Biogas to power up energy isolated households

  • Steffen Illig, University of Cambridge, Physics, PhD 3rd Year
  • Luis Miguel Pazos Outón, University of Cambridge, Physics, PhD 2nd Year
  • Flora Ponjou Tasse, University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory, PhD 3rd Year
  • Sara Serradas Duarte, University of Cambridge, Neuroscience, PhD 3rd Year

Can biogas solve the problems of deforestation, sanitation and lack of access to energy in small villages of Subsaharian Africa? This is what our project aims to investigate.

Cooking is the developing world’s primary energy demand. Currently a mix of coal, charcoal, kerosene and wood is used for this purpose, leading to environmental problems such as deforestation and serious health issues related to the inhalation of smoke. How can we sort out this issue? Well, it turns out that not all what goes down the toilet is necessarily waste… with the adequate treatment, in anaerobic conditions and at a controlled pressure, human waste can naturally produce biogas which can then be efficiently transformed into heat and used for cooking.

We are running a collaborative project between an innovative young startup from Cambridge – SOWTech Ltd.-, the Cambridge Development Initiative (CDI) and the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). We will work at the interface of these institutions to find out the optimal business model for the commercialization of a low-cost biogas plant developed by SOWTech. Such business model must allow this concept to be scalable, affordable and self-sustainable in order to achieve a long-term impact on these energy isolated regions.

The main product on the line of these low-cost biogas plants from SOWTech is called “Flexigester”. Its main feature is its own simplicity. It’s primarily made out of rubber, making it easy to transport and install, and has been stripped of any expensive components. It has been simplified to the minimum expression of a biogas plant to make it affordable and suitable in the context of a developing country.

Our team will go to Dar es Salaam to run a pilot study together with CDI. They have been working together with local students for a year and their last project consisted on building a low-cost sewage network which connects a suburban neighbourhood in Dar es Salaam to the city’s sewage system to which so far only a few privileged neighbourhoods had access to. At the moment this system still lacks an appropriate disposal location for the sewage and is being directly damped into the local lake. This not only will create an environmental problem in the future, but is also a waste of organic matter that could be used for energy production.

We will work together with CDI to engage the local community on the connection of the Flexigester to one of these sewage networks that they built last year. With their help we will collect data throughout the following year about biogas production levels in different conditions, such as weather and input levels, and its energetic efficiency for cooking. This data will help us to find out more about the potential of this technology and how can it be expanded to other cultural and regional contexts.

In summary, the main objective of our first pilot study in Dar-es-Salaam is to find the most suitable business model for the delivery of biogas, observe the concerns of the local population regarding the adoption of this technology and find out its suitability for expansion into other regions.

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