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Soundings - Biomethane Project Could Help Planet

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In: The Olympian (Olympia, Washington)
By: John Dodge
April 22, 2007 Sunday

What better day than Earth Day 2007 to write about Drew Wohlenhaus and the journey he has begun in the alternative-fuels industry.

The 21-year-old junior at Western Washington University in Bellingham and 2004 graduate of North Thurston High School in Lacey is on his way to Washington, D.C., today to demonstrate to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials the redeeming qualities of cow manure.

Wohlenhaus, a self-described alternative-fuels enthusiast, is part of a team of researchers from the university's Vehicle Research Institute that has built a micro-refinery capable of extracting and scrubbing clean the methane gas found in cow manure so it can be burned in vehicle engines that run on compressed natural gas.

The biomethane refinery that Wohlenhaus and other researchers at the institute have fine-tuned will be on display Tuesday and Wednesday on the National Mall at the National Sustainable Design Expo, competing for EPA's third annual P3 Award with about 350 college students and faculty advisers and dozens of environmentally friendly projects.

Several of the P3 research projects - P3 stands for "people, prosperity and planet" - will receive $75,000 grants from EPA. Ask Wohlenhaus and he'll tell you the team members from Bellingham and its biomethane refinery have a good shot at winning.

If they do, they'll use the money to advance their research and build a larger refinery capable of fueling buses equipped to burn natural gas.

The use of methane gas from cow manure to power vehicles has several selling points, Wohlenhaus said. For instance:

  • It could be a way for dairy farmers to save, or make, money on what is now a waste material that, if not properly managed, can pollute rivers, streams and groundwater.
  • Methane gas is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, with a global-warming effect more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide's.
  • "By using this renewable resource, we're breaking up a greenhouse gas that would otherwise vent into the atmosphere," Wohlenhaus said.
  • The amount of methane gas available is significant: A single cow produces about 60 cubic feet of the stuff each day, Wohlenhaus said.
  • Put another way, the 244,000 dairy cows in the state produce enough methane gas to meet about 26 percent of the vehicle fuel needs statewide, he said.

Obviously, there are major costs associated with creating a biomethane industry.

First, farmers need to have anaerobic digesters to break out the methane gas from the manure. The biomethane refineries would be add-on components to the digesters.

Then there's the need to build more natural-gas-fired car engines. There only are about 150,000 natural-gas vehicles on America's highways, according to the U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center.

As far as Wohlenhaus is concerned, the opportunities for biofuels, including methane gas, far outweigh the obstacles.

Ever since high school, when he threw himself into his science studies with abandon, Wohlenhaus has known he wanted to pursue a career in alternative fuels.

"He was a real good kid - a hard worker and an overachiever," recalled North Thurston High School science teacher Richard Horger, alluding to a tough home life for Wohlenhaus that makes what he has accomplished even more remarkable. Not one to belabor his upbringing, Wohlenhaus simply said his grandmother has been his support system.

After graduation, he spent one year at Saint Martin's University in Lacey, then transferred to Western.

Once on campus, he learned about the Vehicle Research Institute. Formally launched in 1974, it has gained a reputation as one of the best experimental vehicle school programs in the country, with emphasis on innovative fuel economy and safety.

"I just fell in love with the Vehicle Research Institute," Wohlenhaus said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Wohlenhaus envisions a career as someone who understands the science and technology of biofuels and, perhaps more importantly, has an unbridled interest in spreading the word to the public.

"This is just one piece of the puzzle that will reduce global warming and make up the future of American sustainability," he said.

It's young men and women such as Wohlenhaus - using their brain power and convictions to clean up the mess made by preceding generations, including mine - who offer us some hope of a sustainable future on Earth Day 2007.

John Dodge is a senior reporter and Sunday columnist for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or jdodge@theolympian.com.

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