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ENST 481: Ecological Design Group Project

Reactor Configuration and Materials Selection

Student Members: David Erbe, Andrew Bresee, Daniel Son, Kevin Willson, and Marcus
April 28th, 2014

Executive Summary:
Food waste is a major contributor to landfills. As stated by the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) in 2012 alone, more than 36 million tons of food waste was
generated, with only five percent diverted from landfills and incinerators for
composting. As a result, landfills are one of the major sources of human-related methane
emissions producing nearly twenty percent of all methane emissions. Due to the high
quantity of waste produced by the University of Maryland, the Ecological Design
students of the Environmental Science and Technology have been tasked with designing
an anaerobic digester.
Our team was assigned with the task of the Mixed Digester Reactor Configuration
and Material Selection. We determined that the plug flow digester would be the most
suitable for food digestion on campus. Having an optimal bacteria activity range from
thirty degrees Celsius to forty degrees Celsius, the mesophilic system was selected. Plug
flow digesters can be either mesophilic or thermophilic, and do not requires as much
energy to maintain the temperature. Originally a semi-plug flow was being considered,
but we encountered challenges that made our final design plug flow.
The first challenge in the production of the design was our limited budget. In
order to reduce costs for construction, free materials found in storage were used as much
as possible. However, the design still had to be modified as the project progressed in
order to stay within budget. The next challenge was time. Ordering parts in time for
construction and testing forced a simpler design.
Insulation for temperature control, and retention time were considered in our
original test. These tests would have thoroughly determined if the design for this
prototype was a good choice for food waste, but due to time constraints only retention
time was tested. Although fewer variables were tested, we determined that a comparison
between a plug flow and a batch style system could be compared. Using the same
construction design, we could determine the optimal digester system for the same
influents. Batch systems are loaded once and left to digest whereas the plug flow is
loaded frequently, and constantly pushes through the system in regular intervals.
The number of different designs for anaerobic digesters has increased over the
past decade. However, with this increase four major types of digesters have surfaced as
the most used by large-scale studies, companies, and waste treatment
facilities. Combined with an ever-growing number of possible construction materials,
our group had the benefit and challenge of sifting through an enormous number of
potential digester designs, and potential materials to build them with.
The most popular digester designs include plug-flow, covered-anaerobic lagoon,
complete mix digester, and dry digestion. With each of these configurations came a
number of benefits and drawbacks that the group had to investigate before coming up
with our final design.

The plug-flow design is based on pushing food waste and excrement through a long
and thin digesting compartment. The digester is generally a long and narrow tank that
partially buried in the ground to help retain heat needs (What). The design requires a
solid, strong base, but has flexibility on the upper half generally made of any number of
materials from soft, moveable plastics to hard, immovable metals (Wright). This style is
easy to create and cost-efficient, has an inherent system for collecting methane, and can
be used to break down solid organics such as food scraps, but has a number of large
drawbacks associated with its design. The most prominent and largest flaw comes from
clogging. A build-up of mineral waste will cause the flow to slow down and eventually
become stuck inside the tank, requiring cleaning of the system. Plug-flow digesters also
have lower efficiency and less consistency compared to other types of digesters
Complete mix digesters differ from plug-flow mainly by their use of a mixing
system that can either occasionally or continuously blend wastes to help move bacteria
around the organic matter. The digester is generally in the form of a tall, stand-up tank
that is heated to help the microfauna readily break down the wastes. The tank itself is
made out of a strong and sturdy material like concrete or metal. A mixing system and a
pretreatment container separates solids from influent material (Complete). The system is
quite efficient and can be heated using the methane it collects. It is generally best used
with lower percent solid waste (Anaerobic). Another problem with the system is that it is
more expensive to install and costs more to run because of the mixing requirements.
However, complete mix digesters have greater reliability and are not as impacted by
mineral wastes as the plug-flow system (Digester).
Dry digestion is a process that does not use any sort of external liquids to break
down the organic matter. Instead it uses the moisture from the waste to help bacteria
break down the material. Though the name suggests the digestion is dry, the process still
needs water to convert the waste into methane and useable organic matter. The overall
process is pretty basic and very flexible. It is able to handle a number of different types of
waste streams and has less maintenance needs because there is little movement once the
waste is inserted. Special machines are needed as well as bacteria cultures and
leachates. Time is also a factor, needing several weeks to switch from aerobic to
anaerobic digestion after the waste is loaded in to the digester (Waltenberger). Though
there are a number of challenges with dry digestion, the system is the best at working
with a high percentage of solids, needing at least 30% solid waste to work properly
Covered-anaerobic lagoon is the final major form of digester. The basic principle
is to cover the waste and allow it decompose anaerobically underneath to produce
methane (Anaerobic). Lagoons can be placed almost anywhere that gets warm enough to
initiate decomposition. They do not require much more than two holes (one for anaerobic
digestion and the other for secondary waste tank) and a flexible top to cover the
anaerobic digester (Covered). This system is relatively easy to set up and run, but can
only really use liquid-based wastes such as manure.
We chose to start our design based on a plug-flow digester with the intent on
improving the template by hybridizing several complete mix strategies, creating what we
call a Resilient Plug Flow System. There are benefits of each template that would be
beneficial to incorporate into our design, not all are practical or feasible within the time

the group budget. Further research and testing must be done before a final prototype can
be built.
Our primary objective for this project is to determine the ideal anaerobic digester
type which best matches input material. To do this we plan to research all different types
of anaerobic digesters and read as much literature on different testing designs. This will
allow us to make an informed decision about the ideal design under our specific
parameters or combine multiple elements from different designs. We would like to have
the ability to test two different designs, one standard and one innovative. Our final
design will be determined by the results of the testing.
Our second objective is to research materials that we will need to build our
anaerobic digester and determine similar cheap materials for our specific prototype
design. We will look at commonly sold items that will function the same way as our fullscale design. Since each focus group is developing their own materials list, we will focus
on big picture materials that will be used for the primary support and structure for the
design. These materials must function with the desired results and fit in our budget.
Our last objective is to function as an integral part of the design. We hope to give
and receive ideas to each group so that it may enhance our final design. It is critical that
we work together and are able to share our innovative ideas. If these three objectives are
achieved, we believe that we will be one step closer to an innovative design for the
University of Maryland.
Our Initial Hypotheses for this experiment were as follows:
1. If the influent for our anaerobic digester have a high percent total solids, then a
plug flow will be the most effective approach.
2. If we want a resilient design with low maintenance requirements, we must
incorporate complete mix digester design elements.
3. If we want to accurately test how our material choices work, we must select
materials that accurately represent those that we plan to use in the final design.
To meet the objectives of our experiment and test our hypothesis, we planned to design
a digester that could function as both plug flow and as a batch digester. This would give
us insight into the ideal configuration with the given organic type.

Prototype Design:

After realizing that some aspects of our initial design were not practical and would
not fit into our budget, we decided to eliminate them from our experimental design. The
elements that were not included in our final prototype were as follows:
The Influent and Effluent Solid Waste Valve (#3 and # 7): This was not included
because we decided that since we had a cap on, when we opened up the cap we
would only be exposing a small surface area of organics to oxygen. We
concluded that as long as we had a high water level, we could maintain a seal and
this would not affect the rest on the influent.
Backdraft Methane Collector (#4): We decided to move this second collector bag
down to the main chamber due to the large amount of methane that would be
produced there. Without this backdraft collector, we will have a small amount of
methane lost when opening the top valve.
Hand Crank and Grinder (# 6 and #7): This part is what made our design function
as a semi-plug flow system yet due to its difficult nature to build, we did not add
this element. Ultimately, since the influent was much more liquidy than expected,
the grinder was not necessary for the digestion and movement processes.

Final Prototype:

To answer the digester configuration question, we designed our prototype to have

the ability to test methane production as both a batch digester and as a plug flow
digester. To do this, we will first test as a batch digester, adding 7 gallons of influent and
letting it sit for 7 days. The digester will then be then switched to plug flow by slowly
adding and removing influent/effluent and recording methane production. The results
from this will tell us how total methane production rates change depending on the
configuration and type of digester used
Once our digester finally came together, we had little time to load and collect data. We
found that we were able to load about seven gallons of combined food waste and cow
manure (a 50/50 mixture), which we did over a two-day period. The first input of two
gallons (one gallon of food waste and one gallon of manure combined and mixed
together) lead to a large amount of gas collection in the biogas bags, though it is
unknown the amount of air trapped in the digester versus the amount of methane
produced. The one gas collection measured approximately 11,000 cubic centimeters of
gas in the bags and in the main pipe of the digester. This approximation may not be true
to the actual data due to collection error and missteps incurred on this first measurement.
We are looking into two different parameters to compare biogas production in our
digester. As mentioned earlier in the report, our digester can be used as both a batch

digester and a plug-flow digester and we hope to attempt both types of digestion to
include in our results to give the University of Maryland the best report possible of which
digestion systems work well for the wastes created on campus and which creates more
methane per unit of waste. Our second variable is a time retention period parameter to
try to find the number of days is optimal for gas production versus time inside the
digester. To do this, we will attempt two different retention times of 5 days and 10 days
in the digester.
Methane Collection:
Amount in Bag 1 (closer to the corner pipe)

Amount in Bag 2

Collection Day 1 (4/25)

45 syringe pumps (at 140 cc per pump)

39 syringe pumps

Collection Day 2 (4/26)

47 syringe pumps (at 140 cc per pump)

Influent Additions:
Date Influent Added (50% Manure, 50% Food Waste)
4/24 2 gallons
4/25 5 gallons
Effluent characteristics (to be measured at a later date)
Plug Flow


retention retention
The preliminary results were a good first step to see that the digester was both truly
airtight and capable of creating an environment to produce at least some biogas from the
manure/food waste mixture. Though our group does not have much data at the moment,
we hope to have results coming throughout the rest of the week to have strong
recommendations to give on May 5th.
Our first design given earlier in the semester was ambitious in trying to create a system
that would combine two different types of digesters, complete mix and plug-flow, into
one hybrid. Unfortunately, this design was too complex to create due to time and budget

constraints and caused us to change our design several times since. This lack of stability
with our design caused major problems throughout the rest of the semester, leading to
problems in getting the correct parts for the corner construction and actually building the
digester. Our current design though, once constructed, now has the capacity to test both
batch and plug-flow systems. Since the original, answering the question of which
configuration works the best
Since the first collections, there were drastic reductions in gas production. Though we
are not 100% sure on why this drop occurred, we suspect that it happened because of a
drop in temperature during the night. When the temperature in the system gets too cold,
the microbes that break down the waste are not able to function, thus leading to a large
reduction in biogas production. We moved the digester indoors to a lab and hope to see
an increase in biogas creation at room temperatures.
We cannot say if we can recommend the design we have created yet because of lack of
data. We also do not have an estimate on how to scale our digester for UMD use. Once
we are able to collect more samples and run more tests over the next week, we may have
a more competent answer for this recommendation.
For the moment, we would recommend to put the digester in a more stable
temperature that microbes can function in. We may have run into problems with methane
production due to colder weather when allowing the digester to remain outside. More
recommendations may be given once more data comes in.
Team Contributions:
David: I attended all lab and group meetings for this project and worked outside of these
meetings on write-ups and researching design elements. Ultimately, I played an integral
role in designing and assembling our digester, communication between the members of
our group, loading our anaerobic digester, and measuring methane produced.
Andrew: I have also attended all lab meetings in class, and all outside of class. I helped
build the digester outside of class, and even spend $50 of my own money on materials so
we could build and load our system more quickly. I helped write all of the lab reports and
have been responsible for editing and submitting two of them. I have also been
responsible with measuring the methane production of our digester. I estimate between
25 and 30 hours invested into the project so far.
Danny: Ive attended almost all the meetings and Ive actively participated in the
designing and discussion of the construction process. This includes the primary Ive
made myself available whenever possible to participate in the construction of the
digester. I have also made myself available to contribute to data collection.
Approximately 20 hours was spent on this project thus far.

Kevin: I have attended all but one meeting that have occurred while I have been in the
College Park area. I did miss about a week of work because of performing in the
travelling band with the Womens Basketball team. These absences were officially
excused by the University, but I have still tried to make up for the time Ive missed,
staying late during the lab class and coming in to the lab multiple times outside of
class. None of us had a specific task within the group, but we all tried to work together to
get projects done correctly and efficiently. To this report, I contributed the introduction,
results, and discussion portions, but have helped with overall design, loading the digester
and will have helped running tests on the biogas and effluent. Overall, I estimate I spent
about 20 hours in this group.
(Kevin continued) I would like to commend David for being there for every lab and all
but one meeting (which happened when he had to go to work) that occurred throughout
the semester, something no one else in the group can claim and something that should be
taken into account for his part of the group project.
Marcus: (was not added)
"Anaerobic Digesters." Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 11 Feb.
2014. <>.
"Complete Mix Digesters: Technical Details." Http:// RCM
Digesters, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
"Covered Lagoon Digesters: Technical Details." Http:// RCM
Digesters, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014. <>.
"Digester Comparison Study." Public Interest Energy Research,
May 2003. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
Waltenberger, R., and R. Kirchmayr. "Wet and Dry Anaerobic Digestion Processes."
Http:// Valorgas, 14 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
"What Is Anaerobic Digestion?" American Biogas
Council, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
Wright, Peter, and Scott Inglis. "Plug Flow Digesters." The Environmental
Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.