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Captured Methane: Alternative Energy Source in Mississippi

John Logan is basically a conservationist at heart. So, when the retired computer specialist and business man took over the eastern Mississippi chicken farm that had been in his family for seven generations, he wanted to try something new: growing a fuel crop. All he had to do was capitalize on the farm's existing resource: chicken manure.

Logan reasoned that if he could convert chicken droppings into methane gas, he could solve two problems facing many farmers in the southern poultry belt: how to meet tougher government standards for waste disposal, and how to reduce operating expenses, which have been rising along with the price of fuel.

He says he considered the farm's energy costs the only thing he had control over. "I began to look at ways to reduce that. Having seen these [waste converters] in other parts of the world, I just felt real sure that we could make natural gas, methane gas, from the poultry waste, so I began to research it." And that's how the Meth ane Capture Project was born.

Logan began working with a team of chemists from Mississippi State University, to create a "recipe" that turns poultry waste into methane gas, which then can be used just like natural gas. And Logan points to an advantage of his approach. "We can control 100 percent of the total amount of solids in our mixture. Whereas in a dairy barn, they wash it down and wash the manure out. They have no control over how much litter and how much solids you have. Same in a swine operation. Here, it's unique. I know by the pound exactly how much I'm working in each one of those recipes." And that means he knows exactly how much methane he'll produce.

Logan got several government grants to build an experimental station on his farm. There, several large silver tanks, powered by solar panels, convert waste from the 275,000 chickens in his 10 massive, high-tech chicken houses into methane. The gas then powers the generators, which supply electricity to his farm.

"For the last eight months we've been generating electricity and generating gas to heat the chicken houses," the farmer says proudly. "My goal was to replace my existing utility costs to heat the farm, which come to about $100,000 a year on this size operation. So at the present time, it replaces 100 percent of my electricity." He even has extra power to sell to the local utility company.

John Logan says his project now has three main objectives: put poultry waste processors on other farms; build cooperative systems to which farmers can sell their chicken litter; and supply an alternative fuel to reduce American dependence on fossil fuel.

The Methane Capture Project has caught the attention of nearby Mount Olive, home to a large plant currently under construction, which will create biodiesel and ethanol fuel. That plant will be powered by methane from poultry waste brought in from surrounding farms. Its developers hope the operation may someday fuel the entire city.

"It's definitely going to put Mount Olive on the map!" brags town mayor, Robert McNair. He predicts the project will bring more than 100 new jobs to this small community. "People who are just passing through might stop and take a look because of that business coming in." And, he says, the new plant will provide a showcase for what small towns can do to help the environment. "In the past, a lot of times small communities were overlooked, but when something like this happens, not only will they start looking at Mount Olive, they'll start looking at other small communities as being contributors."

Officials from government and industry are also starting to recognize the potential of the Methane Capture Project. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding experimental on-farm sites in Mississippi and several other states. Some large poultry processors are launching renewable energy divisions to power their feed mills. And a fuel company is investigating the possibility of pumping chicken-waste methane instead of natural gas through its pipeline, and to use it to power some of the generators along the way.