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A Brief History of Biogas


The following are replies to e-mail enquiries to the Anaerobic Digestion Discussion Listserver (used with the author's permission) and other snipits about the history of biogas and anaerobic digestion. The source is given at the end of each item.

Any additional information will be happily included, please e-mail to Paul Harris.


Anecdotal evidence indicates that biogas was used for heating bath water in Assyria during the 10th century BC and in Persia during the 16th century AD. "Philip D. Lusk" <plusk@pipeline.com>

Marco Polo mentions the use of covered sewage tanks.  It probably goes back 2,000-3,00 years ago in ancient Chinese literature. Roos.Kurt@epamail.epa.gov

The technology, or process, dates back a long time. 1630 (van Helmont), 1667 (Shirley) are some who mention about the gas as such. In 1808 H. Davy made experiements with strawy manure in a retort in a vacuum and collected biogas. He was not interested in the gas but rather rotten or not rotten manure (from Tietjen C 1975 "From biodung to biogas - a historical review of European experience"  pp 207-260 in "Energy, Agriculture and Waste Management", Chawla 1986, Ann Arbour Science Publications). mathias.gustavsson@he.gu.se

Daniel Defoe  tells about biogas on his lost island. Fabrizio De Poli, http://www.lafrancesca.it

Jan Baptista van Helmont first determined in 17th century that flammable gases could evolve from decaying organic matter. Count Alessandro Volta concluded in 1776 that there was a direct correlation between the amount of decaying organic matter and the amount of flammable gas produced. In 1808, Sir Humphrey Davy determined that methane was present in the gases produced during the AD of cattle manure. "Philip D. Lusk" <plusk@pipeline.com>

A digester was built in the 1840's in the City of OTAGO, New Zeland. christian.couturier@solagro.asso.fr
(This may have been for rendering whale blubber rather than a true anaerobic digester)

The first digestion plant was built at a leper colony in Bombay, India in 1859.  AD reached England in 1895 when biogas was recovered from a "carefully designed" sewage treatment facility and used to fuel street lamps in Exeter.  The development of microbiology as a science led to research by Buswell and others in the 1930s to identify anaerobic bacteria and the conditions that promote methane production. "Philip D. Lusk" <plusk@pipeline.com>

India, as one country with many biogas reactor installed, has a quite long history of biogas development. The first unit usually referred to in literature is the biogas unit at the Mantunga Homeless Lepers Asylum near to Mumbai. It could be discussed whether it should be called a biogas unit or not as the primary function seems to have been sewage treatment, but the gas was used so... Most refs date this plant to 1897. mathias.gustavsson@he.gu.se
I think you have the spelling of the place wrong - Matunga, rather than Mantunga..."Sircar, Sanjay" <Sanjay.Sircar@dcita.gov.au>

I thank Dr Sanjay Sircar for the following comments relating to the above item :

(a) there is an interesting potential area of investigation here, in
relation to this biogas plant, on intersections between
Western/colonial/Christian/Enlightenment science, progress and social
emancipation on the one hand and Hindu "pollution" (both disease-related and
Christianity-related);

(b) it is probably true to say that Indians generally do not know of this
"first" for India (albeit a colonial-period first), possibly as a result of
the vagaries of history compounded by current anti-Christian/Western
sentiment.

(9/9/02)

Methane was first recognised as having practical and commercial value in England, where a specially designed septic was used to generate gas for the purpose of lighting in the 1890s (Cheremisinoff, Cheremisinoff et al. c1980). There are also reports of successful methane production units in several parts of the world, and many farmers wonder if such small scale methane production units can be installed at their farms to convert waste into something more valuable (Lewis 1983). Refs Cheremisinoff, N. P., P. N. j. a. Cheremisinoff, et al. (c1980.). Biomass : applications, technology, and production. New York :, M. Dekker,. Lewis, C. (1983). Biological fuels. London :, Arnold,. Luke Jenangi <http://www.adelaide.edu.au/biogas/resources/project.pdf>

The first sewage sludge digester was built in Exeter, UK around the turn of the century.  There is a reasonable history in "Anaerobic Digestion" 1979, Stafford Wheatly & Hughes. Prof Hughes always credited the Babylonians. I thought the first agricultural digester pioneer of recent times was L John Fry who welded oil drums together in Africa in the 1940's. Stephen Etheridge "EBL" <info@ebl.co.uk>

Useful Reference

Tietjen C., "From Biodung to biogas-Historical Review of Eurpean Experience", 1975, p 274 in "Energy, Agriculture, and Waste Management"; Jewell W.J. editor, Ann Arbor Science Publishers. Roos.Kurt@epamail.epa.gov