In this age of concern over global warming, wild swings in petroleum prices, and market uncertainty over fossil fuel supplies, biogas offers a renewable alternative that does not add to atmospheric carbon dioxide. Biogas is made through the biological breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. It can be produced from waste materials such as manure, sewage, municipal waste and energy crops.
But most biogas digesters in operation today are far less efficient than they could be. The problem is that the bacteria cultivated to break down organic material are highly sensitive to stress. If the digester is fed too fast, the bacteria can quickly overpopulate their controlled environment and then suddenly die off. To avoid expensive production interruptions, biogas plant operators generally maintain a digestion rate well under the theoretical threshold.
Bioprocess Control, a small engineering firm based in the southern Swedish university town of Lund, offers products and services designed to let biogas digesters increase throughput safely. The company’s flagship product, Biogas Optimizer, is a diagnostic and supervisory tool with support for continual on-line monitoring and data mining. For the first time, operators can “see inside” the digester as it works, protecting the biogas process from overload while allowing the maximum utilisation of digester capacity.
Sensors installed throughout the system monitor key indicators as the organic material is converted to gas, including pH, temperature, and the flow and chemical composition of the product gas itself. Specialised computer algorithms developed by Bioprocess Control analyse these results in real time, providing precise recommendations for how much material can be fed through.
“Biogas digesters have always been black boxes for the operator,” says Kristofer Cook, the Canadian-born co-founder and CEO of Bioprocess Control. “We open up the box.”
Cook says Biogas Optimizer improves output by 10% to 40% in most cases, and up to 200% under the right conditions. “The results vary a lot from plant to plant, but our experience shows that virtually all plants show improvement and a rapid return on investment,” he explains.
Just a few months past the third anniversary of its founding, Bioprocess Control is only now moving past the start-up phase, with a full-scale pilot project completed in 2008 with Svensk Biogas in Norrköping and three additional pre-studies with E.ON Gas and other clients. But while the company aims to gain a first foothold in its home market, it’s looking abroad for the largest growth opportunities. “Germany and China are our first big targets”, says Cook. The company opened its first foreign office in Beijing in October 2008, at the same time it signed its first partner agreement in China with Anyang Lipp Silo Engineering Co. Ltd. The Chinese company is involved in a joint venture with Lipp Gmbh of Germany to develop biogas plants in China.
“China will experience explosive growth in the biogas industry in the coming 15-20 years”, Cook predicts.
Bioprocess Control won Sweden’s Environmental Innovation Award (Miljöinnovationspriset) in 2008, receiving praise in the citation for its groundbreaking technology, global ambitions, and potential for profitable environmental advancement. And the company has assembled a long list of other prizes and nominations (see sidebar).
According to Cook, although there are other approach to optimisation, there are not yet any direct competitors for his company’s process control technology. He believes the biogas industry’s challenges lie in gaining market acceptance for biogas, which competes with relatively well-established ethanol fuels that have strong lobbies in many countries among corn and sugar cane growers.
Article published in June 2009