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Increasing the Energy Yield from Anaerobic Digestion by the Integration of a Novel On-line Volatile Fatty Acid (VFA) Analyser

Project Description

Supervisors; Professor Richard Dinsdale, Professor Alan Guwy, Dr Jaime Massanet-Nicolau, Paul Henderson, Ben Burggraaf

The aim of the project is to implement a novel instrument to measure VFA in pilot scale and full-scale anaerobic digesters with a computer-based control system to optimise energy production from sewage sludge digesters. The central hypothesis is: can the deployment of on-line VFA monitoring be used to increase the productivity of anaerobic digesters by optimising the microbial population for energy production.


A new and fully automated instrument for VFA analysis using sequential injection analysis (SIA) manifold coupled to a capillary electrophoresis apparatus with amperometric detection using PEDOT electrodes will be integrated into pilot scale and industrial scale anaerobic digesters. The instrument was developed as part of the ERDF funded FLEXIS project and offers substantial advantages over conventional VFA instruments. The instrument will be implemented in a control strategy to monitor and control the VFA levels in anaerobic digesters. The VFA levels are a critical control parameter in anaerobic digestion, VFA levels that are to high ie. above 500 mg/l indicate that the digester is being overloaded and feedstock is not being converted to methane gas. Whilst VFA levels that are too low ie below 50 mg/l indicate that the anaerobic digester is underloaded which leads to a reduced capacity of the methanogenic population to convert feedstock to methane gas ie. a “lazy “ methanogenic population. It is intended to employ the VFA instrument to control a two stage biohydrogen and biomethane pilot plant that was developed under the Horizon 202O RESURBIS project to treat sewage sludge. The reactor will be operated under a range of feeding regimes to develop the optimum feeding strategy with VFA control, so that the methanogenic populations is marginally stressed and overloaded but not to the degree that overall efficiency declines.


The two main innovations are:

1. The development and testing of the novel VFA instrument in an anaerobic digestion VFA level control loop. The instrument offers two main advantages over current commercial instruments. These are that no compressed cylinder gases are required for operation and sample size required for analysis is small and requires limited pre-treatment.
2. Energy gas production will be increased by 20-30% by using VFA control.


Applicants must apply using the online form on the University Alliance website at Full details of the programme, eligibility details and a list of available research projects can be seen at

The final deadline for application is 12 April 2019.

Funding Notes

DTA3/COFUND participants will be employed for 36 months with a minimum salary of (approximately) £20,989 per annum. Tuition fees will waived for DTA3/COFUND participants who will also be able to access an annual DTA elective bursary to enable attendance at DTA training events and interact with colleagues across the Doctoral Training Alliance(s).

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 801604.

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