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Anaerobic Digestion: gaining value from waste

Human waste is a fact of life - and more efficient, less carbon-heavy solutions for its safe, effective treatment become more pressing as populations grow.

Anaerobic Digestion: gaining value from waste

The challenge 

Human waste is a fact of life - and more efficient, less carbon-heavy solutions for its safe, effective treatment become more pressing as populations grow. 

For years, the water industry has used anaerobic digestion (AD) - a process where microbes break down biodegradable materials in the absence of oxygen - to convert sewage sludge into agricultural fertiliser and biogas to generate heat and green energy.

A major challenge is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the AD process to help sewage infrastructure keep pace with the increasing volumes of waste water flowing through sewage systems. 

AD is also playing an important role in reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture by converting animal waste and crop residues to energy and high value compounds.  

It is also the UK government's preferred method for capturing resources from food waste, which will be collected separately from other household waste by 2023, further reducing landfill and greenhouse gas emissions. 

The BioVale team at York’s Biorenewables Development Centre has been promoting AD through their special interest group which advises members on best practice and current research, builds connectivity between stakeholders and supports innovation. 

The research

The System-60 Project, led by Professor James Chong at the University of York, aims to boost AD performance by improving our understanding of the performance of the AD processes.

Launched in 2016 by Yorkshire Water, the Royal Society and researchers from the University, this pioneering project uses a set of 60 five-litre automatically-fed, temperature controlled anaerobic digesters housed in the University’s Department of Biology to examine the microbial communities that drive AD.  Results from this analysis can be applied to improve AD performance and produce different and higher value products from waste. 

A pilot-scale AD rig at Yorkshire Water’s nearby wastewater treatment works at Naburn validates the science developed in the laboratories with the aim of supporting operational changes across Yorkshire Water’s digester facilities.

The project builds on Professor Chong’s research expertise in anaerobic microbes, some of the first forms of life to inhabit our planet, and a key component in the anaerobic digestion process. 

The potential

Further investment from Yorkshire Water and the University has helped develop System-60 infrastructure further by establishing the University’s Centre of Excellence for Anaerobic Digestion (CEAD).

Since 2016, BioVale's AD Special Interest Group has promoted new AD-related technologies and encouraged networking with 430 members and has catalysed 45 projects following over 350 individual introductions.  

These projects have the potential to transform AD performance, strengthening the University's bio/circular economy research portfolio, and contributing to the region’s aspiration to become carbon neutral. 

Professor Chong said: “The water industry has recognised that what ends up in the sewer is a bioresource. Yorkshire Water has demonstrated a long-term vision in the potential of AD by investing in these facilities and by providing us with exceptional access to their AD operations.”

Featured researcher

James Chong

Professor Chong is a molecular biologist using methanogens to understand anaerobic digestion.

Find out more about Professor Chong’s research in this YorkTalks presentation Energy down the drain: how microbial communities can aid us in turning wastewater into low carbon energy

Watch this film Yorkshire Water and University of York work together on UK-first energy project

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