Europe is targeting an ambitious renewable energy program aimed at 20% renewable energy in the energy mix by 2020 with biomass energy being key renewable energy resource across the continent. However, the lack of locally-available biomass resources has hampered the progress of biomass energy industry in Europe as compared with solar and wind energy industries. The European biomass industry is largely dependent on wood pellets and crop residues.
Europe is the largest producer of wood pellets, which is currently estimated at 13.5 million tons per year while its consumption is 18.8 million tons per year. The biggest wood pellet producing countries in Europe are Germany and Sweden. Europe relies on America and Canada to meet its wood pellet requirements and there is an urgent need to explore alternative biomass resources. In recent years, palm kernel shells (popularly known as PKS) from Southeast Asia and Africa has emerged as an attractive biomass resources which can replace wood pellets in biomass power plants across Europe.
What are Palm Kernel Shells
Palm kernel shells 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.
Press fibre and shell generated by the palm oil mills are traditionally used as solid fuels for steam boilers. 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.
Advantages of Palm Kernel Shells
PKS has almost the same combustion characteristics as wood pellets, abundantly available are and are cheap. Indonesia and Malaysia are the two main producers of PKS. Indonesian oil palm plantations cover 12 million hectares in Indonesia and 5 million hectares in Malaysia, the number of PKS produced from both countries has exceeded 15 million tons per year. Infact, the quantity of PKS generated in both countries exceeds the production of wood pellets from the United States and Canada, or the two largest producers of wood pellets today.
Interestingly, United States and Canada cannot produce PKS, because they do not have oil palm plantations, but Indonesia and Malaysia can also produce wood pellets because they have large forests. The production of wood pellets in Indonesia and Malaysia is still small today, which is less than 1 million tons per year, but the production of PKS is much higher which can power biomass power plants across Europe and protect forests which are being cut down to produce wood pellets in North America and other parts of the world.
PKS as a Boiler Fuel
Although most power plants currently use pulverized coal boiler technology which reaches around 50% of the world’s electricity generation, the use of grate combustion boiler technology and fluidized bed boilers is also increasing. Pulverized coal boiler is mainly used for very large capacity plants (> 100 MW), while for ordinary medium capacity uses fluidized bed technology (between 20-100 MW) and for smaller capacity with combustor grate (<20 MW). The advantage of boiler combustion and fluidized bed technology is fuel flexibility including tolerance to particle size.
When the pulverized coal boiler requires a small particle size (1-2 cm) like sawdust so that it can be atomized on the pulverizer nozzle, the combustor grate and fluidized bed the particle size of gravel (max. 8 cm) can be accepted. Based on these conditions, palm kernel shells has a great opportunity to be used as a boiler fuel in large-scale power plants.
Use of PKS in pulverized coal boiler
There are several things that need to be considered for the use of PKS in pulverized coal boilers. The first thing that can be done is to reduce PKS particle size to a maximum of 2 cm so that it can be atomized in a pulverized system. The second thing to note is the percentage of PKS in coal, or the term cofiring. Unlike a grate and a fluidized bed combustion that can be flexible with various types of fuel, pulverized coal boilers use coal only. There are specific things that distinguish biomass and coal fuels, namely ash content and ash chemistry, both of which greatly influence the combustion characteristics in the pulverized system.
Coal ash content is generally greater than biomass, and coal ash chemistry is very different from biomass ash chemistry. Biomass ash has lower inorganic content than coal, but the alkali content in biomass can change the properties of coal ash, especially aluminosilicate ash.
Biomass cofiring with coal in small portions for example 3-5% does not require modification of the pulverized coal power plant. For example, Shinci in Japan with a capacity of 2 x 1,000 MW of supercritical pulverized fuel with 3% cofiring requires 16,000 tons per year of biomass and no modification. Similarly, Korea Southeast Power (KOSEP) 5,000 MW with 5% cofiring requires 600,000 tons per year of biomass without modification.
PKS cofiring in coal-based power plants
Pulverized coal-based power plants are the predominant method of large-scale electricity production worldwide including Europe. If pulverised fuel power plants make a switch to co-firing of biomass fuels, it will make a huge impact on reducing coal usage, reducing carbon emissions and making a transition to renewable energy. Additionally, the cheapest and most effective way for big coal-based power plants to enter renewable energy sector is biomass cofiring. Palm kernel shells can be pyrolyzed to produce charcoal while coal will produce coke if it is pyrolyzed. Charcoal can be used for fuel, briquette production and activated charcoal.