Apsley Farms has been supplying biomethane to the UK gas grid since 2014, and we are now the UK’s largest plant providing biomethane. We manufacture the gas in our biodigester facility, which breaks down plant material obtained from our own and neighbouring farms. With a carbon footprint of around one-fifth of ‘natural gas’, Apsley Farm’s biomethane provides a sustainable fuel to help meet the UK’s energy needs and climate targets.
Biomethane vs natural gas
Biomethane is a greener, sustainable alternative to natural gas. Once properly treated, it can be fed into the gas grid as a direct replacement to supply homes, industries and public buildings. The difference between the two fuels is how they are obtained.
Obtained from underground reserves. Around half of the UK’s supply comes from those under the North Sea and East Irish Sea; the rest is imported by ship and long-distance pipelines. The energy costs (and therefore carbon footprint), of extracting, processing and transporting natural gas are considerable. Far worse, leaks of methane from these processes add huge quantities of this potent greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.
Biomethane is created by refining the biogas produced by bacteria breaking down plant material, which has absorbed atmospheric CO2 in order to grow and create biomass. This is an inherently lower energy process than extracting fossil fuels. When derived from the right crops, and using optimal farming and production techniques, biomethane can be produced with a much smaller carbon footprint, and with minimal leakage of methane. Our gas is also produced closer to end users reducing transport and the carbon footprint
By any measure, biomethane produced through efficient and environmentally responsible methods is a cleaner, more sustainable alternative.
You can read more about the sustainability of biomethane on our farming and sustainability pages.
The need for gas
The UK is the second largest consumer of natural gas in Europe, and the 11th largest in the world. Despite ambitious plans to reduce consumption, it seems clear that gas will contribute to our national energy needs for many years.
This begs the question of how we can make our gas supply green.
Digestion: eating up our greens
The process begins with feeding plant material into our biodigesters. Our three primary biodigesters can handle around 300 tonnes of plant material a day. Inside our biodigesters, nature gets to work, thanks to 37,000m3 of bacteria-rich material we have grown.
One of our biodigesters is the largest primary on-farm digester in the world.
How anaerobic digestion works
Anaerobic digestion is a series of chemical reactions carried out by bacteria in the absence of oxygen. The bacteria digest organic matter, such as plant material, to produce methane, CO2, and a range of other trace gasses. collectively described as biogas. There are four main stages to the reactions
At Apsley, the digestion process takes place within our five biodigesters; our smallest two biodigesters are cylindrical above ground tanks and our biggest three are lagoon type digesters which are bespoke and designed in house. Our biggest digester is 84m long 8.5m deep and holds 14,800m³ of digestate.
For anaerobic digestion to work optimally, the conditions have to be just right. Small variations in feed mix, feed quantity, temperature, pH and trace elements can affect gas production. The Apsley Farms team constantly monitors conditions within the biodigesters, making adjustments as required.
Keeping conditions optimal
Our on-site laboratory carefully monitors conditions within the digesters. Each one requires slightly different conditions. Some of the most important variables we monitor are:
- feed inputs
- substrate levels
- retention times
FOS/TAC is the ratio of volatile organic acids and the total inorganic carbon in the system. This tells us if we are overfeeding or underfeeding the digester, so we can fine tune the daily feed requirements.
The pH within the digester is crucial, since methane production only occurs in a small range — about 7.4 to 8.3 in our system.
Keeping the bacteria happy means keeping them at optimal temperature. Our plant operates in the mesophilic temperature range which is between 37 and 46 degrees centigrade.
Dry matter content
The amount of dry material must also be kept monitored. To keep this consistent, we use a separator to split the liquid from the solids and recirculate the liquid fraction back through our hydrolyser.
Cleaning: taking out the impurities
The biogas produced in the digester is a mix of methane, carbon dioxide, water vapour, hydrogen sulphide and more. For this to be useful, it must first be cleaned and upgraded.
Cleaning involves removing the substances which can cause corrosion and/or those unsuitable for the natural gas grid. For example, by adding amounts of oxygen to our system and using sophisticated carbon filters our system, we can reduce harmful hydrogen sulphide from 400 parts per million to 10-40 ppm.
What’s in our gas?
The composition of the raw gas produced by our biodigesters is:
|Methane||50 – 60||–||mol %|
|Carbon dioxide||40 – 50||≤ 2||mol %|
|Hydrogen sulfide||≤200||≤ 5||mg/m3 (STP)|
|Oxygen||≤2||≤ 0.5||mol %|
|Nitrogen||≤8||≤ 5||mol %|
|Water||37 at 1 bar||≤ 8 at 40 bar||°C|
|Combustion heat||6.7 – 8.4||10.7-12.8||kWh/m3(STP)|
|Wobbe index||6.9 – 9.5||13.3 – 15.7||kWh/m3(STP)|
The aim of the process is to remove impurities from biogas to obtain a renewable natural gas alternative with a concentration of over 97% methane.
Re-using gas: running our plant on plants
Some of the biomethane is used to support Apsley’s farming operations, including heating the offices. Through our Combined Heat and Power (CHP) generator, biomethane is used to produce around 1.1 Mega Watt of green electricity. which we use to run the biogas plant and also export to the national grid.
Apsley Farms harnesses the energy within our biomethane using two CHP generators. 60% of the energy output is in the form of heat, which keeps our digesters optimally warm. also heating our offices, the maintenance workshop, and domestic houses. The remaining 40% is electricity, which partly powers our operations, whilst the rest is exported to the national grid.
The first CHP has been running since 2012, with the second added in 2015. Together, they utilise 500 m3 of biomethane per hour and produce 1.1 MW of electricity.
Upgrading biogas: ‘sieving’ out the CO2
The untreated gas contains around 45% CO2 and this can be removed by passing the biogas through a triple membrane system. As the CO2 and methane molecules are different sizes, the membranes act like a sieve, allowing the two gases to be separated.
Our recovered CO2 is cleaned, processed and stored for use within the food industry.
Analysis and supply
Once the CO2 has been removed, the biomethane is now almost ready to export to the national gas grid. In order to get the right calorific value (how much energy the gas can supply), small amounts of propane are injected – it’s about 3% of the total mix. The mixture is analysed at the Network Entry Facility to check that it fits the required UK specification. A little bit of odouriser is added and the gas is on its way.
Apsley Farm produces 28,800m3 of sustainable biomethane a day, around. We contribute 2% of the UK’s biomethane, an amount sufficient to heat 8,500 homes continuously.