Tackling ‘Moothane’ problem – cutting greenhouse gas from livestock

A new collaboration between scientists, engineers, industry and farming experts hopes to demonstrate how clever technology can reduce the powerful greenhouse gases released by livestock to help agriculture reach carbon emissions targets.

Methane, released when livestock belch and pass wind, is about 30 times as effective as carbon dioxide in trapping heat over a 100-year timescale.

The methane released by animals such as cows accounts for about 50 per cent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and represents a major barrier for the farming sector to meet net zero targets.

The new project, a collaboration between Durham University, the University of Nottingham, sustainable technologies leader Johnson Matthey, and NFU Energy, will test the feasibility of catalytic equipment to safely decompose methane in barn air, where it is most concentrated and preventing it from being released into the wider atmosphere.

The £250,000 project, partly funded by UKRI’s Farming Innovation Pathways funding grants, will build on existing technology and look specifically at how to adapt this to the agricultural sector.

If successful, the team hopes that this could pave the way for a new “farm-ready” technology which could have a significant impact on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of livestock farming.

Dr Simon Beaumont, Associate Professor in Chemistry at Durham University, said, “Methane from livestock – or ‘moothane’ – accounts for about 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector, and around one third of this is released indoors.

“So, whilst ‘moothane’ is a significant challenge for the farming industry, there is also a real opportunity to solve this challenge and in doing so, help this industry take a big step towards carbon-reduction.”

The project brings together experts from academia and industry to take a multidisciplinary approach to tackling the ‘moothane’ problem.

Experts from University of Nottingham, led by Dr Jon McKechnie, will assess the financial viability and overall climate impacts of deploying catalytic technologies to manage livestock methane emissions in the UK.

Johnson Matthey, a global leader in sustainable technologies, has existing methane-catalyst technology (COMET ® technology), for use within underground mining operations, which they hope to re-configure through this project to help address the needs of the livestock farming industry. The concentration of methane emitted in the ventilation air from mines is low, typically less than 1%, which makes performing any useful chemistry challenging. The concentration of methane in dairy barns is even lower than air from mines, presenting even greater technical challenges.

Durham University’s departments of Chemistry and Engineering will be leading on testing the catalysts within this existing technology, to understand if the technology can work in cattle barns where the methane in the air is very diluted. The University’s experts will also investigate what impact other variables, such as barn design, time of year and other components in barn air, may have.

As a leading energy consultancy with a particular focus on agriculture and horticulture, NFU Energy will be bring specialist knowledge around industry and market constraints to the project.

The hope is that by combining expertise from industry and academia, this project will help accelerate progress towards a potential solution that can be easily deployed by farmers to help reduce the climate impacts of livestock farming.

The Farming Innovation Pathways competition is a partnership between UKRI’s Transforming Food Production (TFP) challenge and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Farming Innovation Programme (FIP).

Speaking about funding, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Science & Innovation Minister, Jo Churchill said: “Innovation is a vital way to address the challenges currently facing the agricultural and horticultural sectors. New ideas, technologies and processes will play a key role in helping farmers, growers and businesses to become more productive. They will also enable the sector to be more environmentally sustainable and resilient, whilst helping it achieve its net zero ambitions.”

Katrina Hayter, UKRI Challenge Director for the TFP challenge said: “As the UK gets ready to host COP26 in November, it is timely that we can unveil so many great projects in the vital area of agriculture that will help meet our net zero goals.

“Working closely with farmers in the innovation process means that pressing challenges are identified. Solving these challenges will result in maximising productivity, reducing emissions, and making our farms more resilient and sustainable.”

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