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Scientists Are Turning Turkey Poop Into Fuel

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While most families gather around the dinner table this time of year to eat turkey and give thanks, a team of scientists are doing something a little different with the bird — they're turning its poop into fuel. 

NPR reports a team at Ben-Gurion University in Israel has been working to figure out ways to transform waste to resources, and has been experimenting with various forms of manure. They say that when turkey droppings are cooked under the right temperature, they transform into a form of coal, which can then become a renewable resource and fuel power plants.

Led by professor Amit Gross, chair of the Department of Environmental Hydrology and Microbiology, the team started with poultry feces due to its abundance. "It is an environmental burden, and people are still trying to figure out what to do with it," Gross said. Future Thanksgivings could be powered by the fuel made from a turkey itself, a goal the researchers have in mind.

Like most Americans who figure out the perfect recipe to use for Thanksgiving, the team worked to perfect their recipes as well. But when when you're dealing with turkey droppings to convert waste to energy, they say there are really only two options: roasted or stewed. 

Researchers heated up turkey feces to various temperatures. Cooking wet feces at 250°C (482°F) created the most energy-dense substance, called hydrochar, made of biomass particles and water. It can be burned like coal, and the liquid, rich in carbon and nitrogen, can be used as fertilizer.

While cow manure can be used in place of turkey feces, the team has also been experimenting with pressure-cooking human excrement for a study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. But there really is nothing like poultry poo. According to the scientists, they decided to study poultry litter because its nitrogen, a fertilizer, is more abundant in bird droppings than in the excrement of other animals. As an extra benefit of turning waste into fuel, it might be possible to recover some of that nitrogen and use it to nourish plants.

The scientists published their "recipes" and energy comparisons in the journal Applied Energy, stating that as global poultry production continues to grow, its fecal byproduct may help offset some of the world's energy needs. 

The Ben-Gurion researchers point out that poultry production generates 625-938 million metric tons of poop per year. Converting this output into fuel could “potentially replace 10% of coal in the generation of electricity, thereby significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity generation and agricultural waste,” the researchers wrote.

If the idea of heating up poop to create fuel sounds gross to you, you might want to get over the "ick" factor. The team in Israel isn't the only one out there in the world researching ways to turn feces into a renewable resource.  In 2017, a Kenyan company turned human fecal waste in the city of Nakuru into a usable fuel source for cooking and heating and students in South Africa created the world’s first bricks made from human urine. 

Figuring out how to use something that's so abundant all around the world is at the heart of the lab in Israel. The research by the Ben-Gurion team was published ahead of World Toilet Day, a day designated by the United Nations to bring attention and inspire action to the global sanitation crisis. Some 4.5 billion people, or some 60 percent of the global population, either have no toilet at home or one that doesn’t safely manage their excrement, while some 892 million practice open defecation, according to the UN.

“Poultry litter might be a notorious source of pollution, yet has the potential to be an important resource,” Gross said. “The Earth is literally going to be up to its ears in waste, and we’re trying to find a way to use this waste for electricity, for heat, and for cleaner air and water.”