The Manure Scoop

Subscribe to The Manure Scoop feed
The science of manure, including its management and handling, options for treatment, use as fertilizer, the impact it can have on the environment, and new technologies being developed to improve its use. In this blog I strive to provide a scientific perspective and really dig into the issues. This blog is brought to you by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Follow me on Twitter @DrManure or find me on Facebook at Iowa State Manure and Nutrient Management Lab.Daniel Andersen
Updated: 1 hour 35 min ago

Optimizing Anaerobic Digestion Efficiency: Calculating Biogas Potential

Thu, 01/25/2024 - 13:02




Anaerobic digestion is a process that harnesses the power of microorganisms to break down organic materials without oxygen, producing biogas as a valuable byproduct. This process has gained significant attention as a means to manage organic waste and generate renewable energy. This blog will delve into the intricacies of optimizing anaerobic digestion efficiency, focusing on factors influencing different digester types and substrates – specifically, livestock manures and crop residues.


Factors Influencing Anaerobic Digestion Efficiency:


Temperature and pH:

Anaerobic digestion is a temperature-sensitive process with optimal efficiency and stability within specific temperature ranges. Additionally, maintaining an appropriate pH level is crucial for the activity of microorganisms involved in digestion. Different digester types may require adjustments in temperature and pH to maximize efficiency. Generally, designed heated digesters for agriculture are maintained at around 95-100ºF. As a general rule of thumb, microbial activity doubles for every 20ºF, so heating a digester allows significantly shorter retention times. While heating above 100ºF can further increase reaction rates, it also makes the process less stable as different bacteria and archaea populations respond differently to temperature.


Retention Time:

The duration for which organic materials are retained in the digester, known as retention time, plays a vital role in achieving optimal biogas production. Longer retention times generally lead to higher gas yields, but striking the right balance is essential to prevent process inhibition and to balance the initial cost of the digester against the potential yield for the substrate. For example, holding materials for an additional 30 days to make 5% more methane often can’t be justified.


Substrate Characteristics:

The type and composition of substrates significantly impact anaerobic digestion efficiency. Livestock manures, such as those from cattle, poultry, and swine, vary in nutrient content and organic composition. Crop residues, including straw and stalks, also introduce diverse characteristics to the digestion process. Understanding these variations is crucial for efficient biogas production and material handling considerations. Different tests, biochemical methane potential, and anaerobic toxicity assays are often used to characterize how desirable different substrates may be and if there could be issues with inhibition from chemical compounds. Physical properties are often characterized for solids content and particle size, with viscosity and settling rate sometimes characterized.


Digester Types and Their Influence:


Batch Digesters:

Batch digesters are characterized by loading organic materials in batches and allowing them to ferment for a specific period. These digesters are suitable for smaller-scale operations and can handle various substrates. However, optimizing efficiency in batch digesters requires careful consideration of loading frequency and substrate characteristics. In practice, few of these digesters exist, though more use has been seen with “high-solids” digestion.


Continuous Stirred-Tank Reactors (CSTR):

CSTRs maintain a constant flow of organic material into the digester, ensuring a continuous process. These systems are efficient for managing large quantities of waste. Factors such as temperature control, stirring mechanisms, and substrate consistency play key roles in optimizing CSTR performance.


Plug Flow Digesters:

Plug-flow digesters facilitate a unidirectional flow of organic material through the digester, promoting better mixing and higher gas yields. Achieving optimal performance in plug flow digesters involves careful design considerations and monitoring of substrate characteristics. Essentially, it needs a high enough solids content to act as a plug but not so high that it won’t flow through the digester.


Substrates: Livestock Manures and Crop Residues:


Livestock Manures:

Different livestock manures present unique challenges and opportunities for anaerobic digestion. Cattle manure, for instance, is rich in volatile solids, while poultry manure has a higher nitrogen content. Understanding the nutrient profiles of various manures is essential for tailoring digester conditions and maximizing biogas potential. In general, liquid manures are often preferred as little modification is needed to make them amenable to use in a digester. Many manures have higher nitrogen contents, which can make ammonia toxicity a potential concern.


Crop Residues:

Crop residues, such as straw and stalks, contribute to the diversity of anaerobic digestion substrates. These materials often have a higher lignocellulosic content, requiring special attention to enhance breakdown and gas production. Exploring pre-treatment methods can improve the digestibility of crop residues in anaerobic digesters. Particle size and maceration considerations, as well as the overall moisture content of the mix, are important to make these materials function in a digester.


Simple Calculation for Estimating Biogas Production:


A simple calculation for estimating methane production is based on the volatile solids content (VS), biochemical methane yield potential (BMP), and digester efficiency. The formula for biogas production (BP) is given by:




VS is the volatile solids content of the substrate.

BP is the methane yield potential, representing the volume of methane produced per unit of volatile solids.

DE is the digester efficiency, accounting for the proportion of methane produced compared to the maximum potential.


The complicating factor is getting good values for each of these parameters. The volatile solids and BMP vary based on diet, manure holding time, weather conditions, and other factors, making estimating for a specific farm difficult.


For lagoons, this can be complicated, as the temperatures and storage times vary regionally. In the figure below, the blue color represents lagoon digester efficiency if a yearly retention time is used, the red if manure is applied twice per year, and the purple the loss of efficacy from more frequent manure removal. Estimated lagoon efficacies reported in the EPA Ag Star database are provided to the right of the figure. Green dots represent states where reporting lagoon digesters are located (the majority in California). Heated digester efficiency is generally closer to 75%, with temperature, substrate, and retention time all impacting reported efficiency.

Figure 1. Estimated lagoon efficacies for livestock manures. Blue represents efficacy of annual application, red represents a twice a year application strategy, and the purple represents the loss in efficiency from twice a year application instead of annual application.


Optimizing anaerobic digestion efficiency is a multidimensional task that requires careful consideration of factors influencing both digester performance and substrate characteristics. By understanding the nuances of different digester types and the diverse nature of livestock manures and crop residues, we can pave the way for sustainable waste management and renewable energy production. The future of anaerobic digestion lies in the synergy between scientific understanding and practical application, offering a promising avenue for addressing environmental challenges while harnessing the full potential of biogas production.