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Next generation biogas

Full speed ahead with biogas: biogas experts at the University of Hohenheim believe that up to 50 per cent more energy can be achieved per hectare of cultivated energy crops. The researchers are hoping that Germany’s first biogas research plant will provide them with important insights into efficient energy production. The plant went on line on the 19th July 2008 in the city of Eningen (administrative district of Reutlingen).

Scientific investigations are being carried out to determine the best possible mixture of manure and new energy crops. New high-tech methods have been developed in order to increase the biogas yield by up to 50 per cent. The ecological balance of the cutting-edge power plant is quite good: the generated gas operates a block heat and power plant and will eventually be used to produce energy for cars and, upon purification and processing, come to replace natural gas. Electrical energy will be fed into the power supply system, the waste heat will be used to heat university buildings and the residual materials will be used as a new designer fuel to replace old oil heating systems. Being the core of the bioenergy research platform, the plant serves as a focal point for all bioenergy research activities in Baden-Württemberg. The estimated construction costs amount to about 2.5 million euros, of which two thirds are covered by the University of Hohenheim through endowments and sponsorship, especially from the energy companies EnBW and Fair Energy. The first projects will be financed by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Nutrition and Rural Areas as part of the Zukunftsoffensive IV funding programme.
Let’s go! State Secretary Friedelinde Gurr-Hirsch, Rector Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Liebig (left) and District Administrator Thomas Reumann (right) jointly pressing the start button for the biogas research plant. (Photo: University of Hohenheim)
Let’s go! State Secretary Friedelinde Gurr-Hirsch, Rector Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Liebig (left) and District Administrator Thomas Reumann (right) jointly pressing the start button for the biogas research plant. (Photo: University of Hohenheim)
Fossil fuels are finite - so is the area used to feed the world’s population. The discussion about energy has to deal with this dilemma as energy plants and food compete for the same cultivation areas.

“The resolution of food and energy problems is only possible if all of us work together,” said the rector of Hohenheim University, Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Liebig, summarising the global problem. “With our research priorities, “Securing global nutrition” and “Bioenergy”, the University of Hohenheim is working on topics associated with both food and energy supply. With Germany’s first biogas research plant, we are taking an important step towards reducing the competition between food and energy supply.”

New dimensions for biogas research

Germany’s first biogas pilot plant is setting new standards in biogas research: two aerobic fermenters and a third down-stream anaerobic fermenter with volumes of 923 m³ are able to ferment 7,300 kg of liquid manure, 3,500 kg solid waste and 5,600 kg of renewable resources such as silage corn, forage rye and grass per day. The methane produced then operates a block heat and power plant with an electrical power output of 190 kW and a thermal power output of 220 kW.

But this is only the beginning: “Although the technology used to produce biogas has already reached a certain level, there is still great potential for improvement,” said Prof. Dr. Thomas Jungbluth from the Institute of Agricultural Technology and Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences. The scientists hope for great developments by focusing on the following aspects:
Model of the biogas research station (Photo: University of Hohenheim)
* An intensive measurement programme: online measurement technology and new computer models will make it possible to study the individual processes of the plant in great detail, optimise them and control future plants more effectively.

* New plant varieties: experiments with different energy crops and the cultivation of different varieties with particularly high yields and working out ideal cultivation conditions.

* Improving gas production: test series are used to determine ideal mixtures of manure and renewable resources. Enzymes, microorganisms and other biological supplements and special methods for improving the fermentation process will also be tested.

* Improving the utilisation of gas: new power station engines will enhance the energy yield, new gas purification methods will make biogas fit for natural gas replacement and fuel.

* Residual material utilisation: residual material will be used as fertiliser or as new designer fuel that can be used in standard ovens.

* Evaluation and ecological balance: researchers are analysing the plant holistically from an economical and ecological perspective and comparing it with other bioenergy production methods.
Last not least, the project is particularly satisfying as it was developed in an ideal location. “In order to save energy that would be required to transport manure and thus reduce costs, the research plant was constructed directly on the Unterer Lindenhof Research Station for Animal Husbandy, Animal Breeding and Small Animal Breeding. Here, the waste heat of the block heat and power plant can be used to heat the stables, the offices and flats,” said Dr. Hans Oechsner, Head of the State Institute of Farm Machinery and Farm Structures, very pleased with the location of the biogas plant. “In contrast to other systems used to produce bioenergy, biogas production uses the whole plant for the production of energy and not only the seeds. Therefore, this method is very sustainable and already produces up to 70,000 kWh energy per hectare of cultivated land,” said Dr. Oechsner. “It is hoped that the new research projects will contribute to further increasing the efficiency and ease the situation in terms of competing food and energy cultivation areas.

National pioneer and core of Baden-Württemberg biogas research

“The new biogas research plant in Eningen constitutes the core of the Baden-Württemberg bioenergy research platform. With this plant, Baden-Württemberg becomes a national pioneer in biogas research. Our close cooperation with other universities and a number of different scientific disciplines in the research platform leads to holistic research and thus to sustainable and intelligent solutions,” said Friedlinde Gurr-Hirsch, Parliamentary Secretary of State in the Ministry of Nutrition and Rural Areas. She went on to explain that the scientists will deal with many questions focusing on optimal energy production using resource-friendly biomass and biogas at the Unterer und Oberer Lindenhof Research Station at the University of Hohenheim. She also discussed the research and investigative projects in the field of plant, animal and biogas production. The scientists are working on specific methods to collect important parameters (e.g. in plant production), develop suitable scenarios and transfer the findings into targeted concepts and adequate control systems. Different universities and research institutions will work together to deal with these topics.

Construction costs of 2.5 million euros – and a long tradition

The construction costs of the biogas facility amounted to approximately 2.5 million euros. The University of Hohenheim provided the greatest part of the project costs, approximately 1.5 million euros, through endowments and sponsorship. Great financial support was obtained from the local energy suppliers FAIR ENERGIE and EnBW for the technical and financial realisation of the project.

“At the University of Hohenheim, bioenergy has been a priority for a long time,” said Rector Prof. Dr. Liebig explaining why the university had given so much money to the project. In 2004, the University opened the most modern biogas laboratory in Europe; in 2008, the University established the “Bioenergy and Renewable Resources” course which is already fully booked. In total, the University’s research commitment dates back to the first half of the previous century.
The biogas plant not only uses renewable resources, but also cow manure. (Photo: University of Hohenheim)
The biogas plant not only uses renewable resources, but also cow manure. (Photo: University of Hohenheim)

Conflicting priorities - food and energy

At the same time, the University’s research activities on how the global supply of food can be safeguarded are another, equally important priority, highlighted the Rector. The Competence Centre for Plant Breeding has an excellent reputation all over the world. 70 researchers have been working together with Asian colleagues in a collaborative research centre, working on establishing adaptive, sustainable agricultural systems with the local population to solve ethnic, social and ecological problems. “In the near future, we also plan to return to Africa where we began some projects in the 1990s.”

In Europe, the competition between energy crops and food production only plays a minor role and usually only on a regional level, said Prof. Dr. Jungbluth, explaining that in Germany, 14 per cent of the overall agricultural area is used for the production of energy, including three per cent for the production of biogas. “However, the EU is also involved in the global crisis through the global market.”

Efficiency increase as key parameter for food and energy

As there are hardly any new agricultural areas available on the worldwide scale, scientists at the University of Hohenheim regard it is a prime objective of agriculture to increase yields with less water on existing agricultural areas. At the same time, the researchers put great emphasis on sustainable production: agricultural production has to take into consideration climatic problems, use less fossil energy, protect global diversity, eliminate poverty and hunger and prevent political crises.

“It is true that world hunger and the world energy problems can only be solved sustainably when all of us work together – and that is an important task for politics and research alike,” said Prof. Dr. Manfred Zeller, expert for international agricultural policies at the University of Hohenheim. “The current rising food prices are, however, caused by a number of global factors. Seeing bioenergy as the only factor responsible for the current situation, dangerously simplifies the situation.”

It is a fact that research has to be intensified in both areas – bioenergy and food supply – on a worldwide basis in order to find a way out of the current crisis,” said Prof. Dr. Liebig summarising the situation. “With our new biogas plant, and the research carried out in our laboratories, we have made a considerable contribution towards solving this dilemma.”

Source: University of Hohenheim - 19 July 2008
Background: Bioenergy research platform: partners and projects
The biogas plant of the University of Hohenheim is the core of the “Bioenergy Research Platform” of the state of Baden-Württemberg with a total cost of approximately 2.5 million euros. Apart from the University of Hohenheim, the research platform also involves the University of Stuttgart, Karlsruhe Research Centre, the Universities of Applied Sciences in Rottenburg and Reutlingen as well as the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research. The interdisciplinary research, in which many different researchers work together, enables more effective research and hence leads to better results. The University of Hohenheim carries out intensive measurement series and process research at the biogas plant and undertakes research on plant cultivation measures and residual material utilisation. Other research groups are dealing with gas purification and the analysis of the entire system. The biogas plant was made possible through financial contributions of the Ellrichshausen Stiftung and the companies EnBW, FAIR ENERGY, KWS, Schaumann Foundation, MT-Energie and VAG-Armaturen.

Background: agricultural sciences at the University of Hohenheim
The Faculty of Agricultural Sciences has 49 professors and 480 staff members, of whom 220 are working on scientific issues. The faculty currently runs three bachelor degree courses, 10 master programmes and one PhD course for approximately 1,700 students as well as supervising about 350 PhD students. The Faculty has the following priorities: securing global nutrition, adaptation of agricultural production systems to the consequences of global change, in particular to climate change and the availability of water and the use of genomic diversity in agricultural production.
Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/pm/next-generation-biogas