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The biogas plant-some technical considerations

The biogas plant consists of two components: a digester (or fermentation tank) and a gas holder. The digester is a cube-shaped or cylindrical waterproof container with an inlet into which the fermentable mixture is introduced in the form of a liquid slurry. The gas holder is normally an airproof steel container that, by floating like a ball on the fermentation mix, cuts off air to the digester (anaerobiosis) and collects the gas generated. In one of the most widely used designs (Figure 2), the gas holder is equipped with a gas outlet, while the digester is provided with an overflow pipe to lead the sludge out into a drainage pit.

Figure. 2. Diagram of Gobar-Gas Plant Used to Obtain Methane from Dung by Anaerobic Fermentation (After Prasad et al. [20]1

The construction, design, and economics of biogas plants have been dealt with in the literature (13 - 21). For biogas plant construction, important criteria are: (a) the amount of gas required for a specific use or uses, and lb) the amount of waste material available for processing. Fry (17)

Singh (21), and others (1, 3) have documented several guidelines for consideration in the designing of batch (periodic feeding) and continuous (daily feeding) compartmentalized and non-compartmentalized biogas plants that are of either the vertical or horizontal type. In addition, Loll (18) has recently dealt with the scientific principles, process engineering, and shapes of digestion reactors, and with the economics of the technology.

Digester reactors are constucted from brick, cement, concrete, and steel. In Indonesia, where rural skills in brick making, brick laying, plastering, and bamboo craft are well established, clay bricks have successfully replaced cement blocks and concrete. In areas where the cost is high, the "sausage" or bag digester (14) appears to be ideal (Figure 3). The digester is constructed of 0.55 mm thick Hypalon laminated with Neoprene and reinforced with nylon. The bag is fitted with an inlet and an outlet made from PVC. Even if imported from the United States, the cost of the digester and the gas holder (both combined in one bag) is only 10 per cent of that for a concrete-steel digester. Another advantage is that it can be mass produced and is easily mailed. In rural areas, the whole installation is completed in a matter of minutes. A hole in the ground accommodates the bag, which is filled two-thirds full with waste water. Gas production fully inflates the bag, which is weighted down and fitted with a compressor to increase gas pressure.

Figure. 3. Diagrammatic Sketch of the "Sausage" Bag Digester Made of Hypalon Laminated with Neoprene

Environmental and operational considerations

Raw Materials (19)

Raw materials may be obtained from a variety of sources - livestock and poultry wastes, night soil, crop residues, food-processing and paper wastes, and materials such as aquatic weeds, water hyacinth, filamentous algae, and seaweed. Different problems are encountered with each of these wastes with regard to collection, transportation, processing, storage, residue utilization, and ultimate use. Residues from the agricultural sector such as spent straw, hay, cane trash, corn and plant stubble, and bagasse need to be shredded in order to facilitate their flow into the digester reactor as well as to increase the efficiency of bacterial action. Succulent plant material yields more gas than dried matter does, and hence materials like brush and weeds need semi-drying. The storage of raw materials in a damp, confined space for over ten days initiates anaerobic bacterial action that, though causing some gas loss, reduces the time for the digester to become operational.

Influent Solids Content (16, 19, 21)

Production of biogas is inefficient if fermentation materials are too dilute or too concentrated, resulting in, low biogas production and insufficient fermentation activity, respectively. Experience has shown that the raw-material (domestic and poultry wastes and manure) ratio to water should be 1:1, i.e., 100 kg of excrete to 100 kg of water. In the slurry, this corresponds to a total solids concentration of 8 - 11 per cent by weight.

Loading (14, 19)

The size of the digester depends upon the loading, which is determined by the influent solids content, retention time, and the digester temperature. Optimum loading rates vary with different digesters and their sites of location. Higher loading rates have been used when the ambient temperature is high. In general, the literature is filled with a variety of conflicting loading rates. In practice, the loading rate should be an expression of either (a) the weight of total volatile solids (TVS) added per day per unit volume of the digester, or (b) the weight of TVS added per day per unit weight of TVS in the digester. The latter principle is normally used for smooth operation of the digester.

Seeding (14, 19)

Common practice involves seeding with an adequate population of both the acid-forming and methanogenic bacteria. Actively digesting sludge from a sewage plant constitutes ideal "seed" material. As a general guideline, the seed material should be twice the volume of the fresh manure slurry during the start-up phase, with a gradual decrease in amount added over a three-week period. If the digester accumulates volatile acids as a result of overloading, the situation can be remedied by reseeding, or by the addition of lime or other alkali.

pH (14, 19)

Low pH inhibits the growth of the methanogenic bacteria and gas generation and is often the result of overloading. A successful pH range for anaerobic digestion is 6.0 - 8.0; efficient digestion occurs at a pH near neutrality. A slightly alkaline state is an indication that pH fluctuations are not too drastic. Low pH may be remedied by dilution or by the addition of lime.

Temperature (13,14,19, 21)

With a mesophilic flora, digestion proceeds best at 30 - 40 C; with thermophiles, the optimum range is 50 - 60 C. The choice of the temperature to be used is influenced by climatic considerations In general, there is no rule of thumb, but for optimum process stability, the temperature should be carefully regulated within a narrow range of the operating temperature. In warm climates, with no freezing temperatures, digesters may be operated without added heat. As a safety measure, it is common practice either to bury the digesters in the ground on account of the advantageous insulating properties of the soil, or to use a greenhouse covering. Heating requirements and, consequently, costs, can be minimized through the use of natural materials such as leaves, sawdust, straw, etc., which are composted in batches in a separate compartment around the digester,

Nutrients (13,17,19, 21)

The maintenance of optimum microbiological activity in the digester is crucial to gas generation and consequently is related to nutrient availability. Two of the most important nutrients are carbon and nitrogen and a critical factor for raw material choice is the overall C/N ratio.

Domestic sewage and animal and poultry wastes are examples of N-rich materials that provide nutrients for the growth and multiplication of the anaerobic organisms. On the other hand, N-poor materials like green grass, corn stubble, etc., are rich in carbohydrate substances that are essential for gas production. Excess availability of nitrogen leads to the formation of NH3, the concentration of which inhibits further growth. Ammonia toxicity can be remedied by low loading or by dilution. In practice, it is important to maintain, by weight, a C/N ratio close to 30:1 for achieving an optimum rate of digestion. The C/N ratio can be judiciously manipulated by combining materials low in carbon with those that are high in nitrogen, and vice versa.

Toxic Materials (13,14,19)

Wastes and biodegradable residue are often accompanied by a variety of pollutants that could inhibit anaerobic digestion. Potential toxicity due to ammonia can be corrected by remedying the C/N ratio of manure through the addition of shredded bagasse or straw, or by dilution. Common toxic substances are the soluble salts of copper, zinc, nickel, mercury, and chromium. On the other hand, salts of sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium may be stimulatory or toxic in action, both manifestations being associated with the cation rather than the anionic portion of the salt. Pesticides and synthetic detergents may also be troublesome to the process.

Stirring (13,14,17 - 19, 21)

When solid materials not well shredded are present in the digester, gas generation may be impeded by the formation of a scum that is comprised of these low-density solids that are enmeshed in a filamentous matrix. In time the scum hardens, disrupting the digestion process and causing stratification. Agitation can be done either mechanically with a plunger or by means of rotational spraying of fresh influent. Agitation, normally required for bath digesters, ensures exposure of new surfaces to bacterial action, prevents viscid stratification and slow-down of bacterial activity, and promotes uniform dispersion of the influent materials throughout the fermentation liquor, thereby accelerating digestion.

Retention Time (19, 21)

Other factors such as temperature, dilution, loading rate, etc., influence retention time. At high temperature bio-digestion occurs faster, reducing the time requirement. A normal period for the digestion of dung would be two to four weeks.

Developments and processes for rural areas

Two years ago, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations adopted a survey, presented in 1978 to the Committee on Science and Technology for Development, listing the on-going research and development in unconventional sources of energy. From the point of view of the developing countries, it is heartening to note that the "use of farm wastes to produce methane" has also been identified in the United Nations World Plan of Action for the Application of Science and Technology to Development.

The Economic and Social Council for Asia and the Pacific, moreover, adopted the Colombo Declaration at its thirtieth session, which determined that the most urgent priorities for action are in the fields of food, energy, raw materials, and fertilizers, and that these priorities would be best met by the integrated biogas system (IBS).

An integrated system aims at the facile generation of fertilizer and acquisition of energy, production of protein via the growth of algae and fish in oxidation ponds, hygienic disposal of sewage and other refuse, and is a tangible effort to counteract environmental pollution. The heart of the system is the biogas process; it has the potential to "seed" self-reliance in relatively primitive economies (14, 22, 23). Allied benefits include the development of rural industry, the provision of local job opportunities, and the progressive eradication of hunger and poverty (Figures 4 - 7).

Figure. 4. Two Ways of Increasing Fertilizer Production Target: 230,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year. (Adapted from A.K.N. Reddy, Uniterra, Vol. 1, 1976)

Figure. 5. Biogas Cycle in China (Source: FAO Soils Bulletin 40, Rome, 1977)

Figure. 6. Interactive Loop of Rural or Village Farming System Based on Biogas or Methane Economy

Figure. 7. A Proposed Integrated Nuclear Cooling and Organic Waste Disposal System (After W. Oswald, University of California)

The coupling of a photosynthetic step (24 - 26) with digestion provides for the transformation of the minerals left by digestion directly into algae that can then be used as fodder, as feed for fish, as fertilizer, or for increased energy production by returning them to the digester process (Figure 8).

Figure. 8. Simplified Scheme Indicating Various Combinations of Digestion and Photosynthesis for Fodder, Fertilizer, and Fuel Production (After J.W.M. LaRivière, J. Sci. Soc., Thailand, 1977)

The IBS aims at putting back into soil and water what has been taken from them, and increasing the amounts of nutrients by fixing CO2 and N2 from the atmosphere into the soil and water through photosynthesis by algae. Involving low cash investments on a decentralized basis, the implementation of IBS provides employment to the whole work force without disruption of the rural structure. Furthermore, it is an apt example of soft technology that does not pollute or destroy the physical environment. At the College of Agriculture of the University of the Philippines, preliminary work on a small scale has begun. In England, an Eco-house (Figure 9) has been built by Graham Caine on the Thames Polytechnical Playing Fields at Eltham, southeast of London. Results on the project, however, are not yet available.

Figure. 9. Graham Caine Eco-House (Reprinted with permission from Mother Earth News, No. 20 [March 1973], p. 62)

Cost-benefit analyses

There is no general answer to the economic feasibility of biogas production. National economic considerations play an important role. In Korea, wood is in short supply (27) and domestic fuel substitutes like rice and barley straw, and coal and oil could be conserved; wood could be a foreign-exchange earner in the field of handicrafts. In India, transportation costs of coal and oil to the rural areas is high and an extra burden on an already poor farmer.

The consumption of commercial and non-commercial energy for the whole of India, as determined for the period 1960 - 1971 by the Fuel Policy Committee Report, is provided in Table 3.

TABLE 3. Consumption of Commercial and Non-Commercial Energy in India

Year Coal

(Million Tons)


(Million Tons)


(Billion kwh)


(Million Tons)

Cow dung

(Million Tons)

Vegetable waste

(Million Tons)

1960 - 61 47.1 6.75 16.9 101.04 55.38 31.08
1965 - 66 64.2 9 94 30.6 111.82 61.28 34.41
1970 - 71 71 1 14 95 48.7 122.75 67.28 37.77

Sources: Report of the Fuel Policy Committee,1974; S.N. Ghosh, Invention Intelligence 12:63 (1977).

The rural share in the energy consumption of electricity and coal is not considerable because, as the Report of the Panel of the National Committee of Science and Technology on Fuel and Power indicates, the large towns and cities with populations of 500,000 and more accommodate only 6 per cent of India's total population but consume about 50 per cent of the total commercial energy produced in the country.

In the villages, however, kerosene is used for lighting, but it is clear that with increasing population, biogas generation seems to offer solutions in the areas of fuel availability, electricity, fertilizer for cash crops, and would provide other socio-economic benefits.

On the other hand, cost-benefit analyses of methane generation vary widely, depending upon the uses and actual benefits of biogas production, public and private costs associated with the development and utilization of methane, and on the technology used to generate methane. Several factors have been listed in the economics of biogas generation (14, 17 - 19, 28). An appropriate example is the fact that a village-model gas plant, which cost Rs 500 some years ago, cost Rs 1,500 in 1974 and Rs 2,000 in 1977. Hence, a significant problem is whether rural people who cannot spend Rs 2,000 can cope with increasing inflationary and digester construction material costs.

The Khadi and Village Industries Commission has helped to tackle the problem through rural community co-operation and a scheme of subsidies and loans to encourage individual families, groups of families, institutions, and communities to construct biogas plants. An analysis of cost and income for a plant producing 3m³/day is given in Table 4. The net annual income of approximately US$60 shows that the capital investment of US$340 can be recouped in about six years. There are also incidental advantages of hygienic improvement, the absence of smoke and soot in gas burning, convenience in burning, and the increased richness of manure.

TABLE 4. Cost-Benefit Analysis of Khadi and Village Industries Commission Plant (in US dollars)

a. Capital cost  
Gas holder and frame $ 93.5
Piping and stove $ 34 7
Civil engineering construction (tank, inlet and outlet, etc.) $210.1
Total $338.3
b. Annual expenditure  
The interest on investment at 9% $ 30.4
Depreciation on gas holder and frame at 10% $ 9.3
Depreciation on piping and stove at 5% $ 2.0
Depreciation on structure at 3% $ 6.3
Cost of painting, once a Year $ 6.7
Total $ 54,7
c. Annual income  
Gas 3m³ per day at $1.5 per 29m³ (1,000 cu.ft.) $ 50.3
Manure (7 tons, composted) with refuse 16 tons at $4 per ton $ 64.0
Total $114.3
d. Net annual income (b - c) $ 59.6

Source: ESCAP Document NR/EGNBD/4, 20 - 26 June 1978

Health hazards

Health hazards are associated with the handling of night soil and with the use of sludge from untreated human excrete as fertilizer.

In general, published data indicate that a digestion time of 14 days at 35 C is effective in killing (99.9 per cent die-off rate) the enteric bacterial pathogens and the enteric group of viruses. However, the die-off rate for roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides) and hookworm (Ancylostoma) is only 90 per cent, which is still high. In this context, biogas production would provide a public health benefit beyond that of any other treatment in managing the rural health environment of developing countries.

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