A week into the placement and now we’re starting to get used to the early rising schedule – I’m doing that thing of waking up about five minutes before my alarm goes off. I can’t decide whether this is good or not though. On the one hand it’s nice to be ready for the alarm, rather than have it rip you untimely from a pleasant dream, but on the other it’s five minutes of sleep I’m deprived of and, at the moment particularly, I do like my sleep.

Tim preparing the dry matter tests for the maize silage sampled from different heights of the silage pile

Tim preparing the dry matter tests for the maize silage sampled from different heights of the silage pile

Perhaps in response to mine and Tim’s discussion the day before (no, I’m joking before you get any ideas of sabotage) there was a disruption to the normal routine this morning. Surprised not to see the tractor headlights blaring through the dawn with Thorsten loading the feeders, we walked to the erratic flashlight beams that were emanating from by the side of the fermenter. It seems that the feeder had malfunctioned in the night and the alarm to Thorsten’s phone had brought him out at midnight to try to fix it then. Waiting instead for daylight and a bit of warmth (it’s really pretty chilly here out of the sunshine) it seemed that the screw-feeder had just clogged up with material from the macerator. After raking some of it out and restarting everything seemed to be working again and we went about our morning checks, really noticing the impact the feeder outage had on the fermenter on the amount and composition of gas in the plant and the chemistry of the liquid samples we took.

After breakfast we were given another task. Thorsten’s interest for the batteries it seems is to see whether a solar installation with battery storage would be able to power the pumps on the biogas plant that are running 24/7. To work this out, he has installed electricity counters at several points around the AD site, but has no way of recording them. So, we were given a tour of the monitors (on feeders, gas engines and grid connections) and a schedule to monitor them for. With a bit of spreadsheeting in a couple of days it should be possible to see how the demand for energy varies across the site throughout the day.

Before lunch I got the chance to change the oil and filters on one of the gas engines with Thorsten. Once you know what you’re doing I think it’s pretty straightforward but trying to understand the directions while stood between 300kW and 400kW engines it’s a bit difficult to hear!

Me, refilling the oil in one of the motors after filter and oil change...and at this point not completely covered in oil. Win.

Me, refilling the oil in one of the motors after filter and oil change…and at this point not completely covered in oil. Win.

Lunch today was homemade vegan pizza. A bit of a shock to the system for vegetarian Tim but he said he enjoyed it and it really hit the spot for me. This was also accompanied by another really good soup. Honestly, I could well come back the size of a house! For lunch we were also joined by the electrician who is reprogramming the gas engine control system who was telling us about his friend who had a vegetarian wedding last year. I asked if he knew if the wife had a sister and everyone laughed. I don’t understand why – I was deathly serious!

This afternoon we repeated the analysis but also took samples to be sent to an external lab so that we could compare our results with theirs…this could be interesting when the results come back next week. We spent the afternoon finishing off jobs that had accrued through the week and with me holding a ladder for Christian as he painted the support posts for the engine chimney stacks. My German is picking up a bit now with things from school starting to reawaken and I understood the majority of our conversation, which largely involved him joking with me that if I didn’t hold the ladder properly then everything would be bad and he’d be in the local hospital saying “well ****”. No pressure then as he’s at the top of a six-metre ladder resting against a flue pipe in the wind!

Just before dinner I borrowed some glue in an attempt to try to fix the hangers that broke when we returned in the evening to find my clothes rail had fallen over. In the workshop we found Thorsten rigging up a switching system to overcome the melting of the switch in all his 3-phase switching gear. As we walked back to the annex we’re staying in Tim remarked he really liked the view on the farm that everyone just has a go at fixing the problems they face.

Over dinner while speaking to Christa and learning more and more German we found out Saturday is just another day on the farm, which to tell the truth is pretty much what we’d expected. Sunday is apparently a day off (during which Thorsten and Georg only do their morning duties…that’s a day off?) and we’ll maybe be heading to an old walled city that everyone agreed was very nice.

With dinner finished I’ve just caught up on three days of this dear diary and realised I have a fair amount of corrections to start getting on with soon. Still, there’s always a couple of long train journeys too look forward to getting teeth into them in.

You get very pretty sunsets out here that nicely silhouette big bits of farm machinery like tractors...it's been a great week so far, let's hope it continues!

You get very pretty sunsets out here that nicely silhouette big bits of farm machinery like tractors…it’s been a great week so far, let’s hope it continues!

Tim disappearing into the underground viewing section for digester 4 in the dawn light (of lack of)

Tim disappearing into the underground viewing section for digester 4 in the dawn light (of lack of)

With Thorsten away for the day Tim and I were determined to get on with the work we’d been set as well as carrying out the normal testing duties. We finished the snoop testing finding a fairly large leak near one of the portholes to the first underground tank confirming the suspicions of our host.

I'd say that's pretty cheap for a pack of tasty looking veggie wieners. Specially since they even say on the packet that they're glücklich

I’d say that’s pretty cheap for a pack of tasty looking veggie wieners. Specially since they even say on the packet that they’re glücklich

Aside from that the day passed fairly uneventfully save for a pleasant conversation with Georg, Christa and Suzie at lunch which consisted of cauliflower in egg and breadcrumbs with potatoes which I found pretty great.

After dinner that evening we went shopping and had a good chuckle at some of the translations/ transliterations of things. Following a conversation on the first night about humous I bought some so that the Sturm’s could try it and we also visited the beer aisle picking up two recommendations from Thorsten of local beers – a full lager and a double bock.

Back at the farm Tim and I watched a couple of episodes of It’s only Sunny in Philadelphia and come half nine my eyes were closing. Slow news day today…

Well that didn’t last long. Writing the diary on the right day I mean, not the placement – I’m very much still here in Franconia.

Little new during the day today, just continued getting better at the testing procedure, getting up and down ladders and helping out occasionally with other bits and bobs on the farm where spare hands are needed, including an interesting method of hanging gateposts on walls. Lunch of roasted eggy potatoes and soup which was very welcome. Oh and I managed to cover myself in oil while topping up the levels in one of the gas engines. Oh well, it’s very much an outdoors coat now and may even buy a bit more kudos in a proper Yorkshire pub!

Perhaps not the best angle to take it from (sorry!) but here's Tim checking for methane leaks on the intake to the gas motors...and fortunately not finding any

Perhaps not the best angle to take it from (sorry!) but here’s Tim checking for methane leaks on the intake to the gas motors…and fortunately not finding any

We also started the snoop testing around the biogas plant looking for leaks with a ppm methane sensor. This tended to involve trying to get into all the nooks and crannies around pipework into and out of the fermenters and digestors eagerly anticipating the increasingly frantic beeping as the methane gets detected. Oddly, leak detection becomes a bit of a game and you feel oddly happy when the detector goes off. Deep down I know this means remedial work is needed in those areas (so it shouldn’t quite be so entertaining) but I somehow can’t get it out of my system.

Come the evening Thorsten invited us to go with him to a talk about battery energy storage as a complementary technology to PV which he’s organised as a representative for the local council. The talk is at a local gasthouse (bar/ restaurant/ hotel) and pretty well attended – the thirty or so men and sole woman in attendance pretty much fill the area set aside for the presentations. Both of the presentations are in German (naturally) but are spoken far too quickly for me to understand, save for the odd bit of technical detail that is sufficiently similar to English or numbers, numbers I can do (which it turns out in a sales pitch is quite helpful). Integrating battery technology with PV allows a shift in the demand/ supply balance of electricity from/ to the grid (allowing the solar supply peak to be balanced with the twin peaks in demand throughout the day).

Thorsten explains several of the slides and retells some of the anecdotes told by the presenters (there’s an island off the English coast that runs entirely off batteries apparently, and we don’t know what is round the corner – just look at the floods in England. Wales, I’m sure you were thought of too, but not mentioned I’m afraid, and I don’t know the German for Wales so I was hardly going to stick up for you there and then).

Far from the best photo I've ever taken (sorry, I was trying to be inconspicuous) but this was from the back of the pretty packed room who had turned out to learn a little bit about battery storage for PV

Far from the best photo I’ve ever taken (sorry, I was trying to be inconspicuous) but this was from the back of the pretty packed room who had turned out to learn a little bit about battery storage for PV

Another bonus of the presentation is that it is held in a gasthous and since this is southern Germany, everyone has a beer. And the beer was good, a nice smooth pilsner, but after the hard work and little sleep it hit me pretty hard so I was glad to stop at one.

We got back to the farm at around 10:30 and I was already feeling groggy just thinking about the morning when Thorsten mentioned he was probably up at 4:30 in the morning to make sure the feeder was full before he went to Mannheim. Well that put things in perspective I suppose!

A bit of a restless night but hopefully still managed to grab seven hours sleep which doesn’t seem too bad compared to the slightly frantic nights back in the UK before heading to Germany. First job of the day was to check all of the tanks again and once we’d done that it was time for breakfast, which seemed very early compared to the day before – bonus!

Not sure whether I’ve mentioned my breakfast plans yet…No? Well I’ll fill you in: on the way out I was a little alarmed by reading through a report from a previous trainee that mentioned that anyone with special dietary requirements should contact the hosts prior to travelling since the food on offer (the placement is catered for by the host family) is very meat-heavy. Now, being a lactose-intolerant vegetarian this could pose a problem. So, with a little help from mum I managed to pack my breakfast of champions – porridge with almond milk, peanut butter, ginger, dates, seeds, mixed dried fruit and spices.  As it turns out, the worry was overblown, the Sturms are incredibly accommodating and even on a farm in Bavaria there is plenty to eat. That said, I am very glad to have my porridge – it’s like a little slice of home every morning!

Tim getting a digestate sample from the fermenter - stand back!

Tim getting a digestate sample from the fermenter – stand back!

After breakfast, we started on the testing again. Aside from a few wobbles on scaffold planks, testing went by largely without incident and consumed the vast majority of the day. We’ve drawn up a few spreadsheets to calculate the dry matter, total anorganic content (looking at the literature I think this actually translates as the amount of calcium carbonate in the digestate) and the FOS…no idea what that stands for at the moment but I did know…

Lunch was roasted potatoes with cumin seeds (a great idea) and salad. As Tim and I started getting into the groove with the testing, things started to move a bit more slickly and we finished sometime around 5pm. Thorsten mentioned he was training for a marathon in April and tended to go running on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and invited me along for the shorter, 10 km, midweek runs. Despite being a little apprehensive of being able to keep up with him (I hope I didn’t slow him down too much), we managed 13km around the Obenzenn area as dusk fell. Getting cramp at dinner meant I may have to think twice about whether to go with him on Thursday but we’ll see when the time comes.

We had hard boiled eggs painted an array of bright colours as well as the normal cheese/ bread/ ham options. And would you believe these special Easter eggs didn’t taste any different. I mean the cheek of painting the shells of eggs and then just being left with normal eggs inside. Disgraceful. On the other hand, especially after the run, I was desperately craving protein and they were oh so welcome!

Was hoping to get a bit of work done this evening but I fear that a combination of the early starts, physical work, running and glass of local wine with dinner (which was really quite tasty) may mean I fall into bed relatively soon (it’s 21:15 at the moment).

Still, dear diary, for once I’ve managed to write you on the right day. So that’s a big bonus. Maybe I should go to bed as a reward.


Meet Thorsten 6:30 and he shows us around the AD plant and takes us through the process. The first thing to do every day is visually check all of the digesters for the level, whether they’ve a foam capping and that the pumps aren’t flooded before checking there is a temperature difference across the activated charcoal H2S filter, which indicates it’s operating. Once these checks are complete, then it is breakfast. Today with all of the explanations, I think we were a little late (around 8).

After breakfast the first job was with Christian, who is the only non-family member that works on the farm full-time. We have to peel the covering for the silage back which involves lugging some pretty heavy sand bags across a pretty slippery tarpaulin on or near the edge of a 15-20ft pile of shifting silage. It’s not as bad as I first thought though, even if carrying the sandbags up to the middle of the pile is a bugger as they just drag you back down towards the side. While I’m on top of the pile Tim gets stuck in with the shovel moving a hefty amount of silage that’s fallen down the crack next to the corn which is bagged in a sausage (Thorsten’s description, not mine). Christian and I first re-secure the covering and then move on to rolling up the netting. Christian seems a good character and despite both only being able to understand a little of what is said we manage to coordinate the nets and he shows me the three different kinds of poop on site, including the freshly delivered chicken. Surprisingly they don’t smell too badly. Honest!

Yep. That is a lotta...

Yep. That is a lotta…

After this I grab a shovel to help Tim finish moving the silage and then after a good amount of shovelling, making us feel like we’ve earned it, it’s lunch. Mittagsessen for the veggies is spaghetti with spinach, onion and olive oil, which I thought was pretty damn tasty especially with a walnut cake for dessert.

After lunch we start on the measurements in the laboratory that Thorsten has built, but a representative from the gas analyser company arrives and we join while he shows how it works, and we get to play too.

The fermenter...it's pretty big!

The fermenter…it’s pretty big!

Then we’re let loose to do the analysis (temperature, gas analysis, solid analysis, FOS and TAC) for the fermenter and the first two digesters/ storage tanks (nachgaerer). This takes the remainder of afternoon but we finish it with some time to spare before dinner so a necessary shower is taken before we sit down with the family again.

For dinner we have the choice of more spaghetti or rye bread with cheese/ jam/ meat which isn’t much of a contest for me really. I mean, the rye bread here is pretty special but who wouldn’t want spinach. Oh, spinach spinach spinach. Oh, and the pasta was with salad too – wouldn’t want you thinking I was deprived of my greens while over here.

After dinner I managed to catch up on a few emails to maintain touch with the homeland but it didn’t take long for the effects of the long day to set in and soon I was curled up on my air bed which is surprisingly comfortable. What is about Germany, why is everything better here?


Well, with a name like that and company like this I suppose it has to be breakfast here!

Well, with a name like that and company like this I suppose it has to be breakfast here!

That night I slept fitfully and am almost glad when the alarm goes off as I’ve been nervously waiting for it for seemingly ages. After a quick shower and check out I arrive at the train station soon after, buy a coffee and a waffle and get a little worried that my train and two others on the board are written in red.

I ask, apparently that’s what denotes an international train…do you think you could have chosen another colour??? Anyway, I climb the stairs to the station, find out where my coach is going to be (a fantastic idea that appears yet to catch on properly in the UK which results in people frantically scurrying along the platform as their booked coach sails passed them) and then get aboard. The caffeine from the coffee and the sugar from the waffle (Liege style – because they’re just so much better) kick in and I get a large chunk of work done on the train. I’m on this train to Frankfurt for about three hours and it terminates at my stop. So, even though I have a pretty sharp connection to make the other end, I can fall asleep without worrying about missing my station. An hour’s dozing on the train and then we head into Frankfurt.

Mmm train track...(Frankfurt-am-Main)

Mmm train track…(Frankfurt-am-Main)

From here I catch the train to Wurzburg (the short connection is made easy since my ticket lists the platforms I have to change between – again UK, are you listening?!) and pleasantly watch the world go by and the scenery become more Bavarian. On the final train, from Wurzburg to Ansbach I send a text to Thorsten, my host, and sit back to watch the dark green trees and rolling fields with dainty villages peppered with the occasional tall chimney stack. On the stretches where the train track is cut through the forest it feels a little bit (despite the ultramodern, ultraquiet comfort on the train) like slowly stepping back in time with the prettiness of the surroundings.

Wurzburg. And yes it's more train track. And no I didn't take photos of the pretty countryside. No, I don't know why not either.

Wurzburg. And yes it’s more train track. And no I didn’t take photos of the pretty countryside. No, I don’t know why not either.


At Ansbach I’m met by Thorsten and his girlfriend Suzie and they drive me back to the family farm in Esbach. A quick introduction to the father, Georg, and Thorsten gives me the tour of the farm buildings and particularly the anaerobic digestors, or biogas plants as they’re named here. The plant seems pretty big on first viewing with two gas engines producing about 550kW, of which about 10% is used by the farm and the rest sold to the grid. As well as AD the farm, like seemingly everywhere in Germany, is covered in PV solar panels and these also feed in to the grid. We sit for a coffee and doughnut (known as krapfnel around here) which is awesome.

I’m pretty tired from the journey so I get shown to the room I’ll be sharing with Tim, who is set to arrive later, and I grab an hour’s kip and catch up on the Olympics. That’s the benefit of knowing nothing about the winter sports; when the commentary is in German for the ice hockey I’m no worse off than were it to be in English since I’d still have little idea what was going on. Still, it’s nice to relax and at five I meet Thorsten again to head back to Ansbach to pick up Tim.

Due to a delayed flight (wouldn’t happen on the train 😉 ) Tim is slightly late so we sit for a coffee in the train station. Thorsten tells me of his time working on a farm in Canada and a ranch in Colorado. We’re the same age, if anything he’s 6 months younger, but you can tell from the confidence in the way he speaks about the farm that this is a man with plans.

Tim arrives and we jump in the car back to Ansbach. Dinner that night is called vespor (or that’s how it’s written but it sounds different in dialect) and includes a selection of delicious breads (mostly rye-based), jam, cheese, butter and ham followed by a honey cake which was pretty special made by the mum Christa, who runs the household and, as everyone has done, makes us feel very welcome.

Aware that we’ve agreed to start at 6:30 the next morning Tim and I soon turn in. With no English channels on the TV we’re stuck with a dubbed Jackie Chan film and so exchange life stories. In the hope of early to bed early to rise we turn the lights out and have the rumblings of the cows in the barn next door as the only noise to be heard.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a place on the EU Leonardo placement scheme working for two weeks on a anaerobic digestion (biogas) plant in southern Germany sponsored by the Germany renewables body (GerBio) and the Renewable Energy Agency (REA), to both of whom I am very grateful as I was in a bit of a tis about what to do with myself post-PhD. Despite having a near-worrying love for renewable energy technologies, I know really only a little about AD, which was really my main motivation for applying. Once on the scheme I was given the choice of a range of host companies in Germany but I really wanted some on-the-ground practical experience. So, I ruled out all of the office-based roles and whittled the list to a shortlist instead focussed on the operating plants and equipment manufacturers. Having read previous accounts of trainees working at Sturm farm (the scheme has been in operation for over a year now) I was hopeful of a placement there and got very lucky to be paired with another Brit for two weeks of an intensive on-site placement learning how a real 500kW biogas plants operates. The following blog is more of a diary of my time with the Sturms and includes a few technical bits and bobs, but is equally in line with the other aim of the project which is to teach trainees about German culture. Despite a fair amount of travelling and a number of internships (and jobs) in a range of industries I was a bit nervous about this before leaving but, as I hope you’ll soon see, my time as a lactose-intolerant vegetarian on a pig farm in Franconia, southern Germany was incredibly enlightening and (so far at least) an intensely rewarding experience…

I was wondering whether to blog about this or not but then I saw this. And yes, I know it's the soppy sort of crap you see at all transport hubs but I like it.

I was wondering whether to blog about this or not but then I saw this. And yes, I know it’s the soppy sort of crap you see at all transport hubs but I like it.

Saturday 15th February

Chelmsford – London St Pancras – Brussels.


Here we go again!

Have been dashing around a little bit of late (only back from Leeds on Thursday) and now setting off around 4pm with a rucksack and a bag of food, including two delicious fuul sandwiches…well there’s one way to make me miss home! Arrived at St. Pancras with about 90 minutes to spare so bought a coffee and settled into some work, managing to rewrite the vast majority of a rebuttal for a paper which was good progress for me – maybe I’ve forgotten how well I work on the train or in train stations? Boarded the Eurostar, completed the rest of the rebuttal and before I knew it I was in Brussels.

Now, Belgium in general isn’t my favourite place and unfortunately, as a welcome to this fine country, Brussels-Midi/South makes you walk an extra mile (or what seems like it) before getting out of the international section. On the plus side I’d been here before and so knew which way to turn to get to the main station before heading to my hotel. With a further kick in the teeth my ‘available offline’ Google maps were suddenly no longer downloaded. But it’s okay, all train stations have a map of the local area and I have the address of where I’m staying…Not Brussels. It has the roads next to the station but stops there. I suppose it would be possible to ask at the information but they’re all shut. Right then off we go in the direction I think it is from the zoomed out map I’ve printed. (Bear in mind that is my 3rd back up, damn you Belgium!)

Fortunately the hotel is close and well sign posted. I check in (around 2300), submit the rebuttal and decide I should at least try to find some Belgian beer or chips and mayo. All of the bars about don’t seem too welcoming and I decide I’ll walk for a bit instead before heading to bed. I’m knackered and have an early (5:30) start in the morning to catch the 6:25 train so eventually, finding nothing of interest close to where I’m staying – perhaps not surprising near the train station, head back to bed.

Okay, that’s journey one and day one complete. So far (for this country at least) so good.

Following yesterday’s pretty damn awesome Indian meal out you may think I’d have steered clear of more of the same. Instead it just seemed to whet my appetite more and lunch – today’s highlight – was a madras-style mixed lentil curry soup…

Madras lentil soup

Madras lentil soup

But, by the time dinner came around I realised I needed some greens and also to empty my fridge shelf as heading away for the Easter break. So another green salad with an avocado on the side played second fiddle to my vegetable-sausage baguette:

Sausage roll with green salad with satay sauce dressing and an avocado

Sausage roll with green salad with satay sauce dressing and an avocado

Highlight of the day was without doubt a curry out in Bradford at the oldest curry house in the city. Here’s my spinach daal with tandoori roti which were superb (be back there soon no doubt!)

spinach daal with a spoonful of someone elses masala (well it would have been rude not to try)

spinach daal with a spoonful of someone elses masala (well it would have been rude not to try)

Making use of some leftover jasmine rice from the thai curry the night before and some spare lemongrass and galangal in the fridge I plumped for another stir fry. And it was pretty damn tasty having been finished with a dash of coconut milk!

Tofu, green bean, red cabbage, carrot, lemongrass stir fry

Tofu, green bean, red cabbage, carrot, lemongrass stir fry