Cows ‘drop’ a solution to Punjab’s gas woes

Cow dung can produce methane, a clean alternative to natural gas.

Ussama Bin Naveed August 12, 2012

LAHORE: “There’s a lot of cow dung there,” Hamza informs me. “You’ll ruin those shoes you’re wearing.”

“So how often have you visited the bio-gas plant?” I inquire.

Having only read on the subject, I do not know what to expect to see. Hamza, a recent graduate from the University of London and my guide on this assignment, briefs me about the Orange Processing Factory and the farm we are to visit. He himself has only visited Kot Momin once or twice, and is unsure of our exact destination. Jamal, our driver, a humble man of northern descent, has only a faint inkling.

We are headed for Pakistan’s largest citrus producing areas in the Sargodha District. Having never visited a farming community, I am eager. These are exciting times for farmers, I am told; their cows are quite literally keeping their stoves burning!

As we turn for the Kot Momin interchange, I wonder if these docile beasts ‘hold’ the answer to our gas problems. The Pipal trees grow thick, and a faint tang of citrus scents the air. The locals are obliging, and we are soon pointed in the right direction. A narrow road leads us to The Orange Processing Plant. An attendant greets us and invites us in. “Here, we process and package oranges and mandarins for export,” he explains as he ushers us to the main building. Inside, lofty conveyer belts and heavy machinery slumber away in a corner.

“If it wasn’t for the factory’s bio-gas plant, these machines wouldn’t be able to operate,” Hamza explains. “Methane produced by the plant is used in the generators that power the factory.”

Curious to see learn more I ask to be shown the plant. “It’s all faecal matter,” says the attendant casually, as he points towards the main gas tank. “Cow dung is scooped into the inlet tank and mixed with water.”

‘Sounds lovely,’ I think to myself. In a concrete tank, dung and water are mixed to a slurry; using what looks like a massive egg beater. The muck flows to an airtight underground tank, where, in the absence of oxygen, chemicals in the dung react – creating gas. The gas obviously has to be pumped, purified and pressurised before it can be used, but it’s a fairly simple process which requires minimal human interference. Once the purified methane is extracted, it can be used as a renewable substitute for CNG. In hindsight, this factory, like many others, is rationing a cow’s intestinal gases and turning them into free energy.

Impressed by this stroke of genius, we bid the attendant farewell and head out to another location: Sarfaraz Ranjha’s farm.

Once there, Khuram Shehzad, a young worker, gives us a walkthrough. “My job is the shovel manure from the cow shed into the inlet tank.” With a cringed nose, he adds: “We have 30 animals – you can imagine the workload.”

His might not be the most enriching of careers, but Khuram is nevertheless a part of a farming revolution in the country. Farms using similar systems are not only producing their own methane, they also end up with 100% natural, chemical free fertiliser that’s great for crops.

Initially, the manure needs to sit for eight days before methane is released, Khuram explains. “Any longer than eight days and the methane explodes!” he jests.

“Life’s easier, now that we don’t have to pay for our gas needs. Where the rest of the country suffers from gas shortages, our farm enjoys a surplus,” says Ranjha, our host. Our host’s voice has the authority, and his waist the measurement, of several men.

Ranjha invites us in for a demonstration of his home-brewed bio-gas. He explains that after an initial investment of around Rs400,000, his house and farm has enjoyed free gas (with adequate pressure) for a year without fail.

Ranjha even shows us his cooking utensils: “Bio-gas is environmentally friendly,” he explains as he points our attention to the spotless bottoms of his pots. They have no carbon deposits.

Over plates of succulent mangos and tart jamuns, the conversation steers towards the potentials of bio-gas as replacement for CNG.

“Bio-gas has the potential to completely replace CNG,” Hamza informs the gathering. “And many clients come to the Alternative Energy Development Board, seeking advice on the matter. It is definitely a great business opportunity.”

I smile faintly as I watch Hamza, Ranjha and two other landowners from nearby plantations debate the future of our energy sector. Their optimism is by no means foolish: Germany has already made great headway in the industry and is aiming to produce enough bio-gas to end its dependence on CNG imports. Perhaps it’s time we started playing to our strengths. We have the resources required in abundance, and farmers keen to give them a try.

There is an immodest mount of mango peels and jamun seeds in the saucer now. Taking this as our cue, we thank our host and bid our farewells. Outside the cow shed I frame the camera for a few parting photographs. As the viewfinder composes the scene, a sludgy sound indicates my foot has sunk into something mucky. I look down to find my shoes deep in dung.

I have literally stumbled on to a gold mine.


Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2012.