Before building a biogas plant, there are different circumstances which should be considered. For instance, the natural and agricultural conditions in the specific countries are as important as the social or the economic aspects. To consider the most important factors, we provide a checklist for the planning procedure, a planning guide and a checklist for construction of a biogas plant.
Failure or unsatisfactory performance of biogas units occur mostly due to planning mistakes. The consequences of such mistakes may be immediately evident or may only become apparent after several years. Thorough and careful planning is, therefore, of utmost importance to eliminate mistakes before they reach irreversible stages.
As a biogas unit is an expensive investment, it should not be erected as a temporary set-up. Therefore, determining siting criteria for the stable and the biogas plant are the important initial steps of planning.
A general problem for the planning engineer is the interference of the customer during planning. As much as the wishes and expectations of customers have to be taken into consideration, the most important task of the planner is to lay the foundation for a well functioning biogas unit. As in most cases the customer has no experience with biogas technology, the planner has to explain all the reasons for each planning step. Planners should have the courage to withdraw from the planning process, if the wishes of the customer will lead to a white elephant on the farm.
Moreover, all extension-service advice concerning agricultural biogas plants must begin with an estimation of the quantitative and qualitative energy requirements of the interested party. Then, the biogas-generating potential must be calculated on the basis of the given biomass production and compared to the energy demand. Both the energy demand and the gas-generating potential, however, are variables that cannot be accurately determined in the planning phase. Sizing the plant (digester, gasholder, etc.) is the next step in the planning process.
In the case of a family-size biogas plant intended primarily as a source of energy, implementation should only be recommended, if the plant can be expected to cover the calculated energy demand.
Information about the economic evaluation of a biogas plant can be found in the section on Costs and Benefits.
Throughout the world, a countless number of designs of biogas plants have been developed under specific climatic and socio-economic conditions. Chosing a design is essentially part of the planning process. It is, however, important to familiarize with basic design considerations before the actual planning process begins. This refers to the planning of a single biogas unit as well as to the planning of biogas-programs with a regional scope.
The performance of a biogas plant is dependent on the local conditions in terms of climate, soil conditions, the substrate for digestion and building material availability. The design must respond to these conditions. In areas with generally low temperatures, insulation and heating devices may be important. If bedrock occurs frequently, the design must avoid deep excavation work. The amount and type of substrate to be digested have a bearing on size and design of the digester and the inlet and outlet construction. The choice of design will also be based on the building materials which are available reliably and at reasonable cost.
High sophistication levels of biogas technology require high levels of skills, from the planner as well as from the constructor and user. With a high training input, skill gaps can be bridged, but the number of skilled technicians will get smaller the more intensive the training has to be. In addition, training costs compete with actual construction costs for scarce (project) resources. Higher technical sophistication also requires more expensive supervision and, possibly, higher maintenance costs. To which extent prefabricated designs are suitable depends largely on the cost of labor and transport.
For larger biogas programs, especially when aiming at a self-supporting dissemination process, standards in dimensions, quality and pricing are essential. Standard procedures, standard drawings and forms and standardized contracts between the constructor, the planner, the provider of material and the customer avoid mistakes and misunderstandings and save time. There is, however a trade-off between the benefits of standardization and the necessity of individual, appropriate solutions.
There are various types of plants. Concerning the feed method, three different forms can be distinguished:
Batch plants are filled and then emptied completely after a fixed retention time. Each design and each fermentation material is suitable for batch filling, but batch plants require high labor input. As a major disadvantage, their gas-output is not steady.
Continuous plants are fed and emptied continuously. They empty automatically through the overflow whenever new material is filled in. Therefore, the substrate must be fluid and homogeneous. Continuous plants are suitable for rural households as the necessary work fits well into the daily routine. Gas production is constant, and higher than in batch plants. Today, nearly all biogas plants are operating on a continuous mode.
If straw and dung are to be digested together, a biogas plant can be operated on a semi-batch basis. The slowly digested straw-type material is fed in about twice a year as a batch load. The dung is added and removed regularly.
Concerning the construction, two main types of simple biogas plants can be distinguished:
But also other types of plants play a role, especially in past developments. In developing countries, the selection of appropriate design is determined largely by the prevailing design in the region. Typical design criteria are space, existing structures, cost minimization and substrate availability. The designs of biogas plants in industrialized countries reflect a different set of conditions.
The feed material is mixed with water in the influent collecting tank. The fermentation slurry flows through the inlet into the digester. The bacteria from the fermentation slurry are intended to produce biogas in the digester. For this purpose, they need time. Time to multiply and to spread throughout the slurry. The digester must be designed in a way that only fully digested slurry can leave it. The bacteria are distributed in the slurry by stirring (with a stick or stirring facilities). The fully digested slurry leaves the digester through the outlet into the slurry storage.
The biogas is collected and stored until the time of consumption in the gasholder. The gas pipe carries the biogas to the place where it is consumed by gas appliances. Condensation collecting in the gas pipe is removed by a water trap.
Depending on the available building material and type of plant under construction, different variants of the individual components are possible. The following (optional) components of a biogas plant can also play an important role and are described seperatly: Heating systems, pumps, weak ring.
The section on construction of biogas plants provides more information on:
The initial filling of a new biogas plant should, if possible, consist of either digested slurry from another plant or cattle dung. The age and quantity of the inoculant (starter sludge) have a decisive effect on the course of fermentation. It is advisable to start collecting cattle dung during the construction phase in order to have enough by the time the plant is finished. When the plant is being filled for the first time, the substrate can be diluted with more water than usual to allow a complete filling of the digester.
Depending on the type of substrate in use, the plant may need from several days to several weeks to achieve a stable digesting process. Cattle dung can usually be expected to yield good gas production within one or two days. The breaking-in period is characterized by:
The digesting process will stabilize more quickly if the slurry is agitated frequently and intensively. Only if the process shows extreme resistance to stabilization should lime or more cattle dung be added in order to balance the pH value. No additional biomass should be put into the biogas plant during the remainder of the starting phase. Once the process has stabilized, the large volume of unfermented biomass will result in a high rate of gas production. Regular loading can commence after gas production has dropped off to the expected level.
As soon as the biogas becomes reliably combustible, it can be used for the intended purposes. Less-than-optimum performance of the appliances due to inferior gas quality should be regarded as acceptable at first. However, the first two gasholder fillings should be vented unused for reasons of safety, since residual oxygen poses an explosion hazard.
For a simple, small-scale biogas system, only a minimum amount of time and effort must be spent on procuring the feedstock and preparing it for fermentation. The technical equipment is relatively inexpensive. Theoretically any organic material can be digested. Substrate pre-processing and conveying depends on the type of material to be used. One of the most important problems in substrate management to be considered is the problem of scum.
The sludge resulting from the digestion process represents a very valuable material for fertilization. The following aspects of sludge treatment and use are considered here:
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German Appropriate Technology Exchange (GATE) in
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH (German Agency for Technical Cooperation)