Going from “rot to watt,” or turning farm waste into electricity, is the goal of a Washington State University (WSU) project that has just received a $100,000 boost from the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology). 

WSU will use the money to finish building a portable anaerobic digester that turns farm waste, manure and household garbage into methane gas that can be burned to generate electricity.

The anaerobic digester is being developed by WSU’s biological-systems engineering department. It will be transported around the state to demonstrate how the new technology can generate power while helping to solve solid-waste disposal problems.

“This is an example of how Ecology is working with researchers and the business community to develop alternatives to current waste-handling practices,” said Ecology’s Mark Fuchs, who is overseeing the contract with WSU. “We want to encourage using and recovering energy from the huge amounts of biomass on farmland.”

Biomass is a combination of farm-field and processing residue from harvested crops, animal waste and municipal organic waste. Eastern Washington has an annual supply of 4.3 million tons of dry biomass that is not being used, according to a report released in 2003 that presented details of a survey of how much waste is available. 

According to the report, that untapped biomass is capable of producing 3.1 million megawatt hours of electrical energy, enough to supply approximately 15 to 40 percent of Eastern Washington’s current residential electrical consumption each year. 

Creating energy from biomass could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, benefit water quality and solve some solid-waste disposal problems, according to the report. 

The survey of the bio-energy potential of biomass in Eastern Washington was sponsored by Ecology and the Inland Northwest Technology Education Center and conducted by Shulin Chen, who heads WSU’s research team.  According to Chen, the digester will be located at WSU’s dairy center during trials.

“We will operate the system at WSU to further test and refine our ability to extract usable energy and products and to develop operations and business models,” Chen said. “After that, we will work with Ecology to find the best places around the state to demonstrate the project.”

Under terms of the contract, the portable unit must be completed by June 30.