Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering


Civil and Environmental Engineering


Tryg Lundquist


Packed-bed digesters are an alternative to covered lagoon digesters for methane production and anaerobic treatment of dilute wastewaters such as dairy barn flush water. The physical media of packed-beds retain biofilms, often allowing increased treatment rates. Previous studies have evaluated several types of media for digestion of dilute wastewaters, but cost and media fouling have setback commercial development. A major operational cost has been effluent recirculation pumping.

In the present effort, a novel approach to anaerobic digestion of flush dairy water was developed at pilot-scale: broken walnut shells were used as a low-cost packed-bed medium and effluent recirculation was replaced by reciprocation mixing to decrease pumping costs and the risk of media clogging.

Three packed-bed digesters containing walnut shells as media were constructed at the on-campus dairy and studied for about six months. Over that time, several organic loading rates (OLRs), measured as both chemical oxygen demand (COD) and volatile solids (VS) were applied to the new packed-bed digesters to allow modeling of methane production. The influence of temperature on methane production was also investigated. Additionally, the study measured solids accumulation in the walnut shell packed-bed as well as the effectiveness and durability of walnut shells as packing media. Finally, a simple economic analysis was developed from the methane model to predict the financial feasibility of packed-bed digesters at flush water dairies under similar OLR conditions.

Three methane production models were developed from organic loading: saturation-type (following the form of the Monod equation), power and linear. The models were evaluated in terms of regression analysis and the linearity of experimental to predicted methane production. The best model was then chosen to develop the economic predictions. Economic predictions for packed-bed digesters were calculated as internal rate of return (IRR) using the methane models along with additional input variables. Comparisons of IRRs were made using electric retail rates of $0.10 to $0.20 per kilowatt-hour and capital cost subsidies from zero to 50%.

Sludge accumulation in the packed-bed was measured via change in porosity, and walnut shell durability was measured as the change in mass of representative walnut shells over the course of the study.

The linear-type model of methane production from volatile solids OLR best represented this data set. Digester temperature was not found to influence methane production in this study, likely due to the small daily average ambient temperature range experienced (14°C to 24°C) and the greater influence of organic loading. Porosity of the walnut shell packed-bed decreased from 0.70 at startup to 0.34±0.06 at the end of the six-month study, indicating considerable media fouling. Sludge accumulated in each digester from zero at startup to 281±46 liters at termination. Walnut shells in the packed-bed lost on average 31.4±6.3% mass during the study period which may be attributed to degradation of more readily bio-degradable cellulose and hemi-cellulose within the walnut shells.

Given the predicted methane production and media life, at present, the economic outlook for packed-bed digesters at commercial dairies is quite dependent on utility electrical rates, available subsidies and future improvements to packed-bed digester technology. The predicted IRRs ranged from below 0% (at 0% capital subsidy and $0.10/kWh) up to 25% (at 50% capital subsidy and $0.20/kWh) at large dairies (3000 milking cows). Increases in organic loading were not shown to necessarily increase IRR, particularly at OLRs above 10 g/Lliquid-d (as COD or VS). Ultimately, to better assess the value of packed-bed digesters for flush dairies, additional study is needed on topics such as sludge accumulation prevention, long-term walnut shell degradation, dairy barn flush water mixing, and more detailed economic analysis.