Innisfail-area teen gives new meaning to ‘horsepower’

4-H Science Fair project generates renewable energy

One Innisfail-area teen has turned horse manure into horsepower, thanks to an innovative 4-H Science Fair project of his own design.

“I wanted to see if the average daily manure produced by one horse would be enough to power electric horse fencing using a biodigester,” said 13-year-old Liam Christian.

“I found out that, yes, actually, a biodigester only requires 50 per cent of the manure a horse produces to power that fence.”

Growing up in rural Alberta, Christian noticed that the acreages around him often have horses that produce large piles of manure — but don’t always have enough land to compost it all on. His solution? A bench-scale biodigester that decomposes organic material to produce renewable energy.

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Over the winter, he worked to develop a biodigester that could convert the manure from a single horse into enough power to run a 108-watt electric horse fencer. Biodigesters work by creating an oxygen-free environment where organic material is decomposed and transformed into biogas — methane, hydrogen sulphide, and carbon dioxide (along with other trace gases). The methane can then be collected and burned to generate electricity.

“The methane can be used for heating and electricity, much like natural gas, but it reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere,” said Christian. “It’s a renewable energy source that’s better for the environment.”

He also tested three different inoculant rates and found that he could increase methane production while decreasing his startup time. But his ultimate goal was to reduce the manure pile that comes with keeping horses — the family has two — and turn it into something useful.

Mission accomplished.

“It can really help with manure management,” said Christian. “It can reduce up to 50 per cent of stockpiled manure, which can reduce the amount of bugs, groundwater seepage, and run-off.”

But the teen didn’t do it alone. Along with financial support from EQUS, the Innisfail and District Agricultural Society, Central Alberta Co-op, Home Depot, and 4-H Canada, Christian was able to tour the Lethbridge Biogas plant and work closely with provincial bioengineer Ike Edeogu, who showed him the real-world applications of his project.

“That helped me a lot. He pointed out things I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.”

And in the end, all the hard work paid off — not only did Christian accomplish what he set out to do, his project was also selected as a finalist to advance to the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in mid-May.

“It was exciting — it was lots of work, but there were lots of opportunities too. I met lots of new people,” he said.

While Christian wasn’t selected as a finalist at the national competition, he plans to continue building on his project and potentially patenting it someday.

But first he’d like to explore the potential cost savings of such a system, or create a residential-size biodigester, or maybe even develop a system that can flow the energy produced back into the grid.

The possibilities are endless for this young scientist, but he’s in no rush to do it all at once.

He is only 13, after all.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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