Tackle farms first, then industry says emission researcher

Reducing the quantities of toxic gases released by livestock could be an easier and more effective way of cutting pollution than trying to control the emissions of heavy industry.

These are the findings of a researcher based at the USA’s Carnegie Mellon University who argues that controlling the ammonia emissions of farmyard animals could significantly reduce atmospheric pollution on the country’s eastern seaboard.

Peter Adams has set out to demonstrate that cutting down the agricultural ammonia is more economical and efficient than trying to control the effects of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from some industrial plants.

“In most farms, handling of animal manure is a major source of ammonia being released both to air and water,” said Mr Adams, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

“Our research shows that increased control of livestock feed, efficient use of nitrogen on farms, low-emission fertilizers and other improvements to manure handling on farms are cost-effective ways to reduce ammonia emissions and airborne particles.”

Adams’ research shows that ammonia is a significant contributor to dangerous airborne particle concentrations along the eastern United States – concentrations that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems hazardous to human health.

It also reports that the potential savings from controlling ammonia manure emissions from farms is $8,000 per ton in the winter, a cheaper and overlooked strategy for reducing airborne particle levels compared to controlling dangerous industrial pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

In New York state, each 500-megawatt, gas-burning turbine produces as much as 61 tons per year of pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and other dangerous airborne particulates, with remediation costs well into the millions, researchers said.

“While you can only smell the high ammonia concentrations on or near a farm, the more serious health threat occurs further away as a complex set of chemical reactions occur in the atmosphere that convert ammonia into microscopic, airborne particles of ammonium nitrate,” said Mr Adams.

“Better farming practices could decrease ammonia emissions from farms and potentially save farmers money.”

In addition to monitoring ammonia emission on farms, Mr Adams indicated that in urban areas vehicles equipped with catalytic converters emit significant amounts of ammonia as part of a trade off in which nitrogen oxide pollution is reduced.

While ammonia emissions from catalytic converters are potentially reducible, further research is needed to determine whether catalytic converters can effectively reduce both ammonia and nitrogen oxide pollution, Mr Adams said.

David Gibbs

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