U of I Dairy Farm environmental engineers turn cow manure into plastic

MOSCOW, ID - The University of Idaho's Dairy Farm is home to more than a hundred cows and is a place for students to learn all about milk production.

Palouse Reporter Rachel Dubrovin explains why environmental engineers are currently focusing on another substance that the cattle produce.

I'm at the University of Idaho's Dairy Farm where environmental engineers are researching resource recovery.

"There's carbon, there's electrons, and so there's a lot of value there that's just left unrecovered," said U of I Associate Professor of Civil Engineering Erik Coats.

Erik Coats is an Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the U of I and he spends a lot of time on the university's dairy farm. But he's not there for the milk.

"The idea behind the research that we conduct is, 'How do we capture value from the waste streams?'"said Coats.

Coats and a team of graduate students have found a way to make plastic using fermented cow manure and bacteria from the local wastewater treatment plant.

"We feed the bacteria in a certain manner," said Coats. "They can't use it for energy, and they store it as a carbon polymer, and a carbon polymer when we recover it from the bacteria, is plastic."

It all happens in these large tanks.

"We're processing manure as we're working our way down through this system," said Coats.

"And so the plastic is inside the bacterial cells," said Coats. "We recover, purify the plastic, and you can see sort of the white material here."

That raw plastic can be made into a thin clear material.

"This in particular resembles like a plastic baggy," said Coats.

Coats has been working with this process for about five years and he says the future looks promising both environmentally

"We minimize their environmental footprint," said Coats.

And economically.

"Our goal is ultimately to commercialize the technology," said Coats.

The University of Idaho is the only institute in the nation that's studying this technology.

Coats said they're still perfecting the process, but they hope to begin selling the technology to dairies in about five years.