Biofuels from MSW – An Introduction

Nowadays, biofuels are in high demand for transportation, industrial heating and electricity generation. Different technologies are being tested for using MSW as feedstock for producing biofuels. This article will provide brief description of biochemical and thermochemical conversion routes for the production of biofuels from municipal solid wastes.


Biochemical conversion

The waste is collected and milled, particles are shredded to reduce the size of 0.2-1.22 mm. MSW is pretreated to improve the accessibility of enzymes and make use of the enzymes in the bacteria for biological degradation on solid waste. The mixture of biomass is mixed with sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide and autoclaved. After steam treatment, the mixture is filtered and washed with deionized water. The pre-treated mixture is then dried and drained overnight. The pre-treatment process improves the formation of sugars by enzymatic hydrolysis, avoids the loss of carbohydrate and avoids the formation of by-products inhibitory.

After pre-treatment (pre-hydrolysis), the mixture undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis for conversion of polysaccharides into monomer sugars, such as glucose and xylose. The common enzymes used for starch-based substrates are ?- and ?- amylase, pullulanase, isomylase and glucoamylase. Whereas for lignocellulose based substrates cellulases and ?- glucosidases.

Finally, the mixture is fermented; sugars are converted to ethanol by using microorganisms such as, bacteria, yeast or fungi. The cellulosic and starch hydrolysates ethanolic fermentation were fermented by M. indicus at 37 °C for 72 h. The fungus uses the hexoses and pentoses sugars with a high concentration of inhibitors (i.e. furfural, hydroxymethyl furfural, and acetic acid).

The composition of MSW feedstock effects the yield of the subsequent processes. A high composition of food and vegetable waste is more desirable, as these wastes are easily degradable and result in high yields compared to paper and cardboard.

Thermochemical conversion

Gasification process is carried out by treating carbon-based material with either oxygen or steam to produce a gaseous fuel which requires high temperature and pressure. It can be described as partial oxidation of the waste. At first waste is reduced in size and dried to reduce the amount of energy used in the gasifier.


Layout of a Typical Biomass Gasification Plant


The carbonaceous material oxidizes (combines with oxygen) to produce syngas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen) along with carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, char, slag, and trace gases (depending on the composition of the feedstock). The syngas is then cleaned to remove any sulfur or acid gases and trace metals (depending on the composition of the feedstock).

The main uses of syngas are direct burning on site to provide heat or energy (by using boilers, gas turbines or steam driven engines) and refined to liquid fuels such as gasoline or ethanol.

Syngas can then be converted into biofuels and chemicals via catalytic processes such as the Fischer-Tropsch process. The Fischer-Tropsch process is a series of catalytic chemical reactions that convert syngas into liquid hydrocarbons by applying heat and pressure. Hydrocracking, hydro-treating, and hydro-isomerization can also be part of the “upgrading” process to maximize quantities of different products.

Waste to Energy Conversion Routes

Teesside-WTE-plantWaste-to-energy is the use of modern combustion and biological technologies to recover energy from urban wastes. There are three major waste to energy conversion routes – thermochemical, biochemical and physico-chemical. Thermochemical conversion, characterized by higher temperature and conversion rates, is best suited for lower moisture feedstock and is generally less selective for products. On the other hand, biochemical technologies are more suitable for wet wastes which are rich in organic matter.

Thermochemical Conversion

The three principal methods of thermochemical conversion are combustion in excess air, gasification in reduced air, and pyrolysis in the absence of air. The most common technique for producing both heat and electrical energy from household wastes is direct combustion.

Combined heat and power (CHP) or cogeneration systems, ranging from small-scale technology to large grid-connected facilities, provide significantly higher efficiencies than systems that only generate electricity.


Combustion technology is the controlled combustion of waste with the recovery of heat to produce steam which in turn produces power through steam turbines. Pyrolysis and gasification represent refined thermal treatment methods as alternatives to incineration and are characterized by the transformation of the waste into product gas as energy carrier for later combustion in, for example, a boiler or a gas engine. Plasma gasification, which takes place at extremely high temperature, is also hogging limelight nowadays.

Biochemical Conversion

Biochemical processes, like anaerobic digestion, can also produce clean energy in the form of biogas which can be converted to power and heat using a gas engine. Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biofertilizer and biogas.

Anaerobic digestion is a reliable technology for the treatment of wet, organic waste.  Organic waste from various sources is biochemically degraded in highly controlled, oxygen-free conditions circumstances resulting in the production of biogas which can be used to produce both electricity and heat.

In addition, a variety of fuels can be produced from waste resources including liquid fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen and methane. The resource base for biofuel production is composed of a wide variety of forestry and agricultural resources, industrial processing residues, and municipal solid and urban wood residues. Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking.

Physico-chemical Conversion

The physico-chemical technology involves various processes to improve physical and chemical properties of solid waste. The combustible fraction of the waste is converted into high-energy fuel pellets which may be used in steam generation. The waste is first dried to bring down the high moisture levels. Sand, grit, and other incombustible matter are then mechanically separated before the waste is compacted and converted into fuel pellets or RDF.

Fuel pellets have several distinct advantages over coal and wood because it is cleaner, free from incombustibles, has lower ash and moisture contents, is of uniform size, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.