Argentine researchers are using special backpacks made for cows to capture cow belches and turn them into power while fighting climate change.
The cows are each hooked up to tubes that carry flatulence away from the cow’s digestive system and store the gas in a balloon-like bag on their backs. Since their belches are mostly made up of methane—the main component of natural gas—the contents of the backpack can be converted into energy that can actually be used.
A cow can produce up to 300 liters of methane a day, which is enough to keep a refrigerator running for the same amount of time. While cattle aren’t likely to replace standard power plants anytime soon (read: ever), the power could be useful for people living off-grid.
"We believe that today it could be used in areas where conventional energy is not available," Guillermo Berra, the scientist working on the project at Argentina's National Institute of Agricultural Technology, told the BBC.
Argentina might be a good candidate for that type of alternative power, since the country has more than 50 million cows in rural areas (more cows, in fact, than people in the country).
But the biggest benefit of the technology, if it takes off beyond the researchers’ experiments, is the potential to help curb climate change.
Dairy production is notoriously bad for the environment, and cow gas alone accounts for around 2.8 gigatons of CO2-equivalent emissions each year—or 5% of all the human-caused greenhouse gases in the world. That’s not counting the impacts from cattle feed and other parts of agriculture.
In all, the carbon footprint of a single hamburger is about the same as driving a car about 10 miles. As more people can afford to buy meat globally, consumption has tripled over the last four decades, and impacts continue to grow.
Other solutions can help cut down on the gas. In places like the U.S., where most cows eat a mixture of corn and soy, just switching back to a more natural diet can help. Some researchers are even using wireless sensors in cow stomachs to track how diet affects cows. Other researchers are investigating whether some cows are gassier than others, and think they might be able to breed less flatulent bovines.
Since diet and genetics can only do so much, though, solutions like the cow backpack may also be necessary if we want to hit GHG reduction targets. That, or a lot more people might need to be convinced to go vegetarian.