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In: Lynden Tribune exit EPA
By: Calvin Bratt
May 2nd, 2007

LYNDEN -- The cows of a Lynden dairy farm helped a Western Washington University experimental car win a $75,000 research award in a national contest in Washington, D.C., last week.

Methane gas from the farm of Darryl Vander Haak powered a hybrid vehicle that was entered in the People, Prosperity and the Planet competition of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Viking 32 vehicle, using refined and compressed bio-methane from 17 cows per day, can obtain up to 50 miles per gallon and travel up to 400 miles per day, according to its developers.

And by projection, the methane gas that could be captured from the manure of Whatcom County's 66,000 milk cows could fuel more than 30,000 vehicles each year, calculates Eric Leonhardt, director of the WWU Vehicle Research Institute.

"It's a great amount of energy," he said. "It could save the equivalent of 12 million gallons of gasoline energy a year."

It all may sound far-fetched and futuristic, but the technical viability is proven -- now it only remains to be made cost-efficient on the market, says Leonhardt.

The Western institute's next phase of experimentation -- and a condition of the grant money -- is to develop a pilot transportation system that uses gas from the Vander Haak dairy farm to power buses. The Ferndale School District or Whatcom Transportation Authority are possible partners.

It's possible to capture the "natural gas" of cow manure at the Vander Haak farm, 9900 Guide Meridian Rd., because the family-run business installed a self-contained anaerobic manure digester in 2004. Most of the gas is used to drive an electric generator that feeds 285 kilowatts of power into the Puget Sound Energy grid.

"The little bit that (Western) uses isn't enough to notice," said Vander Haak. "I have a little extra beside."

Last year and so far this year, the WWU Vehicle Research Institute has siphoned off a little over 3,000 cubic feet of biomethane for vehicle purposes, Leonhardt estimated.

In 2006, WWU vehicles were in races of up to 1,200 miles that consumed extra fuel.

In the EPA contest, six groups from around the country won the top prize, which will be distributed in grants for further research to move innovative designs into the marketplace. Forty-two teams were in the final stage, narrowed down from hundreds that applied, Leonhardt said.

Students will be developing a better portable refining, or purifying, apparatus for separating out the carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide that is present in raw biogas, he said. Perfecting that process would be a boost to any farmers wanting to do what Vander Haak is doing, since the hydrogen sulfide is very corrosive on metal, he said.

The purified biomethane is then compressed into a tank, similar to standard propane.

The manure from about 900 cows is fed into Vander Haak's 10,00-square-foot digester. Solid fiber is a marketable byproduct, and heat from processing is captured and reused.

The two days of P3 judging was on the National Mall grounds in the nation's capital. Second District Rep. Rick Larsen attended the awards ceremony at the National Academy of Sciences on Wednesday and praised the efforts of the Western team, which includes students from the Engineering Technology Department and Huxley College of the Environment.

“In the long term, creative approaches like this one will help make our country energy independent and protect our environment for future generations,” Larsen said. “These students are leaders in clean energy innovation. We need to follow their lead in Congress.”

Since 1972 more than 40 vehicles have been designed and built by undergraduate students and faculty at the Vehicle Research Institute at Western, to develop new engine technologies and automotive concepts.

E-mail Calvin Bratt at editor@lyndentrib.com.

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