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Japanese researchers are conducting studies to produce methanol — a material used for fuel cells — by illuminating biogas from cow manure with LEDs. If the technique becomes commercialized, it will be the first technology of its kind worldwide.

The research is being conducted jointly by the town of Okoppe, along the Sea of Okhotsk in Hokkaido, and Osaka University. The town is planning to build a dedicated experimental plant, and expects it to be a new source of income for local dairy farmers.

In early June, researchers were conducting related experiments at an agricultural and scientific research center in Okoppe, adding biogas containing methane from the fermentation process of manure into a flask of liquid mixed with a special compound.

When the mixture was illuminated with a blue-white LED light for several minutes, it split into two layers: a clear layer containing methanol and another milky layer containing formic acid.

Kei Okubo, 48, a photochemistry professor at Osaka University’s Institute for Open and Transdisciplinary Research Initiatives, initially conducted research on the process in July 2020, succeeding in a world first.

Methanol, which is used as a raw material for resins and other products, can easily be stored in liquid form. It can also be used as fuel for power generators in times of disaster.

The use of formic acid has become widespread as an additive that prevents the deterioration of livestock feed, and research is underway to utilize it in the production of hydrogen energy.

At present, Japan relies entirely on imports for methanol. Given that methanol is manufactured using costly fossil fuels, Okubo pointed out that using LEDs would allow methanol to be produced at lower cost.

“LEDs are cost effective and environmentally friendly since they do not emit carbon dioxide, and 20% of domestic demand can be covered by cattle from Hokkaido alone,” said Okubo.

Okoppe and Osaka University opened a dedicated laboratory in the town earlier in July, with the aim of commercializing the technology. In February next year, an experimental facility will be built on the premises of the town’s biogas plant, which will supply the gas.

“We would like to check the seasonal changes in manure’s methane gas concentration and make use of that for the experiment,” said an official at Okoppe, adding that they also plan to calculate the production volume and cost.

Okoppe used to have trouble processing cow feces and urine due to the increasing size of cattle barns. But the latest technology is said to be like “killing three birds with one stone,” since the biogas plant will not only treat manure but also produce high-quality fertilizer and prevent bad odors.

The plant was promoted in the 2000s by Mayor Kazutoshi Hazama, 63, a former dairy farmer.

The biogas produced during fertilizer manufacturing is burned to generate electricity, which is then sold to utilities under the government’s Feed-in Tariff (FIT) system. This has covered about ¥800 million of the construction cost needed for the town-owned plant.

But there are also challenges. Due to a lack of capacity in transmission lines, there are no plans for the electricity to be sold to utilities and construction of new plants in Hokkaido has been stalled since 2017.

When the mayor was looking for new ways to use biogas, he came across Okubo’s research paper and visited his laboratory in Osaka Prefecture.

Because formic acid comprises 85% of the mixture produced from biogas, and methanol 14%, Okubo initially had trouble with how the formic acid could be used. But after Hazama persuaded Okubo that the formic acid would come in handy for livestock feed, Osaka University and Okoppe signed their cooperation agreement in 2019.

The local community has high expectations for the experiment.

“I am deeply moved that manure, a nuisance, can be turned into energy,” said Yuki Fujiwatari, a 32-year-old dairy farmer.

Hazama has high hopes, too. “If we can commercialize methanol, it will be a good source of energy after the FIT period ends. I would like to strengthen the financial footing of dairy farmers,” he said.

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published June 27.

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