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.


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.

Tackling China’s Smog Problem with Renewable Energy

smog-chinaChina is currently facing serious environmental problems, with potentially few solutions. Currently, this is mostly taking the form of serious smog issues plaguing North China, with more than 24 cities on red alert. However, with airports being shut down due to lacking visibility and the economy of China being heavily disrupted, action needs to be taken to solve this serious smog problem.

While limited action has been taken, perhaps renewable energy is the key to cutting down China’s smog.

How Bad Is the Problem?

The smog problem in China has become increasing worse from 2015 to 2017, with more than 90 micrograms of pollution per meter squared. These levels of air pollution are similar to the levels recorded previous to 2014, when the Chinese premier declared a war on pollution due to the health dangers posed by rising air pollution levels.

However, since 2015, levels of air pollution have risen once again. This pollution has had hard hitting effects on urban areas, especially the Chinese capital Beijing, and has caused widespread disruption to the lives of Chinese citizens and economy of the country.

The air pollution leads to the cities becoming hotter than ever. Urban Heat Island effect, which refers to buildings absorbing the sun’s heat well, is exacerbated by the smog. In fact, a car in the heat can reach temperatures of 114 degrees Fahrenheit after just 20 minutes, making travelling on hot days nearly unbearable for any living creature. In order to decrease the heated condition of China, it is essential to decrease the amount of smog covering the cities.

What Has the Chinese Government Done?

The Chinese government has taken limited action in an attempt to minimize the air pollution being created in the country. This includes the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Plan, which acknowledged the danger posed by air pollution levels and aimed to reduce coal usage in urban areas like Beijing.

However, this is not representative of the main action the government has taken. Primarily, the Chinese government has focused on individual areas and attempting to reduce local pollution levels through efficient coal burning and banning the burning of waste materials, especially on farms. These solutions, while effective on a short-term basis, are not all that is needed, though.

Investment in renewables can reduce China's dependence on coal for power generation

Investment in renewables can reduce China’s dependence on coal for power generation

China needs to reduce its overall usage of coal produced energy, which currently stands at 64 percent of total energy consumption. While this has already been happening in China, the further introduction of renewable energy could be of great help to China’s pollution levels.

How Could Renewable Energy Help?

Many people believe renewable energy to be a small affair, something undertaken by the Western world in a vain attempt to reduce our collective guilt concerning climate change and wastage levels. This is simply not the case. Renewable energy is a $120 billion industry that receives investment and application across the world. This includes solar energy, waste-to-energy technology, wind energy, hydroelectric energy and many more attempts to reduce overall energy usage.

Through investment in renewable energy, China could reduce its dependence on coal and increase the efficiency of its energy production and economy. Smog is directly created by China’s use of coal for its energy production, and by investing in other renewable means, China can simultaneously improve its health situation.

In fact, the obviously positive nature of investment in renewable energy can be clearly seen through the Chinese government’s already existing plans to further incorporate it into the economy. In the five-year plan announced in 2016, the Chinese government explicitly stated it would decrease air pollution levels through investment in wind, solar and biomass energy production technologies.

While the plans additionally included investment in making the coal industry more efficient and reducing emissions on an industrial and commercial level, clearly renewable energy is believed to be a valid alternative energy source.

Overall, it is clear that renewable energy can certainly help with China’s serious smog problem. Whether this should be in tangent with further investment in the coal industry or necessitate the end of widespread coal usage in China is still a question for debate.

About the Author

Emily Folk is freelance writer and blogger on topics of renewable energy and conservation. To get her latest posts, check out her blog Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter.

Renewable Energy and its Applications

renewables-applicationsRenewable energy. Clean energy. Green energy. Sustainable energy. Alternative Energy. Renewal Energy. No matter what you call it, energy such as wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric is having an impact on your life and could have an even bigger impact in the future. Renewable energy, in the most basic terms, is precisely what it sounds like. It’s power that comes from sources that regenerate, unlike fossil fuels, which only exist in a limited amount.

From 2000 to 2016, the use of renewables in the United States more than doubled and is expected to continue to grow. In 2016, they made up about 10 percent of total energy consumption and 15 percent of electricity generation. Consumption of renewable energy has grown in large part due to government incentives and requirements for renewable energy and the desire to switch to cleaner fuel in order to protect the environment.

There are a number of different sources of renewable energy in use today. Here are some of the most common ones.

Solar Energy

The U.S. solar industry has grown at an average annual rate of 68 percent over the last decade in the form of rooftop solar panels for individual buildings, solar farms built by utility companies and community solar projects, which produce solar for energy users in a certain area through a collection of solar panels.

Solar photovoltaic panels capture sunlight and convert it directly into electricity, which can power a small device such as a watch or sent into the grid to be distributed to a utility’s customers.

Wind Energy

People have been using windmills to utilize the wind’s energy for a long time, but today wind turbines are used to capture that energy and turn it into electricity. There are approximately 53,000 wind turbines operating in the United States today.

Wind turbines consist of a large tower, which is often around 100 feet tall, and several blades that use the power of the wind to spin. The blades are connected to a shaft that spins a generator in order to create electricity.

Like solar energy, power generated with wind can either be used for a specific application such as pumping water or powering a farm, or transferred into the electrical grid to meet other energy needs.

Biomass Energy

Biomass is another common form of renewable energy. Biomass is any natural substance such as wood, plant matter, gas from landfills and even municipal solid waste that contains stored energy from the sun.

When those substances are burned, they release that energy, which can be used as heat or fuel. Biomass can also be made into a liquid or gas that can be used as fuel.

Bioliquids, such as ethanol and biodiesel, are frequently used to power vehicles. Around 40 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. today is used for biofuels. Researchers are currently exploring new ways biomass can be used and additional substances that could be used for biomass energy.

Hydro Energy

Hydropower, energy generated with water, is one of the oldest and the most common renewable energy resource in the U.S., making up 6.5 percent of utility-scale electricity generation and 44 percent of generated renewable energy.

When water flows, it produces energy. We capture this energy by allowing moving water in rivers, waterfalls or elsewhere to turn generators that produce electricity. Hydroelectric plants can also be man-made, as is the case with dams. Man-made reservoirs hold water through the use of dams. That water is then released to flow through a turbine and create electricity.

Benefits Galore

The main benefit of renewable energy sources is the fact that they release very little greenhouse gases and so are better for the environment. Because electricity makes up the largest share of our greenhouse gas emissions, changing how we get our energy is crucial in the fight against global warming.

Biofuels are increasingly being used to power vehicles

Biofuels are increasingly being used to power vehicles

Another key advantage is the fact that they are renewable, which means we won’t ever run out of them. This stability could make access to energy more stable in the future. It can also keep energy prices more predictable, because the markets are subject to changes in supply.

Renewable energy is also flexible and can power large areas or single homes. Additionally, renewable energy projects create a number of well-paying jobs and tend to have a significant economic impact.

Key Drawbacks

Just like with fossil fuels, there are some disadvantages as well. Renewable energy plants are subject to fluctuations in wind, sunlight and other natural resources, meaning some days or in some particular months, a facility might produce more electricity than others. Today, in areas where renewables are common, fossil fuels are often used to make up any shortcoming in renewable energy production.

Due to their reliance on natural occurrences, renewables may fare better in some areas than others. An area with lots of direct sun all day long will be more suitable for a solar plant than somewhere that’s often dark and cloudy. Renewable energy farms also often require large areas of land, and while renewable energy tends to be cheap, initial construction and development costs can be quite high.

Despite these disadvantages, renewables are proving an important part of the energy mix of today and of the future, especially in the face of environmental concerns and worry about the availability of fossil fuels. Chances are we won’t see the end of the growing renewable energy industry any time soon.

About the Author

Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on topics of renewable energy and conservation. To get her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter.

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 cellulosic 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.


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.


  • 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.

Biomass Market in Japan: Perspectives

Biomass-Power-Plant-JapanBiomass is being increasingly used in power plants in Japan as a source of fuel, particularly after the tragic accident at Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011.  Palm kernel shell (PKS) has emerged as a favorite choice of biomass-based power plants in the country. Most of these biomass power plants use PKS as their energy source, and only a few operate with wood pellets. Interestingly, most of the biomass power plants in Japan have been built after 2015.

Palm Kernel Shells

Palm Kernel Shell is generating very good traction as a renewable energy resource and biomass commodity in Japan. This is because PKS is the cheapest biomass fuel and is available in large quantities across Southeast Asia. PKS, a biomass waste generated by palm oil mills, can be found in plentiful quantities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

PKS must meet the specifications before being exported to Japan. Some key specifications for PKS exports are: moisture content, calorific value and impurities or contaminants (foreign materials). All three variables must meet a certain level to achieve export quality. Japanese markets or their consumers generally require contaminants from 0.5 to 2%, while European 2% – 3%. Japan usually buys with a volume of 10,000 tonnes per shipment, so PKS suppliers must prepare a sufficient stockpile of the PKS. The location of PKS stockpile that is closest to the seaport is the ideal condition to facilitate transportation of shipment.

PKS has emerged as an attractive biomass commodity in Japan

PKS has emerged as an attractive biomass commodity in Japan

Wood Pellets

Wood pellets are mostly produced in from wood waste such as sawdust, wood shaving, plywood waste, forestry residues and related materials. The development potential for quantity enlargement is also possible with energy plantations. Technically the properties of wood pellets are not much different from the PKS.

Wood pellet price is more expensive than PKS. Wood pellet production process is more complex than PKS, so wood pellet is categorized as finished product. The quality of wood pellet is generally viewed from its density, calorific value and ash content. Indonesia wood pellet export is not as big as PKS, it is also because of the limited producers of wood pellet itself. Japan buys wood pellets from Indonesia mostly for testing on their biomass power plants. Shipping or export by container is still common in wood pellet sector because the volume is still small. Currently, the world’s leading producer of wood pellets come from North America and Scandinavia. Even for Indonesia itself wood pellet is a new thing, so its production capacity is also not big.

Future Perspectives

For a short-term solution, exporting PKS is a profitable business.  Wood pellets with raw materials from energy plantations by planting the legume types such as calliandra are medium-term solutions to meet biomass fuel needs in Japan.  Torrefaction followed by densification can be a long-term orientation. Torrified pellet is superior to wood pellet because it can save transportation and facilitate handling, are hydrophobic and has higher calorific value.


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 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, sugar cane 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 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, need to be amplified for the common man.

Miscanthus: Reducing the Establishment Costs

Miscanthus-Elephant-GrassMiscanthus has been lauded as a dynamic high potential biomass crop for some time now due to its high yields, low input requirements and perennial nature. Miscanthus is commonly used as a biomass fuel to produce heat and electricity through combustion, but studies have found that miscanthus can produce similar biogas yields to maize when harvested at certain times of the year.  Miscanthus is a C4 grass closely related to maize and sugarcane, it can grow to heights of three metres in a single growing season.

High Establishment Costs

However, high establishment costs have impeded the popularity of the crop. High establishment costs of miscanthus are as a result of the sterile nature of the crop, which means that miscanthus cannot be propagated from seed and instead must be propagated from vegetative material. The vegetative material commonly used is taken from the root structure known as rhizomes; rhizome harvesting is a laborious process and when combined with low multiplication rates, results in a high cost for miscanthus rhizomes. The current figure based on Irish figures is €1,900 ha for rhizomes.

Promising Breakthrough

Research conducted in Teagasc Oak Park Carlow Ireland, suggests that there may be a cost effective of method of propagating miscanthus by using the stem as the vegetative material rather than having to dig up expensive rhizomes. The system has been proven in a field setting over two growing seasons and plants have been shown to be perennial.

A prototype planter suitable for commercial up scaling has been developed to sow stem segments of miscanthus. Initial costs are predicted at €130 ha for plant material. The image below shows the initial stem that was planted in a field setting and the shoots, roots, and rhizome developed by the stem at the end of the first growing season.


Feedstock for AD Plants

Switching from maize to miscanthus as a feedstock for anaerobic digestion plants would increase profitability and boost the GHG abatement credentials of the systems. Miscanthus is a perennial crop which would provide a harvest every year once established for 20 years in a row without having to be replanted compared to maize which is replanted every year. This would provide an obvious economic saving as well as allowing carbon sequestration in the undisturbed soil.

There would be further GHG savings from the reduced diesel consumption required for the single planting as opposed to carrying out heavy seedbed cultivation each year for maize. Miscanthus harvested as an AD feedstock would also alleviate soil compaction problems associated with maize production through an earlier harvest in more favourable conditions.

Future Perspectives

Miscanthus is a nutrient efficient crop due to nutrient cycling. With the onset of senescence nutrients in the stem are transferred back to the rhizome and over-wintered for the following year’s growth. However the optimum date to harvest biomass to produce biogas is before senescence. This would mean that a significant proportion of the plants nutrient stores would be removed which would need to be replaced. Fertiliser in the form of digestate generated from a biogas plant could be land spread to bridge nutrient deficiencies. However additional more readily available chemical N fertiliser may have to be applied.

Some work at Oak Park on September harvested miscanthus crops has seen significant responses from a range of N application rates. With dwindling subsidies to support anaerobic digestion finding a low cost perennial high yielding feedstock could be key to ensuring economic viability.

Renewable Energy in Refugee Camps

dabaab-refugee-campAccess to clean and affordable energy is a prerequisite for sustainable development of mankind, and refugees are no exception. Refugee camps across the world house more than 65 million people, and almost all refugee camps are plagued by fuel poverty. Needless to say, urgent measure are required to make camps livable and sustainable.

Rapid advancements in renewable energy technologies have made it possible to deploy such systems on various scales.  The scalability potential of renewable energy systems makes them well-suited for refugee camps, especially in conflict-afflicted areas of the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Renewable energy in refugee camps can be made available in the form of solar energy, biomass energy and wind energy. Solar panels, solar cooking units, solar lanterns, biomass cookstoves and biogas plants are some of the popular renewable energy technologies that can improve living standards in refugee camps. It is important to focus on specific needs of refugees and customization of technology towards local conditions. For example, solar technologies are better understood than biogas systems in Jordan.

Solar Energy

Solar energy can provide long-term resilience to people living in refugee camps. With many camps effectively transformed into full-fledged towns and cities, it is essential to harness the power of sun to run these camps smoothly. Solar cookers, solar lanterns and solar water heaters are already being used in several refugee camps, and focus has now shifted to grid-connected solar power projects. The 5MW Azraq solar project is the world’s first grid-connected renewable energy project to be established in a refugee camp. The project is being funded entirely by Ikea through the Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign. The program, now in its third year, seeks to improve the lives of refugees around the world by providing access to sustainable energy supplies.

Biomass Energy

Due to lack of land and resources, refugee camps puts tremendous pressure on natural vegetation, especially supply of fuel wood to camp-dwellers. Replacement of traditional stoves with efficient biomass-fired cook stoves can save as much as 80% of cooking fuel. Instead of wood, it would be also be a good option to use agricultural wastes, like husk and straw. Another interesting proposition for refugee camps is to set up small-scale DIY biogas plants, based on human wastes and food residuals. The biogas produced can be used as a cooking medium as well as for power/heat generation.

Wind Energy

Small wind turbines can also play a key role in providing energy to dwellers of refugee camps. Such turbines are used for micro-generation and can provide power from 1kW to 300kW. Majority of small wind turbines are traditional horizontal axis wind turbines but vertical axis wind turbines are a growing type of wind turbine in the small wind market. Small wind turbines are usually mounted on a tower to raise them above any nearby obstacles, and can sited in refugee camps experiencing wind speeds of 4m/s or more.

Solar lights in Azraq Refugee Camp (Jordan)

Solar lights in Azraq Refugee Camp (Jordan)


Renewable energy systems have the potential to improve living standards in refugee camps and ease the sufferings of displaced and impoverished communities. Solar panels, biogas system, biomass stoves and micro wind turbines are some of the renewable energy systems that can be customized for refugee camps and transform them into a less harsh place for displaced people.

Biomass Energy and Sustainability

biomass-sustainabilityBiomass energy 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. Biomass energy 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 in a sustainable manner.

Biomass resources 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 sustainable development of rural as well as urban areas. Biomass energy could also aid in modernizing the agricultural economy and creating significant job opportunities.

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. Infact, forest residues are environmentally beneficial because of their potential to replace fossil fuels as an energy source.

A quick glance at popular biomass resources

A quick glance at popular biomass resources

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.

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-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. The growth of the biomass energy industry can also be achieved by laying more stress on green power marketing.

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.