There are three basic digester designs. All of them can trap methane and reduce fecal coliform bacteria, but they differ in cost, climate suitability and the concentration of manure solids they can digest.
A covered lagoon digester, as the name suggests, consists of a manure storage lagoon with a cover. The cover traps gas produced during decomposition of the manure. This type of digester is the least expensive of the three.
Covering a manure storage lagoon is a simple form of digester technology suitable for liquid manure with less than 3-percent solids. For this type of digester, an impermeable floating cover of industrial fabric covers all or part of the lagoon. A concrete footing along the edge of the lagoon holds the cover in place with an airtight seal. Methane produced in the lagoon collects under the cover. A suction pipe extracts the gas for use. Covered lagoon digesters require large lagoon volumes and a warm climate. Covered lagoons have low capital cost, but these systems are not suitable for locations in cooler climates or locations where a high water table exists.
A complete mix digester converts organic waste to biogas in a heated tank above or below ground. A mechanical or gas mixer keeps the solids in suspension. Complete mix digesters are expensive to construct and cost more than plug-flow digesters to operate and maintain.
Complete mix digesters are suitable for larger manure volumes having solids concentration of 3 percent to 10 percent. The reactor is a circular steel or poured concrete container. During the digestion process, the manure slurry is continuously mixed to keep the solids in suspension. Biogas accumulates at the top of the digester. The biogas can be used as fuel for an engine-generator to produce electricity or as boiler fuel to produce steam. Using waste heat from the engine or boiler to warm the slurry in the digester reduces retention time to less than 20 days.
Plug-flow digesters are suitable for ruminant animal manure that has a solids concentration of 11 percent to 13 percent. A typical design for a plug-flow system includes a manure collection system, a mixing pit and the digester itself. In the mixing pit, the addition of water adjusts the proportion of solids in the manure slurry to the optimal consistency. The digester is a long, rectangular container, usually built below-grade, with an airtight, expandable cover.
New material added to the tank at one end pushes older material to the opposite end. Coarse solids in ruminant manure form a viscous material as they are digested, limiting solids separation in the digester tank. As a result, the material flows through the tank in a "plug." Average retention time (the time a manure "plug" remains in the digester) is 20 to 30 days.
Anaerobic digestion of the manure slurry releases biogas as the material flows through the digester. A flexible, impermeable cover on the digester traps the gas. Pipes beneath the cover
carry the biogas from the digester to an engine-generator set.
A plug-flow digester requires minimal maintenance. Waste heat from the engine-generator can be used to heat the digester. Inside the digester, suspended heating pipes allow hot water to circulate. The hot water heats the digester to keep the slurry at 25°C to 40°C (77°F to 104°F), a temperature range suitable for methane-producing bacteria. The hot water can come from recovered waste heat from an engine generator fueled with digester gas or from burning digester gas directly in a boiler.