Scalable and Sustainable Biogas Solutions in Cambodia

Found in: News

Designing for world change sounds like a lofty concept, but Pritchard Francis Modeler Ryan de la Rosa and Engineers without Borders (EWB) Australia Engineer Lachlan Harris can attest to the rewards of applying their skills to help change the systems that cause and perpetuate poverty.

Pritchard Francis was approached by Engineers Without Borders to help with the design of a low cost, smaller scale, easy to install and operate biodigester, which can be manufactured economically in third world countries.

ATEC’s biodigester venture in Cambodia began in 2009 as a collaboration between EWB and Live and Learn (L&L). Approximately 90% of Cambodians (or 13 million people) live in rural areas and, of this number, roughly 66% lack access to sanitation infrastructure, which can lead to devastating effects on health. 89% of these rural households live in flooded or high groundwater areas, which are exposed to the highest risk.

A biodigester is a vessel fed with organic material, which is broken down (decomposed) by micro-organisms (bacteria) in an oxygen-free (anaerobic) environment. This process produces biogas (CH4 and CO2), which can be used for cooking or energy generation, and the processed organic material produces organic fertilizer. 

ATEC Biodigester How it Works

A National Biodigester Programme has been in place in Cambodia since 2006 for installing fixed dome biodigesters (, and is heavily subsidized by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Dutch Development Organization.

As a 50/50 joint venture between EWB and L&L, ATEC is particularly focused on testing designs that are more suitable to the resources available and conditions present in a third world country – for example flooded areas or areas with high groundwater. Their models are also scaled for common use – families, smaller farms and communities – rather than for large commercial entities.

ATEC aims to establish and support a network of local entrepreneurs to manufacture and install biodigester systems. This will address the lack of sanitation in flooding and floating environments in Cambodia and provide households with a cost-effective form of renewable energy.

Fuel for cooking represents 90% of daily energy needs for Cambodians in rural communities, and firewood and charcoal are becoming scarce due to deforestation (it costs more to buy or takes longer to collect). The biogas produced from ATEC’s biodigesters can be used with biogas appliances such as gas cookers/stoves, two-flame burners and lamps.

For a 1-2 year cost investment on a product with a 25 year lifespan, the benefit to families and communities is significant (see more specifics on ATEC’s website).

  • Saving money on cooking energy
  • Saving time on the collection of fire wood
  • Producing a quality organic fertilizer for crops and thus increasing crop yields between 5-20%
  • Reducing kitchen air pollution by 80% by creating ‘smoke-free kitchens’ (there are 11,876 household air pollution deaths per year in Cambodia with 1,674 being children)
  • Reducing cooking time and allowing for cleaner kitchens.

The ATEC designs are also transportable and each purchase includes 2 biogas cook stoves and rice cooker.

ATEC Biodigester Progress Models M1 and M2 

At the time of winning the 2014 Google Impact Challenge for Australia, EWB and L&L projected that within three years the project would enable 25 local entrepreneurs to install 2,500 biodigester systems benefitting 15,000 people. In 10 years, the project will provide sanitation and energy solutions to 1.2 million Cambodian people.

A few considerations that have impacted the design have included:

  • Largely untrained technical workforce, which affected quality and the ability to produce complex designs.
  • Use of readily available and easy to source raw materials to use in manufacturing.
  • Remoteness of locations to be installed.
  • High water table and regular flooding.
  • Requirement to be easily installed.
  • Requirement to be easily relocatable.
  • Language and education barriers.
  • Potential clients have minimal resources, so the end product needs to be constructed as cheaply as possible.
  • Long design life.

 ATEC Biodigester near waterway in Cambodia

Since December 2015, Pritchard Francis has been providing consultancy services to ATEC in support of this project, including:

  • Producing construction drawings for a number of different designs. Due to trial and error, the biodigester design was refined a number of times.
  • Producing a number of fabrication drawings for the plastic molding yard.
  • Producing a 3D CAD model and providing advice on 3D printing techniques.
  • 3D renders for marketing, education and recruiting.
  • Diagrammatic drawings for ATEC’s website and for the patent submission.

The work ATEC is doing is changing lives and communities by reducing deaths and disabilities, job creation, saving household expenditures, reducing environmental impacts from reduced Greenhouse Gas emissions and creation of organic fertilizer from previous waste and sanitation hazards. Projects like this don’t come to fruition without a lot of support (see a full list on ATEC’s website); and Pritchard Francis is proud to be involved in this great initiative.

Listen to Sin Saroun’s experience with her ATEC* Biodigester

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