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The idea that rotting vegetable matter gives off a flammable gas has been understood since the ancient Persians. In modern times, the first sewage plant was built in Bombay in 1859; an idea that was brought to the UK in 1895, when the gas produced was used to light street lamps.


This system was developed in the UK and Germany in the early 1900s for the treatment of sewage. Centralised drainage systems were being installed in many towns in Europe and anaerobic digestion was seen as a means to reduce the volume of solid matter in the sewage. The gas produced was occasionally used as a source of energy, especially during the Second World War. Several sewage plants ran vehicles on biogas since then.


The use of farm manure to generate methane was developed, again in Bombay, in the 1930s. It was only developed for use by Indian villagers by KVIC (Khadi and Villages Industries Commission) in the early 1960s. This design, which used a floating steel gas drum, formed the basis of an ongoing Indian Government outreach programme to provide villagers with cooking fuel.


China started a similar programme in the 1960s and claimed that 5 million plants had been built by the early 1980s. The design was based on a septic tank. The original


Floating drum Dome

KVIC floating drum design used in Nepal

Dome design adapted for Nepal

rectangular tank was rapidly replaced by a design based on a dome shape. Similar designs were developed by various groups in India and formed the basis of an effective programme in Nepal, which is now called BSP (Biogas Sector Partnership).


The Indian programme inspired a brief enthusiasm for on-farm energy generation via biogas in the UK in the early 1980s, when the oil price spikes caused people to look for alternatives. The drop in the price of oil, and therefore electricity, which followed made the farm-scale biogas plants look uneconomic, so few of the 200 or so plants that were built at that time survived.


The programmes in China, India and Nepal have developed steadily. Interest in Europe and UK has also revived more recently.

All photos by David Fulford unless otherwise stated

History of Biogas 1