When R&D Meets AD
The questions of technology-readiness and de-risking of research were to the fore at the recent ADBA R&D Forum in Guisborough. The meeting attracted a broad range of speakers to the research agenda, covering an even broader range of research intended to inform and benefit the UK anaerobic digestion industry. There were only a small number of AD plant operators present, and their focus was immediate business efficiency more than process efficiency. So, "lower gate fees for feedstock would be good". Yet other plants are running so reliably well that there is little or no need to improve.
The research fell into three areas:
A number of strategies were outlined to improve biogas production during digestion, stemming from deeper understanding of the complex biology and chemistry of AD, and all showing degrees of success at bench and pilot scale. The site visit to CPI’s AD facility at Wilton served as reminder of the need to test robustness of innovative processes at scale.
Other talks focussed on opportunities for underexploited feedstocks (in UK terms) such as algae, purpose-grown energy crops, and perennial mixes for niche sites. An underlying theme was the acknowledgement that AD performs better with a balanced mixed feedstock, and that use of other feedstocks might help get even more biogas from existing feedstocks.
Lastly, a couple of presentations and discussions centred on extracting more commercial value from AD products. For example, by identifying more value for digestate, and/or by upgrading biogas for use as a transport fuel.
The feeling at the meeting was that the research is relevant and interesting, but that industry won’t be interested in innovating (turning knowledge into money) until the ideas are proven at scale and de-risked. It will be interesting to see which ideas make it to market through the various technical and commercial challenges. This type of meeting, letting researchers and commercial operators meet and share insight is a key step in that process.
Another theme that caught the attention was the focus on microAD. So, examples from central London of local AD with digesters in the 1m3 to 20m3 volume range, and another offering an AD toilet solution for UK festivals and less-developed global regions. As well as the opportunity in densely populated London where space is at a premium, might microscale AD have a role in rural areas where transport distance is a barrier to accumulation of feedstocks for larger scale plants?