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Anaerobic digestion


Renewable energy

Anaerobic digestion is a process in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. The process is widely used to treat wastewater sludges and organic wastes because it provides volume and mass reduction of the input material.[1] As part of an integrated waste management system, anaerobic digestion reduces the emission of landfill gas into the atmosphere. Anaerobic digestion is a renewable energy source because the process produces a methane and carbon dioxide rich biogas suitable for energy production helping replace fossil fuels. Also, the nutrient-rich solids left after digestion can be used as fertiliser.

The digestion process begins with bacterial hydrolysis of the input materials in order to break down insoluble organic polymers such as carbohydrates and make them available for other bacteria. Acidogenic bacteria then convert the sugars and amino acids into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, and organic acids. Acetogenic bacteria then convert these resulting organic acids into acetic acid, along with additional ammonia, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide. Methanogenic bacteria finally are able to convert these products to methane and carbon dioxide.[2]

The technical expertise required to maintain anaerobic digesters coupled with high capital costs and lower process efficiencies have so far limited the level of its industrial application as a waste treatment technology.[3] Anaerobic digestion facilities have, however, been recognised by the United Nations Development Programme as one of the most useful decentralised sources of energy supply, as they are less capital intensive than large powerplants.[4]

Careful control of the digestion temperature, pH, and loading rates is crucial to obtaining efficient breakdown of the materia, and disturbances to a digest can lead to process failure. Ensuring that the quality of input materials to the digesters is maintained and that the process effectively monitored is essential for ensuring that a digester's performance is reliable.



  Scientific interest in the gases produced by the natural decomposition of organic matter, was first reported in the sixteenth century by Robert Boyle and Stephen Hale, who noted that inflammable gas was released by disturbing the sediment of streams and lakes.[5] In 1808, Sir Humphry Davy determined that methane was present in the gases produced by cattle manure.[6][7] The first anaerobic digester was built by a leper colony in Bombay, India in 1859. In 1895 the technology was developed in Exeter, England, where a septic tank was used to generate gas for street lighting. Also in England, in 1904, the first dual purpose tank for both sedimentation and sludge treatment was installed in Hampton. In 1907, in Germany, a patent was issued for the Imhoff tank, an early form of digester.

Through scientific research anaerobic digestion gained academic recognition in the 1930s. This research led to the discovery of anaerobic bacteria, the microorganisms that facilitate the process. Further research was carried out to investigate the conditions under which methanogenic bacteria were able to grow and reproduce.[8] This work was developed during World War II where in both Germany and France there was an increase in the application of anaerobic digestion for the treatment of manure.


Anaerobic digestion is particularly suited to wet organic material and is commonly used for effluent and sewage treatment.[9] Anaerobic digestion is a simple process that can greatly reduce the amount of organic matter which might otherwise be destined to be landfilled or burnt in an incinerator.

Almost any organic material can be processed with anaerobic digestion.[10] This includes biodegradable waste materials such as waste paper, grass clippings, leftover food, sewage and animal waste. The exception to this is woody wastes that are largely unaffected by digestion as anaerobes are unable to degrade lignin. Anaerobic digesters can also be fed with specially grown energy crops such as silage for dedicated biogas production. In Germany and continental Europe these facilities are referred to as biogas plants. A co-digestion or co-fermentation plant is typically an agricultural anaerobic digester that accepts two or more input materials for simultaneous digestion.[11]

In developing countries simple home and farm-based anaerobic digestion systems offer the potential for cheap, low-cost energy for cooking and lighting.[12][13][14][15] Anaerobic digestion facilities have been recognised by the United Nations Development Programme as one of the most useful decentralised sources of energy supply.[16] From 1975, China and India have both had large government-backed schemes adoptation of small biogas plants for use in the household for cooking and lighting.[17] Presently, projects for anaerobic digestion in the developing world can gain financial support through the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism if they are able to show the provide reduced carbon emissions.[18]

Pressure from environmentally-related legislation on solid waste disposal methods in developed countries has increased the application of anaerobic digestion as a process for reducing waste volumes and generating useful by-products. Anaerobic digestion may either be used to process the source separated fraction of municipal waste, or alternatively combined with mechanical sorting systems, to process residual mixed municipal waste. These facilities are called mechanical biological treatment plants.[19][20][21]

Utilising anaerobic digestion technologies can help to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in a number of key ways:

  • Replacement of fossil fuels
  • Reducing methane emission from landfills
  • Displacing industrially-produced chemical fertilisers
  • Reducing vehicle movements
  • Reducing electrical grid transportation losses

Methane and power produced in anaerobic digestion facilities can be utilised to replace energy derived from fossil fuels, and hence reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.[22] This is due to the fact that the carbon in biodegradable material is part of a carbon cycle. The carbon released into the atmosphere from the combustion of biogas has been removed by plants in order for them to grow in the recent past. This can have occurred within the last decade, but more typically within the last growing season. If the plants are re-grown, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere once more, the system will be carbon neutral.[23][24] This contrasts to carbon in fossil fuels that has been sequestered in the earth for many millions of years, the combustion of which increases the overall levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

If the putrescible waste processed in anaerobic digesters was disposed of in a landfill, it would break down naturally and often anaerobically. In this case the gas will eventually escape into the atmosphere. As methane is about twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide this has significant negative environmental effects.[25]

Digestate liquor can be used as a fertiliser supplying vital nutrients to soils. The solid, fibrous component of digestate can be used as a soil conditioner. The liquor can be used as a substitute for chemical fertilisers which require large amounts of energy to produce. The use of manufactured fertilisers is therefore more carbon intensive than the use of anaerobic digestate fertiliser. This solid digestate can be used to boost the organic content of soils. There are some countries, such as in Spain where there are many organically depleted soils, and here the markets for the digestate can be just as important as the biogas.[26]

In countries that collect household waste, the utilisation of local anaerobic digestion facilities can help to reduce the amount of waste that requires transportation to centralised landfill sites or incineration facilities. This reduced burden on transportation has an an will reduce carbon emissions from the collection vehicles. If localised anaerobic digestion facilities are embedded within an electrical distribution network, they can help reduce the electrical losses that is associated with transporting electricity over a national grid.[27]

The process

Main article: Anaerobic respiration

There are a number of bacteria that are involved in the process of anaerobic digestion including acetic acid-forming bacteria (acetogens) and methane-forming bacteria (methanogens). These bacteria feed upon the initial feedstock, which undergoes a number of different processes converting it to intermediate molecules including sugars, hydrogen & acetic acid before finally being converted to biogas.

Different species of bacteria are able to survive at different temperature ranges. Ones living optimally at temperatures between 35-40°C are called mesophiles or mesophilic bacteria. Some of the bacteria can survive at the hotter and more hostile conditions of 55-60°C, these are called thermophiles or thermophilic bacteria.[28] Methanogens come from the primitive group of archaea. This family includes species that can grow in the hostile conditions of hydrothermal vents. These species are more resistant to heat and can therefore operate at thermophilic temperatures, a property that is unique to bacterial families.[29]

As with aerobic systems the bacteria in anaerobic systems the growing and reproducing microorganisms within them require a source of elemental oxygen to survive.[30]

In an anaerobic system there is an absence of gaseous oxygen. In an anaerobic digester, gaseous oxygen is prevented from entering the system through physical containment in sealed tanks. Anaerobes access oxygen from sources other than the surrounding air. The oxygen source for these microorganisms can be the organic material itself or alternatively may be supplied by inorganic oxides from withiin the input material. When the oxygen source in an anaerobic system is derived from the organic material itself, then the 'intermediate' end products are primarily alcohols, aldehydes, and organic acids plus carbon dioxide. In the presence of specialised methanogens, the intermediates are converted to the 'final' end products of methane, carbon dioxide with trace levels of hydrogen sulphide.[31][32] In an anaerobic system the majority of the chemical energy contained within the starting material is released by methanogenic bacteria as methane.[33]

Populations of anaerobic bacteria typically take a significant period of time to establish themselves to be fully effective. It is therefore common practice to introduce anaerobic microorganisms from materials with existing populations. This process is called 'seeding' the digesters and typically takes place with the addition of sewage sludge or cattle slurry.[34]



There are four key biological and chemical stages of anaerobic digestion:[35][36]

  1. Hydrolysis
  2. Acidogenesis
  3. Acetogenesis
  4. Methanogenesis

In most cases biomass is made up of large organic polymers. In order for the bacteria in anaerobic digesters to access the energy potential of the material, these chains must first be broken down into their smaller constituent parts. These constituent parts or monomers such as sugars are readily available by other bacteria. The process of breaking these chains and dissolving the smaller molecules into solution is called hydrolysis. Therefore hydrolysis of these high molecular weight polymeric components is the necessary first step in anaerobic digestion.[37] Through hydrolysis the complex organic molecules are broken down into simple sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids.[38]

Acetate and hydrogen produced in the first stages can be used directly by methanogens. Other molecules such as volatile fatty acids (VFA’s) with a chain length that is greater than acetate must first be catabolised into compounds that can be directly utilised by methanogens.[39]

The biological process of acidogenesis is where there is further breakdown of the remaining components by acidogenic (fermentative) bacteria. Here VFAs are created along with ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide as well as other by-products.[40] The process of acidogenesis is similar to the way that milk sours.

The third stage anaerobic digestion is acetogenesis. Here simple molecules from created through the acidogenesis phase are further digested by acetogens to produce largely acetic acid as well as carbon dioxide and hydrogen.[41]

The terminal stage of anaerobic digestion is the biological process of methanogenesis. Here methanogens utilise the intermediate products of the preceding stages and convert them into methane, carbon dioxide and water. It is these components that makes up the majority of the biogas emitted from the system. Methanogenesis is sensitive to both high and low pHs and occurs between pH 6.5 and pH 8.[42] The remaining, none-digestable material which the microbes cannot feed upon, along with any dead bacterial remains constitutes the digestate.

A simplified generic chemical equation for the overall processes outlined above is as follows:

C6H12O6 → 3CO2 + 3CH4


  The most important initial issue when considering the application of anaerobic digestion systems is the feedstock to the process. Digesters typically can accept any biodegradable material, however if biogas production is the aim, the level of putrescibility is the key factor in its successful application.[43] The more putrescible the material the higher the gas yields possible from the system.

Substrate composition is a major factor in determining the methane yield and methane production rates from the digestion of biomass. Techniques are available to determine the compositional characteristics of the feedstock, whilst parameters such as solids, elemental and organic analyses are important for digester design and operation.[44]

Anaerobes can breakdown material to varying degrees of success from readily in the case of short chain hydrocarbons such as sugars, to over longer periods of time in the case of cellulose and hemicellulose.[45] Anaerobic microorganisms are unable to break down long chain woody molecules such as lignin.[46] Anaerobic digesters were originally designed for operation using sewage sludge and manures. Sewage and manure are not, however, the material with the most potential for anaerobic digestion as the biodegradable material has already had the energy content taken out by the animal that produced it.

A second consideration related to the feedstock will be moisture content. The wetter the material the more suitable it will be to handling with standard pumps instead of energy intensive concrete pumps and physical means of movement. Also the wetter the material, the more volume and area it takes up relative to the levels of gas that are produced. The moisture content of the target feedstock will also affect what type of system is applied to its treatment. In order to use a high solids anaerobic digester for dilute feedstocks, bulking agents such as compost should be applied to increase the solid content of the input material.[47] Another key consideration is the carbon:nitrogen ratio of the input material. This ratio is the balance of food a microbe requires in order to grown. The optimal C:N ratio for the 'food' a microbe is 20–30.[48]

The level of contamination of the feedstock material is a key consideration. If the feedstock to the digesters has significant levels of physical contaminants such as plastic, glass or metals then pre-processing will be required in order for the material to be used.[49] If it is not removed then the digesters can be blocked and will not function efficiently. It is with this logic in mind that mechanical biological treatment plants are designed. The higher the level of pre-treatment a feedstock requires, the more processing machinery will be required and hence the project will have higher capital costs.

After sorting or screening to remove any physical contaminants, such as metals and plastics, from the feedstock the material is often shredded, minced and mechanically or hydraulically pulped to increase the surface area available to microbes in the digesters and hence increase the speed of digestion. The feedstock material is then fed into the airtight digester where anaerobic treatment takes place.


  Anaerobic digesters can be designed and engineered to operate using a number of different process configurations:

  • Batch or continuous
  • Temperature: Mesophilic or thermophilic
  • Solids content: High solids or low solids
  • Complexity: Single stage or multistage

Batch or continuous

A batch system is the simplest form of digestion. Biomass is added to the reactor at the start of the process in a batch and is sealed for the duration of the process. Batch reactors suffer from odour issues that can be a severe problem when they are emptied. Typically biogas production will be formed with a normal distribution pattern over time. The operator can use this fact to determine when they believe the process of digestion of the organic matter has completed. As the batch digestion is simple and requires less equipment and lower levels of design work it is typically a cheaper form of digestion.[50]

In continuous digestion processes organic matter is constantly or added in stages to the reactor. Here the end products are constantly or periodically removed, resulting in constant production of biogas. Examples of this form of anaerobic digestion include, continuous stirred-tank reactors (CSTRs), Upflow anaerobic sludge blanket (UASB), Expanded granular sludge bed (EGSB) and Internal circulation reactors (IC).[51][52]


There are two conventional operational temperature levels for anaerobic digesters, which are determined by the species of methanogens in the digesters:[53]

  • Mesophilic which takes place optimally around 37°-41°C or at ambient temperatures between 20°-45°C where mesophiles are the primary microorganism present
  • Thermophilic which takes place optimally around 50°-52° at elevated temperatures up to 70°C where thermophiles are the primary microorganisms present

There are a greater number of species of mesophiles than thermophiles. These bacteria are also more tolerant to changes environmental conditions than thermophiles. Mesophilic systems are therefore considered to be more stable than thermophilic digestion systems.

As mentioned above, thermophilic digestion systems are considered to be less stable, however the increased temperatures facilitate faster reaction rates and hence faster gas yields. Operation at higher temperatures facilitates greater sterilisation of the end digestate. In countries where legislation, such as the Animal By-Products Regulations in the European Union, requires end products to meet certain levels of reduction in the amount of bacteria in the output material, this may be a benefit.[54]

A drawback of operating at thermophilic temperatures is that more heat energy input is required to achieve the correct operational temperatures. This increase in energy is not be outweighed by the increase in the outputs of biogas from the systems. It is therefore important to consider an energy balance for these systems.


Typically there are two different operational parameters associated with the solids content of the feedstock to the digesters:

  • High-solids
  • Low-solids

Digesters can either be designed to operate in a high solids content, with a total suspended solids (TSS) concentration greater than ~20%, or a low solids concentration less than ~15%.[55]

High-solids digesters process a thick slurry that requires more energy input to move and process the feedstock. The thickness of the material may also lead to associated problems with abrasion. High-solids digesters will typically have a lower land requirement due to the lower volumes associated with the moisture.

Low-solids digesters can transport material through the system using standard pumps that require significantly lower energy input. Low-solids digesters require a larger amount of land than high-solids due to the increase volumes associated with the increased liquid: feedstock ratio of the digesters. There are benefits associated with operation in a liquid environment as it enables more thorough circulation of materials and contact between the bacteria and their food. This enables the bacteria to more readily access the substances they are feeding off and increases the speed of gas yields.

Number of stages

  Digestion systems can be configured with different levels of complexity:[56]

  • One-stage or single-stage
  • Two-stage or multistage

A single-stage digestion system is one in which all of the biological reactions occur within a single sealed reactor or holding tank. Utilising a single stage reduces construction costs, however facilitates less control of the reactions occurring within the system. Acidogenic bacteria, through the production of acids, reduce the pH of the tank. Methanogenic bacteria, as outlined earlier, operate in a strictly defined pH range.[57] Therefore the biological reactions of the different species in a single stage reactor can be in direct competition with each other. Another one-stage reaction systems is an anaerobic lagoon. These lagoons are pond-like earthen basins utilised for the treatment and long-term storage of manures.[58] Here the anaerobic reactions are contained within the natural anaerobic sludge contained in the pool.

In a two-stage or multi-stage digestion system different digestion vessels are optimised to bring maximum control over the bacterial communities living within the digesters. Acidogenic bacteria produce organic acids and more quickly grow and reproduce than methanogenic bacteria. Methanogenic bacteria require stable pH and temperature in order to optimise their performance.[59]

Typically hydrolysis, acetogenesis and acidogenesis occur within the first reaction vessel. The organic material is then heated to the required operational temperature (either mesophilic or thermophilic) prior to being pumped into a methanogenic reactor. The initial hydrolysis or acidogenesis tanks prior to the methanogenic reactor can provide a buffer to the rate at which feedstock is added. Some European countries require a degree of elevated heat treatment in order to kill harmful bacteria in the input waste.[60] In this instance their may be a pasteurisation or sterilisation stage prior to digestion or between the two digestion tanks. It should be noted that it is not possible to completely isolate the different reaction phases and often there is some biogas that is produced in the hydrolysis or acidogenesis tanks.


The residence time in a digester varies with the amount and type of feed material, the configuration of the digestion system and whether it be one-stage or two-stage.

In the case of single-stage thermophilic digestion residence times may be in the region of 14 days, which comparatively to mesophilic digestion is relatively fast. The plug-flow nature of some of these systems will mean that the full degradation of the material may not have been realised in this timescale. In this event digestate exiting the system will be darker in colour and will typically have more odour.

In two-stage mesophilic digestion, residence time may vary between 15 and 40 days.[61]

In the case of mesophilic UASB digestion hydraulic residence times can be (1hour-1day) and solid retention times can be up to 90 days. In this manner the UASB system is able to separate solid an hydraulic retention times with the utilisation of a sludge blanket.[62]

Continuous digesters have mechanical or hydraulic devices, depending on the level of solids in the material, to mix the contents enabling the bacteria and the food to be in contact. They also allow excess material to be continuously extracted to maintain a reasonably constant volume within the digestion tanks.


There are three principal products of anaerobic digestion: biogas, digestate and water.[63][64] [65]


Main article: biogas


Typical composition of biogas[66]
Matter %
Methane, CH4 50-75
Carbon dioxide, CO2 25-50
Nitrogen, N2 0-10
Hydrogen, H2 0-1
Hydrogen sulphide, H2S 0-3
Oxygen, O2 0-2

  Biogas is the ultimate waste product of the bacteria feeding off the input biodegradable feedstock, and is mostly methane and carbon dioxide,[67][68] with a small amount hydrogen and trace hydrogen sulphide. Most of the biogas is produced during the middle of the digestion, after the bacterial population has grown, and tapers off as the putrescible material is exhausted.[69] The gas is normally stored on top of the digester in an inflatable gas bubble or extracted and stored next to the facility in a gas holder.

The methane in biogas can be burned to produce both heat and electricity, usually with a reciprocating engine or microturbine[70] often in a cogeneration arrangement where the electricity and waste heat generated are used to warm the digesters or to heat buildings. Excess electricity can be sold to suppliers or put into the local grid. Electricity produced by anaerobic digesters is considered to be renewable energy and may attract subsidies.[71] Biogas does not contribute to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations because the gas is not released directly into the atmosphere and the carbon dioxide comes from an organic source with a short carbon cycle.

Biogas may require treatment or 'scrubbing' to refine it for use as a fuel.[72] Hydrogen sulphide is a toxic product formed from sulphates in the feedstock and is released as a trace component of the biogas. National environmental enforcement agencies such as the US EPA or the English and Welsh Environment Agency put strict limits on the levels of gases containing hydrogen sulphide, and if the levels of hydrogen sulphide in the gas are high, gas scrubbing and cleaning equipment (such as amine gas treating) will be needed to process the biogas to within regionally accepted levels.[73] An alternative method to this is by the addition of ferric chloride FeCl2 to the digestion tanks in order to inhibit hydrogen sulphide production.[74]

Volatile siloxanes can also contaminate the biogas; such compounds are frequently found in household waste and wastewater. In digestion facilities accepting these materials as a component of the feedstock, low molecular weight siloxanes volatilise into biogas. When this gas is combusted in a gas engine, turbine or boiler, siloxanes are converted into silicon dioxide (Si02) which deposits internally in the machine, increasing wear and tear.[75][76]

In countries such as Switzerland, Germany and Sweden the methane in the biogas may be concentrated in order for it to be used as a vehicle transportation fuel or alternatively input directly into the gas mains.[77] In countries where the driver for the utilisation of anaerobic digestion are renewable electricity subsidies, this route of treatment is less likely as energy is required in this processing stage and reduces the over all levels available to sell.[78]


Main article: digestate

Digestate is the solid remnants of the original input material to the digesters that the microbes cannot utilise. It also consists of the mineralised remains of the dead bacteria from within the digesters. Digestate can come in three forms; fibrous, liquor or a sludge-based combination of the two fractions. In two-stage systems the different forms of digestate come from different digestion tanks. In single stage digestion systems the two fractions will be combined and if desired separated by further processing.[79][80]

  The second by-product (acidogenic digestate) is a stable organic material comprised largely of lignin and cellulose, but also of a variety of mineral components in a matrix of dead bacterial cells; some plastic may be present. The material resembles domestic compost and can be used as compost or to make low grade building products such as fibreboard.[81][82]

The third by-product is a liquid (methanogenic digestate) that is rich in nutrients and can be used as a fertiliser dependent on the quality of the material being digested.[83] Levels of potentially toxic elements (PTEs) should be chemically assessed. This will be dependent upon the quality of the original feedstock. In the case of most clean and source-separated biodegradable waste streams the levels of PTEs will be low. In the case of wastes originating from industry the levels of PTEs may be higher and will need to be taken into consideration when determining a suitable end use for the material.

Digestate typically contains elements such as lignin that cannot be broken down by the anaerobic microorganisms. Also the digestate may contain ammonia that is phytotoxic and will hamper the growth of plants if it is used as a soil improving material. For these two reasons a maturation or composting stage may be employed after digestion. Lignin and other materials are available for degradation by aerobic microorganisms such as fungi helping reduce the overall volume of the material for transport. During this maturation the ammonia will be broken down into nitrates, improving the fertility of the material and making it more suitable as a soil improver. Large composting stages are typically utilised by dry anaerobic digestion technologies.[84][85]


The final output from anaerobic digestion systems is water. This water originates both from the moisture content of the original waste that was treated but also includes water produced during the microbial reactions in the digestion systems. This water may be released from the dewatering of the digestate or may be implicitly separate from the digestate.

The wastewater exiting the anaerobic digestion facility will typically have elevated levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD), these are measures of the reactivity of the effluent and show an ability to pollute. Some of this material is termed 'hard COD' meaning it cannot be accessed by the anaerobic bacteria for conversion into biogas. If this effluent was put directly into watercourses it would negatively affect them by causing eutrophication. As such further treatment of the wastewater is often required. This treatment will typically be an oxidation stage where air is passed through the water in a sequencing batch reactors or reverse osmosis unit.[86][87][88]

See also

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Anaerobic_digestion". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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