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Biodigesters already come in dry, wet, big and bigger varieties as envisioned and built by the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Foundation, its College of Letters and Science and engineering partners Viessmann Group and BIOFerm Energy Systems.

However, the latest incarnation of this sustainable energy generation technology is getting smaller – family-farm sized. And that is prompting the state of Wisconsin to get behind the technology in a new way.

On March 6, Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) Secretary Mike Huebsch announced support through the DOA and State Energy Program for a feasibility study to install anaerobic digestion units on family farms with fewer than 500 head of dairy cattle. The “EUCOlino” (OY-co-lino) project conducted by BIOFerm™ Energy Systems and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, through the UW Oshkosh Foundation, involves the first small-scale biodigester unit in Wisconsin. The feasibility study and test project will be located on the Allen Farm, about six miles northwest of Oshkosh.

“Wisconsin is the national leader for installed anaerobic digestion, and we have the leading minds in the nation working to advance on-farm energy solutions,” Huebsch said. “Under the Walker Administration’s leadership, the collaborative relationship built by the Allen’s, BIOFerm, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and its Foundation, will increase Wisconsin’s competitive advantage to offer cost effective solutions throughout North America for on-site energy demand and waste management.  Most importantly, it provides new opportunities for job growth to our citizens.”

The specific Allen Farm project and technology, referred to as the “Titan 55,” will involve a small-scale, wet biodigester with a 55 kW engine. It is innovative, scaled energy technology once again championed by Viessmann and BIOFerm, partners in the UW Oshkosh Foundation’s existing, on-campus dry fermentation anaerobic biodigester and the proposed Rosendale Dairy biodigester project.

The project’s promise is two-fold. The new, small-farm scale system, using manure from the dairy farming operation to produce methane and on-site energy, offers incredible promise for the environmental and energy sustainability of small-herd family dairy farming operations in Wisconsin. It also opens a doorway to an exciting new industrial development and job-growth opportunity for the region and state, should these smaller-scale biodigesters be manufactured in Wisconsin.

“This project represents one more way for our students, faculty, University and the New North to further develop high-impact environmental studies learning and research opportunities, champion environmentally friendly agricultural practices in the community and strengthen our regional identity as a rural renewable energy beacon for Wisconsin and the United States,” UW Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells said. “For dairy farmers and the dairy industry, the technology shows incredible promise to reduce operational energy costs, and the potential, future regional manufacturing of these smaller biodigester units offer tremendous potential for job growth in the state.”

As announced by the DOA on March 6, the Titan 55 will demonstrate a means for family farms to treat manure on site which cuts down on transportation costs. The system will also provide energy to offset the farm’s consumption. As an added bonus, the byproduct of the digestion process yields a valuable, nutrient-rich fertilizer for farming operations.

“It is exciting to see our state support a feasibility study that will examine what it takes to engrain renewable energy innovations UW Oshkosh is helping establish in larger, on-and-off-campus biodigesters into smaller farming operations like Allen Farms,” said Tom Sonnleitner, UW Oshkosh vice chancellor of administrative services.

UW Madison’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has, for decades, worked at “field stations” to conduct research in and develop breakthroughs in crop and animal science. Sonnleitner said the Allen Farm feasibility study opens a door to our UW Oshkosh students and faculty to use everyday, family farms as “biodigester field stations.”

In exchange, UW Oshkosh students and faculty would serve as scientists, engineers and consultants helping traditional farming families incorporate and maximize a green, renewable energy technology.

The new project represents the UW Oshkosh Foundation’s third biodigester endeavor in the area.

In fall 2011, the University’s dry fermentation anaerobic biodigester began operation. The first of its kind in the western hemisphere, the campus-based facility uses agricultural plant waste, city of Oshkosh yard waste and campus-generated food waste to produce methane. The materials decompose in the biodigester’s airless storage chambers to produce the gas, which is combusted into heat and electricity – enough to, eventually, power up to 10 percent of the growing, 13,500-student institution, Wisconsin’s third-largest university.

The biodigester work deeply involves students and faculty in researching and maximizing methane production through environmental studies research. It has taken high-impact learning opportunities to an entirely new level.

Last summer, the UW Oshkosh Foundation announced a proposed wet anaerobic biodigester facility with an attached Education Center at the site of Pickett’s Rosendale Dairy (Milksource). The facility would be developed in a partnership between the College of Letters and Science, UW Oshkosh Foundation and BIOFerm. The facility will be dependent on Rosendale Dairy’s livestock waste (9,000 cows), will use that waste to produce energy (an estimated 3 megawatts a year) to enhance learning and facilitate scholarship, research and community education.

The audiences and beneficiaries of the proposed Education Center’s outreach mission will be diverse. For example, Wisconsin school teachers and their students will be able to learn about the facets of and science behind 21st Century dairy production up close. This is in keeping with a decades-old Wisconsin ethic of giving the state’s future citizens an understanding of a tradition long engrained in the Wisconsin economy – the science and skill behind production of milk and other products. New generations of students will also be introduced to the science of biogas production – a sustainable energy source and solution to sustain Wisconsin and our planet.

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