D-Lab Energy

Building a better biodigester: the power of poop

By Janet Lin '15

Visiting schools and speaking with students and teachers.


Collecting cow manure sample.


D-Lab El Salvador team with ASAPROSAR staff and local university students.


Collecting cow manure from the farm.


Building a small-scale biodigester at D-Lab.


Completed biodigester—awaiting gas production.

“Janet, you smell interesting…in a bad way.”  Okay, I admit.  I am not one to shower every day, but this time my roommate was commenting on a more offensive scent—cow manure. “Consequence of playing around with 15 gallons of poop,” I half-jokingly replied. I was covered in brown splatter, wreaked of a horrible stench, and felt aches in my back. Why was I in this messy state? Three reasons: a desire not to fail, poor design aspects, and the belief in poop power.

A desire not to fail

I hate failing academically and not meeting the expectation of others. My motivation for “playing around with poop” was no different—though, truthfully, the desire not to disappoint others came later.  

This past semester, Fernando Ruiz ‘16, Andrew Xia ’17, and I were “D-Lab: Energy” students working on a biodigester project. We spent the first half of the course exploring alternative energy technologies that could be implemented in D-Lab’s partner communities.

Our team specifically focused on biodigestion: converting organic matter (like manure!) into methane gas and fertilizer under anaerobic conditions with methanogenic bacteria (also found in manure!). Impressed by this possibility of using waste to create energy, we named ourselves the “Poop Power” team.

By spring break, Poop Power was on a plane heading to El Salvador to determine the feasibility of biolatrines as a means to manage waste and provide a cooking fuel. While in the country, we worked closely with our partner organization, ASAPROSAR, to visit local families and schools. We gathered information on the community’s energy needs and waste disposal habits as well as necessary changes to the previous biodigester design. Our five biggest take-aways are:

  1. Previous biodigester users struggled to find enough animal manure to produce methane gas.
  2. New biodigester design should be more durable than previous polyethylene-bag design.  
  3. Families purchase propane gas, either subsidized by government ($5 per 25-pound tank) or at full price ($15 per 25-pound tank), as a supplement to gathering firewood.
  4. When asked about using gas produced from human waste, some showed hesitation but others were open to the idea if the technology could save money and time.
  5. Students avoid using latrines at school due to poor conditions.

Many of the conversations occurred over delicious meals eating homemade pupusas or drinking fresh-off-the-tree coconut juice! In addition to good food, we met and worked with wonderful people (Thank you Marizta, Geovany, and Noel at ASAPROSAR as well as Cesar and Elena, the university students we worked with). These individuals not only work hard to improve their own lives, but also build-up the surrounding communities. Due to their inspiring work and benevolent attitude, failure is not an option for our team. We made too many new friends that we can’t disappoint.

Poor design aspects

The direct cause of the wretched state my roommate saw me in came from poor design choices. Post spring-break, armed with a new motivation and a lengthy list of design variables to test, our team decided to spend the remainder of the semester building and maintaining a biodigester prototype at D-Lab.

Gaining administrative approval and sourcing the cow manure was no easy task, but we eventually found an appropriate location to build the biodigester (thank you Joe, Craig, and Greg at MIT Facilities and EHS Department) as well as a local cow farm to supply the waste (shout out to Ned and Howard at the Richardson’s Farm).  

Despite our efforts to create a suitable implementation plan, handling manure still proved to be messy. We drove out to the farm, shoveled up 15 gallons of cow manure, and transported it back to D-Lab without too much spillage (though the manure smell lingered in the car for a few days after). We overlooked some aspects of our design, which consequently made setting up the biodigester the messiest step. Mixing the manure with water, pouring it into the biodigester, and cleaning the equipment all caused more splattering and overflow than anticipated. 

Our team identified five aspects that will need to be addressed in future iterations and implementation:

  1. Need for close-proximity and easy transport of waste, which can otherwise be time-consuming and messy.  
  2. Larger opening for pouring waste is necessary to reduce difficulties, time, and overflow.
  3. Stirring mechanism desired. Despite mixing manure and water well, solid waste settles to bottom of biodigester, which causes blockage.
  4. New design should minimize potential places of gas leakage.
  5. Safety plan should address concerns of smell, pressure build-up, flame retreating, containment/handling of spills, and tripping/injury hazards.

However the entire experience—from seeking approval to waste handling—brought valuable insights into setting up a biodigester. These hurdles parallel obstacles communities in El Salvador may face: gaining community acceptance, finding a suitable location and waste source, suitable design, etc.  

Belief in poop power

Despite reeking of cow manure, I still had a smile on my face as I explained to my roommate the reason for my mess. Even now, weeks later, when our biodigester has yet to produce gas, my teammates and I are still just as invested in our project. We see the potential in this technology to simultaneously address waste management and energy needs in an appropriate and affordable manner.

 Our project builds upon work made by previous D-Lab students, and it has been an enjoyable semester being on the Poop Power team (final shout out to Libby and Amit, the class instructors, as well as Jack, the shop manager). We hope our project has contributed to the progress and will help future teams in pursuing biodigestion.

 Would I do this again, manure and all?  Without hesitation, yes. As my teammate, Andrew, would say, “It’s a crappy job, but somebody’s got to poo it!”

Energy's El Salvador team tackles bici-power and biodigesters

Libby Hsu, D-Lab: Energy instructor and trip leader, reports on the Energy team's progress on their Spring Break projects in El Salvador.

Libby reporting from ASAPROSAR in El Salvador. I have great news for all of you. On Wednesday, we completed both bicycle-power machines and got them to make strawberry ice cream and shaved ice. We were a little worried about the ice shaver getting done, and stayed at the work site until it was dark out, adjusting it by flashlight until it finally started working. Little bats were flying around above us. The machines are both very durable and we are confident that, with a bit more tinkering, they can be used to sell desserts.We certainly enjoyed the ice cream!

Yesterday, we went back to Bosque La Magdalena and installed a biodigester. That, too, went longer than we expected. The rangers had already dug a hole in the ground, but we had to carefully make sure the slope of the ground in the hole was correct, dig inlet and outlet trenches, assemble the biodigester bag, and drill a hole in the masonry wall to connect the biodigester to the kitchen stove with PVC lines. Once the biodigester was in the ground, we sealed up the openings, brought over a motorcylce, and started filling it with exhaust, both to make sure it had no leaks and remove the oxygen from inside. As dusk fell once again, we were able to fill it with water and 5 huge bags of cow manure!!! The rangers were pretty amused as Emi and Sam started shouting ´mas caca!!!´ for more manure to be brought over.

The best part of the biodigester installation is that the rangers are really engaging with us and interested in learning about how it works and how to maintain it. Delphine´s educational materials were very useful and appropriate. We even had a visitor from the nearby village join us because he was interested in installing one himself.

This morning we will split up into two groups to finish up various work on the projects. Then this afternoon we are going swimmnig in a lake! Everyone has worked incredibly hard and we look forward to having a bit of time to relax before we come back to life at MIT.

(Pictures to come once the El Salvador team has better Internet)

Solar Cell Cutter

Class-Research-Fieldwork: 
150 Projects Tags: 
Status: 
Reviewed
This device saves significant time and waste for Grupo Fenix, an organization in Nicaragua that uses off-spec solar cells to create solar cell phone chargers. Previously, they cut the cells with a box cutter, a very slow process that lead to significant waste. This device reduces cutting time by a factor of 5 and breakage by 50%.
Ocotal

Stove in Stove

Class-Research-Fieldwork: 
150 Projects Tags: 
Status: 
Reviewed
This specialized charcoal stove allows women in Nicaragua who typically only cook with wood to use charcoal. The stove is designed to be made by the women who will use them, who wil be trained to make both the stoves and the agricultural charcoal they will cook with, providing health, environmental, and income benefits.
Ocotal

Orange Juice Bag Sealer

Class-Research-Fieldwork: 
150 Projects Tags: 
Status: 
Reviewed
This is a low-energy consumption mechanism for securely sealing plastic, to allow a women’s community group to rapidly seal and sell bags of orange juice to supplement their income. The women could earn up to $25/month during off-season months by making juice with the surplus oranges that would otherwise be left to spoil.
El Roblar

Solar Water Distiller

Class-Research-Fieldwork: 
150 Projects Tags: 
Status: 
Reviewed
Simple, low cost distiller to generate distilled water for use in deep cycle batteries used with wind turbine installations in remote villages on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Distilled water is difficult to obtain and using unclean water drastically reduces the life of these expensive batteries that are the villages' only source of power.
Bluefields

Inventions for Saving the World

Amy Banzaert, PhD candidate at MIT and D-Lab: Energy instructor, joins a national morning news program, the Takeaway, to talk about low-cost, low-tech solutions for Haiti, two days after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010. The Takeaway is a co-production of WNYC Radio and Public Radio International, in collaboration with The BBC World Service, New York Times Radio and WGBH Boston. You can access the interview from The Takeaway website, listen it here or read a transcript below:

Amy shares her expertise in developing tools that bring water testing to the neighbourhood at the family level where people can test the water themselves:

We have one set of devices that allow you test the water and determine if it's clean. Typically equipment for that costs between $800 and $1200. We have tests that cost about $10 as an upfront cost and individial costs are a few cents each, so orders of magnitude more affordable and available. Secondly, when you do the tests, you need to keep the samples that you take of the water warm for 24 hours at human body temperature in order to determine bacterial growth rates. Amy Smith has developed a test that requires no electricity, is very robust and cost around $50 as opposed to the traditional tests that are battery powered models that cost between $1,500 and $2,500, so again we are talking about orders of magnitude of more affordable, simpler and more robust.

Amy comments on the development of low-cost, low-tech solutions:

A lot of our innovations and efforts are so simple that peole that are so used to high-tech solutions, even within MIT, where D-Lab has a good name, people think: "these problems aren't actually hard, because the solutions are so simple"; when in reality there are incredible constraints on materials and resources, because we are trying to get so afforable, and therefore they are very sofisticated solutions even though they come up looking very simple
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