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Professor Creates Renewable Energy From an Unpleasant Source
Illustration by Megan Blair
Stephanie Lansing’s research requires a love of renewable energy, along with a weak sense of smell and a strong stomach. Cow manure from a Pennsylvania farm, chicken droppings from Maryland’s Eastern Shore or even human waste in Haiti: The assistant professor of environmental science and technology is working on capturing it all to heat homes, cook food and generate power—while keeping methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from escaping into the atmosphere.
“I see waste as a resource for renewable energy creation,” she says.
Anaerobic digesters are systems that break down biodegradable material and produce gas and other byproducts that can be trapped and used. Washington, D.C., for example, is building one at its waste-water treatment plant so it can become self-sustaining. Lansing’s focus is on shrinking them so even individual families can obtain and afford them.
She’s working, too, to see what cost-efficient materials and mix of microbes could help farmers throughout the Mid-Atlantic harness power from manure and food waste year-round, even at low temperatures that can kill microbes traditionally used in digesters.
The former Peace Corps volunteer is also creating systems that locals in Haiti can be trained to operate. “Two-thirds of the country does open defecation,” she says, because the country doesn’t have an adequate waste management system. Lansing’s system links communal toilets to the digester systems, then pipes the gas back into homes, hospitals or other buildings, which improves sanitation and saves fuel costs.
Eventually, she hopes to combine the digesters with new technology called microbial fuel cells, which directly create electricity and water from waste, for maximum efficiency.
Despite the nature of her studies, undergraduate and graduate students clamor to work with her, and she’s brought both to conduct research in Haiti.
“She was the only person I found doing work in this area with applications outside the United States,” says Andy Moss M.S. ’12, who now owns a digester company in Baltimore. “To very quickly and decisively make a difference, environmentally, for public health and quality of life, there are very few options as appealing as this field.”
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