Anaerobic digestion: Unlocking sustainability and renewable energy potential


The ability of anaerobic digestion to convert organic waste into renewable energy has garnered attention, but its impact goes beyond energy generation. This article explores how AD impacts sustainability, including its role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution prevention, advancements in digesting wood waste, as well as the versatile applications of biogas.

Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions

Organic waste that decomposes in landfills produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. By diverting organic waste to AD facilities, methane emissions are significantly reduced.

Capturing and utilising the methane produced during the AD process prevents it from being released into the atmosphere. Methane capture not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but also harnesses the energy potential of biogas for various applications, including electricity generation, heat production, and as a vehicle fuel.

In addition to methane, AD also mitigates the production of nitrous oxide (N2O), another potent greenhouse gas. When organic waste decomposes under aerobic conditions, it can lead to the release of N2O, particularly in the case of nitrogen-rich waste, such as sewage sludge. AD, which operates in an oxygen-free environment, prevents the formation and release of N2O, reducing the overall greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste treatment. The proximity of AD facilities to the source of feedstocks offers an additional advantage by minimising the emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulphur oxide (SOx) gases. By locating anaerobic digestion facilities near the feedstock origin, the levels of N2O and SOx emissions are further diminished, contributing to a cleaner and more sustainable operation.

The cumulative effect of these mechanisms demonstrates the significant contribution of AD technology in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By effectively capturing methane, diverting organic waste from landfills, enhancing carbon sequestration, reducing fossil fuel consumption, and avoiding N2O emissions, anaerobic digestion technology plays a vital role in mitigating climate change and promoting a more sustainable environment.

Promoting circular economy and waste diversion

AD technologies embody the principles of the circular economy by creating a closed-loop waste management system. AD facilities provide an efficient and sustainable alternative to traditional waste disposal methods, such as landfilling or incineration.

By converting organic waste into valuable resources, AD facilities promote waste diversion, reducing the burden on landfills and incinerators. The residue left after the digestion process can be used as a natural soil amendment, completing the nutrient cycle.

Preventing water pollution

AD facilities deal with a substantial amount of organic material, which often retains a certain level of liquidity. If not handled properly, this organic liquid waste can pose significant challenges and contribute to water pollution. Therefore, proper management and treatment of the liquid byproducts from AD facilities are crucial to prevent any potential contamination of water bodies. Implementing effective separation and treatment techniques ensures that the liquid waste is processed responsibly, reducing the risk of water pollution and supporting overall sustainability efforts.

AD plays a crucial role in preventing runoff into watersheds by effectively managing organic waste and reducing the risk of water pollution. By expanding anaerobic digestion facilities, communities can emphasize their commitment to reducing water pollution, as these facilities help prevent harmful substances from entering the watershed and contaminating local water sources. The implementation of AD technologies contributes to safeguarding the ecological integrity of watersheds, ensuring a cleaner and healthier environment for surrounding communities.

Advancements in wood waste digestion

One recent breakthrough in AD technology revolves around the ability to digest wood waste. Wood, with its rigid and tough cell walls presents a challenge for traditional AD processes.

The microorganisms responsible for the digestion process, known as “bugs,” struggle to break down these cell walls effectively.

However, recent advancements have overcome this hurdle by introducing pre-treatment techniques that facilitate the breakdown of wood waste. These innovations enable AD facilities to extract energy from wood waste, further expanding the range of organic materials that can be effectively utilized in the digestion process.

Versatile applications of biogas

Biogas, the primary byproduct of AD, consists primarily of methane and carbon dioxide. The most popular and practical application of biogas currently is to clean it up, convert it to pipeline quality, and inject it into the natural gas pipeline, where it can be sold as renewable natural gas (RNG).

This approach not only reduces reliance on fossil fuels but also supports the transition to a more renewable energy mix. However, the potential uses of biogas extend beyond RNG. The versatility of biogas allows for its conversion into various consumable energy products, bypassing the need to support natural gas infrastructure. This flexibility aligns with the goal of achieving more complete consumption profiles across society, thereby facilitating a greater reliance on renewable energy sources.

Biogas is also versatile. Biogas holds the potential to be converted into green hydrogen, a clean and renewable energy source. Through a process called biogas reforming, the methane content in biogas can be separated and transformed into hydrogen gas, which has various applications in fuel cells and clean energy systems. This conversion process not only maximizes the energy value of biogas but also provides a sustainable pathway to produce green hydrogen.

Overcoming challenges and embracing sustainability

While the potential of AD is significant, certain challenges need to be addressed to fully realise its impact. Regulatory barriers and complex frameworks can hinder the growth and operational efficiency of AD facilities.

Streamlining regulations, providing consistent policies, and ensuring sufficient financial support from governments and policymakers are essential steps to foster the growth of the AD industry. These actions would enable AD companies to plan and make long-term investments, creating a favorable environment for sustainable practices.

AD technology represents a significant step towards achieving sustainability and renewable energy goals. Its impact extends beyond renewable energy generation, encompassing waste management, water pollution prevention, and the versatile applications of biogas.

The ability to digest wood waste demonstrates the continuous advancements in AD technology, expanding the range of organic materials that can be effectively processed. By embracing anaerobic digestion and overcoming regulatory and policy challenges, we can unlock its full potential, paving the way for a cleaner and more sustainable future. Through collective efforts, governments, industries, and communities can support the growth of AD facilities and contribute to a more environmentally friendly and resilient society.

By actively engaging in the material supply for anaerobic digestion facilities, organizations can receive comprehensive reports showcasing their direct impact on reducing their Scope 3 and 4 emissions. These reports not only highlight their contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, but also provide valuable insights into their progress in achieving decarbonization objectives. This transparency and alignment with sustainability targets empowers organizations to make informed decisions.

Author: McClain Porter, Chief Commercial Officer at Bioenergy Devco

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

This content is protected by copyright and may not be reused. If you want to cooperate with us and would like to reuse some of our content, please contact: