On Gassy Cows and Catalytic Converters

Cows have the right of way in Kolkata, India

What do you get when you cross a cow and a truck? A whole lot of gas!

On March 7th, Science magazine reported that curbing methane and black carbon (soot) emissions might provide a “quick fix” to some of the problems currently associated with global warming. Although the authors caution that simply reducing methane and soot emissions would not eradicate CO2-related problems, such endeavors would likely provide a short-term buffer, giving us more time to reduce worldwide COemissions.

Of the 400+ policy measures examined by the study’s authors, fourteen were found to “offer big benefits” in curbing methane and soot emissions. Some of these fourteen measures, such as replacing wood-burning stoves with more efficient alternatives, rely on improved distribution of established technologies. Other measures, such as reducing “output” from livestock and improving the emissions profile of diesel combustion engines, will require ongoing innovation, in order to achieve current climate goals.

To explore current innovation in these areas, IP Checkups mapped the patent landscape  around methane- and soot-reducing technologies using Thomson Reuter’s Themescape software. In total, we found ~2600 patent documents (including both published applications and issued patents from the US, EP, WO, and JP patent offices) in this space. (Click on image below for a larger picture).

From the terms visible on the map shown above, it appeared that concepts relating to diesel combustion were very prevalent in the methane- and soot-reduction patent landscape. While these results were not surprising, we nevertheless confirmed them by identifying all patents related to diesel combustion, as shown below:

Each red dot corresponds to a single patent document. There are ~1800 patent documents relating to diesel fuel combustion on this map; these ~1800 patent documents  represent ~70% of the total patent landscape. From this, it is reasonably straightforward to conclude that, currently, most methane- and soot-reducing innovation focuses on curbing emissions from diesel engines.

Diesel engines were not the only source of methane emissions addressed by the Science researchers. Ruminant “emissions” are responsible for 28% of all human-related methane emissions. Flatulent bovines produce 80 million metric tons of methane each year, a quantity that will likely increase steadily, over the next few decades, in proportion to the increase in worldwide beef consumption.

Fortunately, there are already some solutions in the works. University of Alberta researchers report that selectively breeding low-emission cattle may reduce methane production by 25%. Other studies show that precisely engineered feed blends–or even simply incorporating garlic into bovine diets–may be even more effective at curbing such emissions. Altering gut microbe composition, whether through genetic manipulation, inoculation, or pharmaceutical treatment, also shows a lot of promise.

Despite this significant body of research, patenting in the area of bovine methane reduction remains relatively minimal. IP Checkups identified only 180 patent documents, worldwide, that were even tangentially related to this space. Shown as green dots on the patent landscape map below, most of these patent documents relate to either the genetic manipulation of forage plants (aimed at reducing methane emissions via dietary modification) or therapeutics that target methane-producing gut bacteria (such as vaccines and/or pharmaceutical substances).

Because so few patents have been filed–or issued!–in the ruminant methane emissions space, targeted research efforts in this area may offer a significant value proposition. This is especially true if “fart taxes”–such as those proposed in New Zealand, Estonia, and the United States–gain footing in new climate change regulations.

2 Responses to On Gassy Cows and Catalytic Converters

  1. Richard says:

    In the best American tradition, the developer of the anti-fart product will successfully lobby Congress for the imposition of the anti-fart tax. Leave nothing to chance.

  2. Gary says:

    Feed the cows beano. Catalytic converters are source of CO2, but w/o them the hydrocarbons create unhealthy smog. Better solution is natural gas/propane powered cars, or better yet, all electric cars.

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