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History of biogas technologies

Isolated cases of using primitive biogas technologies were documented in China, India, Assyria and Persia beginning from XVII B.C. However, systematic scientific research of biogas has started only in XVIII century, after almost 3,5 thousand years.

Figure 3. Simple Chinese plant.
Source: U. Kalmykova, A. German, V. Zirkov
«Biogas project», Karaganda ecological museum, 2005.
In 1764 Benjamin Franklin in his letter to Josef Priestly describes an experiment during which he managed to light up the surface of a small wetland lake in New Jersey, USA.
The first scientific substantiation of flammable gas generation in wetland and lake sediments was given by Alexander Volta in 1776 by ascertaining the presence of methane in marsh gas. After discovery of chemical formula of methane in 1804 by Dalton, European scientists have made first steps in investigating the practical application of biogas. [23].
Russian scientists have also added to research on biogas generation. Popov in 1875 has investigated the influence of temperature on the quantity of generated gas. He has discovered that river sediments start to produce biogas at a temperature of around 6°С. With increase in temperature up to 50°С the volume of generated gas has increased significantly without change in content – 65% of methane, 30% of carbon dioxide, 1% of hydrogen sulfide and small volume of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon protoxide. V.L. Omeljansky has conducted a detailed research of anaerobic fermentation and bacteria involved in this process. [19].
Soon after this, in 1881, European scientists have started experiments on using biogas for heating premises and street lighting. From 1895, all street lamps in one part of Exeter city have been fuelled by biogas generated from fermentation of sewage water and collected in closed vessels [23]. Two years later there was an announcement of biogas production in Bombay where gas was collected and used as a fuel in different engines.
In the beginning of XX century research in the field of increasing biogas production by increasing digestion temperature was continued. German scientists Imhoff and Blank in 1914-1921 have patented a number of innovations that have consisted of introducing permanent heating of digesters. During the First World War biogas plants have stated to be distributed in Europe in connection with fuel deficit. Farms with biogas plants have enjoyed more favorable conditions in spite of design deficiencies of biogas plants used at that time and practice of non-optimal digestion regimes.
One of the most important scientific breakthroughs in the history of development of biogas technologies was made by Boswell and consisted of combining different types of organic waste with manure as substrate in 1930s [23].
The first big scale biogas plant was built in 1911 in Birmingham, England and was used for decontamination of sewage water sediments of the city. Biogas was used for electricity production. Therefore, English scientists pioneered practical implementation of this technology. Already to 1920s they have developed several designs of biogas plants for fermentation of sewage water. The first biogas plant for solid waste fermentation with digester volume of 10 m3 was developed by Issman and Duselier and built in Algeria in 1938[19].
During the Second World War real energy deficit experienced by all European countries and Germany and France have put an emphasis on producing biogas from agricultural waste, mainly from manure. As a result in the middle 1940s in France there were around 2 thousand biogas plants. Naturally, this experience has spread to neighboring countries. Biogas plants were common in Hungary and Soviet solders that have liberated Hungary from German occupation have noted the surprising fact that on Hungarian farms manure was not stored in heaps, but loaded into closed vessels, from which flammable gas was received [19].
However, European biogas plants have lost competition to cheap energy (liquid fuel, natural gas, electricity) during the afterwar years and were dismantled. A new impulse to development of biogas technologies was received during the oil crisis in 1970s when biogas plants have started to be introduced in south Asian countries. High population density, intensive exploitation of all available soils for growing crops and warm climate necessary for using the simplest biogas plant designs without heating have created a base for introducing several national and international programs on implementing biogas technologies.
Today biogas technologies have become the standard for purification of sewage water and utilization of agricultural and solid waste and are used in majority of the world’s countries.

Developed countries

Figure 4. Industrial biogas plant in Denmark
Source: «Biomass Energy Systems»,
ACRE, the Australian CRS for Renewable Energy Ltd,
In most developed countries utilization of organic waste in biogas plants is used mainly for heat and electricity production. Energy produced in this manner constitutes around 3-4% from all energy consumed in European countries. In Finland, Sweden and Austria which encourage using biomass energy on a state level the share of biomass energy reaches up to 15-20% from all consumed energy [24].
The use of electricity and heat produced through anaerobic digestion of biomass is concentrated mainly in Austria, Germany, Denmark and Great Britain. At the moment in Germany there are more than 2000 big biogas plants. The number of plants with digester volumes more than 2000 m3 each in Austria is more than 120 and around 25 plants are at a stage of planning and construction [7].
Highly developed market for biogas technologies can be found in fields of utilization of municipal sewage waste, purification of industrial wastewater and utilization of agricultural waste. In Sweden 50% of necessary heat energy is generated from biomass. In England, homeland of the first industrial biogas plant, agriculture energy needs are fully covered by biogas from the beginning of the 1990s. London has one of the world’s biggest complexes for utilization of domestic sewage waters.
In the 1930s European experience was transferred to USA. Biogas plant digesting agricultural waste was built in 1939 and has successfully functioned for more than 30 years. In 1954 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, USA the first industrial plant for utilization of communal wastes was built. Biogas was used in internal combustion engine for producing electricity with electro generator capacity of 175 kW. Today in the USA there are several hundreds of biogas plants, utilizing agricultural waste and thousands, utilizing sewage waste [19]. Biogas is used manly for generating electricity and heating houses and greenhouses.
Increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, increase in water consumption and pollution, decrease in soil fertility, ineffective waste utilization and growing problems with deforestation are a part of unsustainable resources utilization all over the world. Biogas technology is an important component in the chain of measures for fighting the abovementioned problems. Forecast of biomass energy input as an renewable energy source in the world counts on reaching 23,8% from overall energy consumption to 2040, and in 2010 EU countries plan to increase the share of biomass energy use up to 12%.

Developing countries
The share of biomass energy in developing countries constitutes around 30-40% from all consumed energy and in some countries (mainly in Africa) it reaches 90% [24].
In developing countries small biogas plants are used for production of energy and heat. Around 16 million households around the world use biogas energy for lighting, heating and cooking. This number includes 12 million households in China, 3,7 million households in India and 140 thousand households in Nepal [25].
The history of modern wide dissemination of biogas plants in China has started more than 50 years ago. First biogas plants have been built in the 1940s by wealthy families. From the beginning of the 70s research work and biogas technologies have seriously supported by Chinese government.
In rural areas of China at the moment more than 50 million people are using biogas as a fuel. Typical biogas plant has digester volume of around 6-8 m3, and produces around 300 m3 biogas per year, operating for 3 to 8 month per year, and costs around $200–250 depending on the province. Most of the plants are very simple and after some training farmers built and use them independently. From 2002 Chinese government provides around 200 million US dollars yearly for supporting construction of biogas plants. Donation for each plant amounts approximately to 50% of the average cost. In this way, the government has achieved growth of biogas plant number up to 1 million per year [24]. There are also several thousand industrial biogas plants in China and there are plans to increase their number.

Figure 5. Balloon plant in Coat d’Ivoire.
Source: AT Information: Biogas,
GTZ (ISAT), Eshborn, Deutschland, 1996.

In India the development of simple biogas plants for rural households has begun in the 50s, although already in 1859 in Bombay the first biogas plant was built on the base of leper colony for digestion of solid and liquid waste. [19].
There was a big increase of number of biogas plants supported by the government in 1970s and today there are around 3,7 million of them operating in India. Ministry of untraditional energy sources has supported dissemination of biogas plants from the 1980 and has provided subsidies and financing for construction and operation of biogas plants, farmer training, opening and work of service centers.
In Nepal the biogas technology support program provides technical expertise, financing and construction services for household biogas plants with digester volumes of 4-20 m3. Especially popular are plants with digester volume of 6 m3. Apart from energy and fertilizer production it has been noted that woman labor load in Nepal was decreased through decrease in time of gathering firewood and that increase of yearly savings from substituting 25 liters of kerosene and using biogas for heating instead of buying around 3 tons of firewood and coal.
During realization of biogas implementation program in Nepal around 60 private enterprises that manufacture biogas plants have been established and around 100 micro financing organizations have provided financing for their construction. Quality standards for biogas plants have been developed and special organizations responsible for developing of biogas plant market have been established [24].
Gas and heat production in biogas plants is a growing market in many developing countries. In Philippines biogas plants produce gas for motors that grid rice and irrigate lands from the 1980s. The investment in biogas plants by small private enterprises in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka (for example in textile industry, for drying up spices, bricks, rubber) has been compensated within less that 1 season.
Usage of biogas technologies for utilization of sewage waste is widely used in Asia (especially in India), and Latin America. Agricultural biogas plants have been widely implemented in developing countries and are used for energy, heat and fertilizer production and solution of water pollution problems.

USSR, CIS and Kyrgyzstan
In the USSR scientific foundations of methane fermentation have been investigated from the beginning of the 1940s. During the existence of the USSR theoretical research was conducted by Institutes of Science Academies and practical experiments have been carried out in Academy of Municipal Economy named after Panfilov as well as other Research and Project institutes of agricultural direction, such as: Union Institute of Agricultural Electrification (UIAE), Ukraine Science, Research and Project Institute of Agroindustrial Complex [19].

Figure 6. Plant in «BEKPR» Llc.
Photo: Vedenev A.G., PF «Fluid»
Application of methane fermentation technology to agricultural wastes in the USSR was initiated by G.D. Ananiashvili in 1948 in Tbilisi brunch of UIAE, later renamed into Georgian Science and Research Institute of Mechanization and Electrification of Agricultural Economy (GIME). There during 1948-1954 the first USSR laboratory and bioenergy production plant have been developed and manufactured. Industrial version of the plant has been calculated to digest the manure of 10 cows. Digestion has been carried out at mesophilic temperatures (32 – 34°C) and has yielded 1 m3 of biogas per 1 m3 of digester volume. Based on this experience an article was published in popular periodical edition («Young Technician», 1959 № 6) – one of the first publications to popularize biogas technology that contained recommendations for implementation of a biogas plant in private households. However, the technology has not been widely disseminated due to cheapness of other energy and absence of large cattle farms.
In the middle of the 1970s, during the first energy crisis, USSR government has decided to implement a policy of energy saving. Moreover, agriculture has started to use intensive technologies of cattle breeding and there was already a large number of big cattle breeding farms that have faced the immediate problem of manure utilization. In connection with this the interest in biogas technologies has grown and in 1981 a special section for developing Programme for biogas industry was formed by the State Committee on Science and Technology of the USSR. Suggestions on developing biogas technology have been included in control documents of the USSR but have not been appropriately funded and provided with material resources and therefore many of the planned measures have not been carried out.
Nevertheless, the period from the 70s up to beginning of the 90s can not be evaluated as useless – during this period several experimental biogas plants have been constructed, one of which was located on state farm “Ogre” in Latvian USR (1982, 75 m3) [19].
The largest centre for development of designs of Soviet biogas plants and other equipment for agricultural use was in Zaporozje Technological Design Institute of Agricultural Machinery (TDIAM). Data, collected by the scientists has become the base for creation of several laboratory and experimental pants, only one of which was, however, passed for state validation –KOBOS-1 design.
Plant KOBOS-1 has successfully passed trials based on the experimental milk farm and was approved for serial production in the factory in Shumiha city in Kurgan region (North Ural). Plants were built under the Programme of Development of Anaerobic Digestion Technology as a version for middle-sized cattle farms – milk farms with 400 milk cows or middle-sized pig farms with 4000 pigs. Factory has manufactured 10 sets of plants but after the break up of the Soviet Union the financing has been cut off.
From all 10 plants 3 have been distributed to Ukraine and Byelorussia, 5 – sent to Central Asia (two of which to Kyrgyzstan) and two – to Russia. However, only one of plants has been installed and operated – the one on the big cattle farm in Kamenetsk rayon of Brest oblast in Byelorussia. The plant digests 50 m3 of manure and produces 400-500 m3 of biogas per day.
One of the plants distributed to Kyrgyzstan was reequipped y PF “Fluid” for use in pig farm of “BEKPR” Llc, sized for 4000 pigs in Lebedinovka village of Chui oblast in 2003, the other one is used as a lodgment in private household of Osh oblast.
Today the interest in receiving energy and fertilizer through digestion of agricultural waste in CIS countries has substantially grown. This has been caused by high energy and fertilizer prices, as well as degradation of environment. However, because of the low awareness of farmers about the practical ways of implementation of biogas technologies and high construction costs of biogas plants, overall number of plants in the CIS countries does not exceed several hundreds.
During the work on this manual specialists of PF “Fluid” have conducted inspection of more than 50 biogas plants on the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic. Analysis of the inspection results shows that for successful implementation of plants in most cases serious design revisions and provision of maintenance services as well as training of farmers regarding the rules and safety precautions of biogas plant operation are necessary.