Feedback on Methane Digesters

Readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS offer their observations on the use of methane digesters to create methane fuel from sewage.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
January/February 1973
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The blue flame of clean burning methane
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/PAKHNYUSHCHYY


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Since military service is hazardous — at least mine sure is — not only to one's health but to his head as well, I want to say a special thanks for your spark of sanity in what seems to me to be an otherwise irrational universe. Your various articles turn my head back on to ideas and dreams that have been smoldering for years and now I know that they're not just fantasies . . . things can be done!

For instance, in reading past issues I got into the one containing information about building methane digesters and storage tanks for converting garbage into methane and, by correlating that material with a later article on propane conversions in vehicles, I came up with a light bulb.

The latter piece mentioned that running a car on methane wasn't practical due to lack of sufficient pressure in the storage tanks. How about a compressor run on methane that cuts into the system when pressure in the storage tank reaches a certain level? Collected gas could be pumped into another tank — preferably a conventional propane storage tank — from which the hot water heater, stove, etc. could be run and vehicle tanks filled. Don't know if this'll work but someone might like to try it.

James Glenn
Combat Camera Group
NAS North Island, Calif.

Yep, James, that's how it's done all right . . . at least that's one way to do it. —MOTHER EARTH NEWS. 

I just received MOTHER EARTH NEWS and am delighted by the interview with Ram Box Singh . . . the only objection I have is that the article gives the impression that Singh is the one and only experimenter with methane.

For your information, it was 75 years ago when I first got a whiff of that gray haze coming from our manure pile and my pa said it was methane gas.

Then, when I was a locomotive engineer on the railroad at Prescott, Arizona in 1917, I was assigned to a work train on a branch leading to the Jerome and Clarkdale copper mine. While staying the night at the Clark Hotel, I noticed that they had gas lights and asked where the fuel came from. "Why, the sewage plant!" was the reply, and I thought they were kidding.

They weren't, though. In 1945 I met William R. Palmer, the man who had designed the Clarkdale plant, and he gave my engineering firm the original blueprint.

As you can see, methane has interested me for a long time . . . so much so that on March 6, 1933 my associate engineer Russell P. Howard and I proposed a system for the use of sewage gas to the City of San Francisco. Again, on October 3, 1942, we spent three and a half hours with the Board of Public Works of Los Angeles, proposing an $18-million recycling plant capable of processing 250 million gallons of the city's degradable garbage a day. And on May 1, 1945 we offered to recycle a daily 16 million gallons of sewage at Glendale, California in a plant costing only $1.65 million.

Later, in 1967, Sonoma County Supervisor Leigh Shoemaker thought so well of our idea that he and other officials went to Sacramento to confer with the Arizona Biochemical Co., which was willing to come to Santa Rosa and engineer my recycling plants . . . but the county turned down the scheme. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is saying, "No more antiquated sewage plants!" Needless to say, I couldn't agree more.

Thanks for helping Ram Bux Singh tell the methane story. The publicity will be a great help to my young assistant, who has recently placed my proposal for waste recycling before the dairy industry of Chino Basin, southern California.

Clarence E. Burr
Sebastopol, Calif.

Clarence E. Burr's work with methane was reportedon at length in MOTHER EARTH NEWS and should be quite familiar to all serious readers of this magazine. —MOTHER EARTH NEWS.  

I see that MOTHER EARTH NEWS is now deeply committed to power from methane via homestead bio-generators (like the Ram Bux Singh design you're building), I suppose the ideal outcome would be a sewage-gas-fueled engine to generate electricity.

Fate must be on your side . . . I've saved for years the enclosed data (from POPULAR MECHANICS, May 1949) on high-temperature engine cooling systems. As the article shows, sewage gas ruins engines fairly quickly because it contains corrosive elements. The solution given is to keep the coolant of the motor at a temperature of 212° Fahrenheit, far above the condensation point (194°F), thus preventing all that corrosion. That way you won't need various auxiliary gas-cleaning apparatus, and the engine itself will work better because of the uniform temperature of the coolant.

Here's another difficulty I noticed: According to the Singh interview, the 2 hp mud pump engine for the MOTHER EARTH NEWS digester needs to be run only 20 minutes a day to stir the slurry.

As we all know, intermittent use of engines is precisely what wears them out the most because the insufficient heating of the mechanism causes the condensation of water and acids, sludging of the engine oil, etc. even in regular gasoline models. And if "sewage gas" is rougher on machinery, MOTHER would be going for broke on this depreciation before breaking even on the project.

Maybe the answer is to use a steam engine for the intermittent job of pumping the slurry, and the more efficient gasoline type for charging battery systems . . . a function where the power plant can be run long enough to heat up.

Robert J. Lemp
Sayville, N.Y,

Thanks for the ideas and information in the clipping, R.J. . . . we're anxious to give 'em a try,—MOTHER EARTH NEWS.  


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