Homemade Natural Gas: The MOTHER EARTH NEWS Methane Digester

The MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors investigate the process of methane production and uses for methane biogas with their own homemade digester.

  • Mother Earth News Methane Digester
    This methane digester steadily produced 41 cubic feet of biogas for almost three months on a single load of manure.
  • Vertical Methane Digester
    This vertical methane digester design was built and tested by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors in 1973.
  • Horizontal Methane Digester
    A horizontal digester should produce methane at a lower cost and with fewer complications than the vertical design.

  • Mother Earth News Methane Digester
  • Vertical Methane Digester
  • Horizontal Methane Digester

Discovering Methane Production

Thanks to a brief paragraph which appeared in Mechanix Illustrated, I first became aware that a burnable fuel could be produced from organic waste in the mid-1950s. The mini-article lightly mentioned that a few British sanitation engineers were powering their cars with some of the sewage gas generated by the garbage disposal plant at which they worked. That skimpy but tantalizing report intrigued me and I squirreled it away in the files I've maintained since I was 8 or 10 years old. A few years later, I added a 1963 Farm Journal article about making electricity from manure-based biogas.

The second piece described a methane digester built by Dr. George W. Groth, Jr., on his 1,000-head pig ranch in San Diego County, California. According to the Farm Journal article, Groth used a 6,000-gallon composting unit to produce biogas with which he fueled a war-surplus electrical generator. The generator, in turn, furnished electricity for the farm, but just how much, the report didn't say.

Over the years that followed, I collected other scraps of information about methane production. Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog and WEC Supplement furnished some exceptionally valuable leads during 1969, and a big packet of material from Clarence E. (Fireball) Burr in early 1970 really convinced me — once and for all — of the practicality of anaerobic bacteria and their useful by-products.

Burr, who served for years as Chairman of Health in the People's Lobby of Los Angeles, teamed up in the early 1930s with consulting engineer Russell P. Howard. The two men then spent the next thirty-seven years fighting — together and singly — to introduce the merits of anaerobic waste digestion to municipal officials. It was a long, discouraging battle. So long and so discouraging that, when Clarence happened to see a copy of MOTHER EARTH NEWS in 1970, he more or less turned to the publication as a last resort.

Our fledgling magazine (we'd only published two issues when we received Burr's material) immediately printed Clarence's article about getting biogas, fertilizer and electricity from organic waste. It was accompanied by a reprint of the electricity from manure Farm Journal article and instructions for fabricating anaerobic latrines and digesters that another contributor seems to have "lifted" from the World Health Organization's book, Composting.

That opened the floodgate. MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers in the United States and Canada began digging up stray facts about methane production in fuel-poor sections of the planet and we started prodding our steadily expanding network of correspondents for still more information. Eventually, Ram Bux Singh (one of the world's foremost authorities on the subject) heard of this activity and — while visiting the U.S. during the summer of 1972 — offered to oversee the fabrication of a "biogas plant" for the periodical.

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