Applications of Biochar

Biochar is a carbon-rich, fine-grained residue which can be produced either by ancient techniques (such as covering burning biomass with soil and allowing it to smoulder) or state-of-the-art modern biomass pyrolysis processes. Combustion and decomposition of woody biomass and agricultural residues results in the emission of a large amount of carbon dioxide. Biochar can store this CO2 in the soil leading to reduction in GHGs emission and enhancement of soil fertility. Biochar holds the promise to tackle chronic human development issues like hunger and food insecurity, low agricultural productivity and soil depletion, deforestation and biodiversity loss, energy poverty, water pollution, air pollution and climate change. Let us have a close look at some of the most promising applications of biochar.

 

Use of biochar in animal farming

At present approx. 90% of the biochar used in Europe goes into animal farming. Different to its application to fields, a farmer will notice its effects within a few days. Whether used in feeding, litter or in slurry treatment, a farmer will quickly notice less smell. Used as a feed supplement, the incidence of diarrhoea rapidly decreases, feed intake is improved, allergies disappear, and the animals become calmer.

In Germany, researchers conducted a controlled experiment in a dairy that was experiencing a number of common health problems: reduced performance, movement disorder, fertility disorders, inflammation of the urinary bladder, viscous salivas, and diarrhoea. Animals were fed different combinations of charcoal, sauerkraut juice or humic acids over periods of 4 to 6 weeks.

Experimenters found that oral application of charcoal (from 200 to 400 g/day), sauerkraut juice and humic acids influenced the antibody levels to C. botulinum, indicating reduced gastrointestinal neurotoxin burden. They found that when the feed supplements were ended, antibody levels increased, indicating that regular feeding of charcoal and other supplements had a tonic effect on cow health.

Biochar as soil conditioner

In certain poor soils (mainly in the tropics), positive effects on soil fertility were seen when applying untreated biochar. These include the higher capacity of the soil to store water, aeration of the soil and the release of nutrients through raising the soil’s pH-value. In temperate climates, soils tend to have humus content of over 1.5%, meaning that such effects only play a secondary role.

Indeed, fresh biochar may adsorb nutrients in the soil, causing at least in the short and medium term – a negative effect on plant growth. These are the reasons why in temperate climates biochar should only be used when first loaded with nutrients and when the char surfaces have been activated through microbial oxidation.

The best method of loading nutrients is to co-compost the char. This involves adding 10–30% biochar (by volume) to the biomass to be composted. Co-composting improves both the biochar and the compost. The resulting compost can be used as a highly efficient substitute for peat in potting soil, greenhouses, nurseries and other special cultures.

Because biochar serves as a carrier for plant nutrients, it can produce organic carbon-based fertilizers by mixing biochar with such organic waste as wool, molasses, ash, slurry and pomace. These are at least as efficient as conventional fertilizers, and have the advantage of not having the well-known adverse effects on the ecosystem. Such fertilizers prevent the leaching of nutrients, a negative aspect of conventional fertilizers. The nutrients are available as and when the plants need them. Through the stimulation of microbial symbiosis, the plant takes up the nutrients stored in the porous carbon structure and on its surfaces.
A range of organic chemicals are produced during pyrolysis. Some of these remain stuck to the pores and surfaces of the biochar and may have a role in stimulating a plant’s internal immune system, thereby increasing its resistance to pathogens. The effect on plant defence mechanisms was mainly observed when using low temperature biochars (pyrolysed at 350° to 450°C). This potential use is, however, only just now being developed and still requires a lot of research effort.

Biochar as construction material

The two interesting properties of biochar are its extremely low thermal conductivity and its ability to absorb water up to 6 times its weight. These properties mean that biochar is just the right material for insulating buildings and regulating humidity. In combination with clay, but also with lime and cement mortar, biochar can be added to clay at a ratio of up to 50% and replace sand in lime and cement mortars. This creates indoor plasters with excellent insulation and breathing properties, able to maintain humidity levels in a room at 45–70% in both summer and winter. This in turn prevents not just dry air, which can lead to respiratory disorders and allergies, but also dampness and air condensing on the walls, which can lead to mould developing.

As per study by the Ithaka Institute’s biochar-plaster wine cellar and seminar rooms in the Ithaka Journal. Such biochar-mud plaster adsorbs smells and toxins, a property not just benefiting smokers. Biochar-mud plasters can improve working conditions in libraries, schools, warehouses, factories and agricultural buildings.

Biochar is an efficient adsorber of electromagnetic radiation, meaning that biochar-mud plaster can prevent “electrosmog”. Biochar can also be applied to the outside walls of a building by jet-spray technique mixing it with lime. Applied at thicknesses of up to 20 cm, it is a substitute for Styrofoam insulation. Houses insulated this way become carbon sinks, while at the same time having a more healthy indoor climate. Should such a house be demolished at a later date, the biochar-mud or biochar-lime plaster can be recycled as a valuable compost additive.

Biochar as decontaminant

As a soil additive for soil remediation – for use in particular on former mine-works, military bases and landfill sites.

Soil substrates – Highly adsorbing and effective for plantation soil substrates for use in cleaning wastewater; in particular urban wastewater contaminated by heavy metals.

A barrier preventing pesticides getting into surface water – berms around fields and ponds can be equipped with 30-50 cm deep barriers made of bio-char for filtering out pesticides.

Treating pond and lake water – bio-char is good for adsorbing pesticides and fertilizers, as well as for improving water aeration.

Use of biochar in wastewater treatment – Our Project

The biochar grounded to a particle size of less than 1.5 mm and surface area of 600 – 1000 m2/g. The figure below is the basic representation of production of bio-char for wastewater treatment.

We conducted a study for municipal wastewater which was obtained from a local municipal treatment plant. The municipal wastewater was tested for its physicochemical parameters including pH, chemical oxygen demand (COD), total suspended solids (TSS), total phosphates (TP) and total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN) using the APHA (2005) standard methods.

Bio filtration of the municipal wastewater with biochar acting as the bio adsorbent was allowed to take place over a 5 day period noting the changes in the wastewater parameters. The municipal wastewater and the treated effluent physicochemical.

The COD concentration in the municipal wastewater decreased by 90% upon treatment with bio-char. The decrease in the COD was attributed to the enhanced removal of bio contaminants as they were passed through the bio char due to the bio char’s adsorption properties as well as the high surface area of the bio char. An 89% reduction in the TSS was observed as the bio filtration process with bio char increased from one day to five days

The TKN concentration in the wastewater decreased by 64% upon treatment with bio char as a bio filter. The TP in the wastewater decreased by 78% as the bio filtration time with bio char increase. The wastewater pH changed from being alkaline to neutral during the treatment with bio char over the 5 day period

Use in Textiles

In Japan and China bamboo-based bio-chars are already being woven into textiles to gain better thermal and breathing properties and to reduce the development of odours through sweat. The same aim is pursued through the inclusion of bio-char in shoe soles and socks.

Biofuels from MSW – An Introduction

Nowadays, biofuels are in high demand for transportation, industrial heating and electricity generation. Different technologies are being tested for using MSW as feedstock for producing biofuels. This article will provide brief description of biochemical and thermochemical conversion routes for the production of biofuels from municipal solid wastes.

drop-in-biofuels

Biochemical conversion

The waste is collected and milled, particles are shredded to reduce the size of 0.2-1.22 mm. MSW is pretreated to improve the accessibility of enzymes and make use of the enzymes in the bacteria for biological degradation on solid waste. The mixture of biomass is mixed with sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide and autoclaved. After steam treatment, the mixture is filtered and washed with deionized water. The pre-treated mixture is then dried and drained overnight. The pre-treatment process improves the formation of sugars by enzymatic hydrolysis, avoids the loss of carbohydrate and avoids the formation of by-products inhibitory.

After pre-treatment (pre-hydrolysis), the mixture undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis for conversion of polysaccharides into monomer sugars, such as glucose and xylose. The common enzymes used for starch-based substrates are ?- and ?- amylase, pullulanase, isomylase and glucoamylase. Whereas for lignocellulose based substrates cellulases and ?- glucosidases.

Finally, the mixture is fermented; sugars are converted to ethanol by using microorganisms such as, bacteria, yeast or fungi. The cellulosic and starch hydrolysates ethanolic fermentation were fermented by M. indicus at 37 °C for 72 h. The fungus uses the hexoses and pentoses sugars with a high concentration of inhibitors (i.e. furfural, hydroxymethyl furfural, and acetic acid).

The composition of MSW feedstock effects the yield of the subsequent processes. A high composition of food and vegetable waste is more desirable, as these wastes are easily degradable and result in high yields compared to paper and cardboard.

Thermochemical conversion

Gasification process is carried out by treating carbon-based material with either oxygen or steam to produce a gaseous fuel which requires high temperature and pressure. It can be described as partial oxidation of the waste. At first waste is reduced in size and dried to reduce the amount of energy used in the gasifier.

Biomass_Gasification_Process

Layout of a Typical Biomass Gasification Plant

 

The carbonaceous material oxidizes (combines with oxygen) to produce syngas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen) along with carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, char, slag, and trace gases (depending on the composition of the feedstock). The syngas is then cleaned to remove any sulfur or acid gases and trace metals (depending on the composition of the feedstock).

The main uses of syngas are direct burning on site to provide heat or energy (by using boilers, gas turbines or steam driven engines) and refined to liquid fuels such as gasoline or ethanol.

Syngas can then be converted into biofuels and chemicals via catalytic processes such as the Fischer-Tropsch process. The Fischer-Tropsch process is a series of catalytic chemical reactions that convert syngas into liquid hydrocarbons by applying heat and pressure. Hydrocracking, hydro-treating, and hydro-isomerization can also be part of the “upgrading” process to maximize quantities of different products.

Biochemical Conversion of Biomass

Biochemical conversion of biomass involves use of bacteria, microorganisms and enzymes to breakdown biomass into gaseous or liquid fuels, such as biogas or bioethanol. The most popular biochemical technologies are anaerobic digestion (or biomethanation) and fermentation. 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. Biomass wastes can also yield liquid fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, which can be used to replace petroleum-based fuels.

Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biofertilizer and biogas. Anaerobic digestion is a reliable technology for the treatment of wet, organic waste.  Organic waste from various sources is biochemically degraded in highly controlled, oxygen-free conditions circumstances resulting in the production of biogas which can be used to produce both electricity and heat. 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. A combined heat and power plant system (CHP) not only generates power but also produces heat for in-house requirements to maintain desired temperature level in the digester during cold season. In Sweden, the compressed biogas is used as a transportation fuel for cars and buses. Biogas can also be upgraded and used in gas supply networks.

Working of Anaerobic Digestion Process

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 high proportion of the nutrients remain in the liquor, which can be used as a liquid fertilizer. Many companies are use R&D tax credits to carry out these initiatives.

Biofuel Production

A variety of fuels can be produced from waste resources 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. Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking.

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). Bioethanol production from these feedstocks could be an attractive alternative for disposal of these residues. Importantly, lignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security.

Ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass is produced mainly via biochemical routes. The three major steps involved 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.

Towards Sustainable Biomass Energy

biomass-balesBiomass is one of the oldest and simplest ways of getting heat and energy, and it’s starting to make a comeback due to its status as renewable resource. Some, however, aren’t so sure that using more of it would be good for our environment. So, how sustainable is biomass energy really?

What is Biomass?

Biomass is organic material from plants and animals. It naturally contains energy because plants absorb it from the sun through photosynthesis. When you burn biomass, it releases that energy. It’s also sometimes converted into a liquid or gas form before it is burned.

Biomass includes a wide variety of materials but includes:

  • Wood and wood processing waste
  • Agricultural crops
  • Garbage made up of food, yard and wood waste
  • Animal manure and human sewage

About five percent of the United States’ energy comes from biomass. Biomass fuel products such as ethanol make up about 48 percent of that five percent while wood makes up about 41 percent and municipal waste accounts for around 11 percent.

The Benefits of Biomass

Biomass is a renewable resource because the plants that store the energy released when it is burned can be regrown continuously. In theory, if you planted the same amount of vegetation that you burned, it would be carbon neutral because the plants would absorb all of the carbon released. Doing this is, however, much easier said than done.

Another potential is that it serves as a use for waste materials that have are already been created. It adds value to what otherwise would be purely waste.

Additionally, many forms of biomass are also relatively low-tech energy sources, so they may be useful, or even required for older buildings that need an electrical renovation.

Drawbacks of Biomass

A major drawback of using biomass fuel is that it is not an efficient process. In fact, burning it can release even more carbon dioxide than burning the same amount of a fossil fuel.

While you can replenish the organic matter you burn, doing so requires complex crop or forest management and the use of a large amount of land.  Also, some biomass, such as wood, takes a long time to grow back. This amounts to a delay in carbon absorption. Additionally, the harvesting of biomass will likely involve some sort of emissions.

 Is it Sustainable?

So, is biomass energy sustainable? Measuring the environmental impacts of biomass fuel use has proven to be complex due to the high number of variables, which has led to a lot of disagreement about this question.

Some assert that biomass use cannot be carbon neutral, because even if you burned and planted the same amount of organic matter, harvesting it would still result in some emissions. This could perhaps be avoided if you used renewable energy to harvest it. A continuous supply of biomass would likely require it to be transported long distances, worsening the challenge of going carbon neutral.

With careful planning, responsible land management and environmentally friendly harvesting and distribution, biomass could be close to, if not entirely, carbon neutral and sustainable. Given our reliance on fossil fuels, high energy consumption levels and the limited availability of land and other resources, this would be an immense challenge to undertake and require a complete overhaul of our energy use.

How to Improve the Biomass Industry

Biomass could emerge as a major solution to our energy and sustainability issues, but it isn’t likely to be a comprehensive solution. There are some things we can do, though, to make biomass use more sustainable when we do use it.

  • Source locally: Using biomass that comes from the local area reduces the impact of distributing it.
  • Clean distribution: If you do transport biofuel long distances, using an electric or hybrid vehicles powered largely by clean energy would be the most eco-friendly way to do it. This also applies to transporting it short distances.

Measuring the environmental impacts of biomass fuel use is complex due to high number of variables

  • Clean harvesting: Using environmentally friendly, non-emitting means of harvesting can greatly reduce the impact of using biomass. This might also involve electric vehicles.
  • Manage land sustainably: For biomass to be healthy for the ecosystem, you must manage land used to grow it with responsible farming practices.
  • Focus on waste: Waste is likely the most environmentally friendly form of biomass because it uses materials that would otherwise simply decompose and doesn’t require you to grow any new resources for your fuel or energy needs.

Is biomass energy sustainable? It has the potential to be, but doing so would be quite complex and require quite a bit of resources. Any easier way to address the problem is to look at small areas of land and portions of energy use first. First, make that sustainable and then we may be able to expand that model on to a broader scale.

Unending Benefits of Biomass Energy

Biomass is material originating from plant and animal matter. Biomass energy uses biomass to create energy by burning organic materials. The heat energy released through burning these materials can heat homes or water. Heated water produces steam, which in turn can generate electricity. Using organic materials to create heat and power is an eco-friendlier alternative compared to using fossil fuels.

Indefinitely Renewable

The majority of the world’s energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a finite resource. Once fossil fuel resources run out, new fuel sources will be needed to meet global energy demands. Biomass offers a solution to meet this need.

Organic waste material from agriculture and logging operations, animal manure, and sludge from wastewater treatment are all viable fuels for generating biomass energy. As long as the earth is inhabited, these materials will be readily available.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Waste organic material that would typically be disposed of in landfills could be redirected for biomass energy use. This reduces the amount of material in landfills and slows the rate at which landfills are filled. Some of the most common waste products used for biomass energy are wood chips and agricultural waste products. Wood materials can easily be converted from already existing wood structures that will be destroyed, such as wooden furniture and log cabins, preferably both would also come from responsible logging and practices as well.

As more organic material is diverted from landfills, the number of new landfills needed would be reduced. Older landfills are at risk for leaking leachate. Leachate contains many environmental pollutants that can contaminate groundwater sources.

Burning fossil fuel releases carbon into the atmosphere which was previously trapped below ground. Trapped carbon isn’t at risk for contributing to global climate change since it can’t interact with air. Each time fossil fuels are burned, they allow previously trapped carbon to enter the atmosphere and contribute to global climate change. In comparison, biofuel is carbon-neutral.

The materials used to create biomass energy naturally release carbon into the environment as they decompose. Living plants and trees use carbon dioxide to grow and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide released by burning organic material will be absorbed by existing plants and trees. The biomass cycle is carbon-neutral as no new carbon is introduced to the system.

Smaller Carbon Footprint

The amount of unused farmland is increasing as agriculture becomes more efficient. Maintaining open land is expensive. As a result, farmers are selling off their property for new developments. Unused open agricultural land could be used to grow organic material for biofuels.

Converting open tracts of land to developed areas increases the amount of storm-water runoff. Storm-water runoff from developed areas contains more pollutants than storm-water runoff from undeveloped areas. Using open areas to grow biomass sources instead of creating new developments would reduce water pollution.

Biomass-Resources

A quick glance at popular biomass resources

Forested areas also provide sources of biofuel material. Open land converted to sustainable forestry would create new animal habitats and offset carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel sources as more plants and trees would be available to absorb carbon dioxide.

Societal Benefits

Burning fossil fuels releases sulfur dioxide, mercury and particulate matter into the atmosphere which can cause asthma, cancer and respiratory problems. Biomass energy emits less harmful byproducts compared to fossil fuels, which means cleaner air and healthier people.

Biofuel can improve rural economies by providing more people with unused land the opportunity to grown biomass material for energy use. Workers would be needed to harvest and process the materials needed to generate biofuel.

Since biofuel is a renewable energy source, energy providers can receive tax credits and incentives. Countries with land resources will be less reliant on foreign fossil fuel providers and can improve their local economies.

Increasing biofuel energy usage can reduce forest fires. Selectively reducing brush can still reduce the risk of wildfires spreading. Exposing underbrush and groundcover to rainfall decreases the change of it drying out and creating optimal, fire spreading conditions.

Denmark and Biomass Energy

Denmark is an example of how effective biomass energy can be in developing energy efficiency. Approximately 70 percent of renewable-energy consumption in Denmark comes from biomass.

Woody biomass creates an increasing percentage of heating from combined heat and power (CHP) plants with a goal to for 100 percent of hearing to be derived from woody biomass by 2035. Another form of biomass is agricultural biomass. This form utilizes materials such as straw and corn to create end-products like electricity, heating and biofuels.

The Danish Energy Agency has developed a plan including four scenarios that will help Denmark become fossil fuel free by 2050. The biomass scenario involves CHP for electricity and district heating, indicating that biomass energy is important in Denmark’s energy sector today and will play an increasingly important role in the future.

Biomass offers an eco-friendly and renewable method of reducing pollution and the effects of global climate change. And, like other forms of renewable energy, the products needed to develop biomass energy are readily available.

A Glance at Drop-in Biofuels

drop-in-biofuelsBiofuel commercialization has proved to be costly and lingering than expected due to its high production cost and modification to flexibility in engines. Drop-in fuels are alternatives to existing liquid fuels without any significant modification in engines and infrastructures. According to IEA, “Drop-in biofuels are liquid bio-hydrocarbons that are functionally equivalent to petroleum fuels and are fully compatible with existing petroleum infrastructure”.

What are Drop-in Biofuels

Drop-in biofuels are can be produced from oilseeds via trans-esterification, lignocellulosic biomass via thermochemical process, sugars and alcohol via biochemical conversion or by hybrids of the above methods. Drop-in fuels encompass high hydrogen to carbon ratio with no/low sulfur and oxygen content, low water solubility and high carbon bond saturation. In short drop-in fuel is a modified fuel with close functional resemblance to fossil fuel.

Existing biofuels – bioethanol and biodiesel – have wide variation from fossil fuels in their blend wall properties – high oxygen content, hydrophilicity, energy density and mainly compatibility in existing engines and infrastructures. Oxygenated groups in biofuel have a domino effect such as reduction in the energy density, production of impurities which are highly undesirable to transportation components, instability during storage etc.

Major advantages of drop-in fuels over existing fuels are as follows:

  • Reduced sulphur oxide emissions by ultra low sulphur content.
  • Reduced ignition delay by high cetane value
  • Reduced hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emissions
  • Low aromatic content
  • Low olefin content, presence of olefin compounds undergo auto-oxidation leading to surface depositions.
  • High saturates, therefore leaving minimum residues
  • Low particulate emissions
  • No oxygenates therefore has high stability.

Potential Biomass Feedstock

Drop-in biofuels can be produced from various biomass sources- lipids (vegetable oils, animal fats, greases, and algae) and lignocellulosic material (such as crop residues, woody biomass, and dedicated energy crops). The prominent technologies for biomass conversion to drop-in fuel are the thermochemical and the biochemical process.

The major factor playing role in selection of biomass for thermochemical methods is the energy content or heating value of the material, which is correlated with ash content. Wood, wood chips accounts for less than 1% ash content, which is favorable thermal processing than biochemical process, whereas straws, husks, and majority of the other biomass have ash content ranging up to 25% of dry mass.

Free sugar generating plants such as sugarcane and sweet sorghum, are desirable feedstock for Acetone-Butanol-Ethanol fermentation and have been widely implemented. Presently there is a focus to exploit lignocellulosic residues, rich in hydrocarbon, for fuel production. However, this biomass requires harsh pretreatment to remove lignin and to transform holocellulose (cellulose & hemicelluloses) into fermentable products.

The lignocellulose transformation technology must be circumspectly chosen by its life cycle assessment, as it resists any changes in their structural integrity owing to its complexity. Lignocellulosic biomass, when deoxygenated, has better flexibility to turn to drop-in fuels. This is because, in its native state of the feedstock, each oxygen atom consumes two hydrogen atoms during combustion which in turn reduces effective H: C ratio. Biomass feedstock is characterized with oxygen up to 40%, and higher the oxygen content higher it has to be deoxygenated.

Thermochemical Route

Thermochemical methods adopted for biomass are pyrolysis and gasification, on thermolysis of biomass produce intermediate gas (syngas) and liquid (bio crude) serving as precursors for drop-in fuel. Biomass when exposed to temperature of 500oC-600oC in absence of oxygen (pyrolysis) produce bio-oil, which constitutes a considerable percentage of oxygen. After down streaming by hydroprocessing (hydrotreating and hydrocracking) the rich hydrocarbon tar (bio-oil) can be converted to an efficient precursor for drop-in fuel.

At a higher temperature, above 700, under controlled oxygen, biomass can be converted to liquid fuel via gas phase by the process, gasification. Syngas produced is converted to liquid fuel by Fischer-Tropsch with the help of ‘water gas shift’ for hydroprocessing. Hydroprocessing after the thermochemical method is however costly and complex process in case of pyrolysis and inefficient biomass to fuel yield with gasification process.

Biochemical Pathway

The advanced biocatalytic processes can divert the conventional sugar-ethanol pathway and convert sugars to fatty acids. Modified microbial strain with engineered cellular machineries, can reroute the pathway to free fatty acid that can be transformed into butanol or drop-in fuel with necessary processing.

Schematic for the preparation of jet fuel from biomass

Schematic for the preparation of jet fuel from biomass

Biological processing requires operation under the stressful conditions on the organisms to reroute the pathways, in additional to lowering NADPH (hydrogen) consumption. Other value added products like carboxylic acid, polyols, and alcohol in the same biological routes with lower operational requirements have higher market demands and commercial success. Therefore little attention is given by chemical manufacturers to the biological pathways for drop-in fuel production.

The mechanisms of utilization of lignocellulosic biomass to fuel by biological pathway rely heavily on the availability of monomeric C5 and C6 sugars during fermentation. Ethanol is perhaps the best-known and commercially successful alcohol from ABE fermentation. However, butanol has various significant advantages over ethanol- in the perception of energy content, feasibility to existing infrastructures, zero blend wall, safety and clean aspects. Although butanol is a closer drop-in replacement, existing biofuel ethanol, is a major commercial competitor. Low yield from fermentation due to the toxicity of butanol and complexity in down streaming are the vital reasons that hamper successful large scale butanol production.

Challenges to Overcome

Zero oxygen and sulphur content mark major challenges for production of drop-in fuels from conventional biomass. This demands high hydrogen input on the conventional biomass, with H: C ratio below 0.5, like sugar, starch, cellulose, lignocellulose to meet the effective hydrogen to carbon ratio of 2 as in drop-in fuel. This characterizes most of the existing biomass feedstock as a low-quality input for drop-in fuels. However oleochemicals like fats, oils, and lipids have closer H: C ratio to diesel, gasoline and drop-in fuels, thus easier to conversion. Oleochemical feedstock has been commercially successful, but to prolong in the platform will be a major challenge. Lipid feedstock is generally availed from crop-based vegetable oil, which is used in food sectors. Therefore availability, food security concerns, and economics are the major constraints to sustaining the raw material. Consequently switching to lignocellulosic biomass feedstock for drop-in holds on.

Conclusions

Despite the hurdles on biomass characteristics and process technology for drop-in fuel, it is a vital requirement to switch to better replacement fuel for fossil fuel, considering environmental and economic benefits. Understanding its concepts and features, drop-in fuel, can solve existing greenhouse emission debate on current biofuels. Through crucial ambiguities existing on future of alternative fuels, drop-in fuel has a substantial potential to repute itself as an efficient sustainable eco-friendly fuel in the naear future.

References

  • Neal K Van Alfen: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AGRICULTURE AND FOOD SYSTEMS, Elsevier, Academic Press.
  • Pablo Domínguez de María John: INDUSTRIAL BIORENEWABLES:A Practical Viewpoint: Wiley & Sons.
  • Ram Sarup Singh, Ashok Pandey, Edgard Gnansounou: BIOFUELS- PRODUCTION AND FUTURE PERSPECTIVES, CRC Press.
  • Satinder Kaur Brar, Saurabh Jyoti Sarma, Kannan Pakshirajan : PLATFORM CHEMICAL BIOREFINERY-FUTURE GREEN CHEMISTRY, Elsevier.
  • Sergios Karatzos, James D. McMillan, Jack N. Saddle: Summary of IEA BIOENERGY TASK 39 REPORT-THE POTENTIAL AND CHALLENGES OF DROP-IN BIOFUELS, IEA Bioenergy.
  • Vijai Kumar Gupta, Monika Schmoll, Minna Maki, Maria Tuohy, Marcio Antonio Mazutti: APPLICATIONS OF MICROBIAL ENGINEERING, CRC Press.

Bioethanol: Challenges in India

bioethanol-indiaGlobal demand for fuel efficiency, environmental quality and energy security have elicited global attention towards liquid biofuels, such as bioethanol and biodiesel. Around the world, governments have introduced various policy measurements, mandatory fuel blending programmes, incentives for flex-fuel vehicles and agricultural subsidies for the farmers. In India, the government launched Ethanol Blended Petrol (EBP) programme in January 2013 for 5% ethanol blended petrol. The policy had significant focus on India’s opportunity to agricultural and industrial sectors with motive of boosting biofuel (bioethanol and biodiesel) usage and reducing the existing dependency on fossil fuel.

The Government of India initiated significant investments in improving storage and blending infrastructure. The National Policy on Biofuels has set a target of 20% blending of biofuel by 2017. However, India has managed to achieve only 5% by September 2016 due to certain technical, market and regulatory hurdles.

In India, sugarcane molasses is the major resource for bioethanol production and inconsistency of raw material supply holds the major liability for sluggish response to blending targets.  Technically speaking, blend wall and transportation-storage are the major challenges towards the biofuel targets. Blending wall is the maximum percent of ethanol that can be blended to fuel without decreasing the fuel efficiency.

Various vehicles are adaptable to various blending ratio based on the flexibility of engines. The technology for the engine modification for flex fuel is not new but making the engines available in India along with the supply chain and calibrating the engine for Indian conditions is the halting phase. The commonly used motor vehicles in the country are not effectual with flex fuel.

Sugarcane molasses is the most common feedstock for bioethanol production in India

Sugarcane molasses is the most common feedstock for bioethanol production in India

Ethanol being a highly flammable liquid marks obligatory safety and risk assessment measures during all phases of production, storage and transportation. The non-uniform distribution of raw material throughout the country, demands a compulsory transportation and storage, especially inter-state movement, encountering diverse climatic and topographic conditions.

Major ethanol consumers in India are potable liquor sector (45%), alcohol based chemical industry (40%), the rest for blending and other purposes. The yearly profit elevation in major sectors is a dare to an economical ethanol supply for Ethanol Blending Programme. Drastic fluctuation in pricing of sugar cane farming and sugar milling resulted to huge debt to farmers by mill owners. Gradually the farmers shifted from sugarcane cultivation other crops.

Regulatory and policy approaches on excise duty on storage and transportation of ethanol and pricing strategy of ethanol compared to crude oil are to be revised and implemented effectively. Diversifying the feedstocks (especially use of lignocellulosic biomass) and advanced technology for domestic ethanol production in blending sectors are to be fetched out from research laboratories to commercial scale. Above all the knowledge of economic and environmental benefits of biofuel like reduction in pollutants and import bills and more R&D into drop-in biofuels, need to be amplified for the common man.

Biomass Energy in Nigeria: An Overview

biomass-sustainabilityOil and gas accounts for over 70% of energy consumed in Nigeria, according to the World Bank. Considering this dependency on fossil oil and possibility of it running out in the future, there should be an urgent intervention to look into other ways to generate energy in Nigeria. The world is moving away gradually from fossil oil and aligning towards sustainable energy resources to substitute conventional fuel, Nigeria should not be exempted from this movement. Biomass, a popular form of renewable energy, is considered as a credible and green alternative source of energy which many developed and developing countries have been maximizing to its potential.

Power generation and supply have been inadequate in Nigeria. This inadequacy of power limits human, commercial and industrial productivity and economic growth . What is the use of infrastructure without constant electricity? Even God created light first. Sustainable and constant supply of power should be one of the priority of government in nation development. Investing in biomass will cause an increase in the amount of power generated in Nigeria. Infact, biomass energy has the potential to resolve the energy crisis in the country in the not so distant future.

What is Biomass

The word biomass refers to organic matter (mainly plants) which acts as a source of sustainable and renewable energy. It is a renewable energy source because the plants can be replaced as oppose to the conventional fossil fuel which is not renewable. Biomass energy is a transferred energy from the sun; plants derives energy from the sun through photosynthesis which is further transferred through the food chain to animals’ bodies and their waste.

Biomass has the potential to provide an affordable and sustainable source of energy, while at the same time help in curbing the green house effect. In India the total biomass generation capacity is 8,700 MW according to U.S. of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, whereas the generating capacity in U.S. is 20,156  MW with 178 biomass power plants, according to Biomass Magazine.

Power Sector in Nigeria

Unfortunately, the total installed electricity capacity generated in Nigeria is 12,522MW, well below the current demand of 98,000MW . The actual output is about 3,800MW, resulting in a demand shortfall of 94,500MW throughout the country. As a result of this wide gap between demand and output, only 45% of Nigeria’s population has access to electricity. Renewable energy contributed 19% of total electricity generated in Nigeria out of which biomass contribution is infinitesimal.

Electricity generation for Nigeria’s grid is largely dominated by two sources; non-renewable thermal (natural gas and coal) and renewable (hydro). Nigeria depends on non-renewable energy despite its vast potential in renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass and hydro. The total potential of these renewables is estimated at over 68,000MW, which is more than five times the current power output.

Biomass Resources in Nigeria

Biomass can come in different forms like wood and wood waste, agriculture produce and waste, solid waste.

Wood

Electricity can be generated with wood and wood product/waste(like sawdust) in modern day through cogeneration, gasification or pyrolysis.

Agriculture Residues

In Nigeria, agricultural residues are highly important sources of biomass fuels for both the domestic and industrial sectors. Availability of primary residues for energy application is usually low since collection is difficult and they have other uses as fertilizer, animal feed etc.

However secondary residues are usually available in relatively large quantities at the processing site and may be used as captive energy source for the same processing plant involving minimal transportation and handling cost.

Municipal Solid Waste

Back then in secondary school, I learnt that gas could be tapped from septic tank which could further be used for cooking.  Any organic waste (like animal waste, human waste) when decomposed by anaerobic microorganisms releases biogas which can be tapped and stored for either cooking or to generate electricity.

Biomass can be used to provide heat and electricity as well as biofuel and biogas for transport. There are enough biomass capacity to meet our demand for electricity and other purposes. From climatic point of view, there is a warm climate in Nigeria which is a good breeding ground for bacteria to grow and decompose the wastes. There are plant and animal growth all year round which in turn create waste and consequently produce biomass.

In November 2016, The Ebonyi State Government  took over  the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) demonstration biomass gasifier power plant located at the UNIDO Mini -industrial cluster in Ekwashi Ngbo in Ohaukwu Local Government Area of the State. The power plant is to generate 5.5 Megawatt energy using rice husk and other available waste materials available. More of these type of power plants and commitment are needed to utilize the potential of biomass fully.

Why Biomass Energy?

Since biomass makes use of waste to supply energy, it helps in waste management. It also has the potential to supply more energy (10 times) than the one produced from sun and wind. Biomass will lead to increase in revenue generation and conserves our foreign exchange. Increase in energy generation will yield more productivity for industries and the rate at which they are shutting down due to the fact that they spend more on power will be reduced to minimal.

Many local factories/companies will spring up and foreign investors will be eager to invest in Nigeria with little concern about power. Establishment of biopower plants will surely create more jobs and indirectly reduce the number of people living in poverty which is increasing everyday at an alarming rate.

Africa’s most populous country needs more than 10 times its current electricity output to guarantee supply for its 198 million people – nearly half of whom have no access at all, according to power minister Babatunde Fashola. Biomass energy potential in Nigeria is promising –  with heavy investment, stake holder cooperation and development of indigenous technologies. The deployment of large-scale biomass energy systems will not only significantly increase Nigeria’s electricity capacity but also ease power shortages in the country.

Is Green Car Fuel A Reality?

drop-in-biofuelsVehicles remain a huge global pollutant, pumping out 28.85Tg of CO2 in Maharashtra alone, according to a study by the Indian Institute for Science in Bangalore. However, vehicles cannot be discarded, as they form the lifeblood of the country’s towns and cities. Between electric vehicles and hybrids, work is being done to help rectify the situation by making use of green car fuel and technological advancements.

Emissions continue to be a huge issue, and there are two main options for helping to rectify that. The first is electric, which is seeing widespread adoption; and the second, biomass fuel, for more traditional vehicles. Between the two, excellent progress is being made, but there’s much more to be done.

How electric is helping

Electric cars are favoured heavily by the national authorities. A recent Times of India report outlined how the government is aiming for an all-electric vehicle fleet by 2030 and is pushing this through with up to US$16m of electric vehicle grants this year. Green vehicles are obviously a great choice, improving in-city noise and air pollution whilst providing better vehicular safety to boot; a study by the USA’s MIT suggested that electric vehicles are all-around safer than combustion.

However, where EVs fall down to some extent is through the energy they use. As they are charged from the electricity grid, this means that the electricity is largely derived from fossil fuels – official statistics show that India is 44% powered by coal. Ultimately, however, this does mean that emissions are reduced. Fuel is only burned at one source, and oil refining isn’t done at all, which is another source of pollutants. However, as time goes on and the government’s energy policy changes, EVs will continue to be a great option.

The role of biofuels

Biofuels are seeing a huge growth in use – BP has reported that globally, ethanol production grew 3% in 2017. Biofuel is commonly a more favoured option by the big energy companies given the infrastructure often available already to them. While biofuel has been slow on the uptake in India, despite the massive potential available for production, there are now signs this is turning around with the construction of two US$790m biofuel facilities.

Biofuels are increasingly being used to power vehicles around the world

The big benefit of biofuel is that it will have a positive impact on combustion and electric vehicles. The Indian government has stated they intend to use biofuel alongside coal production, with as much as 10% of energy being created using biofuel. Therefore, despite not being emission-free, biofuel will provide a genuine green energy option to both types of eco-friendly vehicle.

Green car fuel is not entirely clean. The energy has to come from somewhere, and in India, this is usually from coal, gas, and oil. However, the increase in biofuel means that this energy will inevitably get cleaner, making green car fuel absolutely a reality.

Role of Biomass Energy in Rural Development

biomass-balesBiomass energy systems not only offer significant possibilities for clean energy production and agricultural waste management but also foster sustainable development in rural areas. The increased utilization of biomass wastes will be instrumental in safeguarding the environment, generation of new job opportunities, sustainable development and health improvements in rural areas.

Biomass energy has the potential to modernize the agricultural economy and catalyze rural development. The development of efficient biomass handling technology, improvement of agro-forestry systems and establishment of small, medium and large-scale biomass-based power plants can play a major role in rural development.

Sustainable 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.

Planting of energy crops on abandoned agricultural lands 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.

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.

Rural areas are the preferred hunting ground for the development of biomass sector worldwide. By making use of various biological and thermal processes (anaerobic digestion, combustion, gasification, pyrolysis), agricultural wastes can be converted into biofuels, heat or electricity, and thus catalyzing sustainable development of rural areas economically, socially and environmentally.

Biomass energy can reduce 'fuel poverty' in remote and isolated communities

Biomass energy can reduce ‘fuel poverty’ in remote and isolated communities

A large amount of energy is utilized in the cultivation and processing of crops like sugarcane, wheat and rice which can met by utilizing energy-rich residues for electricity production. The integration of biomass-fueled 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.

There are many areas in India where people still lack access to electricity and thus face enormous hardship in day-to-day lives. Biomass energy promises to reduce ‘fuel poverty’ commonly prevalent among remote and isolated communities.  Obviously, when a remote area is able to access reliable and cheap energy, it will lead to economic development and youth empowerment.