Saturday, 19 October 2013

Small Scale Biogas Generator

I heard on the radio last week that some farmers are using anaerobic digesters to produce methane-rich biogas from vegetable waste.
This got me wondering if we could use our domestic waste to produce usable fuel gas - maybe to heat the greenhouse or something similar.

I thought I would make a small scale experimental digester to see if it works, and what amount of gas it makes, to see if it is worth thinking about something bigger.

My understanding is that the methane producing bacteria work best at over 40 degC, so I will heat the digester.  I will do this electrically for the experimental set up because it is easy, and I can measure the energy consumption easily that way.

I am using a 25 litre fermentation vessel for the digester - I got one with a screw on cap rather than a bucket so I can run it at slightly elevated pressure if it starts to make gas.
For simplicity I got a 1 m2 electric underfloor heating blanket to heat the vessel.  I will use an electro-mechanical thermostat as a protection device in case the electronic temperature controller I will produce looses its marbles and tries to melt the vessel.

To start with I just wrapped the blanket around the vessel.

But before I tested it I realised that this approach is no good - the vessel will not be full of liquid, so I do not want the heating element all the way up the sides.

So, I removed the heating element from the underfloor heating mat, and wrapped it around the bottom of the vessel instead.

To improve heat transfer between the heating element and the vessel, I pushed as much silicone grease as I could get in around the element wires, then wrapped it in gaffer tape to make sure it all held together and I don't get covered in grease:

It is looking promising now - the element gets warm, and the thermostat trips it out when it starts to get hot.  The dead band on the thermostat is too big to be useful for this application (it is about 10 degC), so I will just use that as an over-heat protection device, and us an Arduino microcontroller to control and log the temperature.

To get the proof of concept prototype working, I think I need to:
  • Sort out a temperature controller - will use an arduino and a solid state relay to switch the heater elements on and off.
  • Gas Handling - I will need to do something with the gas that is generated, while avoiding blowing up the house or garage - I have seen somewhere where they recommend using an aluminised mylar baloon, which sounds like a good idea if I can find one.
  • Gas Composition Measurement - I will need to find out the proportion of methane to carbon dioxide that I am generating - still not sure how to do that.   It would be possible with a tunable IR laser diode, but not sure if that is feasible without spending real money.  Any suggestions appreciated!
  • Gas volume measurement - the other thing I am interested in is how much gas is generated - not sure how best to measure very low gas flow rates.  I am wondering about modifying a U-bend type airlock to detect how many bubbles pass through - maybe detect the water level changing before the bubble passes through.
If this looks feasible, the next stages of development would be:
  • Automate gas handling to use the gas generated to heat the digester - success would be making it self sustaining so that it generated enough gas to keep it warm.  That would mean scaling it up would produce excess gas that I could use for something, else.
  • Think about how far I can scale it up - depends on what fuel to use - kitchen and 'soft' garden waste is limited, so might have to look for something else....
Will post an update when I get it doing something.

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