Anaerobic digestion is a collection of processes by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. The process is used for industrial or domestic purposes to manage waste or to produce fuels. Much of the fermentation used industrially to produce food and drink products, as well as home fermentation, uses anaerobic digestion.
Anaerobic digestion occurs naturally in some soils and in lake and oceanic basin sediments, where it is usually referred to as "anaerobic activity". This is the source of marsh gas methane as discovered by Alessandro Volta in 1776.
The digestion process begins with bacterial hydrolysis of the input materials. Insoluble organic polymers, such as carbohydrates, are broken down to soluble derivatives that become available for other bacteria. Acidogenic bacteria then convert the sugars and amino acids into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, and organic acids. These bacteria convert these resulting organic acids into acetic acid, along with additional ammonia, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide. Finally, methanogens convert these products to methane and carbon dioxide. The methanogenic archaea populations play an indispensable role in anaerobic wastewater treatments.
Anaerobic digestion is used as part of the process to treat biodegradable waste and sewage sludge. As part of an integrated waste management system, anaerobic digestion reduces the emission of landfill gas into the atmosphere. Anaerobic digesters can also be fed with purpose-grown energy crops, such as maize.
Anaerobic digestion is widely used as a source of renewable energy. The process produces a biogas, consisting of methane, carbon dioxide, and traces of other ‘contaminant’ gases. This biogas can be used directly as fuel, in combined heat and power gas engines or upgraded to natural gas-quality biomethane. The nutrient-rich digestate also produced can be used as fertilizer.
With the re-use of waste as a resource and new technological approaches that have lowered capital costs, anaerobic digestion has in recent years received increased attention among governments in a number of countries, among these the United Kingdom (2011), Germany and Denmark (2011).
Main article: Anaerobic respiration
Many microorganisms affect anaerobic digestion, including acetic acid-forming bacteria (acetogens) and methane-forming archaea (methanogens). These organisms promote a number of chemical processes in converting the biomass to biogas.
Gaseous oxygen is excluded from the reactions by physical containment. Anaerobes utilize electron acceptors from sources other than oxygen gas. These acceptors can be the organic material itself or may be supplied by inorganic oxides from within the input material. When the oxygen source in an anaerobic system is derived from the organic material itself, 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, and trace levels of hydrogen sulfide. In an anaerobic system, the majority of the chemical energy contained within the starting material is released by methanogenic bacteria as methane.
Populations of anaerobic microorganisms typically take a significant period of time to establish themselves to be fully effective. Therefore, common practice is to introduce anaerobic microorganisms from materials with existing populations, a process known as "seeding" the digesters, typically accomplished with the addition of sewage sludge or cattle slurry.
The four key stages of anaerobic digestion involve hydrolysis, acidogenesis, acetogenesis and methanogenesis. The overall process can be described by the chemical reaction, where organic material such as glucose is biochemically digested into carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) by the anaerobic microorganisms.
C6H12O6 → 3CO2 + 3CH4
In most cases, biomass is made up of large organic polymers. 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 to 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. Through hydrolysis the complex organic molecules are broken down into simple sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids.
Acetate and hydrogen produced in the first stages can be used directly by methanogens. Other molecules, such as volatile fatty acids (VFAs) with a chain length greater than that of acetate must first be catabolised into compounds that can be directly used by methanogens.
The biological process of acidogenesis results in further breakdown of the remaining components by acidogenic (fermentative) bacteria. Here, VFAs are created, along with ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide, as well as other byproducts.The process of acidogenesis is similar to the way milk sours.
The third stage of anaerobic digestion is acetogenesis. Here, simple molecules created through the acidogenesis phase are further digested by acetogens to produce largely acetic acid, as well as carbon dioxide and hydrogen.
The terminal stage of anaerobic digestion is the biological process of methanogenesis. Here, methanogens use the intermediate products of the preceding stages and convert them into methane, carbon dioxide, and water. These components make 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. The remaining, indigestible material the microbes cannot use and any dead bacterial remains constitute the digestate.
Anaerobic digesters can be designed and engineered to operate using a number of different configurations and can be categorized into batch vs. continuous process mode, mesophilic vs. thermophilic temperature conditions, high vs. low portion of solids, and single stage vs. multistage processes. More initial build money and a larger volume of the batch digester is needed to handle the same amount of waste as a continuous process digester. Higher heat energy is demanded in a thermophilic system compared to a mesophilic system and has a larger gas output capacity and higher methane gas content. For solids content, low will handle up to 15% solid content. Above this level is considered high solids content and can also be known as dry digestion. In a single stage process, one reactor houses the four anaerobic digestion steps. A multistage process utilizes two or more reactors for digestion to separate the methanogenesis and hydrolysis phases.
Batch or continuous
Anaerobic digestion can be performed as a batch process or a continuous process. In a batch system, biomass is added to the reactor at the start of the process. The reactor is then sealed for the duration of the process. In its simplest form batch processing needs inoculation with already processed material to start the anaerobic digestion. In a typical scenario, biogas production will be formed with a normal distribution pattern over time. Operators can use this fact to determine when they believe the process of digestion of the organic matter has completed. There can be severe odour issues if a batch reactor is opened and emptied before the process is well completed. A more advanced type of batch approach has limited the odour issues by integrating anaerobic digestion with in-vessel composting. In this approach inoculation takes place through the use of recirculated degasified percolate. After anaerobic digestion has completed, the biomass is kept in the reactor which is then used for in-vessel composting before it is opened As the batch digestion is simple and requires less equipment and lower levels of design work, it is typically a cheaper form of digestion. Using more than one batch reactor at a plant can ensure constant production of biogas.
In continuous digestion processes, organic matter is constantly added (continuous complete mixed) or added in stages to the reactor (continuous plug flow; first in – first out). Here, the end products are constantly or periodically removed, resulting in constant production of biogas. A single or multiple digesters in sequence may be used. Examples of this form of anaerobic digestion include continuous stirred-tank reactors, upflow anaerobic sludge blankets, expanded granular sludge beds, and internal circulation reactors.
The two conventional operational temperature levels for anaerobic digesters determine the species of methanogens in the digesters:
Mesophilic digestion takes place optimally around 30 to 38 °C, or at ambient temperatures between 20 and 45 °C, where mesophiles are the primary microorganism present.
Thermophilic digestion takes place optimally around 49 to 57 °C, or at elevated temperatures up to 70 °C, where thermophiles are the primary microorganisms present.
A limit case has been reached in Bolivia, with anaerobic digestion in temperature working conditions of less than 10 °C. The anaerobic process is very slow, taking more than three times the normal mesophilic time process. In experimental work at University of Alaska Fairbanks, a 1,000 litre digester using psychrophiles harvested from "mud from a frozen lake in Alaska" has produced 200–300 litres of methane per day, about 20 to 30% of the output from digesters in warmer climates.Mesophilic species outnumber thermophiles, and they are also more tolerant to changes in environmental conditions than thermophiles. Mesophilic systems are, therefore, considered to be more stable than thermophilic digestion systems. In contrast, while thermophilic digestion systems are considered less stable, their energy input is higher, with more biogas being removed from the organic matter in an equal amount of time. The increased temperatures facilitate faster reaction rates, and thus faster gas yields. Operation at higher temperatures facilitates greater pathogen reduction of the digestate. In countries where legislation, such as the Animal By-Products Regulations in the European Union, requires digestate to meet certain levels of pathogen reduction there may be a benefit to using thermophilic temperatures instead of mesophilic.
Additional pre-treatment can be used to reduce the necessary retention time to produce biogas. For example, certain processes shred the substrates to increase the surface area or use a thermal pretreatment stage (such as pasteurisation) to significantly enhance the biogas output. The pasteurisation process can also be used to reduce the pathogenic concentration in the digesate leaving the anaerobic digester. Pasteurisation may be achieved by heat treatment combined with maceration of the solids.
In a typical scenario, three different operational parameters are associated with the solids content of the feedstock to the digesters:
High solids (dry—stackable substrate)
High solids (wet—pumpable substrate)
Low solids (wet—pumpable substrate)
High solids (dry) digesters are designed to process materials with a solids content between 25 and 40%. Unlike wet digesters that process pumpable slurries, high solids (dry – stackable substrate) digesters are designed to process solid substrates without the addition of water. The primary styles of dry digesters are continuous vertical plug flow and batch tunnel horizontal digesters. Continuous vertical plug flow digesters are upright, cylindrical tanks where feedstock is continuously fed into the top of the digester, and flows downward by gravity during digestion. In batch tunnel digesters, the feedstock is deposited in tunnel-like chambers with a gas-tight door. Neither approach has mixing inside the digester. The amount of pretreatment, such as contaminant removal, depends both upon the nature of the waste streams being processed and the desired quality of the digestate. Size reduction (grinding) is beneficial in continuous vertical systems, as it accelerates digestion, while batch systems avoid grinding and instead require structure (e.g. yard waste) to reduce compaction of the stacked pile. Continuous vertical dry digesters have a smaller footprint due to the shorter effective retention time and vertical design. Wet digesters can be designed to operate in either a high-solids content, with a total suspended solids (TSS) concentration greater than ~20%, or a low-solids concentration less than ~15%.
High solids (wet) 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. High solids digesters also require correction of conventional performance calculations (e.g. gas production, retention time, kinetics, etc.) originally based on very dilute sewage digestion concepts, since larger fractions of the feedstock mass are potentially convertible to biogas.
Low solids (wet) 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 increased volumes associated with the increased liquid-to-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 on which they are feeding, and increases the rate of gas production.
Digestion systems can be configured with different levels of complexity. In a single-stage digestion system (one-stage), all of the biological reactions occur within a single, sealed reactor or holding tank. Using a single stage reduces construction costs, but results in 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. 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 system is an anaerobic lagoon. These lagoons are pond-like, earthen basins used for the treatment and long-term storage of manures. Here the anaerobic reactions are contained within the natural anaerobic sludge contained in the pool.
In a two-stage digestion system (multistage), 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 to optimise their performance.
Under typical circumstances, 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 to kill harmful bacteria in the input waste. In this instance, there may be a pasteurisation or sterilisation stage prior to digestion or between the two digestion tanks. Notably, it is not possible to completely isolate the different reaction phases, and often some biogas is produced in the hydrolysis or acidogenesis tanks.
The residence time in a digester varies with the amount and type of feed material, and with the configuration of the digestion system. In a typical two-stage mesophilic digestion, residence time varies between 15 and 40 days, while for a single-stage thermophilic digestion, residence times is normally faster and takes around 14 days. The plug-flow nature of some of these systems will mean 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 the case of an upflow anaerobic sludge blanket digestion (UASB), hydraulic residence times can be as short as 1 hour to 1 day, and solid retention times can be up to 90 days. In this manner, a UASB system is able to separate solids and hydraulic retention times with the use of a sludge blanket. 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.
The anaerobic digestion process can be inhibited by several compounds, affecting one or more of the bacterial groups responsible for the different organic matter degradation steps. The degree of the inhibition depends, among other factors, on the concentration of the inhibitor in the digester. Potential inhibitors are ammonia, sulfide, light metal ions (Na, K, Mg, Ca, Al), heavy metals, some organics (chlorophenols, halogenated aliphatics, N-substituted aromatics, long chain fatty acids), etc.