Up at 6:30 as usual for the last round of checks peering through the biogas windows and everything seemed to be going fine, levels were perhaps a little lower than had been the case previously but nothing too serious. Then, when heading to take the readings from the transformers to document the electricity sold to the grid in the last 24 hours, Thorsten called us to the engine room where a bit of a problem had unfolded.

TIm looking a bit happier now that we'd managed to clean most of the oil off the gas engine

TIm looking a bit happier now that we’d managed to clean most of the oil off the gas engine

When filling the oil it seems that the cap hadn’t been fully locked back into place and over the last day had managed to spray about half the engine’s oil reservoir all out of the tiny gap. Since the oil was warm and expelled at pressure it creates a mist (which was responsible for covering my jacket last week without me really noticing). So, as well as the lagoons of oil that had pooled under and around the engine, a fine covering of oil was to be found on pretty much every surface. Tim and I set about getting stuck in to mopping up the oil and managed to get the vast majority on the floor and in the engine’s base plate. We broke for breakfast before grabbing the ladders and starting the long job of carefully wiping down all exposed surfaces of the engine avoiding the sly hot surfaces that creep up on you and scold you and trying not to let the paper towels get drawn into the intake.

Thorsten had to pick up some crop feed and fertilisers but once he returned we then got shown around the pig barn. Like most of the farm the feeding system is completely automatic with ground corn and barley mixed with water and a weak acid to reduce the pH to optimum feed conditions. The feed slurry is then pumped to each of the troughs that are empty (automatically detected) running completely automatically. We suited up in overalls and wellies (for the pigs’ benefit more than our own) and were shown how the pigs are kept, how the slurry is collected for the biogas and how heat from the house and biogas output is integrated into the pig barn to minimise wasted energy. I was unsure how I’d feel about seeing the pigs but to be honest it didn’t affect me anywhere near as much as I thought it might. Certainly to my, albeit untrained, eye all of the pigs looked healthy (except one which the vet had visited yesterday) and all seemed inquisitive, playful and to be fairly happy despite the relatively small conditions. In fact, as was said during the tour before our arrival sparked the interest of the pigs they tended to group together using only about half of the available space rather than spreading out. I’m not saying I’ve been converted to the benefits of farming animals but here with Thorsten playfully patting the pigs and telling us how in addition to government welfare visits, as a group of farmers they audit each others’ livestock to ensure good standards, it’s clear that while the animals are alive they are well cared for. Like I said though, I don’t think I’m switching back to meat-eating any time soon!

After the tour of the pig barn I grabbed a quick shower and packed the last of my things before being presented with a packed lunch and a bottle of Franconian wine by Christa. Thorsten, Suzie and Tim drove me back to Ansbach and we all shook hands and agreed to keep in touch. I’m now off on the train to meet an old school friend (who popped up in Tokyo when I was there too!) in Leipzig before catching the morning train back to the UK on Monday (the price was the same from Leipzig as from Ansbach).

27 PLATFORMS!!! Bye bye Ansbach

Bye bye Ansbach

I hope in writing this blog I’ve expressed my deep gratitude to the Sturms (and Suzie, Christian and Tim) for making the last fortnight so memorable and helping me learn such a great deal about biogas, German culture and life on a farm. If anyone reading this is wondering whether to take the plunge and for a work-away placement, I’d suggest you jump at the chance and hope that you get to meet such kind, welcoming and interesting people as I have.



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.