Ram Bux Singh, Ajitmal, Northern India, 1972
CAN COW DUNG FUEL YOUR HOME?
Parallel to studies of the US space program for closed ecological systems in the 1960s and 1970s, the “Gobar bio-gas” movement was flourishing in India on the topic of assembling methane generators from “gobar,” the Hindi word for “cow dung.” One of the most prominent figures in this field was Ram Bux Singh, who directed biogas experiments for two decades at the Research Station at Ajitmal in Northern India. Following a series of Indian experimental projects dating back to the 1930s, Bux Singh developed more than two hundred low-cost digesters designed to convert plant and animal waste into composted fertilizer and methane for fuel. Particularly, India has two cows for every person and yearly billion tons of manure are burned for cooking or heating with hazardous environmental implications. In the Gobar Gas Research Station, experiments took place with heating coils, mechanical agitators and filters, as well as different mixes of manure and vegetable wastes, in order to safely covert “swamp” or bio-gas—generated by the decomposition of organic material to usable methane for domestic applications.
Bux Singh invented a chemical method, which not only accelerated the fermentation and decomposition in the composting process, but also resulted in the formation of a valuable byproduct, combustible gas (Bux Singh, Generating Methane from Organic Wastes, 2). During the early 1970s, the bibliography on the topic of methane generation (natural and nonpolluting power sources) boomed, while the work of Ram Bux Singh, whose fame spread to Britain and the United States, was popularized through The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News and Colin Moorcraft’s “Recycling” section in Architectural Design. Bux Singh was receiving ten letters a day as a result of articles appearing in these periodicals, all asking for more information about his experiments.
Overall, the initiative of reusing worthless byproducts of chemical reactions for something useful was fundamental for the rising discourse of ecological design in the postwar period. Like Witold Rybczynski’s experiments to recycle sulphur, an abundant worthless chemical element into building blocks, the fertilizer being produced by the bio-gas plant is also one of the key elements along with the methane, especially in India. In India farmers have little money, therefore providing the crops with the proper nutrients has not always been feasible. In creating the best fertilizer where enough methane is produced, Bux Singh began to examine the behavior of anaerobic bacteria. The bacterium consumes carbon about 30 times faster than it uses nitrogen. Therefore, to create applicable results Bux Singh discovered that a 30 to 1 ratio of chemicals in the bio-gas plant was needed, as well as a constant high temperature.
Bux Singh opened the ground for laborious expectations of material recovery: to make use of human and animal excrements. It was this line of thinking that constructed a connecting value system across nations, vis-à-vis the methane digesters from the farmlands of India exported to Britain and the United States, through periodicals on alternative lifestyles and structures. Bux Singh’s absolute involvement with the dirty lifecycle of organic decomposition of animal excrements opened up the possibility of a new world: one that could recycle materials perpetually and feed all leftover substances back into cycles of production.
EFFICIENCY ISSUES: The methane produced in the Gobar Gas Research Station from the bio-gas plant has been about half as efficient as natural gas.
INDIAN METHANE IS NOT AS POWERFUL AS COULD BE IN OTHER REGIONS: In India cow manure is usually dry; due to the nature of the manure, its contents and the feeding of the cow, Indian methane is not as powerful as could be in other regions.