Energy. Environment. Economy.

How A Thousand Pounds Of Butter Becomes Three Days’ Worth Of Energy

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Farm Show visitor checks out the butter sculpture

A dizzying fall from grace is in store for the Pennsylvania Farm Show’s famed butter sculpture.

Through tomorrow, the thousand-pound work of art will be the star attraction of the annual indoor agriculture festival. Thousands of people have snapped pictures of the refrigerated sculpture, which depicts a boy leading his prize-winning calf through a county fair.

Next week, however, a Juniata County farmer will unceremoniously dump it into a manure pit.

That’s because he’s turning the sculpture into methane gas. One thousand pounds of butter, it turns out, creates enough energy to power a farm for three days.

How does this work?

Mary Hoffman and Linda Mustacchia – both from Allentown – couldn’t figure it out as they peered at the sculpture through its eight-sided display case. “I don’t know, but I’m glad they’re doing that,” said Hoffman, who was worried the sculpture would have otherwise been thrown out. “I like butter,” she said. “But that’s a lot of butter.”

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A closer look at the thousand-pound sculpture

Turns out, butter becomes gas through the work of a methane digester. Glenn Cauffman, the manager of Penn State University’s Farm Operations, said the butter will be dumped into a big heated tank where microorganisms will feast on it. “Those microorganisms can break those fat molecules apart into the less complex molecules,” he explained. “Then further take that to produce a gas called methane, which burns readily in an engine, and can be converted into…electricity.”

As long as the farmer keeps the digester hot, the bacteria will do all the work. “Those organisms at a hundred degrees, are working hard,” said Cauffman. “They’re trying to live. They’re trying to reproduce. They’re trying to eat food, be happy, make more bacterial.”

Steve Reinford is the lucky dairy farmer who will take custody of the sculpture. He’ll be the one dumping it into the manure pit, where it will sit for several days, before he grinds it into fuel and feeds it into the digester.

Reinford said it will take about five days to load the butter/manure mix into the tank.  “And as it’s heating it’s breaking down. It’s going to take probably up to 25, 30 days to break it down completely. And that will make the methane. And then I’m going to run a generator,” he said.

Reinford has been generating energy this way for a while. He said he gets a lot of fuel from the nearby Walmart, which hands over food product that has gone bad. The methane digester creates so much energy, Reinford said, that he sells it back to the grid.

He expects the butter sculpture – or what used to be the butter sculpture – to power his home and farm for about three days.

Reinford did make sure to visit the Farm Show, to see the sculpture on display. “I took a lot of pictures of it down there so I’d be able to see it before and after. We’ll actually enjoy the heat – the electricity in our houses about a week, two weeks from now.”

Today’s butter is tomorrow’s energy.


  • Jeannette Lewis

    but but but, its BUTTER. Three days of energy or a YEAR of toast!

    • Prosperity1122

      Really? A year? I wonder how obese you are…

      • Aby

        you’re an idiot.

      • Oscarlarson1

        Prosperity1122 ~ Pretty sure Jeannette was being light-hearted & making a joke.  Lighten up.  There’s no need to be unkind.

  • Nope

    Does anybody proof read these errors?

  • Anon

    A gas called electricity? :P

    • No

      no a gas called Methane which can in turn be used for energy or electricity…when you leave out words it makes you sound stupid not the article.

  • Anonymous

    I thought California was the land of the fruits and nuts. I don’t mind living here but I think it is headed into orbit. Sounds like Pennsylvania will be keeping up the wacko culture in the land after we have departed.

    • Hatemorons

      How is finding alternate and “cheaper” ways of energy which are helpful to the world lived in keeping up with “wacko culture”???  No let’s keep abusing everything until there’s nothing left, it’s a wasteland, and we all die out.

  • Novella

    I wonder if we apply this concept to my thighs and run my computer while gaining a more slender physique?

  • Mscottcgp

    If he has a dairy farm he should harness the methane gas from his cows.

    • an answer

      I think he is if he’s putting the butter into a manure pit. 

    • Really?

      I guess the “Methane Digester” he uses on his farm just sits there and isn’t used for anything else……….

  • Kevin

    Maybe we should airlift the sculpture to Norway?

    • Danny

      This is America! We burn what you desire! How dare you…

  • Lonnie Moore

    The reality is that this same process can be adapted at every sewer treatment plant in the world, if designed correctly. This has been done in Switzerland for years… In the USA who would want free energy anyway? 

    • Thefleetwoodproject

      Actually Lonnie, it is used here, and quite prevalently! Have you ever heard of cogeneration? Many US waste water treatment plants have this system, and it works quite well.

      • Candeevisions

        right but we’re still not using it to distribute mass FREE energy and saving millions of people millions of dollars which can in turn be used for something else, so Actually Thefleetwoodproject, it’s not really used to prevalently here then is it?? It’s still used for greedy personal gain, think of the bigger picture and what problem is truly being addressed before answering like an arrogant American.

        • Thefleetwoodproject

          Hmm, I am not too sure if you are trolling me or you just have an off idea about how much energy can be produced by these means. Let’s get a few things straight, shall we?

          In Albuquerque, New Mexico, their wastewater treatment plant uses almost all of the incoming biomass in digesters which create methane, used to power generators which in turn power the plant. Do you know how much power that plant gets from an entire city’s worth of sewage? About 50% of demonstrated need. The money saved is used to keep utility prices and taxes down. In a way, your dream has come true! They ARE distributing mass FREE energy and saving millions of people millions of dollars which can in turn be used for something else. 

          Don’t believe me? Bam!

          So, as someone once told me (less a minor correction): “Think of the bigger picture and what problem is truly being addressed before answering like and uninformed dolt.”



  • Amy Blankenship

    I’m a bit confused as to why the farmer would need to keep a digester heated to get it to over 100 degrees. Even a compost pile can keep itself heated to over 200 degrees in a ver cold winter, and this is using essentially the same process.

  • dave

    What  a terrific idea

  • mochta

    I hope all those precious pictures get sent to Haiti so all the starving people living under tarps can enjoy it too. Maybe when they try to go to sleep their stomachs will be full of love for the US- a place that can waste 1,000 pounds of butter while their babies starve to death.Hey, butter-waster- just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

    • Isle77 Kc

      Ludicrous statement.

    • wannabe1987

      Haiti doesn’t want your butter.  butter isn’t really good for them.  they’d love panut butter tho, its called medika mamba, medical peanutbutter.

      either visit haiti or get your facts straight from reliable sources before making ididatic comments such as these. 

  • Sirfuzzy

    Putting aside any arguments concerning the use of butter as a medium for art and an avenue for freedom of expression, I’m glad to see it recycled but far more energy and resources were used to create and destroy this sculpture than were gained in it’s demise. However the dearest cost incured, is the pain and suffering of cows that are enslaved and expolited, by the dairy industry, whose lives are spent in misery and then cut short, all to the end that we should enjoy the fruits of their labor while their very own offspring are denied those very same rewards. Show compassion, renounce dairy!

    • Prosperity1122

      Nope. Milk is my wonder drug ;)

    • Candeevisions

      Don’t confuse the MEAT industry for the DAIRY industry.  I assure you NO COWS ARE HARMED DURING MILKING, in fact, they’re kept warm, comfortable, fed, cared for, farmers and dairy ranchers usually are more compassionate then a butcher.  If they don’t release their milk it backs up and causes painful problems.  Their offspring (the ones that breed) get their milk from their mother (pass by a farm and watch, you’ll see the children feeding off their parent)…. Please, show some compassion, get an education before you speak in a public forum.

      • Spb Long

        Tricky to reply here – but I’ve been shocked this year to learn that millions of calves are bred each year in order to switch on milk production, then at a few days old mammas and calves are separated so the milk can be collected and calves are sent off to be slaughtered as veal – calves are a dairy industry waste product. Just keeping it real….

        • Danny

          I’ll eat those babies.

  • Don Scott

     I thought it was a better idea when they turned a previous sculpture into biodiesel:

    • Scot Detrow

      Don – the PSU prof I interviewed told me the butter/biodiesel attempt had one big flaw: it smelled terrible. Thanks for the link!

      • Don Scott

        I bet you’re confusing the smell of the biodiesel with the smell of the trap grease that Black Gold Biofuels also uses to produce biodiesel.  The odor of finished biodiesel should be significanlty less offensive relative to conventional diesel fuel.

        The waste grease that Black Gold converts into clean fuel is pretty stinky, because it comes from wastewater. It is arguabley as stinky as a manuer pit.  

        • Scott Detrow

          Thanks for the explanation.

          We posted a link to the NYT biodiesel article on the blog.

  • Lilly

    Doesn’t methane promote climate change or does this process help by removing it before it gets into the air. 

  • Waldo Butterman

    I bet Paula Deen is horrified!

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