Energy made from soil, manure could find its way to local ranches

Fort Worth area ranchers could find themselves with a new source of energy in the coming decade.

A group in Cambridge, Mass., is developing fuel cells made from the bacteria that occur in soil or waste. The group’s idea is centered on a microbial fuel based on a battery that makes small amounts of energy from items such as soil and manure that are common in the households of undeveloped countries.

Eric Brast, assistant director of the Institute of Ranch Management, said the innovation could be beneficial to the ranching community.

“It would definitely be huge for ranching in developing countries,” Brast said.

Currently, there are operations in the Midwest that use a total loop system, where waste is fed into a machine that continuously powers part of their feed mills, Brast said.

Known as Lebone Solutions Inc., the company was founded by a group of Harvard undergraduates who met in an engineering sciences course at school. As of now, Lebone, which in the Sotho language means “light stick,” has successfully been able to power cell phones and radios with microbial fuel.

Even though ranches across Texas employ the use of solar panels for pulling water, those in underdeveloped countries do not have the materials or money to do so, Brast said. With the production of energy from soil and waste, those countries would be able to use solar panel for pulling water at a minimal cost, Brast said.

Stephen Lwendo, co-founder of Lebone, said the concept of microbial fuel cells would integrate into ranching.

“Countries such as Tanzania, where we visited as part of our research, are in need of a energy source for the production of food,” Lwendo said. “So I can definitely see it being used for agricultural purposes.”

Jason Faubion, assistant director of the Ranch Management Program, said Texas is home to some of the healthiest soils in the country, and the idea of using it for a source of energy sounds good.

But he said there are some concerns.

“My concern is in the mechanics, and whether or not the process of harvesting the bacteria from the soil would hurt the range and sod,” Faubion said.

Faubion said if not, the concept of microbial fuel cells could be a valuable enterprise among the ranching community in promoting an eco-friendly environment.

Lwendo said Lebone is currently focused on Africa and does not have a specific plan to bring its concept to the American market.