In a year, a single cow can belch around 220 pounds of methane, a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas. (A much smaller amount is emitted in cow farts.) There are a billion cattle on the planet—and over the next few decades, the UN predicts that beef and dairy consumption will jump up 70%. If the number of cows grows as expected, so will global warming.
While some startups try to tackle the problem with plant-based burgers designed to convert carnivores or seaweed supplements that make cows less gassy, one company is trying to capture emissions directly, with a mask-like device that sits above a cow’s nose. “Because of our background in livestock farming, we knew that cattle exhale most of the methane through their mouth and nostrils, so the obvious approach was to work on a device that would capture these emissions at the source,” says Francisco Norris, CEO of Zelp, the U.K.-based startup.
A sensor on the device detects methane as the cow or bull breathes, and when levels of the gas pass a certain threshold, the technology draws the methane into the mask to a mechanism that oxidizes the gas, turning it into less-potent CO2 and water vapor. It’s similar to a catalytic converter on a car. “By doing this, we are effectively reducing the animal’s emissions to less than 2% of their original value,” he says.
Norris, who cofounded the company with his brother Patricio, comes from a cattle-ranching family in Argentina, and says that the team has focused on making something that is practical for cattle to wear. The design, which is in the final stages of product development and is likely to be on the market in 2022, aims to last four years on an animal without needing to be changed or recharged. It’s also designed to be comfortable, and the team carefully watched for any signs of discomfort, such as changes in how much a cow ate, as it tested prototypes.
“We want to design a device that is comfortable for the animal to wear, does not interfere with the animal’s normal behavior, and does not impact the animal in any way,” says Norris. “Our initial design was a nose-ring, but we have since pivoted to find the optimal embodiment and materials that will withstand the tough farm conditions and cause no discomfort to the animal, while still maintaining the mitigation efficiency.”
Of course, the best solution would be for the world to consume less beef, reducing both the amount of methane the cows burp and the environmental damage from deforesting more land to use for livestock. But as long as meat consumption trends are headed in the other direction, mitigation is necessary. The device could be used in combination with feed additives that also reduce methane emissions, but has some specific advantages if used on its own. It’s less expensive per ton of reduced emissions, it doesn’t alter the cow’s microbiology, and it doesn’t have to jump through the same regulatory hurdles to get approval for use. And, it can be used on cattle grazing in pastures, not only on animals that eat cattle feed. Farmers also can use the devices to track animals and detect disease. (“We try to stay away from calling the current design of our device a ‘mask,’ since we really do so much more than ‘catching burps’,” Norris says.)
As the devices capture and track emissions, farmers will be able to start marketing their milk or beef as “low-emissions,” potentially at a premium cost. They also can use the data to start selling carbon credits.