Most Shared

Admit it, you're curious: This is how cow poop becomes energy.

An unexpected energy source may be hiding in plain sight.

Admit it, you're curious: This is how cow poop becomes energy.
True
Gates Foundation: The Story of Food

Let’s get straight to the facts: A dairy cow produces around 112 pounds of wet manure every day.

Even on a farm with only 187 cows (the U.S. average), that’s nearly 21,000 pounds of cow poop every single day.

Cows produce around 112 pounds of wet manure every day. Image via iStock.


Other livestock also produce staggering amounts of waste. According to National Geographic, the 2.3 million hogs in rural North Carolina’s Duplin County “generate twice as much waste each day as the city of New York.” Holy, um, hog.

Usually, this waste is a big nuisance for farmers. It takes up space, it smells, it releases methane into the atmosphere ... the list goes on.

What if there were a way to harness all that poo for good?

Turns out there is.

The concept is simple, and the technology has been around for decades: Animal waste is collected in a closed container and broken down by bacteria through anaerobic digestion. The resulting methane gas (which naturally occurs in animal waste and would otherwise be released as a harmful greenhouse gas) is then captured and either used for energy on the farm or piped to a power plant in the area.

Poop goes in, usable energy comes out.

Waste must be collected and stored in a closed container to capture the methane. Image via iStock.

Better yet, the energy obtained from the methane gas isn’t the only benefit of using this system. Other byproducts of a biodigester on a dairy farm, for example, include: liquid waste, which can be used for fertilizer or cycled back into the digestion process; fibrous material, used for compost or even animal bedding; and waste heat, used to warm homes and other buildings on-site.

Converting animal waste to energy isn’t a technology of the future; it’s already in use all over the world.

In Colorado, the Heartland Biogas project processes both animal and food waste, sending the resulting methane to an interstate pipeline. According to NPR, the facility can process up to 1.7 million gallons of waste at a time.

Image via iStock.

In North Carolina, hog farmers are generating biogas from waste lagoons — a mixture of solid and liquid waste typically held in uncovered containers. Covering these waste pits allows farmers to capture the valuable methane gas and drastically reduces the overpowering odor these facilities are known for.

In Germany, the Munich Zoo has a small biodigestion program that converts animal waste (mostly from the elephants) to biogas, which fulfills a percentage of the zoo’s electricity needs. The waste heat, in this case, is used to warm the gorilla enclosure. Other zoos around the world, including in Detroit and Toronto, are adopting similar approaches.

A baby elephant in the Munich Zoo, where waste is converted to energy. Image by Andreas Gebert/AFP/Getty Images.

Of course, biodigesters aren't the solution for all of our energy needs.

For one, they're incredibly expensive to set up (so much so that the cost is prohibitive for most farmers). According to PBS, even a primitive digester only makes financial sense on a farm with 2,000 cows or more. But luckily, some farmers are able to reap the benefits without paying too high of a cost (such as those located close enough to a large biodigestion operation like Colorado's Heartland facility).

Many critics also point out that converting waste to energy doesn't solve our waste issue at its root — if you're putting food scraps in a biodigester, it would have been better to feed those scraps to humans. If you're putting animal waste in a biodigester, you must consider the resources it took to raise those animals and whether they would have been better spent on less intensive crops for human consumption.

But if we're going to make any progress in tackling the world's energy crisis, utilizing the waste we're already creating is a great place to start.

It's one thing to see a little kid skateboarding. It's another to see a stereotype-defying little girl skateboarding. And it's entirely another to see Paige Tobin.

Paige is a 6-year-old skateboarding wonder from Australia. A recent video of her dropping into a 12-foot bowl on her has gone viral, both for the feat itself and for the style with which she does it. Decked out in a pink party dress, a leopard-print helmet, and rainbow socks, she looks nothing like you'd expect a skater dropping into a 12-foot bowl to look. And yet, here she is, blowing people's minds all over the place.

For those who may not fully appreciate the impressiveness of this feat, here's some perspective. My adrenaline junkie brother, who has been skateboarding since childhood and who races down rugged mountain faces on a bike for fun, shared this video and commented, "If I dropped in to a bowl twice as deep as my age it would be my first and last time doing so...this fearless kid has a bright future!"

It's scarier than it looks, and it looks pretty darn scary.

Paige doesn't always dress like a princess when she skates, not that it matters. Her talent and skill with the board are what gets people's attention. (The rainbow socks are kind of her signature, however.)

Her Instagram feed is filled with photos and videos of her skateboarding and surfing, and the body coordination she's gained at such a young age is truly something.

Here she was at three years old:

And here she is at age four:


So, if she dropped into a 6-foot bowl at age three and a 12-foot bowl at age six—is there such a thing as an 18-foot bowl for her to tackle when she's nine?

Paige clearly enjoys skating and has high ambitions in the skating world. "I want to go to the Olympics, and I want to be a pro skater," she told Power of Positivity when she was five. She already seems to be well on her way toward that goal.

How did she get so good? Well, Paige's mom gave her a skateboard when she wasn't even preschool age yet, and she loved it. Her mom got her lessons, and she's spent the past three years skating almost daily. She practices at local skate parks and competes in local competitions.

She also naturally has her fair share of spills, some of which you can see on her Instagram channel. Falling is part of the sport—you can't learn if you don't fall. Conquering the fear of falling is the key, and the thing that's hardest for most people to get over.

Perhaps Paige started too young to let fear override her desire to skate. Perhaps she's been taught to manage her fears, or maybe she's just naturally less afraid than other people. Or maybe there's something magical about the rainbow socks. Whatever it is, it's clear that this girl doesn't let fear get in the way of her doing what she wants to do. An admirable quality in anyone, but particularly striking to see in someone so young.

Way to go, Paige. Your perseverance and courage are inspiring, as is your unique fashion sense. Can't wait to see what you do next.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less