This is a sensitive subject. Although we all need food and most of us eat animal protein, we seldom talk about the process that recycles the protein in food into animal waste, into plant fertilizer and finally back to plants and a new group of animals—manure.
I have been involved with manure for most of my life. Living on a farm for the first eight years of my life taught a lot. Little quotes like “never pick anything up twice” and “use it all” have remained with me for my lifetime. We were true “greenies.” I did learn that we all eat and recycle food in one form or the other. The fertilizer will grow grass, the grass feeds the pigs and cows, cows and pigs make waste which is used as fertilizer and we use the milk and the meat from animals.
Up until the third grade, I lived on a farm in Bolton, Mass. It was about 120 acres and supplied milk, potatoes, chickens and lots of vegetables to the town. The farm was large, family-run and owned by my German grandparents. In the depression years, us kids were supported by that farm. Nobody on the farm had a “day job.” My job, as a short-legged kid, was to drive the Ford tractor in noncritical tasks. My dad got some schooling in New York and we moved to New York City from the farm—a mild culture shock. He went into manufacturing, and thus began the roots of the PLC.
Recently, one of my business associates was approached by a group in Italy. The group was interested in making good fertilizer by lowering the nitrogen content of manure. Animal waste needs to be “brewed,” much like beer. The process is slow, temperature dependent and does not make an ideal product for fertilizer. Generally, there is too much nitrogen in the product. The plants don’t like it. Tests have been run and engineers get a significant reduction, from 50 per cent to 80 per cent, of the nitrogen using a sparging process. Sparging is sprinkling, bubbling and agitating the fluid to speed up the chemical processes demanded by brewing or septic tanks.
They decided that they would add energy and agitation to the system with ultrasonics without changing the temperature. More directed energy is put into the process under SCADA control.
These systems are similar to other data applications. Waste goes into a big container tank and a pump circulates it through a smaller tank for acoustic treatment. This process continues until 50 to 80 per cent of the nitrogen is removed. This improves the efficiency of a cycle and pleases my physics sense of justice.
We should remember that one of the most efficient manufacturing systems is the fast food industry. They respond by manufacturing on the spot and—within limits—the market is served. Fast food is a just-in-time manufacturing process.
Recycling takes many forms. The one I like best is the Dutch joke, “We drink the water from the Rhine River which has already been through three Germans.”
Up and coming areas include such things as orchard bots, genetic modeling, tractor drones, asset management, local growing and good fertilizer. We automate oil, water, traffic, manufacturing and war. How about plain old manure?
As Debbie, my long-suffering secretary, started to convert this pig’s ear of a column into a silk purse, I asked for her opinion. She said, “I don’t know the point of the column.” I was carried away with farm memories. Most of us have lifelong memories that are transportable into areas such as software and computer design. The flow of a food farm is much like an oil farm.
The message is that everything is recycled, everything needs automation and help, and we, the community of techies, may be neglecting a huge area of application. I want to remind everyone that there are other things in the world besides the screen or page you’re looking at right now. We need to raise our sights into the realization that the environment needs help—and we’re just the people who can do it.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.