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Biogas Technology

Anaerobic Digestion

In recent years, increasing awareness that anaerobic digesters can help control the disposal and odor of animal waste has stimulated renewed interest in the technology. Dairy farmers faced with increasing federal and state regulation of the waste their animals produce are looking for ways to comply. New digesters now are being built because they effectively eliminate the environmental hazards of dairy farms and other animal feedlots.
It is often the environmental reasons - rather than the digester´s electrical and thermal energy generation potential - that motivate farmers to use digester technology. This is especially true in areas where electric power costs are low.
Anaerobic digester systems can reduce fecal coliform bacteria in manure by more than 99 percent, virtually eliminating a major source of water pollution. Separation of the solids during the digester process removes about 25 percent of the nutrients from manure, and the solids can be sold out of the drainage basin where nutrient loading may be a problem.
In addition, the digester´s ability to produce and capture methane from the manure reduces the amount of methane that otherwise would enter the atmosphere. Scientists have targeted methane gas in the atmosphere as a contributor to global climate change.

Digester Technology

Biomass that is high in moisture content, such as animal manure and food-processing wastes, is suitable for producing biogas using anaerobic digester technology.
Anaerobic digestion is a biochemical process in which particular kinds of bacteria digest biomass in an oxygen-free environment. Several different types of bacteria work together to break down complex organic wastes in stages, resulting in the production of "biogas."
Symbiotic groups of bacteria perform different functions at different stages of the digestion process. There are four basic types of microorganisms involved. Hydrolytic bacteria break down complex organic wastes into sugars and amino acids. Fermentative bacteria then convert those products into organic acids. Acidogenic microorganisms convert the acids into hydrogen, carbon dioxide and acetate. Finally, the methanogenic bacteria produce biogas from acetic acid, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
Controlled anaerobic digestion requires an airtight chamber, called a digester. To promote bacterial activity, the digester must maintain a temperature of at least 68° F. Using higher temperatures, up to 150° F, shortens processing time and reduces the required volume of the tank by 25 percent to 40 percent. However, there are more species of anaerobic bacteria that thrive in the temperature range of a standard design (mesophillic bacteria) than there are species that thrive at higher temperatures (thermophillic bacteria). High-temperature digesters also are more prone to upset because of temperature fluctuations and their successful operation requires close monitoring and diligent maintenance.
The biogas produced in a digester (also known as "digester gas") is actually a mixture of gases, with methane and carbon dioxide making up more than 90 percent of the total. Biogas typically contains smaller amounts of hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen, hydrogen, methylmercaptans and oxygen.
Methane is a combustible gas. The energy content of digester gas depends on the amount of methane it contains. Methane content varies from about 55 percent to 80 percent. Typical digester gas, with a methane concentration of 65 percent, contains about 600 Btu of energy per cubic foot.
For individual farms, small-scale plug-flow or covered lagoon digesters of simple design can produce biogas for on-site electricity and heat generation. For example, a plug-flow digester could process 8,000 gallons of manure per day, the amount produced by a herd of 500 dairy cows. By using digester gas to fuel an engine-generator, a digester of this size would produce more electricity and hot water than the dairy consumes.
Larger scale digesters are suitable for manure volumes of 25,000 to 100,000 gallons per day. In Denmark and in several other European countries, central digester facilities use manure and other organic wastes collected from individual farms and transported to the facility.


Types of Anaerobic Digesters

There are three basic digester designs. All of them can trap methane and reduce fecal coliform bacteria, but they differ in cost, climate suitability and the concentration of manure solids they can digest.
A covered lagoon digester, as the name suggests, consists of a manure storage lagoon with a cover. The cover traps gas produced during decomposition of the manure. This type of digester is the least expensive of the three.
Covering a manure storage lagoon is a simple form of digester technology suitable for liquid manure with less than 3-percent solids. For this type of digester, an impermeable floating cover of industrial fabric covers all or part of the lagoon. A concrete footing along the edge of the lagoon holds the cover in place with an airtight seal. Methane produced in the lagoon collects under the cover. A suction pipe extracts the gas for use. Covered lagoon digesters require large lagoon volumes and a warm climate. Covered lagoons have low capital cost, but these systems are not suitable for locations in cooler climates or locations where a high water table exists.
A complete mix digester converts organic waste to biogas in a heated tank above or below ground. A mechanical or gas mixer keeps the solids in suspension. Complete mix digesters are expensive to construct and cost more than plug-flow digesters to operate and maintain.
Complete mix digesters are suitable for larger manure volumes having solids concentration of 3 percent to 10 percent. The reactor is a circular steel or poured concrete container. During the digestion process, the manure slurry is continuously mixed to keep the solids in suspension. Biogas accumulates at the top of the digester. The biogas can be used as fuel for an engine-generator to produce electricity or as boiler fuel to produce steam. Using waste heat from the engine or boiler to warm the slurry in the digester reduces retention time to less than 20 days.
Plug-flow digesters are suitable for ruminant animal manure that has a solids concentration of 11 percent to 13 percent. A typical design for a plug-flow system includes a manure collection system, a mixing pit and the digester itself. In the mixing pit, the addition of water adjusts the proportion of solids in the manure slurry to the optimal consistency. The digester is a long, rectangular container, usually built below-grade, with an airtight, expandable cover.
New material added to the tank at one end pushes older material to the opposite end. Coarse solids in ruminant manure form a viscous material as they are digested, limiting solids separation in the digester tank. As a result, the material flows through the tank in a "plug." Average retention time (the time a manure "plug" remains in the digester) is 20 to 30 days.
Anaerobic digestion of the manure slurry releases biogas as the material flows through the digester. A flexible, impermeable cover on the digester traps the gas. Pipes beneath the cover
carry the biogas from the digester to an engine-generator set.
A plug-flow digester requires minimal maintenance. Waste heat from the engine-generator can be used to heat the digester. Inside the digester, suspended heating pipes allow hot water to circulate. The hot water heats the digester to keep the slurry at 25°C to 40°C (77°F to 104°F), a temperature range suitable for methane-producing bacteria. The hot water can come from recovered waste heat from an engine generator fueled with digester gas or from burning digester gas directly in a boiler.


The Process of Anaerobic Digestion

The process of anaerobic digestion occurs in a sequence of stages involving distinct types of bacteria. Hydrolytic and fermentative bacteria first break down the carbohydrates, proteins and fats present in biomass feedstock into fatty acids, alcohol, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia and sulfides. This stage is called "hydrolysis" (or "liquefaction").
Next, acetogenic (acid-forming) bacteria further digest the products of hydrolysis into acetic acid, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Methanogenic (methane-forming) bacteria then convert these products into biogas.
The combustion of digester gas can supply useful energy in the form of hot air, hot water or steam. After filtering and drying, digester gas is suitable as fuel for an internal combustion engine, which, combined with a generator, can produce electricity. Future applications of digester gas may include electric power production from gas turbines or fuel cells. Digester gas can substitute for natural gas or propane in space heaters, refrigeration equipment, cooking stoves or other equipment. Compressed digester gas can be used as an alternative transportation fuel.


Manure Digesters

Anaerobic digestion and power generation at the farm level began in the United States in the early 1970s. Several universities conducted basic digester research. In 1978, Cornell University built an early plug-flow digester designed with a capacity to digest the manure from 60 cows.
In the 1980s, new federal tax credits spurred the construction of about 120 plug-flow digesters in the United States. However, many of these systems failed because of poor design or faulty construction. Adverse publicity about system failures and operational problems meant that fewer anaerobic digesters were being built by the end of the decade. High digester cost and declining farm land values reduced the digester industry to a small number of suppliers.
The Tillamook Digester Facility (MEAD Project) began operation in 2003. The facility is located on a site once occupled by a Navy blimp hanger on property owned by the Port of Tillamook Bay. The facility consists of two 400,000-gallon digester cells. The facility uses the biogas to run two Caterpillar engines, each coupled to a 200 kilowatt generator. The facility sells its electric output to the Tillamook PUD. Manure is brought to the facility by truck from participating dairy farms in the Tillamook area.



Municipal sewage contains organic biomass solids, and many wastewater treatment plants use anaerobic digestion to reduce the volume of these solids. Anaerobic digestion stabilizes sewage sludge and destroys pathogens. Sludge digestion produces biogas containing 60-percent to 70-percent methane, with an energy content of about 600 Btu per cubic foot.
Most wastewater treatment plants that use anaerobic digesters burn the gas for heat to maintain digester temperatures and to heat building space. Unused gas is burned off as waste but could be used for fuel in an engine-generator or fuel cell to produce electric power.
A fuel cell at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant in Portland, Oregon, converts digester gas into electricity. The fuel cell began producing power in July 1999. The Columbia Boulevard fuel cell will produce an estimated 1,500,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year


Landfill Gas

The same anaerobic digestion process that produces biogas from animal manure and wastewater occurs naturally underground in landfills. Most landfill gas results from the decomposition of cellulose contained in municipal and industrial solid waste. Unlike animal manure digesters, which control the anaerobic digestion process, the digestion occurring in landfills is an uncontrolled process of biomass decay.
The efficiency of the process depends on the waste composition and moisture content of the landfill, cover material, temperature and other factors. The biogas released from landfills, commonly called "landfill gas," is typically 50-percent methane, 45-percent carbon dioxide and 5-percent other gases. The energy content of landfill gas is 400 to 550 Btu per cubic foot.
Capturing landfill gas before it escapes to the atmosphere allows for conversion to useful energy. A landfill must be at least 40 feet deep and have at least one million tons of waste in place for landfill gas collection and power production to be technically feasible.
A landfill gas-to-energy system consists of a series of wells drilled into the landfill. A piping system connects the wells and collects the gas. Dryers remove moisture from the gas, and filters remove impurities. The gas typically fuels an engine-generator set or gas turbine to produce electricity. The gas also can fuel a boiler to produce heat or steam. Further gas cleanup improves biogas to pipeline quality, the equivalent of natural gas. Reforming the gas to hydrogen would make possible the production of electricity using fuel cell technology.

Page updatedAnaerobic Digestion
Digester Technology
Types of Anaerobic Digesters
The Process of Anaerobic Digestion
Manure Digesters
Landfill Gas


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