18. What is anaerobic digestion?

Anaerobic digestion is a series of processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen, used for industrial or domestic purposes to manage waste and/or to release energy.

It is widely used as part of the process to treat wastewater. As part of an integrated waste management system, anaerobic digestion reduces the emission of landfill gas into the atmosphere.

A typical anaerobic digestion system usually has the following components:

Anaerobic digestion is widely used as a renewable energy source because the process produces a methane and carbon dioxide rich biogas suitable for energy production, helping to replace fossil fuels. The nutrient-rich digestate which is also produced can be used as fertilizer.

The digestion process begins with bacterial hydrolysis of the input materials in order to break down insoluble organic polymers such as carbohydrates and make them available for other bacteria. Acidogenic bacteria then convert the sugars and amino acids into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, and organic acids. Acetogenic bacteria then convert these resulting organic acids into acetic acid, along with additional ammonia, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide. Finally, methanogens convert these products to methane and carbon dioxide.

The technical expertise required to maintain industrial scale anaerobic digesters coupled with high capital costs and low process efficiencies had limited the level of its industrial application as a waste treatment technology. Anaerobic digestion facilities have, however, been recognized by the United Nations Development Programme as one of the most useful decentralized sources of energy supply, as they are less capital intensive than large power plants.