Manure, green-house gas, and Paris

Manure, green-house gas, and Paris

February 1, 2002

How do you go from mucking around with manure to an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris? Just ask Jérôme Leis.

At 18 years of age, Leis is already receiving the kind of notoriety—and rewards—usually reserved for career researchers. Just consider the recognition so far: National science awards. Letters of commendation. And free trips.

The reason? Well, maybe the scientific title of the research should speak for itself:

"The Impact of Volumetric Water Content on Methane Emission in Agricultural Soils Treated with Hog or Cattle Manure."

Yes, manure. An unsettling subject for some, but for Leis-a source of fascination. And the reason that he's been able to savour just a little of the sweet smell of success.

Despite the endless puns that Leis has learned to endure, in essence, his project analyzes the presence of methane and other greenhouse gases on farmland treated with manure. The greenhouse gas study is of special environmental interest because of methane's association with global warming.

It all started in the fall of 2000. With rubber boots on his feet and gas-measuring equipment in hand, Leis braved the pungent farmlands of Saskatchewan ready to observe and collect data. He soon determined that dry fertilized fields gave off virtually no methane or other gases. But a series of laboratory simulations over the winter, and field tests following the spring thaw, revealed an entirely different story. Methane gas emissions from the fertilized land were 100 times greater than normal atmospheric levels.

What did it mean? The findings suggest that spreading manure in late fall doesn't give the bio-matter enough time to decompose before it's frozen and covered by snow. The unintentional result? In spring, the water-soaked soil releases tons of harmful greenhouse gases from the fertilizer into the atmosphere. If you consider that the pattern is repeated all over the world, then Leis knew he was onto something big.

Big enough, in fact, to get a lot of interest at some major scientific competitions that he entered to showcase his results. After a year measuring and smelling all kinds of nasty gases, he took home a first-place award at the Canadian National Youth Science Fair—which included an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel and the International Youth Science Village. In Jerusalem, Leis spent a month with other students from around the world. He worked on a cancer research project and also enjoyed excursions in the Israeli countryside, for a quick immersion into the lands history and people. "My trip to Israel was the best experience of my life," he says. "It was the most overwhelming experience and I feel very, very privileged to have won that award and participated in that trip."

But Israel didn't mark the end of his travels or the recognition that his project received. In November 2001, Leis was invited to attend UNESCO's Conference on the Environment in Paris.

Despite the dizzying success and recognition, Leis remains firmly focused on the research. He insists that years of extensive new research must be conducted to validate his findings and supply accurate recommendations. Regardless of the finality, however, the work has already netted him a letter from Environment Minister David Anderson who said the project was "Important to Canada."

Despite his passion for his research, Leis says that experiencing life comes first.

He lives with his parents in Saskatoon and readily gives them—and his teachers—much of the credit for his success. And although he has a love for all things scientific, he doesn't keep himself locked up in a lab. Ten years of hockey, soccer, and a place on a nationally ranked track-and-field team stand as testament to one fact: away from the fields of manure, the young innovator has a life that's rich, balanced, and rewarding.