Modeling a solar-heated anaerobic digester for the developing world using system dynamics

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Title: Modeling a solar-heated anaerobic digester for the developing world using system dynamics
Author: Bentley, Johanna
Abstract: Much of the developing world lacks access to a dependable source of energy. Agricultural societies such as Mozambique and Papua New Guinea could sustain a reliable energy source through the microbacterial decomposition of animal and crop waste. Anaerobic digestion produces methane, which can be used directly for heating, cooking, and lighting. Adding a solar component to the digester provides a catalyst for bacteria activity, accelerating digestion and increasing biogas production. Using methane decreases the amount of energy expended by collecting and preparing firewood, eliminates hazardous health effects linked to inhalation of particles, and provides energy close to where it is needed. The purpose of this work is two fold: initial efforts focus on the development and validation of a computer-based system dynamics model that combines elements of the anaerobic digestion process in order to predict methane output; second, the model is flexed to explore how the addition of a solar component increases robustness of the design, examines predicted biogas generation as a function of varying input conditions, and determines how best to configure such systems for use in varying developing world environments. Therefore, the central components of the system: solar insolation, waste feedstock, bacteria population and consumption rates, and biogas production are related both conceptually and mathematically through a serious of equations, conversions, and a causal loop and feedback diagram. Given contextual constraints and initial assumptions for both locations, it was determined that solar insolation and subsequent digester temperature control, amount of waste, and extreme weather patterns had the most significant impact on the system as a whole. Model behavior was both reproducible and comparable to that demonstrated in existing experimental systems. This tool can thus be flexed to fit specific contexts within the developing world to improve the standard of living of many people, without significantly altering everyday activities.
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Date: 2012-07

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