About Salman Zafar

Salman Zafar is the CEO of BioEnergy Consult, and an international consultant, advisor and trainer with expertise in waste management, biomass energy, waste-to-energy, environment protection and resource conservation. His geographical areas of focus include Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Salman has successfully accomplished a wide range of projects in the areas of biogas technology, biomass energy, waste-to-energy, recycling and waste management. Salman has participated in numerous national and international conferences all over the world. He is a prolific environmental journalist, and has authored more than 300 articles in reputed journals, magazines and websites. In addition, he is proactively engaged in creating mass awareness on renewable energy, waste management and environmental sustainability through his blogs and portals. Salman can be reached at salman@bioenergyconsult.com or salman@cleantechloops.com.

The Concept of Biorefinery

A biorefinery is a facility that integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, power, and value-added chemicals from biomass. Biorefinery is analogous to today’s petroleum refinery, which produces multiple fuels and products from petroleum. By producing several products, a biorefinery takes advantage of the various components in biomass and their intermediates, therefore maximizing the value derived from the biomass feedstock.

A biorefinery could, for example, produce one or several low-volume, but high-value, chemical products and a low-value, but high-volume liquid transportation fuel such as biodiesel or bioethanol. At the same time, it can generate electricity and process heat, through CHP technology, for its own use and perhaps enough for sale of electricity to the local utility. The high value products increase profitability, the high-volume fuel helps meet energy needs, and the power production helps to lower energy costs and reduce GHG emissions from traditional power plant facilities.

Biorefinery Platforms

There are several platforms which can be employed in a biorefinery with the major ones being the sugar platform and the thermochemical platform (also known as syngas platform).

Sugar platform biorefineries breaks down biomass into different types of component sugars for fermentation or other biological processing into various fuels and chemicals. On the other hand, thermochemical biorefineries transform biomass into synthesis gas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide) or pyrolysis oil.

The thermochemical biomass conversion process is complex, and uses components, configurations, and operating conditions that are more typical of petroleum refining. Biomass is converted into syngas, and syngas is converted into an ethanol-rich mixture. However, syngas created from biomass contains contaminants such as tar and sulphur that interfere with the conversion of the syngas into products. These contaminants can be removed by tar-reforming catalysts and catalytic reforming processes. This not only cleans the syngas, it also creates more of it, improving process economics and ultimately cutting the cost of the resulting ethanol.

Plus Points

Biorefineries can help in utilizing the optimum energy potential of organic wastes and may also resolve the problems of waste management and GHGs emissions. Biomass wastes can be converted, through appropriate enzymatic/chemical treatment, into either gaseous or liquid fuels. The pre-treatment processes involved in biorefining generate products like paper-pulp, HFCS, solvents, acetate, resins, laminates, adhesives, flavour chemicals, activated carbon, fuel enhancers, undigested sugars etc. which generally remain untapped in the traditional processes. The suitability of this process is further enhanced from the fact that it can utilize a variety of biomass resources, whether plant-derived or animal-derived.

Future Perspectives

The concept of biorefinery is still in early stages at most places in the world. Problems like raw material availability, feasibility in product supply chain, scalability of the model are hampering its development at commercial-scales. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of USA is leading the front in biorefinery research with path-breaking discoveries and inventions. Although the technology is still in nascent stages, but it holds the key to the optimum utilization of wastes and natural resources that humans have always tried to achieve. The onus now lies on governments and corporate sector to incentivize or finance the research and development in this highly promising field.

Biobutanol as a Biofuel

The major techno-commercial limitations of existing biofuels has catalyzed the development of advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol, biobutanol and mixed alcohols. Biobutanol is generating good deal of interest as a potential green alternative to petroleum fuels. It is increasingly being considered as a superior automobile fuel in comparison to bioethanol as its energy content is higher. The problem of demixing that is encountered with ethanol-petrol blends is considerably less serious with biobutanol-petrol blends. Besides, it reduces the harmful emissions substantially. It is less corrosive and can be blended in any concentration with petrol (gasoline). Several research studies suggest that butanol can be blended into either petrol or diesel to as much as 45 percent without engine modifications or severe performance degradation.

Production of Biobutanol

Biobutanol is produced by microbial fermentation, similar to bioethanol, and can be made from the same range of sugar, starch or cellulosic feedstocks. The most commonly used microorganisms are strains of Clostridium acetobutylicum and Clostridium beijerinckii. In addition to butanol, these organisms also produce acetone and ethanol, so the process is often referred to as the “ABE fermentation”.

The main concern with Clostridium acetobutylicum is that it easily gets poisoned at concentrations above 2% of biobutanol in the fermenting mixture. This hinders the production of bio-butanol in economically viable quantities. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in biobutanol due to increasing petroleum prices and search for clean energy resources. Researchers have made significant advances in designing new microorganisms capable of surviving in high butanol concentrations. The new genetically modified micro-organisms have the capacity to degrade even the cellulosic feedstocks.

Latest Trends

Biobutanol production is currently more expensive than bioethanol which has hampered its commercialization. However, biobutanol has several advantages over ethanol and is currently the focus of extensive research and development. There is now increasing interest in use of biobutanol as a transport fuel. As a fuel, it can be transported in existing infrastructure and does not require flex-fuel vehicle pipes and hoses. Fleet testing of biobutanol has begun in the United States and the European Union. A number of companies are now investigating novel alternatives to traditional ABE fermentation, which would enable biobutanol to be produced on an industrial scale.

MSW to Energy at a Glance

MSW-to-Energy is the use of thermochemical and biochemical technologies to recover energy, usually in the form of electricity and steam, from urban wastes. These new technologies can reduce the volume of the original waste by 90%, depending upon composition and use of outputs. The main categories of MSW-to-energy technologies are physical technologies, which process waste to make it more useful as fuel; thermal technologies, which can yield heat, fuel oil, or syngas from both organic and inorganic wastes; and biological technologies, in which bacterial fermentation is used to digest organic wastes to yield fuel.

Components of MSW-to-Energy Systems

  1. Front-end MSW preprocessing
  2. Conversion unit (reactor or anaerobic digester)
  3. Gas cleanup and residue treatment plant
  4. Energy recovery plant (optional)
  5. Emissions clean up

Incineration

  • Combustion of raw MSW, moisture less than 50%
  • Sufficient amount of oxygen is required to fully oxidize the fuel
  • Combustion temperatures are in excess of 850oC
  • Waste is converted into CO2 and water concern about toxics (dioxin, furans)
  • Any non-combustible materials (inorganic such as metals, glass) remain as a solid, known as bottom ash (used as feedstock in cement and brick manufacturing)
  • Fly ash APC (air pollution control residue) particulates, etc
  • Needs high calorific value waste to keep combustion process going, otherwise requires high energy for maintaining high temperatures

Anaerobic Digestion

  •  Well-known biochemical technology for organic fraction of MSW and domestic sewage.
  • Biological conversion of biodegradable organic materials in the absence of oxygen at mesophilic or thermophilic temperatures.
  • Residue is stabilized organic matter that can be used as soil amendment
  • Digestion is used primarily to reduce quantity of sludge for disposal / reuse
  • Methane gas is generated which is used for heat and power generation.

Gasification

  • Can be seen as between pyrolysis and combustion (incineration) as it involves partial oxidation.
  • Exothermic process (some heat is required to initialize and sustain the gasification process).
  • Oxygen is added but at low amounts not sufficient for full oxidation and full combustion.
  • Temperatures are above 650oC
  • Main product is syngas, typically has net calorific value of 4 to 10 MJ/Nm3
  • Other product is solid residue of non-combustible materials (ash) which contains low level of carbon

Pyrolysis

  • Thermal degradation of organic materials through use of indirect, external source of heat
  • Temperatures between 300 to 850oC are maintained for several seconds in the absence of oxygen.
  • Product is char, oil and syngas composed primarily of O2, CO, CO2, CH4 and complex hydrocarbons.
  • Syngas can be utilized for energy production or proportions can be condensed to produce oils and waxes
  • Syngas typically has net calorific value (NCV) of 10 to 20 MJ/Nm

Plasma Gasification

  • Use of electricity passed through graphite or carbon electrodes, with steam and/or oxygen / air injection to produce electrically conducting gas (plasma)
  • Temperatures are above 3000oC
  • Organic materials are converted to syngas composed of H2, CO
  • Inorganic materials are converted to solid slag
  • Syngas can be utilized for energy production or proportions can be condensed to produce oils and waxes
  •  

MSW-to-energy technologies can address a host of environmental issues, such as land use and pollution from landfills, and increasing reliance on fossil fuels. In many countries, the availability of landfill capacity has been steadily decreasing due to regulatory, planning and environmental permitting constraints. As a result, new approaches to waste management are rapidly being written into public and institutional policies at local, regional and national levels.

Anaerobic Digestion of Tannery Wastes

The conventional leather tanning technology is highly polluting as it produces large amounts of organic and chemical pollutants. Wastes generated by tanneries pose a major challenge to the environment. Anaerobic digestion of tannery wastes is an attractive method to recover energy from tannery wastes.

According to conservative estimates, more than 600,000 tons per year of solid waste are generated worldwide by leather industry and approximately 40–50% of the hides are lost to shavings and trimmings. Everyday a huge quantity of solid waste, including trimmings of finished leather, shaving dusts, hair, fleshing, trimming of raw hides and skins, are being produced from the industries. Chromium, sulphur, oils and noxious gas (methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulphide) are the elements of liquid, gas and solid waste of tannery industries.

Biogas from Tannery Wastes

Anaerobic digestion (or biomethanation) systems are mature and proven processes that have the potential to convert tannery wastes into energy efficiently, and achieve the goals of pollution prevention/reduction, elimination of uncontrolled methane emissions and odour, recovery of biomass energy potential as biogas, production of stabilized residue for use as low grade fertilizer.

Anaerobic digestion of tannery wastes is an attractive method to recover energy from tannery wastes. This method degrades a substantial part of the organic matter contained in the sludge and tannery solid wastes, generating valuable biogas, contributing to alleviate the environmental problem, giving time to set-up more sustainable treatment and disposal routes. Digested solid waste is biologically stabilized and can be reused in agriculture.

Until now, biogas generation from tannery wastewater was considered that the complexity of the waste water stream originating from tanneries in combination with the presence of chroming would result in the poisoning of the process in a high loaded anaerobic reactor.

When the locally available industrial wastewater treatment plant is not provided by anaerobic digester, a large scale digestion can be planned in regions accommodating a big cluster of tanneries, if there is enough waste to make the facility economically attractive.

In this circumstance, an anaerobic co-digestion plant based on sludge and tanneries may be a recommendable option, which reduces the quantity of landfilled waste and recovers its energy potential. It can also incorporate any other domestic, industrial or agricultural wastes. Chrome-free digested tannery sludge also has a definite value as a fertilizer based on its nutrient content.

Potential Applications of Biogas

Biogas produced in anaerobic digesters consists of methane (50%–80%), carbon dioxide (20%–50%), and trace levels of other gases such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen sulfide.  Biogas can be used for producing electricity and heat, as a natural gas substitute and also a transportation fuel. A combined heat and power plant (CHP) not only generates power but also produces heat for in-house requirements to maintain desired temperature level in the digester during cold season.

CHP systems cover a range of technologies but indicative energy outputs per m3 of biogas are approximately 1.7 kWh electricity and 2.5kWh heat. The combined production of electricity and heat is highly desirable because it displaces non-renewable energy demand elsewhere and therefore reduces the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

AD Plant at ECCO’s Tannery (Netherlands)

A highly advanced wastewater treatment plant and biogas system became fully operational in 2012 at ECCO’s tannery in the Netherlands. A large percentage of the waste is piped directly into the wastewater plant to be converted into biogas. This biogas digester provides a source of renewable fuel and also helps to dispose of waste materials by converting waste from both the leather-making processes, and the wastewater treatment plant, into biogas. All excess organic material from the hides is also converted into biogas.

This project enables ECCO Tannery to reduce waste and to substitute virtually all of its consumption of non-renewable natural gas with renewable biogas. The aim is to use more than 40% of the total tannery waste and replace up to 60% of the total natural gas consumption with biogas.