If settling the dust on helicopter landing pads to save lives in the Middle East was not enough or protecting cold-water streams in Dane County, now he is making cow manure a resource for biofuels and other products throughout Wisconsin and the U.S.
“Wisconsin’s 1.5 million cows produce more than 26 billion pounds of milk and 5.5 million tons of manure each year,” explains Colombian-born Aicardo Roa-Espinosa, who is one of the world’s leading experts in soil and water engineering and president of Soil Net, LLC, located in Belleville, Madison, and Zhuhai, China. “When I started Soil Net, the future of my business was finding solutions for real problems—manure is not a problem but a great resource. By using polymer solutions that we create in our laboratory, the manure is separated into different components—fibers for bedding, fertilizer pellets, and others for biofuels, and the recycled water from the manure can be used for irrigation.”
Last July, Roa-Espinosa and a group of multidisciplinary researchers from the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences received a $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative.
“This is one of the largest grants ever received by the UW’s Biochemistry Department,” says Roa-Espinosa, who also was an urban conservationist for Dane County, and is an adjunct professor of Biological Systems Engineering at the UW-Madison. “We are one of five projects that received $30 million to develop more efficient production of biofuels and feedstock improvements.”
The grants are part of the current administration’s strategy to enhance the U.S. energy security, reduce its reliance on imported oil, and leverage our domestic energy supply.
Shortly after the grants were announced, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved Wisconsin’s rules to cut phosphorus levels in lakes, rivers, and streams, which will result in cleaner water, fewer weeds and algae blooms, and better habitats for fish.
With key elements of the system already in place at Maple Leaf Dairy, a 5,600-cow operation near Cleveland in Manitowoc County, the project will separate dairy manure into fiber and protein, with the fiber being converted to ethanol and the protein being used for fertilizer and the production of aminoacids.
“Farmers will make more money from manure than milk—even if milk increases to $8.00 per gallon,” laughs Roa-Espinosa. “Using our imagination, we are the first to understand that manure is a resource—it’s water, it’s fiber, it’s protein and these byproducts can change Wisconsin agriculture and the entire dairy industry.”
Other principal investigators include John Markley, Steenbock Professor of Biomolecular Structure; John Norman, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science; Tom Cox, Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics; and Troy Runge, Professor of Biological Systems Engineering.
Since the project was reported and staff of Braun Electric, Inc., hosted an exhibit booth at the 2012 World Dairy Expo, Roa-Espinosa has received inquiries from people in the Ukraine, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, China, and Canada.
“We envision a closed cycle that will provide dairy farmers with self-sufficiency and income and eliminate costs of transportation and disposal of manure and related water contamination issues,” he says.
For Roa-Espinosa, the multimillion-dollar grant recognizes his life’s work with developing biodegradable polymer technology first used in the clarification of sugar cane from water while he still lived in Colombia.
“When harvesting the sugar cane, the stalks have a lot of leaves, soil, and ashes from burning the stocks,” he explains. “These need to be separated from the real sugar—polymers are the most effective treatment to produce clean white sugar and have been used in this manner for more than 45 years.”
While attending the UW-Madison, and earning his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural engineering, Roa-Espinosa wrote an article about physical sedimentology and how polymers work in sediment. Later, while working for the Dane County Land Conservation Department, he effectively used polymers to control erosion.
“Soil losses due to wind and water erosion are significant threats to productive agriculture and creating stable, pollution-free construction sites,” Roa-Espinosa says.
Using polyacrylamide copolymers, which he likens to a hair net, he developed three relatively new applications for controlling wind and water erosion that stabilize and add structure to soil. This is a temporary condition of the soil.
Applying one of his polyacrylamide formulations to helicopter landing pads minimized dust clouds during helicopter operations in fine, arid soils such as those encountered in the Middle East, specifically Iraq.
“When someone is driving down a gravel road, dust can be annoying,” says Roa-Espinosa. “When someone is trying to land a helicopter in a desert war zone, dust can be deadly.”
He explains that polymers are used in many industries such as the sugar cane industry, mining, plastics, and sewer treatment processes, as well as manure separation, drinking water, paper industry, and textiles, and motor oil.
His research continues as he develops polymers that will recycle motor oil. Motor oil has been looked at as a waste product and contaminant, but when properly separated and cleaned, it can be re-used. Soil Net has a history of working with various industry leaders to develop technologies providing a novel approach to waste management.
Roa-Espinosa says, “We want to work in every market—Soil Net is an engineering firm, a conservation firm, a biotechnology firm, a soil science firm, and a research and development laboratory all rolled into one.”
Through his research and applications, Roa-Espinosa develops products for hundreds of customers in fields as diverse as lawn care, solar farming, and even body paint. He shares his wealth of information with companies, institutions, and governments around the globe, including Central America, China, Brazil, Colombia, and the U.S.
When Roa-Espinosa is not traveling, he and his wife Sue, who is a crystallography business manager at Bruker Axs, Inc., in Fitchburg and manages the Soil Net’s finances as well, call Madison home.
Roa-Espinosa says that since moving to Wisconsin in 1980 that he has “developed a great love for the state of Wisconsin.”
A love that Roa-Espinosa was able to put into action when he worked for the Department of Natural Resources and the Dane County Land Conservation offices.
“This is where I chose to raise my family and this is where my family has our business, Dane county is my home,” he says.
Before joining his father in the laboratory in Belleville, the couple’s son Tomas worked for ENCAP, LLC, in Green Bay. Many of ENCAP’s innovative technologies are developed in cooperation with Roa-Espinosa. Soil Net’s partnership with the ENCAP, while Tomas was a consultant, created many innovative products that are now sold to lawn and garden retailers, the professional landscape and golf course market, and various government agencies.
Now, Tomas focuses on improving Soil Net’s existing products as well as finding new customers and developing new products based on market analysis.
Another son, Samuel, who helped Roa-Espinosa start the company while in high school, manages Soil Net’s Laboratory and a research site related to the grant at Maple Leaf Dairy in Cleveland.
Through the grant, Roa-Espinosa also employs three researchers and students from the UW-Madison including assistant scientists Damodhara Mailapalli and Sisikumar Elumalai and Ph.D. candidate Zong Liu.
More than 35 years ago, he came to Madison and the UW to earn his doctorate degree in agricultural engineering. With what he has accomplished, his zest for learning new technologies, his love for agriculture, and his feverish work ethic, it is exciting to think about the possibilities he will create for the future of Wisconsin and around the globe.