A Primer on Agricultural Residues

The term agricultural residue is used to describe all the organic materials which are produced as by-products from harvesting and processing of agricultural crops. These residues can be further categorized into primary residues and secondary residues. Agricultural residues, which are generated in the field at the time of harvest, are defined as primary or field based residues whereas those co-produced during processing are called secondary or processing based residues.

  • Primary residues – paddy straw, sugarcane top, maize stalks, coconut empty bunches and frond, palm oil frond and bunches;
  • Secondary residues – paddy husk, bagasse, maize cob, coconut shell, coconut husk, coir dust, saw dust, palm oil shell, fiber and empty bunches, wastewater, black liquor.

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.

Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. which come from cereals (rice, wheat, maize or corn, sorghum, barley, millet), cotton, groundnut, jute, legumes (tomato, bean, soy) coffee, cacao, tea, fruits (banana, mango, coco, cashew) and palm oil.

Rice produces both straw and rice husks at the processing plant which can be conveniently and easily converted into energy. Significant quantities of biomass remain in the fields in the form of cob when maize is harvested which can be converted into energy. Sugar cane harvesting leads to harvest residues in the fields while processing produces fibrous bagasse, both of which are good sources of energy. Harvesting and processing of coconuts produces quantities of shell and fibre that can be utilised while peanuts leave shells. All these materials can be converted into useful energy by a wide range of technologies..

Biomass Resources from Rice Industry

The cultivation of rice results in two major types of residues – Straw and Husk –having attractive potential in terms of energy. Although the technology for rice husk utilization is well-proven in industrialized countries of Europe and North America, such technologies are yet to be introduced in the developing world on commercial scale. The importance of Rice Husk and Rice Straw as an attractive source of energy can be gauged from the following statistics:

Rice Straw

  • 1 ton of Rice paddy produces 290 kg Rice Straw
  • 290 kg Rice Straw can produce 100 kWh of power
  • Calorific value = 2400 kcal/kg

Rice Husk

  • 1 ton of Rice paddy produces 220 kg Rice Husk
  • 1 ton Rice Husk is equivalent to 410- 570 kWh electricity
  • Calorific value = 3000 kcal/kg
  • Moisture content = 5 – 12%

Rice husk is the most prolific agricultural residue in rice producing countries around the world. It is one of the major by-products from the rice milling process and constitutes about 20% of paddy by weight. Rice husk, which consists mainly of lingo-cellulose and silica, is not utilized to any significant extent and has great potential as an energy source.

Rice husk can be used for power generation through either the steam or gasification route. For small scale power generation, the gasification route has attracted more attention as a small steam power plant is very inefficient and is very difficult to maintain due to the presence of a boiler. In addition for rice mills with diesel engines, the gas produced from rice husk can be used in the existing engine in a dual fuel operation.

The benefits of using rice husk technology are numerous. Primarily, it provides electricity and serves as a way to dispose of agricultural waste. In addition, steam, a byproduct of power generation, can be used for paddy drying applications, thereby increasing local incomes and reducing the need to import fossil fuels. Rice husk ash, the byproduct of rice husk power plants, can be used in the cement and steel industries further decreasing the need to import these materials.

Rice straw can either be used alone or mixed with other biomass materials in direct combustion. In this technology, combustion boilers are used in combination with steam turbines to produce electricity and heat. The energy content of rice straw is around 14 MJ per kg at 10 percent moisture content.  The by-products are fly ash and bottom ash, which have an economic value and could be used in cement and/or brick manufacturing, construction of roads and embankments, etc.

Straw fuels have proved to be extremely difficult to burn in most combustion furnaces, especially those designed for power generation. The primary issue concerning the use of rice straw and other herbaceous biomass for power generation is fouling, slagging, and corrosion of the boiler due to alkaline and chlorine components in the ash. Europe, and in particular, Denmark, currently has the greatest experience with straw fired power and CHP plants.

Biomass Storage Methods

Sufficient storage for biomass is necessary to accommodate seasonality of production and ensure regular supply to the biomass utilization plant. The type of storage will depend on the properties of the biomass, especially moisture content. For high moisture biomass intended to be used wet, such as in fermentation and anaerobic digestion systems, wet storage systems can be used, with storage times closely controlled to avoid excessive degradation of feedstock. Storage systems typically used with dry agricultural residues should be protected against spontaneous combustion and excess decomposition, and the maximum storage moisture depends on the type of storage employed.

Moisture limits must be observed to avoid spontaneous combustion and the emission of regulated compounds. Cost of storage is important to the overall feasibility of the biomass enterprise. In some cases, the storage can be on the same site as the source of the feedstock. In others, necessary volumes can only be achieved by combining the feedstock from a number of relatively close sources. Typically, delivery within about 50 miles is economic, but longer range transport is sometimes acceptable, especially when disposal fees can be reduced.

Storage of biomass fuels is expensive and increases with capacity.

Agricultural residues such as wheat straw, rice husk, rice straw and corn stover are usually spread or windrowed behind the grain harvesters for later baling. Typically these residues are left in the field to air dry to moisture levels below about 14% preferred for bales in stacks or large piles of loose material. After collection, biomass may be stored in the open or protected from the elements by tarps or various structures. Pelletizing may be employed to increase bulk density and reduce storage and transport volume and cost.

Biomass Storage Options

  • Feedstock is hauled directly to the plant with no storage at the production site.
  • Feedstock is stored at the production site and then transported to the plant as needed.
  • Feedstock is stored at a collective storage facility and then transported to the plant from the intermediate storage location.

Biomass Storage Systems

The type of biomass storage system used at the production site, intermediate site, or plant can greatly affect the cost and the quality of the fuel. The most expensive storage systems, no doubt, are the most efficient in terms of maintaining the high fuel quality. Typical storage systems, ranked from highest cost to lowest cost, include:

  • Enclosed structure with crushed rock floor
  • Open structure with crushed rock floor
  • Reusable tarp on crushed rock
  • Outside unprotected on crushed rock
  • Outside unprotected on ground
  • Subterranean

The storage of biomass is often necessary due to its seasonal production versus the need to produce energy all year round. Therefore to provide a constant and regular supply of fuel for the plant requires either storage or multi-feedstocks to be used, both of which tend to add cost to the system.

Reducing the cost of handling and stable storage of biomass feedstocks are both critical to developing a sustainable infrastructure capable of supplying large quantities of biomass to biomass processing plants. Storage and handling of biomass fuels is expensive and increases with capacity. The most suitable type of fuel store for solid biomass fuel depends on space available and the physical characteristics of the fuel.

Energy Value of Agricultural Wastes

Large quantities of agricultural wastes resulting from crop cultivation activity are a promising source of energy supply for production, processing and domestic activities in rural areas of the concerned region. The available crop residues are either being used inefficiently or burnt in the open to clear the fields for subsequent crop cultivation. On an average 1.5 tons of crop residue are generated for processing 1 ton of the main product. In addition, substantial quantities of secondary residues are produced in agro-industries processing farm produce such as paddy, sugarcane, coconut, fruits and vegetables.

Agricultural crop residues often have a disposal cost associated with them. Therefore, the “waste-to-energy” conversion processes for heat and power generation, and even in some cases for transport fuel production, can have good economic and market potential. They have value particularly in rural community applications, and are used widely in countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, USA, Canada, Austria and Finland.

The energy density and physical properties of agricultural biomass wastes are critical factors for feedstock considerations and need to be understood in order to match a feedstock and processing technology. There are six generic biomass processing technologies based on direct combustion (for power), anaerobic digestion (for methane-rich gas), fermentation (of sugars for alcohols), oil exaction (for biodiesel), pyrolysis (for biochar, gas and oils) and gasification (for carbon monoxide and hydrogen-rich syngas). These technologies can then be followed by an array of secondary treatments (stabilization, dewatering, upgrading, refining) depending on specific final products.

It is well-known that power plants based on baled agricultural residues are efficient and cost-effective energy generators. Residues such as Rice Husks, Wheat Straw and Maize Cobs are already concentrated at a point where it is an easily exploitable source of energy, particularly if it can be utilized on-site to provide heat and power.

The selection of processing technologies needs to be aligned to the nature and structure of the biomass feedstock and the desired project outputs. It can be seen that direct combustion or gasification of biomass are appropriate when heat and power are required. Anaerobic digestion, fermentation and oil extraction are suitable when specific Biomass wastes are available that have easily extractable oils and sugars or high water contents. On the other hand, only thermal processing of biomass by pyrolysis can provide the platform for all of the above forms of product. Many thermal technologies require the water content of Biomass to be low (<15 per cent) for proper operation. For these technologies the energy cost of drying can represent a significant reduction in process efficiency.

Moisture content is of important interest since it corresponds to one of the main criteria for the selection of energy conversion process technology. Thermal conversion technology requires biomass fuels with low moisture content, while those with high moisture content are more appropriate for biological-based process such as fermentation or anaerobic digestion.

The ash content of biomass influences the expenses related to handling and processing to be included in the overall conversion cost. On the other hand, the chemical composition of ash is a determinant parameter in the consideration of a thermal conversion unit, since it gives rise to problems of slagging, fouling, sintering and corrosion.

Agricultural Wastes in the Philippines

The Philippines is mainly an agricultural country with a land area of 30 million hectares, 47 percent of which is agricultural. The total area devoted to agricultural crops is 13 million hectares distributed among food grains, food crops and non-food crops. Among the crops grown, rice, coconut and sugarcane are major contributors to biomass energy resources.

The most common agricultural wastes in the Philippines are rice husk, rice straw, coconut husk, coconut shell and bagasse. The country has good potential for biomass power plants as one-third of the country’s agricultural land produces rice, and consequently large volumes of rice straw and hulls are generated.

Rice is the staple food in the Philippines. The Filipinos are among the world’s biggest rice consumers. The average Filipino consumes about 100 kilograms per year of rice.  Though rice is produced throughout the country, the Central Luzon and Cagayan Valley are the major rice growing regions. With more than 1.2 million hectares of rain-fed rice-producing areas, the country produced around 16 million tons of rice in 2007. The estimated production of rice hull in the Philippines is more than 2 million tons per annum which is equivalent to approximately 5 million BOE (barrels of oil equivalent) in terms of energy. Rice straw is another important biomass resource with potential availability exceeding 5 million tons per year across the country.

With the passing of Biofuels Act of 2006, the sugar industry in the Philippines which is the major source of ethanol and domestic sugar will become a major thriving industry. Around 380,000 hectares of land is devoted to sugarcane cultivation. It is estimated that 1.17 million tonnes of sugarcane trash is recoverable as a biomass resource in the Philippines. In addition, 6.4 million tonnes of surplus bagasse is available from sugar mills. There are 29 operating sugar mills in the country with an average capacity of 6,900 tonnes of cane per day. Majority is located in Negros Island which provides about 46% of the country’s annual sugar production.

The Philippines has the largest number of coconut trees in the world as it produces most of the world market for coconut oil and copra meal. The major coconut wastes include coconut shell, coconut husks and coconut coir dust. Coconut shell is the most widely utilized but the reported utilization rate is very low.  Approximately 500 million coconut trees in the Philippines produce tremendous amounts of biomass as husk (4.1 million tonnes), shell (1.8 million tonnes), and frond (4.5 million tonnes annually).

Maize is a major crop in the Philippines that generates large amounts of agricultural residues. It is estimated that 4 million tonnes of grain maize and 0.96 million tonnes of maize cobs produced yearly in the Philippines. Maize cob burning is the main energy application of the crop, and is widely practiced by small farmers to supplement fuelwood for cooking.

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.