Whether you simply want to improve the efficiency of your digester by using more waste heat from your CHP, or whether your plant is ready for a major upgrade, a wide range of heat exchangers and dedicated AD systems can help boost the energy efficiency of your plant.
By Matt Hale

The U.S. has more than 2,200 operational anerobic digestion (AD) plants.1 However, a number of these plants have failed to perform in line with original predictions, leaving some operators and investors frustrated and disillusioned. However, there is scope to turn these plants into exemplars of biogas production.

Some of these plants are now approaching their 20th birthday, meaning that many major items are now due for servicing or replacement. Also, due to the difficulties involved, many digester tanks are not cleaned as frequently as they should be and any accumulation of inorganic material (such as grit and plastic) will severely limit digestion potential, as well as the operation of internal tank heating or mixing systems.

The HRS Digestate Concentration System (DCS) can help to reduce ammonia emissions associated with digestate.
Images courtesy of HRS Heat Exchangers.

Anaerobic digestion involves a complex mixture of biological, chemical, and mechanical processes—biogas plants are often compared to cow’s stomachs—and as such it is not surprising that problems can occur. Given that many plants are constructed by several different specialist suppliers (tank suppliers, control system engineers, CHP manufacturers, agricultural engineers, etc.), it is a testament to their developers and project managers that many plants work perfectly well. It is also important to remember that each plant is designed to a specific brief; for example, to process energy crop feedstocks. Over time, diversification and a desire to capitalize on new markets may have resulted in changes to the way AD plants are managed, but if you are now processing food waste in a plant built for cattle slurry and maize, you may well be forcing the equipment to do something that it was not designed for.

That said, expansion and modification of an AD plant can be beneficial in many ways, from increasing the range of feedstocks processed, to improving digestate management and increasing efficiency. It is important when undertaking such projects that expert advice is sought at all stages and that the integrity of the original plant is not compromised.

With so many potential areas for issues to occur, the first step in improving underperforming plants is often a forensic examination of the complete process, including reverse-engineering individual elements and inspecting all parts for cleanliness, wear and tear, and general suitability.

HRS DTI Series heat exchangers are a highly efficient form of digester heating.

External Tank Heating
Many older AD plants were built with internal heating elements in the digestion tanks, but there are disadvantages to such an approach. Digestion tanks are an extremely harsh operating environment and often result in premature failure of heating pipes and other equipment. Also, as already discussed, emptying digestion tanks is a time consuming and expensive process, meaning that equipment, such as heating elements, is often not serviced as regularly as it might be, or that routine maintenance is not carried out. Also, when internal heating systems do fail, there is no alternative to draining the tank, making repairs, or servicing, much more expensive, both in terms of time and labor, but also lost production capacity.

The solution is to replace internal heating systems with external ones. Using a system based on heat exchangers takes cooler material as it enters the tank (or from the tank) and heats it using a source such as the CHP engine hot water loop, before passing the warmed product back into the tank. Not only does this make maintenance of the heating system much easier, but because the heat exchanger can be designed to minimize fouling of the tubes by the digestion material using corrugated tubes, heat transfer is also greatly improved, making the heating process more efficient. Where waste heat from a different part of the process (for example from the CHP engine) is used for digester heating, the energy efficiency is further increased.


The HRS Digestate Pasteurization System offers energy savings of up to 70 percent compared with other systems.

Drying the Biogas
The biogas produced by AD plants is a mixture of compounds (of which methane is the most important), including water vapor. If water enters a CHP engine it can decrease its efficiency and lead to corrosion, resulting in reduced biogas yields and engine damage. Removing the water also removes a proportion of water-soluble gases such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and siloxanes. It can also increase the life of filters and less water in the engine’s fuel means less contamination of lubricating oil.

While some AD plants include condensate traps and ‘air conditioning’ type chillers, they often fail to remove sufficient water from the biogas mixture. In contrast, a Dehumidification System is specifically designed to remove the maximum amount of water vapor using the minimum amount of additional energy. Rather than heating the biogas to dry it, it uses condensation to remove water from the gas and includes a heat recovery section to further increase overall plant energy efficiency.

By reducing biogas temperatures from around 40 °C to approximately 5-7 °C, more than 90 percent of the water volume is condensed out of the gas. A chiller system supplies coolant, which is transferred to heat exchangers: biogas flows on the product side of the exchanger, while the coolant flows on the service side. As the biogas cools, the water condenses from the gas, leaving a clean and dry biogas, ideal for use in CHP engines. The heat recovery element means that the cold biogas is used to pre-cool any incoming biogas before entering the CHP. This reduces the load on the final cooling heat exchanger and recovers as much as 20 percent of the energy needed for the process.

The HRS Biogas Dehumidification System (BDS) can extend the operational life of equipment and improve plant efficiency.

Increasing the Value of Digestate
Digestate represents a valuable income stream for many AD plants, but for its value as a renewable, environmentally friendly fertilizer and soil condition to be realized, digestate must be suitably treated and handled. Above all, digestate must be viewed as a product rather than a waste stream.

If you are processing mixed food waste or other materials, pasteurization may be required. Even where only energy crops and/or manures are used as feedstock, pasteurization is seen by many as an important process to prevent the spread of plant diseases where digestate is used as a fertilizer.

Pasteurization can be an energy intensive process, so it is important that it is performed in the most cost-effective way. A Digestate Pasteurization System (DPS) is commonly based on the three-tank system, so that while one tank is being filled, the second tank holds the digestate above 70°C, and at the same time as the third tank is being emptied. However, two tank systems are also available for smaller units.

In contrast, traditional systems heat the digestate in a tank using a heating jacket and then dump the heat afterwards. The DPS employs energy recovery and is typically two- to three-times more efficient. Once the digestate has been treated, the system works in reverse, transferring the heat energy from the hot digestate to the water, and heating the incoming digestate. By transferring energy from the
hotter (pasteurized) digestate to the colder (unpasteurized) digestate, energy consumption is reduced by up to 70 percent, maximizing heat that would have otherwise been wasted.

As well as pasteurization, the nutrient content of digestate can be increased, and the storage and transport requirements reduced, by using a concentration method. In addition, preventing potential ammonia emissions from digestate and AD is increasingly seen as essential to enabling a sustainable biogas industry while also meeting climate change targets. Using a Digestate Concentration System (DCS) can deliver all of these benefits.

A DCS uses evaporation to reduce the overall quantity of digestate by 60 to 80 percent, greatly reducing associated storage requirements and transport costs. The system includes measures to retain the valuable nutrients in the digestate and reduce ammonia emissions, while the evaporated water can be condensed and reused. In many cases, the captured water is added back to the feedstock as it enters the digester, making the entire process almost self-sufficient in terms of water use and eliminating liquid discharges from the plant. After concentration, the treated digestate can contain up to 20 percent dry solids, making it much easier to transport and handle. As with pasteurizers, as much heat as possible is recaptured and re-used in the process.

Efficiency Solutions for All Scales
Whether you simply want to improve the efficiency of your digester by using more waste heat from your CHP, or whether your plant is ready for a major upgrade, a wide range of heat exchangers and dedicated AD systems can help boost the energy efficiency of your plant. These systems can help you cut your energy bills, increase the life of your equipment, and even help to deal with challenges, such as reducing ammonia emissions from digestate. | WA

Matt Hale is International Sales and Marketing Director for HRS Heat Exchangers (Atlanta, GA), part of the HRS Group, which operates at the forefront of thermal technology, offering innovative heat transfer solutions worldwide across a diverse range of industries. With 40 years of experience in the anaerobic digestion and biogas sectors, specializing in the design and manufacture of an extensive range of turnkey systems and components, incorporating their corrugated tubular, and scraped surface heat exchanger technology, HRS units are compliant with global design and industry standards. HRS has a network of offices throughout the world: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, Spain, USA, Malaysia, and India, with manufacturing plants in the UK, India, Spain, and Canada. For more information, call (770) 726 3540, e-mail i[email protected], or visit www.hrs-heatexchangers.com.

1. https://americanbiogascouncil.org/biogas-market-snapshot/