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ARGENTINA: Clean Energy from Manure

Marcela Valente* - IPS/IFEJ

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 4 2009 (IPS) - With its enormous potential for biogas production, Argentina is gearing up for this clean energy alternative – which has already seen good results on ranches that transform manure into energy.

 Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS

Biogas is a fuel generated from the biodegradation of organic material in an airless environment. But to achieve sustained development of this source it will be necessary to break through some bottlenecks, according to experts consulted for this report.

“Biogas production is in full swing. We carried out a study on the potential as well as plan for expansion, and we are trying to push pilot projects and concrete applications in agribusiness,” Jorge Hilbert, head of the National Bioenergy Programme of the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA), told this reporter.

To promote this type of energy, INTA published a Biogas Production Manual and an Atlas on the Potential for Biogas Production in Argentina this year. It is receiving development aid from Germany, where this technology, subsidised by the government, is used in turbines that generate electricity equivalent to the output of three nuclear power plants.

In Argentina, 86 percent of energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels (mostly petroleum and natural gas), six percent from hydroelectric dams, and 1.6 percent from nuclear. The rest comes from firewood, sugarcane pulp, coal and alternative sources.

Meanwhile, agricultural activity is the main source of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, accounting for 29 percent of Argentina’s total emissions, according to the latest official statistics.

The emissions, principally methane gas – whose greenhouse effect is much stronger than carbon dioxide – could be avoided by turning the organic material that produces it into biogas, which burns even cleaner than natural gas.

Hilbert maintains that in Argentina there is great potential for biogas. “What is lacking is investment,” a shortcoming that does not have to do with technology but with the lack of financing for agriculture in general, he said.

Eduardo Gropelli, head of non-conventional energy at the chemical engineering department of the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (National University of the Coast), said in an interview for this report that from the technological perspective, “the solution has been developed; it’s available and has great potential.”

“If production is blocked, it’s due to lack of financing,” he said.

“Companies that have the financial capacity have access to the technology and are moving forward,” such as large ranches and agribusiness concerns, said Gropelli.

One of the companies that has begun to transform its own waste into energy is Cabañas Argentinas del Sol, a pig farm with 10,000 head on 22 hectares in Marcos Paz, 50 kilometres west of Buenos Aires, and only three km from the city limits.

“We were concerned about the methane pollution from the manure, as well as the stench and the flies,” said agricultural engineer Hugo García, the owner of the company. After trying some homemade approaches, he travelled to Brazil, where he saw a “biodigester” in operation – and bought one.

To obtain biogas, the biological degradation of the organic material – manure in this case – must be the result of anaerobic bacteria, microorganisms that live and reproduce without oxygen. This controlled process can capture a biological fuel that is rich in methane. When burned, instead of being freely released into the atmosphere, methane produces much less carbon dioxide than a coal or oil fuelled power plant.

Even better, biogas production is an efficient solution for handling animal waste.

The manure from livestock on dairy farms, feedlots, meat-packing plants and other sites, like García’s farm, can be turned into the raw material for fuel, as can waste from the production of cane alcohol, processed fruits and vegetables, and even sawdust. To obtain biologically-based methane, in addition to the fermentable raw material, a biodigester is needed. It is a hermetic reactor where the fuel is generated and collected to then be used to generate heat for ovens and water heaters, or to fuel an electric turbine.

After he purchased his first biodigester in Brazil, García added a second, and then a third larger one, with a capacity for 2,250 cubic metres of manure. The system for transporting the animal waste to the reactor and the pipeline for carrying the gas are simple and economical, he says.

Using biogas, he replaced the tanks of petroleum-based natural gas he used to buy in order to heat some of his barns, and to process the soybeans used for feeding the pigs.

Each of these steps, which used to require fossil fuels, now run on biogas. “With their waste, the pigs provide their own caloric energy,” he explained. Furthermore, the liquid from the manure, a by-product, is used as fertiliser with a high concentration of nutrients to grow the soybeans that feed the animals.

The savings total about 5,200 dollars per month, just on the gas bill. “In two years we paid off the biodigester,” said the farmer.

According to Gropelli, the biggest developments in biogas are being seen in agro-industrial companies, like big breweries, and factories that make gelatine, yeast and other foods.

He also underscored the cases of pig farms, feedlots and dairies where large volumes of manure accumulate and an environmental solution is needed for its disposal. “In less than four years the investment can be repaid,” he said.

However, there is another less developed area for this technology that would require a cultural shift: urban solid waste. In this area, a few projects have been developed in small towns. In the eastern province of Santa Fe, the town of Emilia, with 1,000 residents, has its own organic waste recycling plant.

Other towns of 3,000 to 7,000 people have also been put to the test. “In this case, the Achilles heel is in separating organic from inorganic waste. People are used to just throwing out their garbage and aren’t aware of their environmental responsibility. What is needed is a cultural change, which takes time,” said Gropelli.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by Inter Press Service (IPS) and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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