A wide range of technologies are available for realizing the energy potential of biomass wastes, ranging from very simple systems for disposing of dry waste to more complex technologies capable of dealing with large amounts of industrial waste. Conversion routes for biomass wastes are generally thermo-chemical or bio-chemical, but may also include chemical and physical.
The three principal methods of thermo-chemical conversion corresponding to each of these energy carriers are combustion in excess air, gasification in reduced air, and pyrolysis in the absence of air. Direct combustion is the best established and most commonly used technology for converting wastes to heat. During combustion, biomass is burnt in excess air to produce heat. The first stage of combustion involves the evolution of combustible vapours from wastes, which burn as flames. Steam is expanded through a conventional turbo-alternator to produce electricity. The residual material, in the form of charcoal, is burnt in a forced air supply to give more heat.
Co-firing or co-combustion of biomass wastes with coal and other fossil fuels can provide a short-term, low-risk, low-cost option for producing renewable energy while simultaneously reducing the use of fossil fuels. Co-firing involves utilizing existing power generating plants that are fired with fossil fuel (generally coal), and displacing a small proportion of the fossil fuel with renewable biomass fuels. Co-firing has the major advantage of avoiding the construction of new, dedicated, waste-to-energy power plant. An existing power station is modified to accept the waste resource and utilize it to produce a minor proportion of its electricity.
Gasification systems operate by heating biomass wastes in an environment where the solid waste breaks down to form a flammable gas. The gasification of biomass takes place in a restricted supply of air or oxygen at temperatures up to 1200–1300°C. The gas produced—synthesis gas, or syngas—can be cleaned, filtered, and then burned in a gas turbine in simple or combined-cycle mode, comparable to LFG or biogas produced from an anaerobic digester. The final fuel gas consists principally of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane with small amounts of higher hydrocarbons. This fuel gas may be burnt to generate heat; alternatively it may be processed and then used as fuel for gas-fired engines or gas turbines to drive generators. In smaller systems, the syngas can be fired in reciprocating engines, micro-turbines, Stirling engines, or fuel cells.
Pyrolysis is thermal decomposition occurring in the absence of oxygen. During the pyrolysis process, biomass waste is heated either in the absence of air (i.e. indirectly), or by the partial combustion of some of the waste in a restricted air or oxygen supply. This results in the thermal decomposition of the waste to form a combination of a solid char, gas, and liquid bio-oil, which can be used as a liquid fuel or upgraded and further processed to value-added products.
Biochemical processes, like anaerobic digestion, can also produce clean energy in the form of biogas which can be converted to power and heat using a gas engine. Anaerobic digestion is a series of chemical reactions during which organic material is decomposed through the metabolic pathways of naturally occurring microorganisms in an oxygen depleted environment. In addition, wastes can also yield liquid fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel, which can be used to replace petroleum-based fuels.
Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biogas and biofertilizer. Almost any organic material can be processed with anaerobic digestion. This includes biodegradable waste materials such as municipal solid waste, animal manure, poultry litter, food wastes, sewage and industrial wastes. An anaerobic digestion plant produces two outputs, biogas and digestate, both can be further processed or utilized to produce secondary outputs. Biogas can be used for producing electricity and heat, as a natural gas substitute and also a transportation fuel. Digestate can be further processed to produce liquor and a fibrous material. The fiber, which can be processed into compost, is a bulky material with low levels of nutrients and can be used as a soil conditioner or a low level fertilizer.
A variety of fuels can be produced from biomass wastes including liquid fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen and methane. The resource base for biofuel production is composed of a wide variety of forestry and agricultural resources, industrial processing residues, and municipal solid and urban wood residues. The largest potential feedstock for ethanol is lignocellulosic biomass wastes, which includes materials such as agricultural residues (corn stover, crop straws and bagasse), herbaceous crops (alfalfa, switchgrass), short rotation woody crops, forestry residues, waste paper and other wastes (municipal and industrial). The three major steps involved in cellulosic ethanol production are pretreatment, enzymatic hydrolysis, and fermentation. Biomass is pretreated to improve the accessibility of enzymes. After pretreatment, biomass undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis for conversion of polysaccharides into monomer sugars, such as glucose and xylose. Subsequently, sugars are fermented to ethanol by the use of different microorganisms. Bioethanol production from these feedstocks could be an attractive alternative for disposal of these residues. Importantly, lignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security.