Manure Manager

Features Applications Beef
Burning a billion pounds of manure

March 8, 2008  by Diane Mettler

Panda Ethanol builds the largest biomass-fueled ethanol refinery in the country, which will be powered by a billion pounds of manure a year.

Within 100 square miles of Panda Ethanol’s Hereford, Texas, ethanol refining facility, 3.5 million head of cattle each produce one ton of manure. That one billion pounds of manure will be used to power the plant.

Panda Ethanol builds the largest
biomass-fueled ethanol refinery in the country, which will be powered
by a billion pounds of manure a year.

Hereford, Texas is known to most as the beef capital of the nation, but to Panda Ethanol Inc. it’s affectionately called ‘the Saudi Arabia of manure’. Within 100 square miles, 3.5 million head each produce one ton of manure. In part because of this ample manure supply, Panda chose Hereford in which to build its revolutionary ethanol refining facility.

When the facility becomes operational later this year, it will be the largest bio-fuel refinery in the nation, producing 115 million gallons of denatured ethanol from approximately 38 million bushels of corn. And it will be powered by one billion pounds of manure.


“There aren’t that many areas of the country that have the concentration of manure to fuel an ethanol facility of this size,” says Bill Pentak, director of communications and investor relations for Panda Ethanol. “The sites were carefully chosen.” Pentak says plural ‘sites’ because there are five more refineries in different stages of permitting and development that will be built in Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska.

In Hereford, where farmers pay a premium to have their manure removed, they’re excited about the new facility. The day is coming when the rows of manure 30 feet high and 100 yards long will represent energy instead of a liability. Initially they were skeptical – this wasn’t the first time a company had come to farmers with grand ideas for using their manure. But this time was different. Panda’s project was well planned, exceptionally green even by environmentalists’ standards, and was being financed by Wall Street.

Hereford, Texas – the beef capital of the U.S. – is set to become ‘the Saudi Arabia of manure’ when Panda Ethanol’s facility becomes operational later this year. Within 100 square miles, 3.5 million head each produce one ton of manure. In part, because of this ample manure supply, Panda chose Hereford as the site of its revolutionary ethanol refining facility.  

The founding company, Panda Energy, has had a long history of building and operating large-scale energy facilities. Years earlier the company had looked at using biomass material in order to fuel large power plants, but it wasn’t feasible. “But when the company decided to get into ethanol, all of a sudden the light clicked on,” says Pentak. “The engineers put a pencil to it and came back and said this makes good sense.”

The facility is an exercise in efficiency – borderline ingenious – and nothing is wasted. Corn coming in by rail will be processed using manure from nearby feedlots for fuel. Four products/by-products will be produced:
• Ethanol: 115 million gallons of denatured ethanol will replace gasoline being refined from oil.
•  Distiller’s Grains (the husk, fiber and fatty oil left once the starch has been removed from the kernel): “This creates a high-protein, nutrient-rich and highly desirable cattle feed,” Pentak says. “We consider it a co-product versus a by-product. We’re very serious about marketing our distiller’s grains.”
• Ash (the residue after the manure is gasified): Will be used as bed lining for cattle pens, a paving filler for roadbeds and a strengthening agent for building materials such as cement and cinder blocks.
• CO2: Will be sold as beverage carbonation, dry ice and food preservation. It can also be injected back into the ground to help oil recovery efforts, and used as a shielding gas for welding.

“By anyone’s definition, this is recycling,” Pentak says about the process as a whole. “It’s very much of a win/win for us, locating our biomass facilities where we have. There is ready access to the manure and ready access to a healthy distiller’s grain market. And, of course, locating the facility where we have, there’s already a very robust rail infrastructure in place to bring in corn from the Midwest, because the cattle feed off of corn. We like to say that these plants are the greenest of the green.”

The company is banking big on the future of manure-fueled ethanol refineries. And it sees numerous reasons for its decision to go with bio-fuel. In addition to saving Panda the equivalent of 3000 barrels of oil a day in the production process, it reduces the facility’s exposure to natural gas prices, creates a cost advantage depending on the prevailing price of gas, and disposing of the manure in a clean way addresses a growing environmental hazard.

Bill Pentak, director of 
R communications and investor relations for Panda Ethanol, describes the company’s ethanol refining facility as “the greenest of the green. By anyone’s definition, this is recycling.”

For the feedlots it means drastic cost savings. Those who have long-term contracts with Panda will no longer pay to have the manure removed. “The biggest feed yard in the Hereford area is the Bar G and it’s run by Johnny Trotter,” Pentak says. “They turn about 125,000 head a year through the Bar G, and Johnny says he will be saving about $350,000 a year not having to pay to have the manure hauled off the land.”

The mayor of Hereford, Bob Josserand, owns AzTx Cattle, and told the Dallas Morning News that he maintains 50,000 head, produces about a million pounds of manure a year and spends $150,000 to $300,000 to have it removed. “This is the sexiest environmental project being developed in the U.S.,” he said.

Not all manure will do. The manure picked up at the feed yards has to be a certain consistency. John Sweeten, a professor and resident director of Texas A&M University agriculture experiment station in Amarillo, is helping Panda Ethanol obtain the ideal manure for its fuel. The manure cannot be too moist or fresh in order to burn correctly. And if it is too dry it loses some of its BTU producing qualities. In addition, too much dirt mixed in with the waste can make it less effective.

Fresh manure has approximately an 80 percent moisture content. In the Hereford area, it can dry to 30 percent quickly, making it the right consistency for gasifying – 3500 to 4000 BTUs per pound.

“The problem with using manure as a fuel has always been its variability,” Sweeten told the Dallas Morning News. To get the right moisture content and as little dirt as possible, he recommends taking half of the mound and leaving half. “The part that gets left will seal and provide an aerobic layer.”

Unlike other, more ‘traditional’ biomass-fueled ethanol facilities, which are smaller sized and operate on anaerobic digestion, Panda Ethanol’s biomass facilities will be the first to utilize gasification technology that uses a bubbling fluidized-bed gasifier. The cattle manure is mixed into a bubbling sand bed, which is maintained at a relatively low temperature. As the heat hastens the manure’s decomposition, a synthetic gas is released, which rises to the top of the fluid bed combustor and is then burned off. The result is a clean, odor-free conversion of the cattle manure to produce the steam necessary to process corn into ethanol.

There is a nearby and ready market for the ethanol. “Most traditional ethanol facilities are located in the Midwest, near the corn, but this facility is called a ‘destination facility’,” Pentak says. “Panda believes it makes better business sense to have its ethanol facilities located closer to the end market. Right now we have three big markets for our ethanol from our Hereford facility – Dallas, Houston, and California.”

An artist’s rendition of Panda Ethanol’s Hereford, Texas, ethanol refining facility. When the facility becomes operational, it will be the largest bio-fuel refinery in the U.S. and producing 115 million gallons of denatured ethanol from approximately 38 million bushels of corn.

Panda truly believes in the fundamentals of ethanol. It makes great energy sense for the country, lessens dependence on foreign oil and is good for the environment. It is a renewable resource and, in this case, is also fueled by a renewable resource.

For those concerned about the negative effects of ethanol, like the price of corn affecting consumer food prices, Panda invites people to its website where many studies and papers are available. One such paper put out by the National Corn Growers Association is entitled “Understanding the Impact of Higher Corn Prices on Consumer Food Prices,” which does not foresee a big price increase at the counter – only pennies on the dollar.

With five enormous ethanol refineries on the drawing board, and plans for being a leading producer of ethanol in the nation, one might think Panda would be concerned about the future corn supply or competing for it. It’s not. “We are leaning on the ingenuity of the American farmer and they are a real wonder,” Pentak says. A USDA report that came out at the end of March shows that American farmers plan on planting approximately 90 million acres of corn, and corn yields are going up dramatically.

Panda’s new technology and ambitious goals have caused a stir not only in Hereford, but also across the country. Top reporters have covered its progress, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Forbes Online, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Newsweek, National Geographic Online and NPR. Even Geraldo Rivera sent a film crew to capture the groundbreaking ceremony. But the real test will occur later this year when the refinery goes into production. And Panda intends to make it a big event.

It is the dawn of a new age, and Pentak says Panda is excited to be a part of it. “For us, the great thing is that we’re using a renewable fuel to create a renewable fuel.”

For those interested in knowing more about the facility, visit for extensive information on the facility, processes and bio-fuel.


Stories continue below