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High-tech milk pasteurization powered by low-tech cow poop! [UPDATED 7 Feb - video]

Our idea is a milk pasteurization product that tackles the problem of climate change by producing needed product (safe milk) alongside renewable energy production. Our team of Stanford electrical engineering PhDs have invented a new, low-cost, super low energy method for pasteurizing milk. It uses high voltage pulses to directly kill bacteria rather than heating the whole volume of milk up, cutting energy use by 50%. Where there is milk, there is cow poop. The poop from a single cow can pasteurize 10X the milk it produces, and cuts methane emissions from manure. Our units can eliminate the 50% of milk spoilage in Africa (boosting income), empower local food-sheds, save lives, and cut the 4% global CO2 & CH4 from farms & industry alike.

Photo of Sarah Rizk
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Refinement: We want to focus on how we can provide value to farmer communities in (1) California, (2) Africa. Here are our hypotheses:

(1) California: 
FOR a small (~200 cow) dairy farmer, they NEED a way to stop disease in their herd that is transmitted to calves through raw milk BECAUSE if their herd becomes infected with disease like Johne's disease, they lose ~$40/head. Because of this, they are willing to pay ~$10,000 for a small on-farm pasteurizer to sterilize milk for thier calves and prevent disease. 
1. Is putting a pasteurization unit on farm the prefered method of preventing this disease transmission?
2. How are communities of farmers coming together to deal with this disease, which touches 70% of farms?
Our approach is to go out and interview farmers this week to learn more about this. We will be posting videos over the next couple of days to share with the OpenIDEO Community.

(2) Kenya, Africa:
FOR a small (1 cow) farmer, they NEED a way to prevent spoilage of their milk BECAUSE half of their milk is spoiling today, cutting their potential revenue in half. Because of this, they are willing to pay for a system that prevents pasteurization if they can finance the system with their savings.
1. Who bears the economic cost of milk spoilage? Is the farmer with the cow willing to pay for pasteurization?
2. Take a look at our supply chain drawing. Do we have this right? 
For this we are heavily relying on the OpenIDEO community for feedback, as we don't have feet on the ground in Africa. Insights about India and other emerging nations are also appreciated.

By designing a small, modular, efficient non-thermal pulse electric field (PEF) system, we will be able to supply small farmers with on-farm pasteurization systems to treat milk before transport. By treating milk at the farm, we eliminate the possibility of spoilage and resulting health risks locally. 

Conventional thermal pasteurization costs is very energy intense and clostly - ours is radically cheaper. PEF is a proven technology for pasteurizing milk and other liquids but has not been cost-effective in the past because of large power supply costs. Our patent pending technology is a fraction of the size of conventional power supply units and is the driver for the low cost of the system. 

PEF treatment sends high voltage electric pulses through the liquid, which rips apart the cell walls of bacteria, killing them. Conventional thermal pasteurization heats up milk to 160 degrees F and then cools it back down. In the PEF system, electricity directly kills the bacteria and does not rely on heating the whole volume of liquid. As a result, it uses only a fraction of the energy of conventional systems. Furthermore, our system enables higher levels of pasteurization to decrease refrigeration needs over the life of the milk and drive further GHG reductions.

We can power our system with cow poop using a biodigestor, and this reduces the large GHG emissions associated with methane that comes off the manure. Farmers have this fuel source readily available on their farms, so it costs them nothing in fuel and gives them 100% reliability. It's a simple, beautiful closed loop process in action that with every churn reduces the CO2-eq in the atmosphere by destroying CH4 which is 22x as powerful as CO2. 

We have completed small-scale proof of concept which demonstrates the effectiveness of the unit at providing liquid sterilization.  We are currently developing a second-generation prototype for pilot testing with users. We are also conducting interviews with dairy farmers to ensure that our system meets user needs. We are also building out our business plan and pitch decks in order to seek seed funding. Now we need you  to help us make this real and ensure that we are building it in a way that our customers will embrace. 


What community does this idea benefit and who are the main players?

Small farmers in emerging markets with high spoilage rates - We are looking at India and Africa where spoilage rates are 30-50%, reducing the income of people on a key stepping stone out of poverty. These households typically have 1-5 cows and need a highly affordable system that is financed so they don't have to pay the whole amount upfront. Pasteurizing it before someone comes to pick milk up on a bicycle means it doesn't spoil and they get paid the full amount. Every time the pasteurize using our cow-poop powered system, they prevent methane emissions and make more money. Industrial milk producers - Most milk is processed at large processing plants which are huge energy hogs. We can put in our lower-cost systems at these industrial plants, and cut energy consumption by 50%. Artisinal cheesemakers - Cheesemakers often spend as long pasteurizing as making cheese, and they hate it! We can do it faster, which means they can make more cheese. More cheese = more happy cheese eaters! It also means more money in their bank. Farms pasteurizing milk for their calves to drink - Calves are typically separated from their moms at 1-3 days on larger dairy farms. The USDA has found that a lot of calves get sick from unpasteurized milk, but many farmers can't afford a $10-$50k pasteurization machine. Save calves through affordable milk pasteurization. Others - We are also looking at raw milk, home cheesemakers, and others.

How does your idea specifically help your community rapidly transition to renewables?

By embedding renewables within the dairy system, we change the renewables challenge and value proposition by making it one component of an income-generating product. Users can produce more electricity than they need, so they can also retail electricity to neighbors and others.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

We have talked to farmers in Costa Rica, China, and the US and we think there is a real need for our product. We do not yet have FDA approval for our new technology and one question we are trying to answer is if people in under-regulated markets will accept our technology (eg. small rural farmers in emerging economies, aged cheesemakers, raw milk drinkers, others) before we go through this long process. For the US, we are testing this now. We need to ask the same of people in emerging markets.

What skills, input or guidance are you keen to connect with from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

Help us design a product that fits into the way that people make milk and manage manure now. Also, help us get perspective on our ideas about emerging market opportunities, spoilage, and on-farm milk pasteurization. Though we are close to markets in California, we don't have as much perspective on emerging markets.

Please indicate which type of energy is most relevant to this post:

  • Biofuels

This idea emerged from:

  • A Student Collaboration


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Photo of Tatiana Martinez

Great idea !!! congratulations :)

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