From Compost to Composites: Innovating with Cow Pies

Melissa Coffin | July 27, 2011 | Materials

Earlier this month I was introduced to a new product for Pharos, a line of wall boards and panels made from a blend of cellulose sources -- recycled cardboard, old newsprint, and something near and dear to my Vermont heart: bovine processed fibers.  Yes, BPFs as they're known, are the fibers left over from the anaerobic digestion tanks used to harvest methane from cow manure.  Otherwise a waste product, these and other animal-processed fibers contain lignin and proteins that make them well suited for a variety of bio-based applications.  And, with 2 trillion pounds of manure generated on American farms each year, being creative about what to do with it is a good thing.

Noble Environmental Technologies Corporation has launched its ECOR® line of bio-based panels made from blending these various fibers with water into a "stew" which gets poured out onto a mold before the water is suctioned, pressed, and steamed out, leaving just the fibers behind.  Once dry, the board is lightweight and made strong by the complex matrix of fibers created in the blending process.  ECOR® comes in flat sheets, a corrugated wave pattern, or a honeycomb shape achieved by slicing strips of the wave boards and attaching them with a water-based adhesive in a particular pattern.  The panels can be painted, veneered, and laminated to construct furniture and cabinetry, or molded into almost limitless shapes.  A look through their product catalog had me daydreaming about decorating a home in my future with curvy, sleek, modernly styled furniture and architectural build outs, all made with BPFs.  Because of their versatility, we've added ECOR® to our MDF/Particle Board category in the Building Products Library.

ECOR® products scored well in Pharos (6-8 out of 10 in VOC and toxicity categories depending on the amount of adhesive used), due to their high percentage of renewable content and Noble's ability to fully disclose all of the product's ingredients.  The basic boards can be used as-is, or can be treated with additives, coatings, or other processes to suit a particular function or impart a specific quality.  These extras have their own environmental and human health considerations, so the company is experimenting with different options to maintain as much of their relatively benign product profile as possible.

In addition to winning full points in my "best makeover" category, products made from BPFs have some other useful features:

  • They can be blended with other cellulose sources, including things like wood chips, to achieve the strength and performance profile needed for a given application.
  • Despite their humble beginnings, BPFs as part of a cellulose matrix are sanitary.  Researchers say heat and pressure from the manufacturing process kill any microbes that might be present, and as long as the board stays dry, it is no longer hospitable to microorganisms.
  • Manure is a readily available waste product. If a larger market for BPFs existed, sale of manure could someday represent a supplemental revenue stream for famers.

For more information about BPFs, watch the short video Noble Environmental Technologies produced about the materials and processes used to manufacture ECOR®, or read this recent article in Biomass Magazine.