Harnessing the power of poop

Farmers can reap many benefits from manure – often an undervalued resource – when it is well-managed and properly applied. Yet, more innovation, research, development, and investment are needed to advance manure management solutions so farmers can improve productivity and profitability while minimizing their environmental footprint.

“If we want farmers to not produce wastewater and waste manure, we have to incentivize them through adoption of technology and innovation, and also demonstrate that it helps their bottom line and the environment,” says Brandon Day, chief operating officer, The Yield Lab Institute.

Partnering with the World Wildlife Fund, Newtrient, and the Dairy Farmers of America, the Yield Lab Institute launched The Manure Challenge in March 2019 to bring scalable solutions that make manure more valuable, sustainable, and manageable for farmers.

Chosen from 63 applicants, the Challenge guided eight companies through a commercialization curriculum, which included mentorship and an introduction to investors. The yearlong cohort wrapped up with a virtual pitch competition in June 2020 with each of the start-ups vying for a grand prize of $50,000 in nondiluted capital.

“This is an innovation-style challenge that invited any ag tech start-up in the manure management space to present ideas. We try to advance ideas that show the greatest promise in market opportunity that also promote sustainability, create new revenue streams, and create circular economies on the farm,” Day says.

Below are the eight finalists.

BioFiltro

Location: California

The most common wastewater treatment method is land application. 

“When it’s done for a long period of time or incorrectly, land application can contaminate the soil or groundwater to a point where it’s no longer viable for use,” says Mai Ann Healy, head of business development, BioFiltro. “By having access to cleaner water, farmers can minimize their environmental impact and secure the future for their operations.”

BioFiltro has developed a worm-powered wastewater system to remove 70% to 90% of nutrients from liquid manure. The patented Biodynamic Aerobic System (BIDA) transforms liquid waste into water that is usable for irrigation. It starts with a containment vessel filled with wood chips, river rock, and drainage cells. Worms and microbes are then introduced into the system, and they create a biofilm, which digests most of the contaminants.

Water from the barn will flow through a solid separator, then into an equalization tank. From there it will be dispersed across the worm bed via an irrigation system and will percolate down and out through exit pipes.

“Because aeration of our system is achieved through the burrowing movement of worms, our annual energy bill can be up to 95% less than competing technology,” she says.

While most processing systems take days, if not weeks, to achieve the water quality the BioFiltro system generates, the BioFiltro process only takes around four hours, which makes it virtually odorless.

Research shows these systems also reduce methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, leaving the air cleaner and more environmentally friendly. 

Biomass Controls PBC

Location: Connecticut

Biomass Controls’ innovation for global nutrient recovery is based on decentralized refineries. These refineries use pyrolysis – decomposition brought on by high temperatures – to reduce volume, kill pathogens, and preserve carbon as an important soil amendment. 

They also convert manure solids into other products that provide economic and environmental benefits, especially for farmers. One of these economic benefits is a reduction of volume, thanks to the thermal process. This decreases the cost of storage and hauling. An environmental benefit for farmers is lowering greenhouse gas emissions because of the shorter cycle times.

Biomass Controls has been running customer sites in the U.S. and India since 2016, processing fecal sludge solids from humans, dairy cows, and hogs. 

They have taken numerous steps to protect their intellectual property. They have filed over 20 patents for design and controls, in which 18 have been awarded in a variety of countries around the world. Their second step was certifying the technology for design and safety. Lastly, the outputs were tested for compliance and quality. 

“One of the important pieces of Biomass Controls’ plan was to include a scalable solution that could operate in different climates. This system was designed to be operating within a few days of setup and easy to use for operators with little training,” says Jeff Hollowell, CEO and founder of Biomass Controls PBC.

Chonex

Location: Alabama

About 80% of U.S. agricultural manure waste originates from 10 billion poultry. One third of that manure is produced in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, according to Michael Lynch, CEO and cofounder of Chonex. 

A nutrient recycling company founded to help make agriculture and animal production more sustainable, Chonex converts poultry manure into high-value fertilizers using black soldier fly larvae to extract carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

Their patented process starts with the collection of fresh manure each day. As the manure is transported back to the Chonex facility, there is a secret blend of ammonia inhibitors, probiotics, and additives added to increase the nutrient value of the solids. A progressive cavity pump is used to meter the waste, and a rack-and-tray system is used to feed the larvae. The waste is then placed into a rotary screen to separate the larvae and fertilizer. After the separation period a pharmaceutical-grade dryer is used to preserve all of the beneficial microbes and enzymes. The last step is to send the finalized product back into the agricultural system. 

The specialty fertilizer has gone through the product development process, and it is currently being introduced to the market. Chonex is developing a wholesale market channel through national organic farming and distribution networks. Their product could help in regenerating topsoil and reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals used in commercial farming. 

CowPots

Location: Connecticut

On his Connecticut dairy farm in Connecticut, Matthew Freund saw a need for an economically viable option to maintain manure that was scalable and able to meet the regulations for nutrient management. 

CowPots was formed to create manure-based biodegradable planting pots using a patented process. This process separates the fibers, removes the odor, and forms cow manure into value-added products. The manufacturing process has zero emissions and takes advantage of solar and methane energy for production.

“Research shows CowPots decompose three times faster than other biodegradable planting pots,” says Freund, president and founder of CowPots.

While the planting pots decompose, the plants are able to utilize the nutrients built into what was previously their container. 

CowPots stakes its claim on being the only American-made biodegradable pot that is 100% renewable, recycled, and offers an important nutrient package. They have expanded beyond the traditional planting pot by introducing specialty items such as golf tees, bait cups, lettuce trays, packaging, target skeets, and urns. 

Digested Organics

Location: Michigan

As land application of fertilizer leads to more issues like nutrient runoff, Digested Organics is looking for a sustainable solution. The Michigan-based company is using filtration to transform manure into clean water, concentrated fertilizers, and renewable energy. The system, called nutrient concentration and water reclamation (NCWR), uses two main filtration methods to achieve this.

The first of these is called stainless steel ultrafiltration. Waste is pumped through porous stainless-steel tubes, where all of the suspended solids remain while water and dissolved solids pass through the walls. The tubes are designed to last at least 10 years. The system is simple with no moving parts inside. It can be mounted horizontally or vertically, and it is extremely scalable. 

The second method that Digested Organics works with is called two-step reverse osmosis. 

“This process involves patented forward osmosis technology to pull the water out of the permeate. This creates a different fertilizer product that is abundant in ammonia, nitrogen, and potassium. It also creates clean water for reuse later,” says Bobby Levine, CEO and founder of Digested Organics. 

Benefits for the farmer include reducing manure spreading and hauling costs, eliminating lagoon management and reducing excess nutrient runoff. There are benefits for project developers as well; offering water reclamation as an additional service to partner farms, reducing the cost of bringing raw manure to digesters and enabling projects to cost-effectively and responsibly handle manure. 

N2 Applied

Location: Norway

“Cows produce 30 tons of manure that needs to go back to the fields. This raw manure is not always the best option due to nutrient loss from volatile ammonia, which leads to low profitability,” says Trond Lund, head of business development. “Many countries have strict regulations surrounding manure handling and disposal.”

N2 Applied, a Norwegian company, has its own solution to the manure challenge. They propose adopting the use of electricity to separate the air and mix nitrogen into the manure. This will manufacture a highly effective liquid manure from resources drawn straight from the farm. 

Studies conducted by universities show that N2’s method has decreased the loss of ammonia from manure by 90%, which has increased the nitrogen use efficiency. The research has also shown the carbon footprint of dairies that use N2 technology has been reduced by 27%.

N2 operates on farms in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and South Africa, and they are looking to break into the U.S. market in the near future. The system is scalable for operations of various sizes and allows for an environmentally-friendly way to manage waste, even in areas with strict regulations. 

SoMax Bioenergy

Location: Pennsylvania

SoMax Bioenergy presents the elemental recycling platform as its solution for transforming manure into a usable product. This platform is a suite of technologies that breaks down organic materials into its base components. Those components are used to create a variety of products.

“The cornerstone of SoMax’s system is hydrothermal carbonization (HTC), which achieves 90% to 95% of carbon efficiency in minutes or hours. This process is what transforms waste into its elemental components, using mild temperatures and pressure,” says Dan Spracklin, CEO and founder of SoMax Bioenergy. 

After the manure passes through the HTC reactor, it goes to slurry separation. During this stage, manure is split into a liquid and solid form. The liquid goes through the final phase, fertilizer recovery, which produces clean water, a nutrient concentrate, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The solid product, called activated carbon, can be used for treating drinking water.

SoMax’s current HTC reactor is built on a shipping container and can process 16,000 tons of manure per year. The modular systems scale down to as little as 2,500 tons or scale up to as large as the customer needs.

Phinite

Location: North Carolina

Phinite has started implementing sludge-drying wetlands in North Carolina to assist hog farmers in disposing of waste. In its raw form, manure is wet, and drying systems that turn this manure into a marketable product are expensive. The company’s wetlands are 90% cheaper than the average drying system. 

Once the waste is pumped from the lagoon into the wetland, it is dried out naturally by solar energy and evapotranspiration. This one-step process yields a product that can be marketed directly as fertilizer. 

Phinite is currently marketing its fertilizer and is in the process of securing a wholesale supply contract that would service a large number of farms in North Carolina. The company partners with local farmers to build their wetlands, and the profit for farmers could potentially reach $11,000 per year. 

“The Phinite system complements anaerobic digestion, making it scalable and suitable for hog and dairy farms around the world,” says Jordan Phasey, CEO and founder of Phinite. “It has many environmental and social benefits including eliminating water pollution by closing the loop on manure fertilizer use, reducing GHG emissions by 70%, and reducing odors by 70%.

The winner is. . . 

Announced on June 2, 2020, Digested Organics was awarded the $50,000 grand prize of undiluted capital for its innovative solution.

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