, who award six teams the prestigious EPA P3 Award. The honor includes the opportunity to receive up to $75,000 in additional grant money to help the students move their projects from concept to the marketplace.

For the Western Washington University team, the next step is school buses, not sports cars. The additional grant money will be invested in further research on a “bio-methane gas scrubber” that purifies methane produced from dairy cow manure. In addition, they will be working with a local school district to help them switch their fleet of big yellow school buses from diesel to bio-methane gas.

The technology has the potential to turn the nation’s dairy cows into a major fuel source.

Other winners in this year’s P3 Competition are:

Appalachian State University (Boone, N.C.)
Affordable Bioshelters Project


Bioshelters Project
Incorporating economical, “hoop-style” structures with passive solar designs to test the use of soap foam insulation and subsoil storage for moderating greenhouse heating and cooling cycles.


Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.)
Solar Photovoltaic System Design for a Remote Community in Panama


Implementing solar powered battery recharge stations in rural communities for wastewater treatment.


Lehigh University (Bethlehem, Pa.)
The Containment of Highly Concentrated Arsenic-laden Spent Regenerant on the Indian Subcontinent


The Containment of Highly Concentrated Arsenic-laden Spent Regenerant on the Indian Subcontinent
Constructing a reactor and disposal site in West Bengal, India to determine the best methods for analysis and disposal of arsenic-laden, toxic sludge.


University of Illinois at Urbana (Champaign, Ill.)
An Innovative System for Bioremediation of Agricultural Chemicals for Environmental Sustainability


Finding an efficient way to reduce chemical leaching from agricultural fields, using a design that requires no maintenance, can be easily installed, and makes use of naturally available materials.


University of Virginia (Charlottesville, Va.)
The Learning Barge: Environmental + Cultural Ecologies on the Elizabeth River


Learning Barge
Collaborating with community partners to design and build an “off-the-grid,” floating field station. Powered by solar and wind energy, the design collects rainwater, filters gray water with native plants, and utilizes recycled and renewable materials. The integrated environmental education curriculum teaches about sustainability and estuarine habitat restoration.



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