Collection Systems for Agricultural Biomass

Biomass collection involves operations pertaining to gathering, packaging, and transporting biomass to a nearby site for temporary storage. The amount of 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 soil erosion, maintain soil productivity, and maintain soil carbon levels.

The most conventional method for collecting biomass is baling which can be either round or square. Some of the important modern biomass collection operations have been discussed below:

Baling

Large square bales are made with tractor pulled balers. A bale accumulator is pulled behind the baler that collects the bales in group of 4 and leaves them on the field. At a later date when available, an automatic bale collector travels through the field and collects the bales.

The automatic bale collector travels to the side of the road and unloads the bales into a stack. If the automatic bale collector is not available bales may be collected using a flat bed truck and a front end bale loader. A loader is needed at the stack yard to unload the truck and stack the bales. The stack is trapped using a forklift and manual labor.

Loafing

When biomass is dry, a loafer picks the biomass from windrow and makes large stacks. The roof of the stacker acts as a press pushing the material down to increase the density of the biomass. Once filled, loafer transports the biomass to storage area and unloads the stack. The top of the stack gets the dome shape of the stacker roof and thus easily sheds water.

Dry Chop

In this system a forage harvester picks up the dry biomass from windrow, chops it into smaller pieces (2.5 – 5.0 cm). The chopped biomass is blown into a forage wagon traveling along side of the forage harvester. Once filled, the forage wagon is pulled to the side of the farm and unloaded. A piler (inclined belt conveyor) is used to pile up the material in the form of a large cone.

Wet Chop

Here a forage harvester picks up the dry or wet biomass from the windrow. The chopped biomass is blown into a forage wagon that travels along side of the harvester. Once filled, the wagon is pulled to a silage pit where biomass is compacted to produce silage.

Whole Crop Harvest

The entire material (grain and biomass) is transferred to a central location where the crop is fractionated into grain and biomass.  The McLeod Harvester developed in Canada fractionates the harvested crop into straw and graff (graff is a mixture of grain and chaff). The straw is left on the field. Grain separation from chaff and other impurities take place in a stationary system at the farmyard.

McLeod Harvester fractionates the harvested crop into straw and graff

For the whole crop baling, the crop is cut and placed in a windrow for field drying. The entire crop is then baled and transported to the processing yard. The bales are unwrapped and fed through a stationary processor that performs all the functions of a normal combine. Subsequently, the straw is re-baled.

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.

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.