America has a fugitive methane problem. The greenhouse gas is some 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide (though it has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere), and the climate threat it poses was enough to spur the White House to recently announce a comprehensive plan to cut methane emissions. The gas has a number of sources, making it difficult to pin down exactly how much of it the U.S. is responsible for. Landfills emit methane, as do oil and gas drilling, and pipelines, all of which have come under increased scrutiny with the recent shale boom. But the biggest single source of U.S. methane emissions is a lot less high tech than these things: nearly 90 million cattle belch the gas constantly.For the hardline environmentalist, the answer to this cow problem is clear: stop eating meat, and in so doing, save the cows and save the climate in one fell swoop. Good luck with that.Meanwhile, the FT reports, researchers are working on some different, more hi-tech solutions to the cow methane problem:
C-Lock, a South Dakota company, sells a feeding station that gives animals dietary supplements such as basil to cut methane production and measures the content of their breath by pulling it towards trace gas sensors with a vacuum.Patrick Zimmerman, C-Lock’s founder, says prices start at $45,000 but stresses the economic benefits of improved efficiency. “Of the energy the animals eat, 3 to 15 per cent is lost as methane and that’s a waste,” he says.
At Argentina’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology, scientists have created backpacks that collect gas via tubes plugged into cows’ stomachs. A typical animal emits 250-300 litres of methane a day and researchers say this could be used to power a car or a refrigerator, but Jorge Antonio Hilbert of the institute says the tanks’ use on a large scale is “totally improbable”.
We’re unlikely to see any of these rolled out en masse anytime soon. The cost and logistical difficulties of adjusting a natural bodily process of 90 million large animals are substantial. But one day, you might see a cud-chewing cow sporting a spiffy methane-capturing backpack, or a farmer administering Gas-X to his herd.