Managing waste from the $400bn industry has posed huge challenges for years, but now a solution has been found.
BHSL, an agri-tech business based at Kantoher Business Park in Ballagh, West Limerick, has developed manure-to-energy technology aimed at transforming the environmental impact involved.
The patent-protected system converts the poultry manure into energy, which is then used to provide heating for future batches of chicks, or sold back into the electricity grid.
It is the only system available that meets both the United States and European Union environmental regulations. It already has over 110,000 operational hours on British farms.
In 2015, the European poultry business of global business group Cargill signed a 20-year agreement with BHSL to convert manure to energy on its poultry farm in Herefordshire, England.
The BHSL process has the dual advantage of helping farm profitability through reduced energy bills and through improving production efficiency.
An average poultry farm creates a massive amount of manure. This will vary depending on the age of the bird and the feed used.
BHSL recently agreed a $3m manure-to-energy pilot project with the State of Maryland in the US.
The patented energy centre to be used in the project was recently shipped from the company’s plant in Ballagh and will be fully operational next month.
Maryland is one of six states in the US that surround Chesapeake Bay, where, after decades of intensive agriculture, many fields are overloaded with phosphorus.
Over 1bn chickens are produced in the region each year (12% of total US production), resulting in the production of an estimated 1.2m tonnes of manure.
This is contributing pollutants that flow into the Bay, causing severe environmental problems including algal bloom and damage to fish and shellfish stocks.
Maryland State has provided $1m funding to support the pilot project, with the balance of the $3m investment funded by BHSL.
Ann Swanson, executive director, Chesapeake Bay Commission, said BHSL’s solution has the potential to play a very significant role in reducing levels of pollution in the bay.
“We have been looking for options to address the bay’s environmental challenges while supporting the farm community. If it works, it will be one of those win-win situations, with a financial benefit to the farmer and a positive environmental impact,” she said.
With 11,000 commercial poultry farms in the US producing 7.5bn chickens each year, BHSL is targeting the country as a key export market.
Poultry litter left behind on a chicken house’s floor is collected and burned in a heated layer of sand suspended over jets of air in a process called fluidised bed combustion. It creates the energy that heats the chicken houses. Any excess energy can be sold as electricity back to the power grid.
The main by-product is an ash that can be sold as fertilizer that is non-polluting and only 8% of the volume of the original material used, making it cost effective to transport to grain-growing areas.
Finding an economic alternative to land spreading for poultry manure produced in broiler rearing was the primary aim of the company’s founders.
Over the past decade, BHSL has been developing its range of products, overcoming the many and diverse difficulties in reliably processing manure into thermal energy.
It is now building a strong sales pipeline for product delivery in 2017 in export markets such as the United States, New Zealand, Poland, Germany, Holland, Italy and Saudi Arabia.
Chief executive Declan O’Connor said the potential size of the US market opportunity for BHSL is conservatively estimated at over $500m.
In the Chesapeake Bay region alone over 1bn chickens are reared each year. State governments are increasingly aware of the environmental challenges the poultry manure by-product poses for the Bay and the water sources that flow into it.
“Our unique solution can both reduce costs and increase revenue for the farmers while solving the environmental challenge they face. We are very excited about the potential to grow our sales in the US following the State of Maryland demonstration.”
The chief executive’s brother and company founder Jack O’Connor, is BHSL’s chief technology officer, who designed the patent-protected system.
“Ten years ago our family poultry farm in Limerick was on the verge of closure as it couldn’t operate within strict new EU regulations on ground water pollution.
“That gave me the idea to develop this miniature fluidised bed technology which has now been tried and tested, with over 110,000 hours of successful operation on farms in Ireland and the UK.
“BHSL is now aggressively ramping up its sales operations and we see a major global opportunity to export our product and add jobs to our team of 28 who already work in the business,” he said.
The company says that poultry farmers who use its system can benefit from a reduced environmental impact, lower energy costs, improved animal welfare, faster chicken growth and additional revenue.
Based on farmer Bob Murphy’s 112-acre farm in Rhodesdale, Maryland, the impact of the system will be closely monitored by researchers from the Universities of Maryland and Georgia to ensure all of the findings are fully verified by an independent third party.
Murphy’s farm produces 3,650 tons of manure annually which historically has been trucked to other farms for use as fertiliser.
But that is not a long-term solution as other farms, like Murphy’s, will soon have soil phosphorus concentrations that exceed agreed limits.
Mountaire, the poultry company for whom Bob Murphy’s farm grows chickens, is supporting the project. It is the seventh largest chicken producer in the US, selling over 330m birds each year.