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NYU Student Wants to Convert Dog Poop into Fuel

By DNAinfo Staff on December 20, 2011 1:09pm

The methane digester takes dog waste and converts it into energy to power gas lamps.
The methane digester takes dog waste and converts it into energy to power gas lamps.
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Matthew Mazzotta

By Amy Kraft

Special to DNAinfo

GREENWICH VILLAGE — Growing up in Ethiopia, Melody Kelemu always had dogs, a lawn where they could walk around by themselves and gardeners who took care of any mess man’s best friend left behind.

When she moved to the city to start college at New York University, the Neuroscience and Environmental Studies major watched as residents cleaned up after their dogs every day, and began to wonder how the waste could be put to better use.

Now the 21-year-old junior is applying for an NYU grant to put machines into dog parks that would turn waste into energy to power lamps — including in Washington Square Park.

“It gives people a greater sense of satisfaction to know that you are doing something great while at the same time using something from your dog,” said Kelemu, who lives on the Lower East Side.

The methane digesters "stir" the waste to help it break down into methane.
The methane digesters "stir" the waste to help it break down into methane.
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Matthew Mazzotta

Under Kelemu’s plan, dog owners would collect dog waste in a specially made biodegradable bag and toss it into a methane digester — a hermetically sealed tank where the dog feces are broken down by anaerobic bacteria. Methane gas is released in the process, fueling a gas-burning lamppost in the park.

The digester has no smell and can accommodate waste from as many as 200 dogs per day. It takes waste from approximately 10 dogs to fuel a lamp for one hour, she said.

The device consists of two tanks, the second of which will be used to hold overflow waste. Kelemu said she would like to get other NYU students on board to maintain the machines.

Kelemu is applying for a $20,000 Green Grant from NYU's Sustainability Task Force to cover the initial costs of the project. She said she plans to build the digesters herself, at a cost of $2,000 each, and the rest of the money will pay for maintenance and the production of biodegradable bags.

She said she'll build the machine out of a water storage tank and scrap metal.

Kelemu would like to place a digester in the dog run on the south side of Washington Square Park and in the Mercer-Houston dog park, at the northwestern corner of Mercer and Houston streets.

She hopes to install the machines inside area dog runs by the summer.

NYU landscaper George Reis told DNAinfo.com that he's supportive of Kelemu's proposal and likes the idea of dealing with dog waste in a new way.

“This is something we should be thinking about,” Reis said.

An NYU representative said they could not discuss the proposal until the grants are awarded.

A spokeswoman for the Parks Department, which maintains the area's dog runs, said they had not yet heard about Kelemu's idea, but said they had independently been approached by an entrepreneur who hopes to use a digester to convert canine waste into energy.

The spokeswoman said that parks officials are interested in the idea, but have not committed to a project yet.

Turning waste into energy is nothing new. Farms and ranches use anaerobic digesters to recover methane from animal manure to produce electricity, heat and hot water. Digesters reduce energy costs and methane emissions, which contribute to global warming.

The methane from the dog waste is burned to power gas lamps.
The methane from the dog waste is burned to power gas lamps.
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Matthew Mazzotta

Massachusetts-based conceptual artist Matthew Mazzotta, who is helping Kelemu apply for the grant, was the first to bring the methane concept to a dog park in 2010 when he started the Park Spark Project in Cambridge, Mass. He said he is working with communities around the country to set up digesters.

“People have to take chances on new technology and new ways of looking at things,” Mazzotta said.

Megan Bernard, owner of the dog walking business Megan’s Mutts, laughed when she heard the plan. “It’s gross and good at the same time,” she said.

Marie-Louise Orsini, 26, a dog walker at Doggie Time, agreed.

“Anything that is environmentally friendly and benefits the community is a good idea,” Orsini said.

For now, Kelemu is working out the technical aspects of the project to help green the city, courtesy of man’s best friend.

“One dog’s trash is lots of people’s treasure,” she said.