Photo/IllutrationDung and urine of dairy cattle are fermented at this plant operated by the town government of Okoppe, Hokkaido, to generate methane gas. There are expectations that technology developed by Osaka University will allow for efficient conversion of methane gas into methanol. (Provided by the Okoppe town government)

OKOPPE, Hokkaido--Known for its flourishing dairy farming industry, Japan's northernmost main island is eying a new source of income using a technology developed by Osaka University that converts methane into methanol.

Methanol, a raw material in various chemical products, has a broader use than methane, derived from cattle dung, which is mostly used to generate electric power.

The town government of Okoppe on the Sea of Okhotsk has signed a cooperation agreement with Osaka University to jointly develop mass production technologies starting this autumn.

Biogas power generation is becoming widespread in Hokkaido, and the gases that are used include methane derived from the dung and urine of livestock through fermentation processing.

There are more than 70 biogas power plants operating in Hokkaido, operated by dairy farmers, local governments, agricultural cooperatives, businesses and other entities. The power they generate is partly self-consumed and partly sold to Hokkaido Electric Power Co.

While many operators would like to build more biogas plants, a number of similar construction plans have foundered owing to a shortage in surplus capacity along HEPCO's power transmission lines, reducing the likelihood of the utility purchasing more power, according to sources.

Okoppe is home to three biogas power plants that combined process about 20 percent of all dung and urine generated by dairy cattle in the town.

The town authorities have a plan to build another plant to increase profit, but the plan has yet to materialize, partly because of the power line capacity problem.

The government thus looked for a source of profit other than from the sale of power. Kazutoshi Hazama, mayor of Okoppe, set his sights last year on a study conducted by a research team led by Kei Ohkubo, an applied chemistry professor with Osaka University.

The study presented a new method that uses chlorine dioxide and light to oxidize methane and convert it into methanol and formic acid.

Previously available methane oxidation methods require reactions under high temperatures and high pressure, with less than 1-percent efficiency of conversion into methanol.

The new method can be implemented under normal temperatures and pressure and has a significantly improved conversion efficiency of 14 percent. Calculations show that it would allow about 80 tons of methanol and 400 tons of formic acid to be obtained per year from the dung and urine of 560 heads of dairy cattle, officials said.

Methanol, which is broadly used to make electric appliances and drugs, is expected to provide a new source of income if it is sold. Formic acid can be used as an additive in feed for dairy cattle, so it could be consumed locally.

Hazama approached Osaka University with a proposal for the joint technological development, whereupon university officials, who were eager to find opportunities for practical application of the method, readily agreed.

The work slated to start in autumn to develop mass production technologies will take place over three to five years at research facilities at Osaka University and in Okoppe. A trial run will be conducted at a plant operated by the town government after the profitability is carefully assessed.

"This is the first time that dairy farming has been linked with chemistry," said Hazama. "I'm very happy about the project."

"There are hopes for use of methanol in various applications, including fuel for automobiles," Ohkubo said. "I hope to see a spread of our technology both in Japan and abroad."