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Improvement of the Biogas Production Process: Explorative project (EP1)
Linköping University, The Tema Institute, Tema Environmental Change. Linköping University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Linköping University, Biogas Research Center.
Linköping University, The Tema Institute, Tema Environmental Change. Linköping University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Linköping University, Biogas Research Center.
Linköping University, The Tema Institute, Tema Environmental Change. Linköping University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Linköping University, Biogas Research Center.
Linköping University, The Tema Institute, Tema Environmental Change. Linköping University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Linköping University, Biogas Research Center.
2014 (English)Report (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

There are several ways to improve biogas production in anaerobic digestion processes and a number of strategies may be chosen. Increased organic loading in existing plants will in most cases demand the introduction of new substrate types. However, to substantially increase the Swedish biogas production new, large-scale biogas plants digesting new substrate types need to be established.

Better utilization of existing digester volumes can be linked to: 

  • Increase of organic loading rates and/or reduced hydraulic retention time
  • Optimizing the anaerobic microbial degradation by identifying rate-limitations, its causes and possible remedies such as:
  • Nutrient and trace element balances
  • Needs and availability of trace element
  • Process design aiming at an increase of the active biomass (e.g. recirculation of reactor material, two stage processes)
  • Process inhibition (enzymatically regulated product inhibition and toxicity)
  • Improved pre-treatment to increase degradation rates and VS-reduction
  • Mixing and rheology
  • Better monitoring and control
  • Co-digestion with more high-potential substrates

The present report reviews a number of fields that are linked to improvements in the biogas production process as based on the bullets above.

A well-working, active biomass is a prerequisite for efficient biogas production processes, why factors affecting microbial growth are crucial to obtain stable processes at the highest possible organic load/lowest possible hydraulic retention time.

The microorganisms need nutrients, i.e. carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron as well as trace elements such as cobalt, nickel, manganese, molybdenum, selenium and tungsten for growth. The need of nutrients and trace elements varies with the substrate digested, the organic loading rate, the process design (e.g. the reactor configuration, the degree of recirculation etc). In addition, the complexity of the chemical reactions controlling the bioavailability of the trace metals is wide, why optimal addition strategies for trace elements needs to be developed.

Substrates as food wastes, sewage sludge, cattle manure, certain energy crops and algae are good bases to obtain processes with good nutrient- and trace element balances. These kinds of substrates can often be implemented for “mono-substrate” digestion, while substrates dominated by carbohydrates or fats needs to be co-digested or digested in processes modified by  e.g. nutrient- and trace element additions, sludge recirculation, etc. Protein-rich substrates often include enough nutrients, but can give other process problems (see below).

Iron, cobalt and nickel are the nutrients/trace elements given most attention so far. However, molybdenum, selenium and tungsten have also, among others, been shown effective in different AD applications. The effects have, however, mainly been shown on turnover of VFAs and hydrogen (resulting in increased methane formation), while just a few studies have addressed their direct effect on rates of hydrolysis, protein-, fat- and carbohydrate degradation. Selenium- and cobalt-containing enzymes are known to be involved in amino acid degradation, while selenium and tungsten are needed in fat- and long chain fatty acid degradation. Enzymes active in hydrolysis of cellulose have been shown to be positively affected by cobalt, cupper, manganese, magnesium and calcium. This implies that trace element levels and availability will directly affect the hydrolysis rates as well as rates and degradation pathways for digestion of amino acids, long chain fatty acids and carbohydrates. However, their effect on hydrolysis seems neglected, why studies are needed to map the metals present in active sites and co-factors of enzymes mediating these primary reactions in AD. Further investigations are then needed to elucidate the importance of the identified metals on the different degradation steps of AD aiming at increased degradation rates of polymeric and complex substrates. It should also be noted that the degradation routes for amino acid degradation in AD-processes, factors governing their metabolic pathways, and how ATP is gained in the different pathways seem unknown. The different routes may result in different degradation efficiencies, why a deeper knowledge within this field is called for.

Trace metals added to biogas reactors have positive effects on the process only if they are present in chemical species suitable for microbial uptake. Interaction of biogenic sulfide with trace metals has been identified as the main regulator of trace metal speciation during AD. Fe, Co and Ni instantaneously form strong sulfide precipitates in biogas reactors but at the same time show very different chemical speciation features. The soluble fraction of Co widely exceeded the levels theoretically possible in equilibrium with inorganic sulfide. The high level of soluble Co is likely due to association with dissolved organic compounds of microbial origin. Fe and Ni speciation demonstrated a different pattern dominated by low solubility products of inorganic metal sulfide minerals, where their solubility was controlled mainly by the interactions with different dissolved sulfide and organic ligands. To our knowledge, the information about chemical speciation of other trace metals (Se, Mo, and W among others) and its effects on the bioavailability in anaerobic digestion environments is rare. Providing information on the metal requirements by processes linked to their bioavailability in biogas reactors is identified as a key knowledge needed for maximizing the effect of metals added to biogas reactors. Further research is also needed for development and design of proper metal additive solutions for application in full scale biogas plants. A practical approach is to supplement trace metals in specific chemical forms, which are either suitable for direct bio-uptake or will hamper undesirable and bio-uptake-limiting reactions (e.g. mineral precipitation).

Recirculation of reactor material as a way to enrich and maintain an active microbial biomass (and, thus, an increase in the substrate turnover rate) in tank reactors has been tested for digestion of fat within BRCs project DP6. The methane yield increased from 70 to 90% of the theoretical potential at a fat-loading rate of 1.5 g VS/L and day. The same strategy has been successful during digestion of fiber sludge from the pulp and paper industry, i.e. the recirculation has been crucial in establishment of low hydraulic retention times. Also degradation of sewage sludge (SS) would likely be improved by recirculation as the retention time of the solid SS is prolonged in such a system. However, this remains to be tested. The recirculation concept also needs to be evaluated in larger scale reactors to form a base to include extra costs and energy consumption vs. the benefits from increased yields.

To divide the anaerobic digestion process into two phases, where the hydrolytic/acidogenic and the syntrophic/methanogenic stages of anaerobic digestion are separated, might be a way to enhance degradation of lignocellulosic materials as the hydrolysis of these compounds may be inhibited by the release of soluble sugars. It should be noted that the natural AD of ruminates is phase-separated and improvements in AD can likely be achieved using these natural systems as a starting point. Also the degradation of aromatic and chlorinated species is likely enhanced by phase separation. One way to obtain such systems is to combine a leached bed for hydrolysis of insoluble material with a methanogenic reactor treating the leachate. Plug flow reactors might be another possibility as well as membrane reactors, which physically separates the hydrolyzing and methanogenic phases.

Inhibition caused by toxic levels of ammonia (protein- and ammonia rich substrates), fat-rich substrates and long chain fatty acids (LCFAs), aromatic compounds, salts etc. have been reported in many cases and some remedies are suggested. Ammonia can be stripped off as a measure to overcome too high levels. Another option is to adjust pH of the reactor liquid by addition of acid shifting the ammonia-ammonium balance in the system towards less free ammonia. A decrease in alkalinity by acid addition might also affect the availability of trace elements as solubility of trace metal mineral phases is generally higher at lower pH. LCFA degradation has been shown to benefit from periodic additions of fat and is, thus, an effective strategy to minimize inhibition by the release of the LCFA. Adsorption to zeolites has also been shown to abate the inhibition by LCFA. The best way to avoid inhibition is, however, to keep the processes nutritionally well balanced and using concepts suitable for the actual substrate mix digested (i.e. sludge recirculation, phase separation etc.) in order to obtain the highest possible degradation rate for problematic compounds, thus, avoiding accumulation of inhibitory components such as LCFA and aromatics. High ammonia and salt levels can often be regulated by the substrate mix.

The hydrolysis is often reported as rate limiting in digestion of complex polymers in balanced anaerobic digestion systems, while the methanogensis is regarded as rate-limiting for more easily degraded substrates. As mentioned above the effect on methane formation rates by the addition of trace elements have been shown in numerous studies, while their effect on the hydrolysis and acidogenic AD steps are much less studied. Thus, the effects of the trace elements on the early steps in the AD-chain need to be investigated further.

To obtain high-rate hydrolysis, effective and energy efficient pre-treatment methods are crucial for a large number of substrates. The rate of hydrolysis is to a large extent dependent on the properties of the organic compounds in the substrate e.g. carbohydrates, proteins, fat or lignocellulosic material as well as particle size and pre-treatment methods applied. The establishment and colonization by sessile microorganisms and biofilms is highly important for efficient and high rate hydrolysis. Microbial formation of organic compounds and the availability of surfaces are factors influencing these key processes, which in turn are tightly coupled to the growth conditions for the hydrolyzing microorganisms. This is an area recently brought up as an issue for detailed research.

Mixing is mostly needed for effective high-rate biogas production, but too extensive mixing can destroy the syntrohpic interactions necessarily taking place during AD. However, the efficiency of the mixing system design in relation to colonization, presences of dead zones, changes in viscosity/rheology, etc. seem unclear and this area thus calls for further attention. 

In high-loaded efficient processes a monitoring program following parameters e.g. organic loading rate, gas-production, VS-reduction, pH and VFA-levels is needed. This can be achieved through sampling and analysis off line, but there are of course benefits with on-line monitoring. A number of different methods have been suggested and tested, and some titration- and spectroscopic methods are applied, but none seems commonly in use. The reasons for the low interest to apply these methods may be the need for expertise on calibration, validation and multivariate analysis of most on-line methods, high maintenance demands (cost and time), and l functional problems related to fouling, gas bubbles, sensor location, disturbing particles etc.

New substrates with the highest potential for use in existing or new biogas plants seem to be forestry-based biomass, certain energy crops and macro-algae. Both the energy crops and the macro-algae can be chosen to give nutritionally well balanced AD-processes, while AD on forestry biomass demands nutrient supplements. For both the energy crops and the macro-algae sustainable cultivation systems need to be developed. Crop rotation systems should be employed to minimize tillage as well as fertilization- and pesticide utilization at highest possible TS-yields. System analyses aiming at sustainability and economy of TS and methane yields per ha including needs of nutrient supplements should therefore be performed.

In all three cases (forestry biomass, energy crops and algae) pre-treatment methods to create high internal surface areas are needed. However, the pre-treatment methods chosen need to be highly energy- and resource efficient to obtain sustainable systems (a positive energy balance). New plants will for profitability likely need to be large with highly developed infrastructure for substrates supply and distribution of the produced biogas/electricity nearby. Process concepts aiming at highest possible loading rates at shortest possible retention time will be needed, which likely are met by including both phase-separated process systems and systems for sludge recirculation.

It should also be noted that the lignin in substrates from forestry biomass needs to be used for production of e.g. polymeric materials or as a fuel to obtain reasonable energy balances for AD of lignocellulose. Pre-treatment methods obtaining separation of lignin is therefore needed. A substantial research and development is in progress within this field.

The possibilities for AD within the pulp and paper industry are interesting, especially if specific effluents within the pulp- and paper production units are selected and the raw material for the pulp and paper production is chosen considering the biogas yields of the residues.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2014. , 87 p.
Biogas Research Center (BRC) Report, 2014:2
Keyword [en]
Biogas, bio technology, bio science
National Category
Environmental Biotechnology Environmental Sciences Environmental Sciences related to Agriculture and Land-use
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-112983OAI: diva2:776575
Available from: 2015-01-07 Created: 2015-01-07 Last updated: 2015-09-21

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