Dave Hall, Windsor Star
Published: Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Windsor company has successfully developed a high-tech heat transfer system which could change the way energy is generated in the farming and feed-stock industries by cutting costs and reducing the potential for environmental disasters. Developed by Acrolab Ltd.'s agricultural energy transfer division, Agrilab Technologies, the system, which generates thermal energy from compost, is the only one if its kind in the world, said Acrolab president Joe Ouellette. Ouellette said the system at Diamond Hill Custom Heifers in northern Vermont has been running for two months during which time it has successfully generated continuous commercially viable thermal energy in the form of hot water stored in an 800-gallon tank. "We have proof of commercial viability now," said Ouellette. "This is no longer a process that has only worked in a lab setting under optimum conditions. "We just needed an opportunity to do it on a scale large enough to convince farmers and others that it was commercially viable," said Ouellette. Ouellette said the process has been in development for eight years but it's only been in the past two that his company has actively been seeking someone to take a chance on the technology. "We needed someone with the technological chutzpa, if you will, to stick his neck out and give it a shot," said Ouellette. "We tried all over Canada to no avail." Finally, Ouellette and Agrilab were contacted by Terry Magnan who, along with his wife Joanne, runs Diamond Hill, a 2,000-head calf and young stock operation in Sheldon, Vt. where they raise milk cows for the dairy industry. Facing rising energy costs and looking for ways to cut those costs and find additional revenue streams, Magnan was ripe for something new and innovative. Magnan said he'd wondered for years about how to capture the thermal energy generated by the composting process but it wasn't until Brian Jerose, a friend who runs What Not Resource Solutions, found Acrolab's website that the idea took flight. Magnan said after he contacted Ouellette, "it took about 18 months and $250,000 in state and federal grants to get the system installed and operating. "We have 2,000 head of cattle so we're always going to have the basic ingredients for compost and we wanted to find a way to produce it more efficiently and cost effectively," said Magnan. "The cost savings not only come from the fact the system produces hot water to heat the compost but it also provides the energy required to constantly turn the compost," said Magnan. Magnan said the ideal temperature for compost is between 130 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit and the heat transfer system heats water to a consistent temperature of 130 degrees. By comparison, said Magnan, "our well water is 44 degrees Fahrenheit so you can imagine how much it would cost to heat that water without this system." In the heat transfer process, batches of compost and bedding products are composted in a process which generates a great deal of heat. The compost is stored in a building which has ventilated channels in the floor and the hot air is sucked into a heat exchanger which in turn heats the 800-gallon tank. Moisture generated in the compost pile is run through a system of pipes and sprayed back onto the compost pile to keep it hot and fresh. Magnan uses some of the compost on his own land and sells the rest to area farmers and gardeners. Ouellette said in the summer months when it takes less energy to heat the water, Magnan may even be in a position to sell hot water, thus creating another revenue stream for his business. Ouellette said it's another step along the way to "a nothing-in, nothing-out closed-loop farming operation in which everything produced is also used. It's time we stopped thinking in terms of waste and start considering by-products as feed stocks." Ouellette said additional applications include fish processing and meat packing plants, the greenhouse industry, sawmill operations and even large truck and car wash operations. Treating manure in this manner also eliminates the need to store it in liquid form in large ponds which, in turn, reduces the possibility of it leeching into the watershed which is largely what created the contaminated water disaster in Walkerton. Ouellette said "such disasters can be avoided if we treat our by-products in a more environmentally-friendly manner. "We're convinced this will work in any number of different applications and we needed an opportunity to prove it," said Ouellette. "Farmers are largely show-me type people who aren't interested so much in promises as they are in results and we're grateful Terry had the foresight to give this a chance." Magnan said his decision was "driven by economics because it's getting more and more difficult for dairy farmers using conventional farming methods to make ends meet." Magnan said "in addition to saving money, it's exciting to be involved in something which is new and not being done anywhere else in the world."