With some 6,300 tons of manure produced daily in nearby feedyards, Hereford, TX, sometimes can appreciate the “smell of money” only so much. But the “Beef Capital of the World” soon could smell like a rose economically while helping reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

A 100-million-gal. ethanol plant is under construction in Hereford by Panda Energy International. Inc., a Dallas-based company that will count on 1,500 tons of manure/day to fire the plant — on a 24/7 basis (see Figure 1).

The Panda ethanol project is one of dozens of new ethanol and biodiesel plants going up nationwide in lieu of high fuel prices and tax incentives that make production profitable. It will ship in most of its corn from the Midwest, but also buy corn and grain sorghum from local farmers. Its ethanol production will likely go to markets coast to coast. Wet distillers grain (WDG) will be marketed regionally.

Bob Josserand, president of AzTx Cattle Co., which operates five feedyards in Hereford, Farwell and Dimmitt, TX; Garden City, KS; and Rocky Ford, CO; is beaming over the Panda project. As mayor of Hereford, he also welcomes a second, 100-million-gal. ethanol plant planned by White Industries.

The White project will tap natural gas to fire the plant. Panda, meanwhile, will use product from the end of a steer to produce feed for the other end — along with fuel for automobiles.

In early April, heavy equipment moved dirt on the Panda site, located only a few miles east of Hereford Feedyard. The work started about the same time another Panda manure-ethanol project south of Garden City received Environmental Protection Agency air permits. Josserand says AzTx also will provide manure for that operation.

These two plants are scheduled to be completed and on line by late 2007, according to Rhett Hurless, Panda vice president of development. A third Panda project in Yuma, CO, also planned to use manure for fuel but couldn't guarantee a large enough supply from area feedyards. It will be fired by natural gas, Hurless says. It will also provide WDG as feed for livestock.

“We have 19 feedyards in the Hereford area that will provide us with manure,” he says. “And there are seven in the Haskell County, KS, area. Each plant will require 1,500 tons of manure/day.”

Josserand has seen various deals designed to help rid feedyards of manure in one form or another fall through. Electric power plants have been discussed. So has the production of burnable pellets from manure. In a Wall Street Journal story earlier this year, Josserand indicated there had been “all kinds of wonderful schemes” to reduce manure stocks.

None have come anywhere close to the project from Panda, a company sold on developing facilities that generate energy in one form or another. It has piloted and built power plants and other projects worldwide.

The use of feedyard-manure biomass in Hereford is the first of its kind, though there are more than 80 biomass-powered facilities worldwide, Hurless says.

“Everything from olive skins, grape pits and chicken litter to pulp and paper waste are used,” he says.

The process used at the Hereford plant involves a “bubbling bed fluidized gasifier,” a combustion process in which a blanket of sand in the bottom of the combustion unit is heated to about 1,500°F. Manure is blown into moving sand. At 1,500°, methane and other gases come off the manure and rise higher up in the combustion chamber where they're refired and moved into a heat exchanger.

Ash makes up 20-60% of manure and helps determine its heating value. John Sweeten, Texas A&M University Research and Extension Center resident director in Amarillo, is one of the nation's foremost authorities on animal-waste management. He says the lower the ash content, the higher the Btu value of manure.

At 20% ash, there's a heat value of 5,500-6,000 Btu. At 60% ash, it drops to 2,500-3,000 Btu. Typical feedyard manure is 35% moisture and 40% ash, Sweeten says, adding that moisture content can also reduce the heat value. On a dry-ash basis, feedyard manure equals about 8,500 Btu. That compares to about 14,000 for coal, Sweeten says.

Make your own power?

Sweeten and his A&M colleagues have explored burning manure to create energy for more than 20 years. And they've considered whether a feedyard could create its own “manure power plant” by firing its own animal waste inventory. He doubts it.

“That type of a system would require a tremendous effort on the part of one or more feedyards to devote lots of money and manpower,” Sweeten says. “It's too complex a system, one that's outside the limits of most feedyards.

“This is a 24-hour system that would require a specialized staff to make it run.”

Panda is taking a “thermochemical approach” of heating materials to 1,500° to convert biomass to fuel, Sweeten says. Some large swine operations use an “anabolic digestion” system to create energy through covered lagoons. A liquid slurry is heated, creating methane gas for energy.

Sweeten warns this type of system, depending on temperature, can require 30-60 days or more to create enough biogas to heat the digester efficiently. If shut down, it can take long periods to bring the system back into production.

“As far as energy production is concerned, I believe most feedyards need to do what they do best, be a fuel provider,” Sweeten says.

Economic boost

Arles “Bugs” Graham, Panda's general manager of the Hereford project, gets feedyard owners and the general public fired up about the economic value of an ethanol plant, especially one in the 100-million-gal. category. Such a plant will employee 60 people and generate millions for the regional economy.

Along with ethanol, distillers grain and carbon dioxide produced from a plant, ash from the process can be added to concrete for road construction. And Graham believes the “live green and go yella” slogan used by automakers will catch on more with consumers hit with gasoline hovering at $3/gal.

But in Hereford and Haskell County, a smaller mountain of manure is as attractive as the renewable energy source the animal waste will provide.

Kevin Wagner of Centra Bank in Satanta, KS, sees the benefits of manure-fired ethanol from all sides. Some of the bank's feedyard customers have a new outlet for manure and the region's economy will be bolstered by new jobs, new markets for farmers and a new corporate taxpayer.

“The Panda plant will provide a lot of tax revenue for our county,” says Wagner, a member of the Haskell County Economic Development Board. “We worked with Panda to line up regional meetings to determine if there was community support.”

Just as in Hereford, the answer was an overwhelming “yes.”

“The idea that Panda is capable of taking manure and converting it into energy for an ethanol plant is making it a lot better for the beef industry,” says Don Cumpton, Hereford Economic Development Corp. manager. “The White plant has also received its permits for its ethanol plant, which along with Panda will provide a new market for our farmers.”

Panda Ethanol Inc. announced in early August its Hereford subsidiary had successfully completed the debt financing. It anticipates ethanol production to commence in the second half of 2007.

Cumpton also brags about a new methane gas plant recently announced outside Hereford to handle manure from dairies — methane that will be converted to enter the natural gas system.

The smell of money just keeps getting better.

Larry Stalcup is an Amarillo, TX-based freelance writer.