As of today, about 21,000 tons of manure and 1,500 tons of food waste are generated every year at Michigan State University. Those numbers are likely to stay the same in the future, but what happens to all that waste is about to change. MSU's Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
is about to begin work on a $5 million anaerobic digester, which will not only help re-use waste, but will also create energy for on-campus buildings.
"This really addresses the three main missions of the university: teaching, research and outreach," says Manager of MSU's ADREC, Dana M Kirk, Ph.D. "This system will provide us the opportunity to have a commercial-scale classroom for our students."
Kirk hopes to have the digester up and running sometime in 2013. MSU expects the digester to generate enough energy and revenue to pay for itself in less than 15 years – all the while preventing organic waste from going to landfills.
The anaerobic digester will be a sealed tank that is deprived of oxygen. Organic waste inside will be degraded at a temperature that will allow the waste material to decompose quickly, producing methane that can be used as fuel. Digesters are widely used in Europe, but aren't as common in the US. Kirk hopes MSU's will help to change that.
"It's something that farms or smaller communities in the state could look at and say, 'we could do this too,'" says Kirk. "This is an opportunity to really take a step forward and be a national and international leader in anaerobic research and education."
Kirk estimates one full- and one part-time employee will be required to operate the digester when it is up and running.
This story originally appeared in Capital Gains on April 25, 2012.