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Cow Powered

VRI wins a grant to run buses on biomethane

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Tourists heading to the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver may have Whatcom County’s dairy cows – and WWU’s Vehicle Research Institute – to thank for a green ride to the games.

A $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will help the VRI convert tour buses to run on clean-burning biomethane from a digester in Lynden that turns the area’s dairy manure into fuel. Converting the three buses used by Bellingham’s Bellair Charters from diesel to biomethane fuel will reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 23 times.

“These buses will essentially become ‘carbon negative’ once they have the new engines installed,” says VRI Director Eric Leonhardt. “Not only will they produce a fraction of the carbon dioxide they did before the conversion, but they are also using a renewable resource made from cow manure, which would ordinarily just add its greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.”

The biomethane used to power the buses comes from the Northwest’s first dairy digester, at the Vander Haak dairy in Lynden; the farm’s cows supply the manure put into an anaerobic digester on the farm, which separates the solids from the gases.

The gases are then run through a “scrubber,” which removes the hydrogen sulfide and other contaminants from the methane and makes it clean and ready to burn in a combustion engine.

Being a dairy-intensive region, Whatcom County alone could produce enough biomethane to fuel up to 40,000 vehicles, according to Leonhardt.

Larry Wickkiser, manager of Bellair Charters, says he hopes the converted buses are ready in time to carry passengers to

the Olympics.

“The time is right for our company because the technology is coming together in our own back yard,” Wickkiser says. “On top of that, the raw fuel source is abundant, renewable and locally produced.”