A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Uses Cow Manure

By Roland Piquepaille

In January 2005, a world's premiere took place in a farm near Princeton, Minnesota. The event went largely unnoticed, except by the Princeton Union-Eagle in "Hydrogen fuel cell project at Princeton farm called world's first." Now, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is celebrating the first hydrogen fuel cell powered by cow manure. The Haubenschild farm already was producing electricity from its cows, by using methane gas as the vehicle. But now, the farmers wanted to know if hydrogen fuel cells could produce enough electricity to power a farm and dubbed their effort the "cow power." Read more...

The Haubenschild farm's logo Here is the Haubenschild farm's logo (Credit: Haubenschild Farm, Inc., via the Canadian Renewable Energy Network (CanREN)). This farm is one of the few which have the AgSTAR label in Minnesota.

Now, let's go back to January 27, 2005 with the Princeton Union-Eagle.

Neither the public nor the cows likely knew why Haubenschild and two men from the University of Minnesota and a man from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture were celebrating last Friday with a cake and some champagne in a utility room on that farm.
What happened on Jan. 27, and what last Friday's celebration was about, was that common cow manure was turned into electricity via a hydrogen fuel cell at the farm. The fuel cell stands about six foot high, is about the same length across and is at least a yard deep.
Phil Goodrich, the University of Minnesota principal investigator in the hydrogen fuel cell project at the Haubenschild farm, last Friday backed the assertion that this was a world's first. The project was to see if running methane gas produced from cow manure into a hydrogen fuel cell could make electricity.

Now, let's see the full process, from the cows to methane gas, and from hydeogen to electricity.

About five years ago Haubenschild and his two sons had already supplied the means of getting the methane production started at the farm. They completed a project with the help of the state to set up an anaerobic digester to turn cow manure at the farm into methane gas.
To make a long story short of how the chemical reactions take place, hydrogen that was in the methane is freed up inside the fuel cell. Hydrogen and oxygen end up on opposite sides of a series of plates coated with a proprietary 3M chemical.
Rich Huelskamp, the U of M technician handling the mechanical part of the project, explained that a voltage difference between the sides of the plates is created, causing electrons to flow. The electron flow is the electricity.

Now, do these hydrogen fuel cells produce enough electricity to power a farm? Here is the answer from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

University of Minnesota researchers have been able to run the fuel cell on biogas intermittently and are working towards running the fuel cell on biogas continually. The fuel cell is a proton electron membrane (PEM) and produces 5 kilowatts of electrical power. A fuel cell of this size is ideal for research purposes but not large enough to power the dairy or produce electricity for sale.

The farmer himself seems to disagree, according to the Princeton Union-Eagle.

Haubenschild said farmers like him can't afford to subsidize consumers to buy energy from renewable sources by selling it for less than it cost to produce. He said it costs 5.1 cents per kilowatt hour to produce electricity from the fuel cell and Great River Energy will buy the surplus electricity from the fuel cell for four cents per KWH.

So will there be enough electricity for sale or not? Anyway, the farmers have even more ambitious projects.

Now Haubenschild is betting that perhaps the public could get interested in one of the newest waves in energy research -- the hydrogen fuel cell. He even envisions selling tanks of the hydrogen fuel to gas stations where the public could buy the containers and hook them onto cars and trucks equipped with hydrogen fuel cells.

For more information about the previous innovations done at the Haubenschild Farms, you should visit this page about the Haubenschild Farms Digester, which contains links to other papers.

Finally, here is a link to Phil Goodrich's current research about Advancing Utilization of Manure Methane Digester Electrical Generation.

Sources: Joel Stottrup, Princeton Union-Eagle, February 14, 2005; and various websites

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