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Retooling the Ethanol Industry: Thermophilic Anaerobic Digestion of Thin Stillage for Methane Production and Pollution Prevention

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Anaerobic digestion of corn ethanol thin stillage was tested at thermophilic temperature (55°C) with two completely stirred tank reactors. The thin stillage wastestream was organically concentrated with 100 g/L total chemical oxygen demand and 60 g/L volatiles solids and a low pH of approximately 4.0. Steady-state was achieved at 30-, 20-, and 15-day hydraulic retention times (HRTs) and digester failure at a 12-day HRT. Significant reduction of volatile solids was achieved, with a maximum reduction (89.8%) at the 20-day HRT. Methane yield ranged from 0.6 to 0.7 L methane/g volatile solids removed during steady-state operation. Effluent volatile fatty acids below 200 mg/L as acetic acid were achieved at 20- and 30-day HRTs. Ultrasonic pretreatment was used for one digester, although no significant improvement was observed. Ethanol plant natural gas consumption could be reduced 43 to 59% with the methane produced, while saving an estimated $7 to $17 million ($10 million likely) for a facility producing 360 million L ethanol/y.

Keywords: ethanol; methane; thermophilic anaerobic digestion; thin stillage; volatile fatty acids; volatile solids

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: February 1, 2008

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  • Water Environment Research® (WER®) publishes peer-reviewed research papers, research notes, state-of-the-art and critical reviews on original, fundamental and applied research in all scientific and technical areas related to water quality, pollution control, and management. An annual Literature Review provides a review of published books and articles on water quality topics from the previous year.

    Published as: Sewage Works Journal, 1928 - 1949; Sewage and Industrial Wastes, 1950 - 1959; Journal Water Pollution Control Federation, 1959 - Oct 1989; Research Journal Water Pollution Control Federation, Nov 1989 - 1991; Water Environment Research, 1992 - present.
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