Varied interests in the energy and power sector viz., CDM, carbon rating, Monitoring & Evaluation, Energy Management, Rural Development; Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy related matters; Demand Side Management (DSM), Energy Audits, Distributed Power Generation (Biomass, Wind,Solar and Small Hydro), Participatory Management.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Woody biomass utilization for power generation

Woody Biomass Utilization for Power Generation -- An Overview
2.4.09   Salman Zafar, Renewable Energy Advisor, Bioenergy

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    Biomass power is the largest source of renewable energy as well as a vital part of the waste management infrastructure. An increasing global awareness about environmental issues is acting as the driving force behind the use of alternative and renewable sources of energy. A greater emphasis is being laid on the promotion of bioenergy in the industrialized as well as developing world to counter environmental issues.

    Biomass may be used for energy production at different scales, including large-scale power generation, CHP, or small-scale thermal heating projects at governmental, educational or other institutions. Biomass comes from both human and natural activities and incorporates by-products from the timber industry, agricultural crops, forestry residues, household wastes, and wood. The resources range from corn kernels to corn stalks, from soybean and canola oils to animal fats, from prairie grasses to hardwoods, and even include algae. The largest source of energy from wood is pulping liquor or black liquor, a waste product from the pulp and paper industry.

    Woody biomass is the most important renewable energy source if proper management of vegetation is ensured. The main benefits of woody biomass are as follows:

    • Uniform distribution over the world's surface, in contrast to finite sources of energy.
    • Less capital-intensive conversion technologies employed for exploiting the energy potential.
    • Attractive opportunity for local, regional and national energy self-sufficiency.
    • Techno-economically viable alternative to fast-depleting fossil fuel reserves.
    • Reduction in GHGs emissions.
    • Provide opportunities to local farmers, entrepreneurs and rural population in making use of its sustainable development potential.

    The United States is currently the largest producer of electricity from biomass having more than half of the world's installed capacity. Biomass represents 1.5 percent of the total electricity supply compared to 1 percent for wind and solar combined. More than 7,800 MW of power is produced in biomass power plants installed at more than 350 locations in the U.S., which represent about 1 percent of the total electricity generation capacity. According to the International Energy Agency, approximately 11 percent of the energy is derived from biomass throughout the world.

    Biomass Resources

    Biomass processing systems constitute a significant portion of the capital investment and operating costs of a biomass conversion facility depending on the type of biomass to be processed as well as the feedstock preparation requirements. Its main constituents are systems for biomass storage, handling, conveying, size reduction, cleaning, drying, and feeding. Harvesting biomass crops, collecting biomass residues, and storing and transporting biomass resources are critical elements in the biomass resource supply chain.

    All processing of biomass yields byproducts and waste streams collectively called residues, which have significant energy potential. A wide range of biomass resources are available for transformation into energy in natural forests, rural areas and urban centres. Some of the sources have been discussed:

    Figure 1: A host of natural and human activities contributes to the biomass feedstock

    Pulp and paper industry residues. The largest source of energy from wood is the waste product from the pulp and paper industry called black liquor. Logging and processing operations generate vast amounts of biomass residues. Wood processing produces sawdust and a collection of bark, branches and leaves/needles. A paper mill, which consumes vast amount of electricity, utilizes the pulp residues to create energy for in-house usage.

    Forest residues. Forest harvesting is a major source of biomass for energy. Harvesting may occur as thinning in young stands, or cutting in older stands for timber or pulp that also yields tops and branches usable for bioenergy. Harvesting operations usually remove only 25 to 50 percent of the volume, leaving the residues available as biomass for energy. Stands damaged by insects, disease or fire are additional sources of biomass. Forest residues normally have low density and fuel values that keep transport costs high, and so it is economical to reduce the biomass density in the forest itself.

    Agricultural or crop residues. Agriculture crop residues include corn stover (stalks and leaves), wheat straw, rice straw, nut hulls etc. Corn stover is a major source for bioenergy applications due to the huge areas dedicated to corn cultivation worldwide.

    Urban wood waste. Such waste consists of lawn and tree trimmings, whole tree trunks, wood pallets and any other construction and demolition wastes made from lumber. The rejected woody material can be collected after a construction or demolition project and turned into mulch, compost or used to fuel bioenergy plants.

    Energy crops. Dedicated energy crops are another source of woody biomass for energy. These crops are fast-growing plants, trees or other herbaceous biomass which are harvested specifically for energy production. Rapidly-growing, pest-tolerant, site and soil-specific crops have been identified by making use of bioengineering. For example, operational yield in the northern hemisphere is 10-15 tonnes/ha annually. A typical 20 MW steam cycle power station using energy crops would require a land area of around 8,000 ha to supply energy on rotation.

    Herbaceous energy crops are harvested annually after taking two to three years to reach full productivity. These include grasses such as switchgrass, elephant grass, bamboo, sweet sorghum, wheatgrass etc.

    Short rotation woody crops are fast growing hardwood trees harvested within five to eight years after planting. These include poplar, willow, silver maple, cottonwood, green ash, black walnut, sweetgum, and sycamore.

    Industrial crops are grown to produce specific industrial chemicals or materials, e.g. kenaf and straws for fiber, and castor for ricinoleic acid. Agricultural crops include cornstarch and corn oil; soybean oil and meal; wheat starch, other vegetable oils, etc. Aquatic resources such as algae, giant kelp, seaweed, and microflora also contribute to bioenergy feedstock.

    Thermo-chemical Conversion Technologies

    There are many ways to generate electricity from biomass using thermo-chemical pathway. These include directly-fired or conventional steam approach, co-firing, pyrolysis and gasification.

    Direct Fired or Conventional Steam Boiler. Most of the woody biomass-to-energy plants use direct-fired system or conventional steam boiler, whereby biomass feedstock is directly burned to produce steam leading to generation of electricity. In a direct-fired system, biomass is fed from the bottom of the boiler and air is supplied at the base. Hot combustion gases are passed through a heat exchanger in which water is boiled to create steam.

    Biomass is dried, sized into smaller pieces and then pelletized or briquetted before firing. Pelletization is a process of reducing the bulk volume of biomass feedstock by mechanical means to improve handling and combustion characteristics of biomass. Wood pellets are normally produced from dry industrial wood waste, as e.g. shavings, sawdust and sander dust. Pelletization results in:

    • Concentration of energy in the biomass feedstock.
    • Easy handling, reduced transportation cost and hassle-free storage.
    • Low-moisture fuel with good burning characteristics.
    • Well-defined, good quality fuel for commercial and domestic use.

    The processed biomass is added to a furnace or a boiler to generate heat which is then run through a turbine which drives an electrical generator. The heat generated by the exothermic process of combustion to power the generator can also be used to regulate temperature of the plant and other buildings, making the whole process much more efficient. Cogeneration of heat and electricity provides an economical option, particularly at sawmills or other sites where a source of biomass waste is already available. For example, wood waste is used to produce both electricity and steam at paper mills.

    Co-firing. Co-firing is the simplest way to use biomass with energy systems based on fossil fuels. Small portions (up to 15 percent) of woody and herbaceous biomass such as poplar, willow and switch grass can be used as fuel in an existing coal power plant. Like coal, biomass is placed into the boilers and burned in such systems. The only cost associated with upgrading the system is incurred in buying a boiler capable of burning both the fuels, which is a more cost-effective than building a new plant.

    The environmental benefits of adding biomass to coal includes decrease in nitrogen and sulphur oxides which are responsible for causing smog, acid rain and ozone pollution. In addition, relatively lower amount of carbon dioxide is released into the atmospheres. Co-firing provides a good platform for transition to more viable and sustainable renewable energy practices.

    Pyrolysis. Pyrolysis offers a flexible and attractive way of converting solid biomass into an easily stored and transportable fuel, which can be successfully used for the production of heat, power and chemicals. In pyrolysis, biomass is subjected to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen resulting in the production of pyrolysis oil (or bio-oil), char or syngas which can then be used to generate electricity. The process transforms the biomass into high quality fuel without creating ash or energy directly.

    Wood residues, forest residues and bagasse are important short term feed materials for pyrolysis being aplenty, low-cost and good energy source. Straw and agro residues are important in the longer term; however straw has high ash content which might cause problems in pyrolysis. Sewage sludge is a significant resource that requires new disposal methods and can be pyrolysed to give liquids.

    Pyrolysis oil can offer major advantages over solid biomass and gasification due to the ease of handling, storage and combustion in an existing power station when special start-up procedures are not necessary.

    Biomass gasification. Gasification processes convert biomass into combustible gases that ideally contain all the energy originally present in the biomass. In practice, conversion efficiencies ranging from 60 percent to 90 percent are achieved. Gasification processes can be either direct (using air or oxygen to generate heat through exothermic reactions) or indirect (transferring heat to the reactor from the outside). The gas can be burned to produce industrial or residential heat, to run engines for mechanical or electrical power, or to make synthetic fuels.

    Biomass gasifiers are of two kinds - updraft and downdraft. In an updraft unit, biomass is fed in the top of the reactor and air is injected into the bottom of the fuel bed. The efficiency of updraft gasifiers ranges from 80 to 90 per cent on account of efficient counter-current heat exchange between the rising gases and descending solids. However, the tars produced by updraft gasifiers imply that the gas must be cooled before it can be used in internal combustion engines. Thus, in practical operation, updraft units are used for direct heat applications while downdraft ones are employed for operating internal combustion engines.

    Figure 2: Schematic of updraft and downdraft gasifiers

    Large scale applications of gasifiers include comprehensive versions of the small scale updraft and downdraft technologies, and fluidized bed technologies. The superior heat and mass transfer of fluidized beds leads to relatively uniform temperatures throughout the bed, better fuel moisture utilization, and faster rate of reaction, resulting in higher throughput capabilities.

    Woody Biomass and Sustainability

    Harvesting practices remove only a small portion of branches and tops leaving sufficient biomass to conserve organic matter and nutrients. Moreover, the ash obtained after combustion of biomass compensates for nutrient losses by fertilizing the soil periodically in natural forests as well as fields. The impact of forest biomass utilization on the ecology and biodiversity has been found to be insignificant. In fact, forest residues are environmentally beneficial because of their potential to replace fossil fuels as an energy source.

    Plantation of energy crops on abandoned agricultural land will lead to an increase in species diversity. The creation of structurally and species diverse forests helps in reducing the impacts of insects, diseases and weeds. Similarly the artificial creation of diversity is essential when genetically modified or genetically identical species are being planted. Short-rotation crops give higher yields than forests so smaller tracts are needed to produce biomass which results in the reduction of area under intensive forest management. An intelligent approach in forest management will go a long way in the realization of sustainability goals.

    Improvements in agricultural practices promises to increased biomass yields, reductions in cultivation costs, and improved environmental quality. Extensive research in the fields of plant genetics, analytical techniques, remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) will immensely help in increasing the energy potential of biomass feedstock.

    Bioenergy systems offer significant possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to their immense potential to replace fossil fuels in energy production. Biomass reduces emissions and enhances carbon sequestration since short-rotation crops or forests established on abandoned agricultural land accumulate carbon in the soil. Bioenergy usually provides an irreversible mitigation effect by reducing carbon dioxide at source, but it may emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels unless biomass fuels are produced unsustainably.


    Biomass can play a major role in reducing the reliance on fossil fuels by making use of thermo-chemical conversion technologies. In addition, the increased utilization of biomass-based fuels will be instrumental in safeguarding the environment, generation of new job opportunities, sustainable development and health improvements in rural areas. The development of efficient biomass handling technology, improvement of agro-forestry systems and establishment of small and large-scale biomass-based power plants can play a major role in rural development. Biomass energy could also aid in modernizing the agricultural economy. A large amount of energy is expended in the cultivation and processing of crops like sugarcane, coconut, and rice which can met by utilizing energy-rich residues for electricity production. The integration of biomass-fuelled gasifiers in coal-fired power stations would be advantageous in terms of improved flexibility in response to fluctuations in biomass availability and lower investment costs. The growth of the bioenergy industry can also be achieved by laying more stress on green power marketing.

    Gopinath S
    +91 99161 29728


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