Rationale for Biomass Supply Chain

Biomass resources have been in use for a variety of purposes since ages. The multiple uses of biomass includes usage as a livestock or for meeting domestic and industrial thermal requirements or for the generation of power to fulfill any electrical or mechanical needs. One of the major issues, however, associated with the use of any biomass resources is its supply chain management. The resource being bulky, voluminous and only seasonally available creates serious hurdles in the reliable supply of the feedstock, regardless of its application. The idea is thus to have something which plugs in this gap between the biomass resource availability and its demand.

The Problem

The supply chain management in any biomass based project is nothing less than a big management conundrum. The complexity deepens owing to the large number of stages which encompass the entire biomass value chain. It starts right from the resource harvesting and goes on to include the resource collection, processing, storage and eventually its transportation to the point of ultimate utilization.

Owing to the voluminous nature of the resource, its handling becomes a major issue since it requires bigger modes of logistics, employment of a larger number of work-force and a better storage infrastructure, as compared to any other fuel or feedstock. Not only this their lower energy density characteristic, makes it inevitable for the resource to be first processed and then utilized for power generation to make for better economics.

All these hassles associated with such resources, magnify the issue of their utilization when it comes to their supply chain. The seasonal availability of most of the biomass resources, alternative application options, weather considerations, geographical conditions and numerous other parameters make it difficult for the resource to be made consistently available throughout the year. This results in poor feedstock inputs at the utilization point which ends up generating energy in a highly erratic and unreliable manner.

The Solution

Although most of the problems discussed above, are issues inherently associated with the usage of biomass resources, they can be curtailed to a larger extent by strengthening the most important loophole in such projects – The Biomass Resource Supply Chain.

World over, major emphasis has been laid in researching upon the means to improve the efficiencies of such technologies. However, no significant due diligence has been carried out in fortifying the entire resource chain to assure such plants for a continuous resource supply.

The usual solution to encounter such a problem is to have long term contracts with the resource providers to not only have an assured supply but also guard the project against unrealistic escalations in the fuel costs. Although, this solution has been found to be viable, it becomes difficult to sustain such contracts for longer duration since these resources are also susceptible to numerous externalities which could be in the form of any natural disaster, infection from pests or any other socio-political or geographical disturbances, which eventually lead to an increased burden on the producers.

Agricultural Wastes in the Middle East

Agriculture plays an important role in the economies of most of the countries in the Middle East.  The contribution of the agricultural sector to the overall economy varies significantly among countries in the region, ranging, for example, from about 3.2 percent in Saudi Arabia to 13.4 percent in Egypt.  Large scale irrigation is expanding, enabling intensive production of high value cash and export crops, including fruits, vegetables, cereals, and sugar.

The term ‘crop residues’ covers the whole range of biomass produced as by-products from growing and processing crops. Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as bagasse, straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. Wheat and barley are the major staple crops grown in the Middle East region. In addition, significant quantities of rice, maize, lentils, chickpeas, vegetables and fruits are produced throughout the region, mainly in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Date palm is one of the principal agricultural products in the arid and semi-arid region of the world, especially Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The Arab world has more than 84 million date palm trees with the majority in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates. Date palm trees produce huge amount of agricultural wastes in the form of dry leaves, stems, pits, seeds etc. A typical date tree can generate as much as 20 kilograms of dry leaves per annum while date pits account for almost 10 percent of date fruits. Some studies have reported that Saudi Arabia alone generates more than 200,000 tons of date palm biomass each year.

In Egypt, crop residues are considered to be the most important and traditional source of domestic fuel in rural areas. These crop residues are by-products of common crops such as cotton, wheat, maize and rice. The total amount of residues reaches about 16 million tons of dry matter per year. Cotton residues represent about 9% of the total amount of residues. These are materials comprising mainly cotton stalks, which present a disposal problem. The area of cotton crop cultivation accounts for about 5% of the cultivated area in Egypt.

A cotton field in Egypt

Large quantities of crop residues are produced annually in the Middle East, and are vastly underutilised. Current farming practice is usually to plough these residues back into the soil, or they are burnt, left to decompose, or grazed by cattle. These residues could be processed into liquid fuels or thermochemical processed to produce electricity and heat in rural areas. Energy crops, such as Jatropha, can be successfully grown in arid regions for biodiesel production. Infact, Jatropha is already grown at limited scale in some Middle East countries and tremendous potential exists for its commercial exploitation.

A wide range of thermal and biochemical technologies exists to convert the energy stored in agricultural wastes into useful forms of energy. Thermochemical conversion technologies like combustion, gasification and pyrolysis can yield steam, syngas, bio oil etc. On the other hand, the high volatile solids content in agro wastes can be transformed into biogas in anaerobic digestion plants, possibly by codigestion with MSW, sewage sludge, animal wastes and/and food wastes. The cellulosic content in agricultural residues can be transformed into biofuel (bioethanol) by making use of the fermentation process. In addition, the highly organic nature of agricultural wastes makes it highly suitable for compost production which can be used to replace chemical fertilizers in agricultural farms. Thus, abundance of agro residues in the Middle East can catalyze the development of biomass energy sector in the region.

Date Palm as Biomass Resource

date-wastesDate palm is one of the principal agricultural products in the arid and semi-arid region of the world, especially Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. There are more than 120 million date palm trees worldwide yielding several million tons of dates per year, apart from secondary products including palm midribs, leaves, stems, fronds and coir. The Arab world has more than 84 million date palm trees with the majority in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates.

Egypt is the world’s largest date producer with annual production of 1.47 million tons of dates in 2012 which accounted for almost one-fifth of global production. Saudi Arabia has more than 23 millions date palm trees, which produce about 1 million tons of dates per year. Date palm trees produce huge amount of agricultural wastes in the form of dry leaves, stems, pits, seeds etc. A typical date tree can generate as much as 20 kilograms of dry leaves per annum while date pits account for almost 10 percent of date fruits. Some studies have reported that Saudi Arabia alone generates more than 200,000 tons of date palm biomass each year.

Date palm is considered a renewable natural resource because it can be replaced in a relatively short period of time. It takes 4 to 8 years for date palms to bear fruit after planting, and 7 to 10 years to produce viable yields for commercial harvest. Usually date palm wastes are burned in farms or disposed in landfills which cause environmental pollution in dates-producing nations. In countries like Iraq and Egypt, a small portion of palm biomass in used in making animal feed.

The major constituents of date palm biomass are cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. In addition, date palm has high volatile solids content and low moisture content. These factors make date biomass an excellent waste-to-energy resource in the MENA region. A wide range of thermal and biochemical technologies exists to convert the energy stored in date palm biomass to useful forms of energy. The low moisture content in palm wastes makes it well-suited to thermochemical conversion technologies like combustion, gasification and pyrolysis which may yield steam, syngas, bio oil etc. On the other hand, the high volatile solids content in date palm biomass indicates its potential towards biogas production in anaerobic digestion plants, possibly by codigestion with sewage sludge, animal wastes and/and food wastes. The cellulosic content in date palm wastes can be transformed into biofuel (bioethanol) by making use of the fermentation process. The highly organic nature of date palm biomass makes it highly suitable for compost production which can be used to replace chemical fertilizers in date palm plantations. Thus, abundance of date palm trees in the MENA and the Mediterranean region, can catalyze the development of biomass and biofuels sector in the region.

Biomass Harvesting

Biomass harvesting and collection is an important step involving gathering and removal of the biomass from field which is dependent on the state of biomass, i.e. grass, woody, or crop residue. The moisture content and the end use of biomass also affect the way biomass is collected. For crop residues, the operations should be organized in sync with the grain harvest as it occupies the centrestage in farming process.

All of other operations such as residue management and collection take place after so-called grain is in the bin. On the other hand, the harvest and collection dedicated crops (grass and woody) can be staged for recovery of the biomass only. In agricultural processing, straw is the stems and leaves of small cereals while chaff is husks and glumes of seed removed during threshing.

Modern combine-harvesters generally deliver straw and chaff together; other threshing equipment separates them. Stover is the field residues of large cereals, such as maize and sorghum. Stubble is the stumps of the reaped crop, left in the field after harvest. Agro-industrial wastes are by-products of the primary processing of crops, including bran, milling offal, press-cakes and molasses. Bran from on-farm husking of cereals and pulses are fed to livestock or foraged directly by backyard fowls.

The proportion of straw, or stover, to grain varies from crop to crop and according to yield level (very low grain yields have a higher proportion of straw) but is usually slightly over half the harvestable biomass. The height of cutting will also affect how much stubble is left in the field: many combine-harvested crops are cut high; crops on small-scale farms where straw is scarce may be cut at ground level by sickle or uprooted by hand.

Modern combine-harvesters generally deliver straw and chaff together

Collection involves operations pertaining to gathering, packaging, and transporting biomass to a nearby site for temporary storage. The amount of a biomass resource that can be collected at a given time depends on a variety of factors. In case of agricultural residues, these considerations include the type and sequence of collection operations, the efficiency of collection equipment, tillage and crop management practices, and environmental restrictions, such as the need to control erosion, maintain soil productivity, and maintain soil carbon levels.

Biogas Sector in India: Perspectives

Biogas is an often overlooked and neglected aspect of renewable energy in India. While solar, wind and hydropower dominate the discussion in the cuntry, they are not the only options available. Biogas is a lesser known but highly important option to foster sustainable development in agriculture-based economies, such as India.

What is Biogas

Briefly speaking, biogas is the production of gaseous fuel, usually methane, by fermentation of organic material. It is an anaerobic process or one that takes place in the absence of oxygen. Technically, the yeast that causes your bread to rise or the alcohol in beer to ferment is a form of biogas. We don’t use it in the same way that we would use other renewable sources, but the idea is similar. Biogas can be used for cooking, lighting, heating, power generation and much more. Infact, biogas is an excellent and effective to promote development of rural and marginalized communities in all developing countries.

This presents a problem, however. The organic matter is putting off a gas, and to use it, we have to turn it into a liquid. This requires work, machinery and manpower. Research is still being done to figure out the most efficient methods to make it work, but there is a great deal of progress that has been made, and the technology is no longer new.

Fossil Fuel Importation

India has a rapidly expanding economy and the population to fit. This has created problems with electricity supplies to expanding areas. Like most countries, India mainly uses fossil fuels. However, as oil prices fluctuate and the country’s demand for oil grows, the supply doesn’t always keep up with the demand. In the past, India has primarily imported oil from the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Without a steady and sustainable fossil fuels supply, India has looking more seriously into renewable sources they can produce within the country. Biogas is an excellent candidate to meet those requirements and has been used for this goal before.

Biogas in India

There are significant differences between biogas and fossil fuels, but for India, one of the biggest is that you can create biogas at home. It’s pretty tricky to find, dig up and transform crude oil into gas, but biogas doesn’t have the same barriers. In fact, many farmers who those who have gardens or greenhouses could benefit with proper water management and temperature control so that plants can be grown year round, It still takes some learning and investment, but for many people, especially those who live in rural places, it’s doable.

This would be the most beneficial to people in India because it would help ease the strain of delivering reliable energy sources based on fossil fuels, and would allow the country to become more energy independent. Plus, the rural areas are places where the raw materials for biogas will be more available, such animal manure, crop residues and poultry litter. But this isn’t the first time most people there are hearing about it.

Biogas in India has been around for a long time. In the 1970’s the country began a program called the National Biogas and Manure Management Program (NBMMP) to deal with the same problem — a gas shortage. The country did a great deal of research and implemented a wide variety of ideas to help their people become more self-sufficient, regardless of the availability of traditional gasoline and other fossil fuel based products.

The original program was pioneering for its time, but the Chinese quickly followed suit and have been able to top the market in biogas production in relatively little time. Comparatively, India’s production of biogas is quite small. It only produces about 2.07 billion m3/year of biogas, while it’s estimated that it could produce as much as 48 billion m3/year. This means that there are various issues with the current method’s India is using in its biogas production.

Biogas_Animal

Biogas has the potential to rejuvenate India’s agricultural sector

The original planning in the NBMMP involved scientists who tried to create the most efficient biogas generators. This was good, but it slowed people’s abilities to adopt the techniques individually. China, on the other hand, explicitly worked to help their most rural areas create biogas. This allowed the country to spread the development of biogas to the most people with the lowest barriers to its proliferation.

If India can learn from the strategy that China has employed, they may be able to give their biogas production a significant boost which will also help in the rejuvenation of biomass sector in the country. Doing so will require the help and willingness of both the people and the government. Either way, this is an industry with a lot of room for growth.

Thermal Conversion of Biomass

A wide range of technologies exists to convert the energy stored in biomass to more useful forms of energy. These technologies can be classified according to the principal energy carrier produced in the conversion process. Carriers are in the form of heat, gas, liquid and/or solid products, depending on the extent to which oxygen is admitted to the conversion process (usually as air). The major methods of thermal conversion are combustion in excess air, gasification in reduced air, and pyrolysis in the absence of air.

Combustion

Conventional combustion technologies raise steam through the combustion of biomass. This steam may then be expanded through a conventional turbo-alternator to produce electricity. A number of combustion technology variants have been developed. Underfeed stokers are suitable for small scale boilers up to 6 MWth. Grate type boilers are widely deployed. They have relatively low investment costs, low operating costs and good operation at partial loads. However, they can have higher NOx emissions and decreased efficiencies due to the requirement of excess air, and they have lower efficiencies.

Fluidized bed combustors (FBC), which use a bed of hot inert material such as sand, are a more recent development. Bubbling FBCs are generally used at 10-30 MWth capacity, while Circulating FBCs are more applicable at larger scales. Advantages of FBCs are that they can tolerate a wider range of poor quality fuel, while emitting lower NOx levels.

Co-Firing

Co-firing or co-combustion of biomass wastes with coal and other fossil fuels can provide a short-term, low-risk, low-cost option for producing renewable energy while simultaneously reducing the use of fossil fuels. Co-firing involves utilizing existing power generating plants that are fired with fossil fuel (generally coal), and displacing a small proportion of the fossil fuel with renewable biomass fuels. Co-firing has the major advantage of avoiding the construction of new, dedicated, waste-to-energy power plant. Co-firing may be implemented using different types and percentages of wastes in a range of combustion and gasification technologies. Most forms of biomass wastes are suitable for co-firing. These include dedicated municipal solid wastes, wood waste and agricultural residues such as straw and husk.

Gasification

Gasification of biomass takes place in a restricted supply of oxygen and occurs through initial devolatilization of the biomass, combustion of the volatile material and char, and further reduction to produce a fuel gas rich in carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This combustible gas has a lower calorific value than natural gas but can still be used as fuel for boilers, for engines, and potentially for combustion turbines after cleaning the gas stream of tars and particulates. If gasifiers are ‘air blown’, atmospheric nitrogen dilutes the fuel gas to a level of 10-14 percent that of the calorific value of natural gas. Oxygen and steam blown gasifiers produce a gas with a somewhat higher calorific value. Pressurized gasifiers are under development to reduce the physical size of major equipment items.

A variety of gasification reactors have been developed over several decades. These include the smaller scale fixed bed updraft, downdraft and cross flow gasifiers, as well as fluidized bed gasifiers for larger applications. At the small scale, downdraft gasifiers are noted for their relatively low tar production, but are not suitable for fuels with low ash melting point (such as straw). They also require fuel moisture levels to be controlled within narrow levels.

Pyrolysis

Pyrolysis is the term given to the thermal degradation of wood in the absence of oxygen. It enables biomass to be converted to a combination of solid char, gas and a liquid bio-oil. Pyrolysis technologies are generally categorized as “fast” or “slow” according to the time taken for processing the feed into pyrolysis products. These products are generated in roughly equal proportions with slow pyrolysis. Using fast pyrolysis, bio-oil yield can be as high as 80 percent of the product on a dry fuel basis. Bio-oil can act as a liquid fuel or as a feedstock for chemical production. A range of bio-oil production processes are under development, including fluid bed reactors, ablative pyrolysis, entrained flow reactors, rotating cone reactors, and vacuum pyrolysis.

Sugarcane Trash – A Wonderful Resource that Indian Sugar Industry is Wasting

In Indian sugar mills, the frequent cycles of ups and downs in the core business of selling sugar has led to the concentration towards the trend of ancillary businesses, like cogeneration power plant and ethanol production, becoming the profit centres. These units, which were introduced as a means to manage sugar mills’ own byproduct, like bagasse, are now keeping several sugar mills financially afloat. Thus, the concept of ‘Integrated Sugar Mill Complex’ has now become a new normal.

Limitations of Bagasse

Bagasse is a ubiquitous primary fuel in cogeneration plants in sugar mills, which adds more than 2,000 MW of renewable power to the Indian energy mix. The inclination of cogeneration plant managers towards bagasse is primarily because of its virtue of being easily available on-site, and no requirement to purchase it from the external market.

This remains true despite its several significant shortcomings as a boiler fuel, prime among which are very high moisture content and low calorific value. As a result, the fuel-to-energy ratio remains abysmally low and the consequent lesser power generation is depriving these sugar mills from achieving true revenue potential from their ancillary power business vertical, which is pegged at ~10,000 MW.

Sugarcane Trash – A Wonder Waste

Though, there is a much neglected high calorific value biomass which is available in proximity of every sugarmill and is also a residue of the sugarcane crop itself, which could enable the cogeneration units to achieve their maximum output potential. This wonder waste is sugarcane trash the dry leaves of sugarcane crop – which is left in the farms itself after sugarcane harvesting as it has no utility as fodder and generally burnt by farmers, which harms the surrounding air quality substantially.

Given its favourable properties of having very low moisture content with moderate-to-high calorific value, it could be used in most of the high pressure boiler designs in a considerable proportion along with bagasse.

cane-trash

Undeniably, sugar mills should not discontinue using bagasse as the primary fuel, but surely complement it with sugarcane trash as it would lead to an increase in their revenue generation and would also allow them to expand operations of their cogeneration plant to off-season, as using sugarcane trash with bagasse in season would leave more bagasse for off season usage.

Hurdles to Overcome

Despite these evident benefits, the major obstacle in development of sugarcane trash as an industrial boiler fuel has been its difficult collection from thousands of small and fragmented farms. Moreover, the trash becomes available and needs to be collected simultaneously during the operating season of the sugar mills, which makes deployment of resources, human or otherwise, for managing the procurement of trash very difficult for any sugar mill.

As a matter of fact, the sugar mills which initiated the pilots, or even scaled commercially, to utilise sugarcane trash along with bagasse, had to sooner or later discontinue its use, owing to the mammoth challenges discussed above.

The Way Forward

Thus, in order to utilise this wonder waste, there is a dire need to outsource its procurement to professional and organised players, like RY Energies and others, which establish the biomass supply chain infrastructure in the vicinity of the cogeneration units to make on-site availability of sugarcane trash as convenient as bagasse and enable them to procure the rich quality biomass at sustainable prices which leads to an increase in their profits.

sugarcane-trash-burning

Burning of cane trash creates pollution in sugar-producing countries

These biomass supply chain companies offer value to the farmers by processing their crop residues in timely manner, thus prevent open burning of the crop residue and contribute to a greener and cleaner environment.

Indeed, owing to its favourable fuel properties, positive environmental impact and now, with ease in its procurement, sugarcane trash biomass is the fuel of today and future for the Indian sugar mills.

Overview of Biomass Handling Equipment

The physical handling of biomass fuels during collection or at a processing plant can be challenging to conveying equipment designers, particularly for solid biomass. Biomass fuels tend to vary with density, moisture content and particle size (some even being stringy in nature) and can also be corrosive. Therefore biomass fuel handling equipment is often a difficult part of a plant to adequately design, maintain and operate.

The design and equipment choice for the fuel handling system, including preparation and refinement systems is carried out in accordance with the plant configuration. This is of special importance when the biomass is not homogeneous and contains impurities, typically for forest and agro residues. Some of the common problems encountered have been the unpopular design and undersized fuel handling, preparation and feeding systems. The fuel handling core systems and equipment are dependent on both the raw fuel type and condition as well as on the conversion/combustion technology employed. The core equipments in a biomass power plant include the following:

  1. Fuel reception
  2. Fuel weighing systems
  3. Receiving bunkers
  4. Bunker discharge systems (stoker, screw, grab bucket)
  5. Fuel preparation
  6. Fuel drying systems
  7. Crushers
  8. Chippers
  9. Screening systems
  10. Shredding systems
  11. Grinding systems (for pulverised fuel burners)
  12. Safety systems (explosion relieve, emergency discharge, fire detections etc)
  13. Fuel transport and feeding
  14. Push floors
  15. Belt feeders
  16. Conveyers, Elevators
  17. Tube feeders
  18. Fuel hoppers and silos (refined fuel)
  19. Hopper, bunker and silo discharge
  20. Feeding stokers
  21. Feeding screws
  22. Rotary valves

To enable any available biomass resource to be matched with the end use energy carrier required (heat, electricity or transport fuels) the correct selection of conversion technologies is required. Since the forms in which biomass can be used for energy are diverse, optimal resources, technologies and entire systems will be shaped by local conditions, both physical and socio-economic in nature. Since the majority of people in developing countries will continue using biomass as their primary energy source well into the next century, it is of critical importance that biomass-based energy truly can be modernized to yield multiple socioeconomic and environmental benefits.

Energy Potential of Palm Kernel Shells

palm-kernel-shellsThe Palm Oil industry in Southeast Asia and Africa generates large quantity of biomass wastes whose disposal is a challenging task. Palm kernel shells (or PKS) are the shell fractions left after the nut has been removed after crushing in the Palm Oil mill. Kernel shells are a fibrous material and can be easily handled in bulk directly from the product line to the end use. Large and small shell fractions are mixed with dust-like fractions and small fibres. Moisture content in kernel shells is low compared to other biomass residues with different sources suggesting values between 11% and 13%.

Palm kernel shells contain residues of Palm Oil, which accounts for its slightly higher heating value than average lignocellulosic biomass. Compared to other residues from the industry, it is a good quality biomass fuel with uniform size distribution, easy handling, easy crushing, and limited biological activity due to low moisture content. PKS can be readily co-fired with coal in grate fired -and fluidized bed boilers as well as cement kilns in order to diversify the fuel mix.

The primary use of palm kernel shells is as a boiler fuel supplementing the fibre which is used as primary fuel. In recent years kernel shells are sold as alternative fuel around the world. Besides selling shells in bulk, there are companies that produce fuel briquettes from shells which may include partial carbonisation of the material to improve the combustion characteristics. As a raw material for fuel briquettes, palm shells are reported to have the same calorific characteristics as coconut shells. The relatively smaller size makes it easier to carbonise for mass production, and its resulting palm shell charcoal can be pressed into a heat efficient biomass briquette.

Palm kernel shells have been traditionally used as solid fuels for steam boilers in palm oil mills across Southeast Asia. The steam generated is used to run turbines for electricity production. These two solid fuels alone are able to generate more than enough energy to meet the energy demands of a palm oil mill. Most palm oil mills in the region are self-sufficient in terms of energy by making use of kernel shells and mesocarp fibers in cogeneration. In recent years, the demand for palm kernel shells has increased considerably in Europe, Asia-Pacific, China etc resulting in price close to that of coal. Nowadays, cement industries and power producers are increasingly using palm kernel shells to replace coal. In grate-fired boiler systems, fluidized-bed boiler systems and cement kilns, palm kernel shells are an excellent fuel.

Cofiring of PKS yields added value for power plants and cement kilns, because the fuel significantly reduces carbon emissions – this added value can be expressed in the form of renewable energy certificates, carbon credits, etc. However, there is a great scope for introduction of high-efficiency cogeneration systems in the industry which will result in substantial supply of excess power to the public grid and supply of surplus PKS to other nations. Palm kernel shell is already extensively in demand domestically by local industries for meeting process heating requirements, thus creating supply shortages in the market.

Palm oil mills around the world may seize an opportunity to supply electricity for its surrounding plantation areas using palm kernel shells, empty fruit branches and palm oil mill effluent which have not been fully exploited yet. This new business will be beneficial for all parties, increase the profitability for palm oil industry, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the electrification ratio in surrounding plantation regions.

Biomass Pelletization Process

Biomass pellets are a popular type of biomass fuel, generally made from wood wastes, agricultural biomass, commercial grasses and forestry residues. In addition to savings in transportation and storage, pelletization of biomass facilitates easy and cost effective handling. Dense cubes pellets have the flowability characteristics similar to those of cereal grains. The regular geometry and small size of biomass pellets allow automatic feeding with very fine calibration. High density of pellets also permits compact storage and rational transport over long distance. Pellets are extremely dense and can be produced with a low moisture content that allows them to be burned with very high combustion efficiency.

Biomass pelletization is a standard method for the production of high density, solid energy carriers from biomass. Pellets are manufactured in several types and grades as fuels for electric power plants, homes, and other applications. Pellet-making equipment is available at a variety of sizes and scales, which allows manufacture at domestic as well industrial-scale production. Pellets have a cylindrical shape and are about 6-25 mm in diameter and 3-50 mm in length. There are European standards for biomass pellets and raw material classification (EN 14961-1, EN 14961-2 and EN 14961-6) and international ISO standards under development (ISO/DIS 17225-1, ISO/DIS 17225-2 and ISO/DIS 17225-6).

Process Description

The biomass pelletization process consists of multiple steps including raw material pre-treatment, pelletization and post-treatment. The first step in the pelletization process is the preparation of feedstock which includes selecting a feedstock suitable for this process, its filtration, storage and protection. Raw materials used are sawdust, wood shavings, wood wastes, agricultural residues like straw, switchgrass etc. Filtration is done to remove unwanted materials like stone, metal, etc. The feedstock should be stored in such a manner that it is away from impurities and moisture. In cases where there are different types of feedstock, a blending process is used to achieve consistency.

The moisture content in biomass can be considerably high and are usually up to 50% – 60% which should be reduced to 10 to 15%. Rotary drum dryer is the most common equipment used for this purpose. Superheated steam dryers, flash dryers, spouted bed dryers and belt dryers can also be used. Drying increases the efficiency of biomass and it produces almost no smoke on combustion. It should be noted that the feedstock should not be over dried, as a small amount of moisture helps in binding the biomass particles. The drying process is the most energy intensive process and accounts for about 70% of the total energy used in the pelletization process.

Schematic of Pelletization of Woody Biomass

Before feeding biomass to pellet mills, the biomass should be reduced to small particles of the order of not more than 3mm.  If the pellet size is too large or too small, it affects the quality of pellet and in turn increases the energy consumption. Therefore the particles should have proper size and should be consistent. Size reduction is done by grinding using a hammer mill equipped with a screen of size 3.2 to 6.4 mm. If the feedstock is quite large, it goes through a chipper before grinding.

The next and the most important step is pelletization where biomass is compressed against a heated metal plate (known as die) using a roller. The die consists of holes of fixed diameter through which the biomass passes under high pressure. Due to the high pressure, frictional forces increase, leading to a considerable rise in temperature. High temperature causes the lignin and resins present in biomass to soften which acts as a binding agent between the biomass fibers. This way the biomass particles fuse to form pellets.

The rate of production and electrical energy used in the pelletization of biomass  are strongly correlated to the raw material type and processing conditions such as moisture content and feed size. The The average energy required to pelletize biomass is roughly between 16 kWh/t and 49kWh/t. During pelletization, a large fraction of the process energy is used to make the biomass flow into the inlets of the press channels.

Binders or lubricants may be added in some cases to produce higher quality pellets. Binders increase the pellet density and durability. Wood contains natural resins which act as a binder. Similarly, sawdust contains lignin which holds the pellet together. However, agricultural residues do not contain much resins or lignin, and so a stabilizing agent needs to be added in this case. Distillers dry grains or potato starch is some commonly used binders. The use of natural additives depends on biomass composition and the mass proportion between cellulose, hemicelluloses, lignin and inorganics.

Due to the friction generated in the die, excess heat is developed. Thus, the pellets are very soft and hot (about 70 to 90oC). It needs to be cooled and dried before its storage or packaging. The pellets may then be passed through a vibrating screen to remove fine materials. This ensures that the fuel source is clean and dust free.

The pellets are packed into bags using an overhead hopper and a conveyor belt. Pellets are stored in elevated storage bins or ground level silos. The packaging should be such that the pellets are protected from moisture and pollutants. Commercial pellet mills and other pelletizing equipment are widely available across the globe.