Methods for Hydrogen Sulphide Removal from Biogas

The major contaminant in biogas is H2S which is both poisonous and corrosive, and causes significant damage to piping, equipment and instrumentation. The concentration of various components of biogas has an impact on its ultimate end use. While boilers can withstand concentrations of H2S up to 1000 ppm, and relatively low pressures, internal combustion engines operate best when H2S is maintained below 100 ppm. The commonly used methods for hydrogen sulphide removal from biogas are internal to the anaerobic digestion process – air/oxygen dosing to digester biogas and iron chloride dosing to digester slurry.

Biological Desulphurization

Biological desulphurization of biogas can be performed by using micro-organisms. Most of the sulphide oxidising micro-organisms belong to the family of Thiobacillus. For the microbiological oxidation of sulphide it is essential to add stoichiometric amounts of oxygen to the biogas. Depending on the concentration of hydrogen sulphide this corresponds to 2 to 6 % air in biogas.

The simplest method of desulphurization is the addition of oxygen or air directly into the digester or in a storage tank serving at the same time as gas holder. Thiobacilli are ubiquitous and thus systems do not require inoculation. They grow on the surface of the digestate, which offers the necessary micro-aerophilic surface and at the same time the necessary nutrients. They form yellow clusters of sulphur. Depending on the temperature, the reaction time, the amount and place of the air added the hydrogen sulphide concentration can be reduced by 95 % to less than 50 ppm.

Measures of safety have to be taken to avoid overdosing of air in case of pump failures. Biogas in air is explosive in the range of 6 to 12 %, depending on the methane content). In steel digesters without rust protection there is a small risk of corrosion at the gas/liquid interface.

Iron Chloride Dosing

Iron chloride can be fed directly to the digester slurry or to the feed substrate in a pre-storage tank. Iron chloride then reacts with produced hydrogen sulphide and form iron sulphide salt (particles). This method is extremely effective in reducing high hydrogen sulphide levels but less effective in attaining a low and stable level of hydrogen sulphide in the range of vehicle fuel demands.

In this respect the method with iron chloride dosing to digester slurry can only be regarded as a partial removal process in order to avoid corrosion in the rest of the upgrading process equipment. The method need to be complemented with a final removal down to about 10 ppm.

The investment cost for such a removal process is limited since the only investment needed is a storage tank for iron chloride solution and a dosing pump. On the other hand the operational cost will be high due to the prime cost for iron chloride.

Biomass Cogeneration Systems

Biomass fuels are typically used most efficiently and beneficially when generating both power and heat through biomass cogeneration systems (also known as combined heat and power or CHP system). Biomass conversion technologies transform a variety of wastes into heat, electricity and biofuels by employing a host of strategies. Conversion routes are generally thermochemical or biochemical, but may also include chemical and physical.

The simplest way is to burn the biomass in a furnace, exploiting the heat generated to produce steam in a boiler, which is then used to drive a steam turbine. Advanced biomass conversion technologies include biomass integrated gasification combined cycle (BIGCC) systems, cofiring (with coal or gas), pyrolysis and second generation biofuels.

Biomass Cogeneration Systems

A typical biomass cogeneration (or biomass cogen) system provides:

  • Distributed generation of electrical and/or mechanical power.
  • Waste-heat recovery for heating, cooling, or process applications.
  • Seamless system integration for a variety of technologies, thermal applications, and fuel types into existing building infrastructure.

Biomass cogeneration systems consist of a number of individual components—prime mover (heat engine), generator, heat recovery, and electrical interconnection—configured into an integrated whole. The type of equipment that drives the overall system (i.e., the prime mover) typically identifies the CHP unit.

Prime Movers

Prime movers for biomass cogeneration units include reciprocating engines, combustion or gas turbines, steam turbines, microturbines, and fuel cells. These prime movers are capable of burning a variety of fuels, including natural gas, coal, oil, and alternative fuels to produce shaft power or mechanical energy.

Key Components

A biomass-fueled cogeneration facility is an integrated power system comprised of three major components:

  • Biomass receiving and feedstock preparation.
  • Energy conversion – Conversion of the biomass into steam for direct combustion systems or into biogas for the gasification systems.
  • Power and heat production – Conversion of the steam or syngas or biogas into electric power and process steam or hot water

Feedstock for Biomass Cogeneration Plants

The lowest cost forms of biomass for cogeneration plants are residues. Residues are the organic byproducts of food, fiber, and forest production, such as sawdust, rice husks, wheat straw, corn stalks, and sugarcane bagasse. Forest residues and wood wastes represent a large potential resource for energy production and include forest residues, forest thinnings, and primary mill residues.

combined-heat-and-power

Energy crops are perennial grasses and trees grown through traditional agricultural practices that are produced primarily to be used as feedstocks for energy generation, e.g. hybrid poplars, hybrid willows, and switchgrass. Animal manure can be digested anaerobically to produce biogas in large agricultural farms and dairies.

To turn a biomass resource into productive heat and/or electricity requires a number of steps and considerations, most notably evaluating the availability of suitable biomass resources; determining the economics of collection, storage, and transportation; and evaluating available technology options for converting biomass into useful heat or electricity.

Biogas-to-Biomethane Conversion Technologies

biogas-biomethaneRaw biogas contains approximately 30-45% of CO2, and some H2S and other compounds that have to be removed prior to utilization as natural gas, CNG or LNG replacement. Removing these components can be performed by several biogas upgrading techniques. Each process has its own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the biogas origin, composition and geographical orientation of the plant. The biogas-to-biomethane conversion technologies taken into account are pressurized water scrubbing (PWS), catalytic absorption/amine wash (CA), pressure swing absorption (PSA), highly selective membrane separation (MS) and cryogenic liquefaction (CL) which are the most common used biogas cleanup techniques.

The Table below shows a comparison of performance for these techniques at 8 bar (grid) injection.

Table:  Comparison of performance for various upgrading techniques (result at 8 bar) (Robert Lems, 2010) , (Lems R., 2012)

  PWS CA PSA MS CL Unit
Produced gas quality*2 98 99 97-99 99 99.5 CH4%
Methane slip 1 0.1-0.2 1-3 0.3-0.5 0.5 %
Electrical use 0.23-0.25 0.15-0.18 0.25 0.21-0.24 0.35 kWh/Nm3 feed
Thermal energy use 0,82-1.3 kWth/Nm3 prod.
Reliability / up time 96 94 94 98 94 %
Turn down ratio 50-100 50-100 85-100 0-100 75-100 %
CAPEX Medium Medium Medium Low High  
Operation cost Low Medium Medium Low High  
Foot print Large Large Medium Small Large  
Maintenance needed Medium Medium+ Medium+ Low High  
Ease of operation Medium Medium+ Medium Easy Complex  
Consumables &

waste streams

AC*3/Water AC*3/amines AC*3/ absorbents AC*3/None AC*3/None  
References Many Many Medium Medium Very few  

*2 If no oxygen of nitrogen is present in the raw biogas

*3 Activated carbon (AC) consumption is depending on the presence of certain pollutants (trace components) within the raw biogas.

From the above Table, it can be concluded that the differences between technologies with respect to performance seem to be relatively small. However, some “soft factors” can have a significant impact on technology selection. For example, water scrubber technology is a broadly applied technology. The requirement for clean process water, to make up for discharge and condensation, could be a challenging constraint for remote locations.

Moreover, PWS systems are prone to biological contamination (resulting in clogged packing media and foaming), especially when operated at elevated temperatures. Without additional preventative measures this will result in an increase of operational issues and downtime.

Amine scrubbers are a good choice when surplus heat is available for the regeneration of the washing liquid. The transport and discharge of this washing liquid could however be a burden, as well as the added complexity of operation. With respect to cryogenic Liquefaction (CL) one may conclude that, this technology has a questionable track-record, is highly complex, hard to operate, and should therefore not be selected for small-medium scale applications.

Both PSA and MS provide a “dry” system, both technologies operate without the requirement for a solvent/washing liquid, which significantly simplifies operation and maintenance. Distinctive factor between these technologies is that the membrane based system operates in a continuous mode, while the PSA technology is based on columns filled with absorption materials which operate in a rotating/non-continuous mode.

Moreover, the membrane based system has a more favourable methane slip, energy consumption and turndown ratio. The biggest advantage over PSA however, is that membrane systems do not require any transport of absorbents, its ease of operation and superior up-time.

Main disadvantage of membrane systems are that they are sensitive to pollution by organic compounds, which can decrease efficiency. However, by applying a proper pre-treatment (generally based on activated carbon and condensation) in which these compounds are eliminated, this disadvantage can be relatively easy nullified.

Based on membrane technology, DMT Environmental Technology, developed the Carborex ®MS. A cost-effective plug and play, containerized (and therefore), easy to build in remote locations) biogas upgrading system. The Carborex ®MS membrane system has relatively little mechanical moving components (compared to other upgrading technologies) and therefore, ensures stability of biomethane production, and consequently, the viability of the biogas plant operation.

Moreover, its design for ease of operation and robustness makes this technological platform perfectly suitable for operation at locations with limited experience and expertise on handling of biogas plants.

Impression of a membrane system; Carborex ®MS – by courtesy of DMT

Impression of a membrane system; Carborex ®MS – by courtesy of DMT

Conclusions

Capture of biogas through application of closed ponds or AD’s is not only a necessity for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, it is also a method of optimizing liquid waste treatment and methane recovery. Billions of cubic meters of biomethane can be produced on a yearly basis, facilitating a significant reduction of fossil fuel dependency.

Moreover, upgrading of raw biogas-to-biomethane (grid, CNG or LNG quality) provides additional utilization routes that have the extra advantage to be independent of existing infrastructure. To sum up, membrane based technology is the best way forward due to its ease of operation, robustness and the high quality of the end-products.

References

  • Lems R., D. E. (2012). Next generation biogas upgrading using high selective gas separation membranes. 17th European Biosolids Organic Resources Conference. Leeds: Aqua Enviro Technology .
  • Robert Lems, E. D. (2010). Making pressurized water scrubbing the ultimate biogas upgrading technology with the DMT TS-PWS® system. Energy from Biomass and Waste UK . London: EBW-UK .

Co-Authors: H. Dekker and E.H.M. Dirkse (DMT Environmental Technology)

Note: This is the final article in the special series on ‘Sustainable Utilization of POME-based Biomethane’ by Langerak et al of DMT Environmental Technology (Holland). The first two articles can be viewed at these links

http://www.bioenergyconsult.com/biomethane-utilization/

http://www.bioenergyconsult.com/pome-biogas/

Biomethane Utilization Pathways

biomethane-transportBiogas can be used in raw (without removal of CO2) or in upgraded form. The main function of upgrading biogas is the removal of CO2 (to increase the energy content) and H2S (to reduce risk of corrosion). After upgrading, biogas possesses identical gas quality properties as  natural gas, and can thus be used as natural gas replacement. The main pathways for biomethane utilization are as follows:

  • Production of heat and/or steam
  • Electricity production / combined heat and power production (CHP)
  • Natural gas replacement (gas grid injection)
  • Compressed natural gas (CNG) & diesel replacement – (bio-CNG for transport fuel usage)
  • Liquid natural gas (LNG) replacement – (bio-LNG for transport fuel usage)

Prior to practically all utilization options, the biogas has to be dried (usually through application of a cooling/condensation step). Furthermore, elements such as hydrogen sulphide and other harmful trace elements must be removed (usually trough application of an activated carbon filter) to prevent adverse effects on downstream processing equipment (such as compressors, piping, boilers and CHP systems).

Although biogas is perfectly suitable to be utilized in boilers (as an environmental friendlier source for heat and steam production), this option is rather obsolete due to the abundance of alternative sources from solid waste origin.

Most Palm Oil Mills are already self-reliant with respect to heat and steam production due to the combustion of their solid waste streams (such as EFB and PKS). Consequently, conversion to electricity (by means of a CHP unit) or utilization as natural gas, CNG or LNG replacement, would be a more sensible solution.

The biogas masterplan as drafted by the Asia Pacific Biogas Alliance foresees a distribution in which 30% of the biomethane is used for power generation, 40% for grid injection and 30% as compressed/liquefied fuel for transportation purpose (Asian Pacific Biogas Alliance, 2015).

For each project, the most optimal option has to be evaluated on a case to case basis. Main decision-making factors will be local energy prices and requirements, available infrastructure (for gas and electricity), incentives and funding.

For the locations where local demand is exceeded, and no electricity or gas infrastructure is available within a reasonable distance (<5-10 km, due to investment cost and power loss), production of CNG could offer a good solution.

Moreover, during the utilization of biogas within a CHP unit only 40-50% of the energetic content of the gas is converted into electricity. The rest of the energy is transformed into heat. For those locations where an abundance of heat is available, such as Palm Oil Mills, this effectively means that 50-60% of the energetic content of the biogas is not utilized. Converting the biogas into biomethane (of gas grid or CNG quality) through upgrading, would facilitate the transportation and commercialisation of over 95%  of the energetic content of the biogas.

Within the CNG utilization route, the raw biogas will be upgraded to a methane content of >96%, compressed to 250 bar and stored in racks with gas bottles. The buffered gas (bottles) will be suitable for transportation by truck or ship. For transportation over large distances (>200km), it will be advised to further reduce the gas volume by converting the gas to LNG (trough liquefaction).

Overall the effects and benefits from anaerobic digestion of POME and utilization of biomethane can be summarized as follows:

  • Reduction of emissions i.e. GHG methane and CO2
  • Reduced land use for POME treatment
  • Enhanced self-sufficiency trough availability of on-site diesel replacement (CNG)
  • Expansion of economic activities/generation of additional revenues
    • Sales of surplus electricity (local or to the grid)
    • Sales of biomethane (injection into the natural gas grid)
    • Replacement of on-site diesel usage by CNG
    • Sales of bottled CNG
  • Reducing global and local environmental impact (through fuel replacement)
  • Reducing dependence on fossil fuel, and enhances fuel diversity and security of energy supply
  • Enhancement of local infrastructure and employment
    • Through electrical and gas supply
    • Through Fuel (CNG) supply

Co-Authors: H. Dekker and E.H.M. Dirkse (DMT Environmental Technology)

Note: This is the second article in the special series on ‘Sustainable Utilization of POME-based Biomethane’ by Langerak et al of DMT Environmental Technology (Holland). The first article can be viewed at this link

Biogas Upgradation Methods

Upgradation of biogas is primarily achieved by carbon dioxide removal which then enhances the energy value of the gas to give longer, driving distances with a fixed gas storage volume. Removal of carbon dioxide also provides a consistent gas quality with respect to energy value. The latter is regarded to be of great importance from the vehicle manufacturers in order to reach low emissions of nitrogen oxide.

At present four different methods are commercially used for removal of carbon dioxide from biogas, either to reach vehicle fuel standard or to reach natural gas quality for injection to the natural gas grid. These methods are:

  • Water absorption
  • Polyethylene glycol absorption
  • Carbon molecular sieves
  • Membrane separation

Water Scrubbing

Water scrubbing is used to remove carbon dioxide but also hydrogen sulphide from biogas since these gases is more soluble in water than methane. The absorption process is purely physical. Usually the biogas is pressurized and fed to the bottom of a packed column where water is fed on the top and so the absorption process is operated counter-currently.

Polyethylene Glycol Scrubbing

Polyethylene glycol scrubbing is a physical absorption process. Selexol is one of the trade names used for a solvent. In this solvent, like in water, both carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide are more soluble than methane.

The big difference between water and Selexol is that carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide are more soluble in Selexol which results in a lower solvent demand and reduced pumping. In addition, water and halogenated hydrocarbons (contaminants in biogas from landfills) are removed when scrubbing biogas with Selexol.

Carbon Molecular Sieves

Molecular sieves are excellent products to separate specifically a number of different gaseous compounds in biogas. Thereby the molecules are usually loosely adsorbed in the cavities of the carbon sieve but not irreversibly bound. The selectivity of adsorption is achieved by different mesh sizes and/or application of different gas pressures.

When the pressure is released the compounds extracted from the biogas are desorbed. The process is therefore often called “pressure swing adsorption” (PSA). To enrich methane from biogas the molecular sieve is applied which is produced from coke rich in pores in the micrometer range. The pores are then further reduced by cracking of the hydrocarbons. In order to reduce the energy consumption for gas compression, a series of vessels are linked together.

Pressure swing adsoprtion process for biogas upgradation

The gas pressure released from one vessel is subsequently used by the others. Usually four vessels in a row are used filled with molecular sieve which removes at the same time CO2 and water vapour.

Membrane Purification

There are two basic systems of biogas purification with membranes: a high pressure gas separation with gas phases on both sides of the membrane, and a low-pressure gas liquid absorption separation where a liquid absorbs the molecules diffusing through the membrane.

  • High pressure gas separation

Pressurized gas (36 bar) is first cleaned over for example an activated carbon bed to remove (halogenated) hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulphide from the raw gas as well as oil vapour from the compressors. The carbon bed is followed by a particle filter and a heater. The raw gas is upgraded in 3 stages to a clean gas with 96 % methane or more.

The waste gas from the first two stages is recycled and the methane can be recovered. The waste gas from stage 3 (and in part of stage 2) is flared or used in a steam boiler as it still contains 10 to 20 % methane.

  • Gas-liquid absorption membranes

Gas-liquid absorption using membranes is a separation technique which was developed for biogas upgrading in the recent past. The essential element is a micro-porous hydrophobic membrane separating the gaseous from the liquid phase. The molecules from the gas stream, flowing in one direction, which are able to diffuse through the membrane will be absorbed on the other side by the liquid flowing in counter current.

The absorption membranes work at approx. atmospheric pressure (1 bar) which allows low-cost construction. The removal of gaseous components is very efficient. At a temperature of 25 to 35°C the H2S concentration in the raw gas of 2 % is reduced to less than 250 ppm.

POME as a Source of Biomethane

POME-BiogasDuring the production of crude palm oil, large amount of waste and by-products are generated. The solid waste streams consist of empty fruit bunch (EFB), mesocarp fruit fibers (MF) and palm kernel shells (PKS). Reuse of these waste streams in applications for heat, steam, compost and to lesser extent power generation are practised widely across Southeast Asia. POME or Palm Oil Mill Effluent is an underutilized liquid waste stream from palm oil mills which is generated during the palm oil extraction/decanting process and often seen as a serious environmental issue but it is a very good source for biomethane production. Therefore, discharge of POME is subject to increasingly stringent regulations in many palm oil-producing nations.

Anaerobic Digestion of POME

POME is an attractive feedstock for biomethane production and is abundantly available in all palm oil mills. Hence, it ensures continuous supply of substrates at no or low cost for biogas production, positioning it as a great potential source for biomethane production. (Chin May Ji, 2013).

POME is a colloidal suspension containing 95-96% water, 0.6-0.7% oil and 4-5% total solids, which include 2-4% suspended solids. Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) generally ranges between 25,000 and 65,714 mg/L, Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) ranges between 44,300 and 102,696 mg/L.

Most palm oil mills and refineries have their own treatment systems for POME, which is easily amenable to biodegradation due to its high organic content. The treatment system usually consists of anaerobic and aerobic ponds. (Sulaiman, 2013).

Open pond systems are still commonly applied. Although relatively cheap to install, these system often fail to meet discharge requirements (due to lack of operational control, long retention time, silting and short circuiting issues).

Moreover, the biogas produced during the anaerobic decomposition of POME in open pond systems is not recovered for utilization. The produced gas dissipates into the atmosphere where it causes adverse environment effects (due to the fact that CH4 is a twenty times stronger greenhouse gas then CO2 (Chin May Ji, 2013).

Biogas capture from POME can be carried out using a number of various technologies ranging in cost and complexity. The closed-tank anaerobic digester system with continuous stirred-tank reactor (CSTR), the methane fermentation system employing special microorganisms and the reversible flow anaerobic baffled reactor (RABR) system are among the technologies offered by technology providers. (Malaysian Palm Oil Board, 2015).

Biogas production largely depends on the method deployed for biomass conversion and capture of the biogas, and can, therefore, approximately range from 5.8 to 12.75 kg of CH4 per cubic meter of POME. Application of enclosed anaerobic digestion will significantly increase the quality of the effluent/ discharge stream as well as the biogas composition, as mentioned in table below.

 Table: Performance comparison between open and closed digester systems

Parameters Open digester system Closed anaerobic digester
COD removal efficiency (%) 81% 97%
HRT (days) 20 10
Methane utilization Released to atmosphere Recoverable
Methane yield (kg CH4/kg COD removed) 0.11 0.2
Methane content (%) 36 55
Solid discharge (g/L) 20 8

*This table has been reproduced from (Alawi Sulaiman, 2007)

A closed anaerobic system is capable of producing and collecting consistently high quality of methane rich biogas from POME. Typical raw biogas composition will be: 50-60 % CH4, 40-50 % CO2, saturated with water and with trace amounts of contaminants (H2S, NH3, volatiles, etc.).

Biomethane Potential in Southeast Asia

The amount of biomethane (defined as methane produced from biomass, with properties close to natural gas) that can be potentially produced from POME (within the Southeast Asian region) exceeds 2.25 billion cubic meter of biomethane (on a yearly basis).

Especially Indonesia and Malaysia, as key producers within the palm oil industry, could generate significant quantities of biomethane. An impression of the biomethane potential of these countries including other feedstock sources is being highlighted below (VIV Asia, 2015).

Indonesia (4.35 billion m3 of biomethane):

  • 25 billion m3 of biomethane from Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME).
  • 2 billion m3 of bio-methane from Sewage Treatment Plant (STP).
  • 9 billion m3 of bio-methane from Municipal Solid Waste (MSW).

Malaysia (3 billion m3 of biomethane):

  • 1 billion m3 of biomethane from Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME).
  • 2 billion m3 of biomethane from Sewage Treatment Plant (STP).
  • 8 billion m3 of biomethane from Municipal Solid Waste (MSW).

The Asian Pacific Biogas Alliance estimates that the potential of conversion of biomass to biomethane is sufficient to replace 25 percent of the natural gas demand by renewable biogas (Asian Pacific Biogas Alliance, 2015).

To sum up, due to the high fraction of organic materials, POME has a large energetic potential. By unlocking the energetic potential of these streams through conversion/ digesting and capture of biomethane, plant owners have the opportunity to combine waste management with a profitable business model.

Co-Authors: H. Dekker and E.H.M. Dirkse (DMT Environmental Technology)

References

Alawi Sulaiman, Z. B. (2007). Biomethane production from pal oil mill effluent (POME) in a semi-commercial closed anaerobic digester. Seminar on Sustainable Palm Biomass initiatives. Japan Society on Promotion of Science (JSPS).

Asia Biogas Group. (2015, 08 15). Retrieved from Asia Biogas : http://www.asiabiogas.com

Asian Pacific Biogas Alliance. (2015). Biogas Opportunities in South East Asia. Asian Pacific Biogas Alliance/ICESN.

Chin May Ji, P. P. (2013). Biogas from palm oil mill effluent (POME): Opportunities and challenges from Malysia’s perspective. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews , 717-726.

Malaysian Palm Oil Board. (2015, 08 26). Biogas capture and CMD project implementation for palm oil mills. Retrieved from Official Portal Of Malaysian Palm Oild Board:

Sulaiman, N. A. (2013). The Oil Palm Wastes in Malaysia. In M. D. Matovic, “Biomass Now – Sustainable Growth and Use”. InTech.

VIV Asia. (2015, 08 26). The international platform from feed to food in Asia. Retrieved from http://www.vivasia.nl

Note: This is the first article in the special series on ‘Sustainable Utilization of POME-based Biomethane’ by Langerak et al of DMT Environmental Technology (Holland)

Biomass Energy Scenario in Southeast Asia

The rapid economic growth and industrialization in Southeast Asian region is characterized by a significant gap between energy supply and demand. The energy demand in the region is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years which will have a profound impact on the global energy market. In addition, the region has many locations with high population density, which makes public health vulnerable to the pollution caused by fossil fuels.

Another important rationale for transition from fossil-fuel-based energy systems to renewable ones arises out of observed and projected impacts of climate change. Due to the rising share of greenhouse gas emissions from Asia, it is imperative on all Asian countries to promote sustainable energy to significantly reduce GHGs emissions and foster sustainable energy trends. Rising proportion of greenhouse gas emissions is causing large-scale ecological degradation, particularly in coastal and forest ecosystems, which may further deteriorate environmental sustainability in the region.

The reliance on conventional energy sources can be substantially reduced as the Southeast Asian region is one of the leading producers of biomass resources in the world. Southeast Asia, with its abundant biomass resources, holds a strategic position in the global biomass energy atlas.

There is immense potential of biomass energy in ASEAN countries due to plentiful supply of diverse forms of wastes such as agricultural residues, agro-industrial wastes, woody biomass, animal wastes, municipal solid waste, etc. Southeast Asia is a big producer of wood and agricultural products which, when processed in industries, produces large amounts of biomass residues.

palm-kernel-shell-uses

Palm kernel shells is an abundant biomass resource in Southeast Asia

According to conservative estimates, the amount of biomass residues generated from sugar, rice and palm oil mills is more than 200-230 million tons per year which corresponds to cogeneration potential of 16-19 GW. Woody biomass is a good energy resource due to presence of large number of forests and wood processing industries in the region.

The prospects of biogas power generation are also high in the region due to the presence of well-established food processing, agricultural and dairy industries. Another important biomass resource is contributed by municipal solid wastes in heavily populated urban areas.

In addition, there are increasing efforts from the public and private sectors to develop biomass energy systems for efficient biofuel production, e.g. biodiesel and bioethanol. The rapid economic growth and industrialization in Southeast Asia has accelerated the drive to implement the latest biomass energy technologies in order to tap the unharnessed potential of biomass resources, thereby making a significant contribution to the regional energy mix.

Bioenergy Perspectives for Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia, with its abundant bioenergy resources, holds a strategic position in the global biomass energy atlas. There is immense bioenergy potential in Southeast Asian countries due to plentiful supply of diverse forms of biomass wastes such as agricultural residues, woody biomass, animal wastes, municipal solid waste, etc. The rapid economic growth and industrialization in the region has accelerated the drive to implement the latest waste-to-energy technologies to tap the unharnessed potential of biomass resources.

Southeast Asia is a big producer of agricultural and wood products which, when processed in industries, produces large amounts of biomass residues. According to conservative estimates, the amount of biomass residues generated from sugar, rice and palm oil mills is more than 200-230 million tons per year which corresponds to cogeneration potential of 16-19 GW.

Rice mills in the region produce 38 million tonnes of rice husk as solid residue which is a good fuel for producing heat and power. Sugar industry is an integral part of the industrial scenario in Southeast Asia accounting for 7% of sugar production worldwide. Sugar mills in Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam generate 34 million tonnes of bagasse every year.  Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand account for 90% of global palm oil production leading to the generation of 27 million tonnes of waste per annum in the form of empty fruit bunches (EFBs), fibers and shells, as well as liquid effluent.

Woody biomass is a good energy resource due to presence of large number of forests in Southeast Asia. Apart from natural forests, non-industrial plantations of different types (e.g. coconut, rubber and oil palm plantations, fruit orchards, and trees in homesteads and gardens) have gained recognition as important sources of biomass. In addition, the presence of a large number of wood processing industries also generates significant quantity of wood wastes. The annual production of wood wastes in the region is estimated to be more than 30 million m3.

The prospects of biogas power generation are also high in the region thanks to presence of well-established food-processing and dairy industries. Another important biomass resource is contributed by municipal solid wastes in heavily populated urban areas.  In addition, there are increasing efforts both commercially and promoted by governments to develop biomass energy systems for efficient biofuel production, e.g. bio-diesel from palm oil.

Biomass resources, particularly residues from forests, wood processing, agricultural crops and agro-processing, are under-utilised in Southeast Asian countries. There is an urgent need to utilize biomass wastes for commercial electricity and heat production to cater to the needs of the industries as well as urban and rural communities.

Southeast Asian countries are yet to make optimum use of the additional power generation potential from biomass waste resources which could help them to partially overcome the long-term problem of energy supply. Technologies for biomass utilization which are at present widely used in Southeast counties need to be improved towards best practice by making use of the latest trends in the biomass energy sector.

Food Waste Management

The waste management hierarchy suggests that reduce, reuse and recycling should always be given preference in a typical waste management system. However, these options cannot be applied uniformly for all kinds of wastes. For examples, food waste is quite difficult to deal with using the conventional 3R strategy.

Of the different types of organic wastes available, food waste holds the highest potential in terms of economic exploitation as it contains high amount of carbon and can be efficiently converted into biogas and organic fertilizer.

There are numerous places which are the sources of large amounts of food waste and hence a proper food waste management strategy needs to be devised for them to make sure that either they are disposed off in a safe manner or utilized efficiently. These places include hotels, restaurants, malls, residential societies, college/school/office canteens, religious mass cooking places, communal kitchens, airline caterers, food and meat processing industries and vegetable markets which generate food residuals of considerable quantum on a daily basis.

anaerobic_digestion_plant

The anaerobic digestion technology is highly apt in dealing with the chronic problem of food waste management in urban societies. Although the technology is commercially viable in the longer run, the high initial capital cost is a major hurdle towards its proliferation.

The onus is on the governments to create awareness and promote such technologies in a sustainable manner. At the same time, entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and environmental agencies should also take inspiration from successful food waste-to-energy projects in Western countries and try to set up such facilities in cities and towns.

Synthetic Biology – A Catalyst to Revolutionize Biogas Industry

Essentially a process operating by living organisms, the biogas industry is a natural target for synthetic biology. Synthetic biology combines biology and engineering to design and construct biological devices. Contrary to traditional genetic engineering that only alters an already existing DNA sequence, synthetic biology allows us to build entirely new sequences of DNA and put them to work in cells. This allows us to build novel biological devices that would never exist in nature.

Constructions and operations of devices that do not exist in nature, such as tools, vehicles, computers and the internet, have crafted modern civilization. Now, it is synthetic biology that is challenging nature’s limitations and advancing civilization to a higher level.

Generating biogas via anaerobic digestion of biomass and organic waste is one of the few proven, cost-effective, scalable biomass energy strategies. Biogas consists of mainly methane and carbon dioxide, and combustion of methane with air generates energy which can be used for many purposes such as cooking, heating, producing electricity and vehicle fuel. As a result, countless biogas plants are operating around the globe helping to clean up waste and generate energy. With more plants being built, they come in all sizes ranging from household to factory scales.

Anaerobic digestion is a process where extremely complex microbial communities degrade organic matter, such as sugars, fats and proteins, resulting in biogas as the primary end-product. Such inherent complexity makes this process very difficult to optimize. Mechanical engineers have made tremendous progress to optimize this process, but in many places it still requires government subsidies to be profitable.

Synthetic Biology and Biogas Industry

Essentially a process operating by living organisms, the biogas industry is a natural target for synthetic biology. In terms of their genetic content, organisms are classified into three natural groups, Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya. Most microbes are Archaea and Bacteria, while humans are Eukarya.

In an anaerobic digester, many different types of Bacteria convert the complex organic matter in waste or biomass to hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide, formate and acetate. A unique group of methanogenic Archaea then produces the invaluable part of biogas, methane, by eating hydrogen and carbon dioxide, formate or acetate.

One can imagine creating a super microbe to convert the complex organic matter directly into biogas, thus making anaerobic digestion faster, more efficient and easier-to-manipulate. Making a synthetic microbial community by reprogramming key microbes may also help them work together when a tough job (i.e., eating extremely complex waste) needs to be done.

Among numerous microbes in anaerobic digester, methanogenic Archaea are one of a few microbial groups that have been extensively studied, and a number of genetic tools are available for engineering via synthetic biology. Therefore, scientists have begun to reprogram methanogenic archaea, allowing them to eat organic matter such as sugars and directly produce methane. If they succeed, they may engineer a super microbe that never existed in nature and revolutionize the biogas industry by making anaerobic digestion much simpler and more efficient.

There is also the possibility of more applications downstream. For instance, upgrading biogas by removal of carbon dioxide improves its combustibility. A super microbe could be made to upgrade biogas using hydrogen gas or even electricity to form more methane from carbon dioxide.

Conceptualized super cell that converts idealized organic matter (2CH2O) directly into biogas.

Grand Challenges

However promising, grand challenges remain when it comes to applying synthetic biology to the biogas industry. About 10,000 moving parts are needed to make an automobile, millions of parts for an airplane, and all the parts are standardized.

Similar to those engineering sectors, synthetic biology also needs many standardized genetic parts and modules to be able to create biological devices that can really revolutionize an industry. Sophisticated genetic tools are needed as well to assemble these parts and put them to work. However, few such parts, modules and tools are at disposal for engineering microbes in an anaerobic digester.

Take methanogenic Archaea for example, only three parts are available in the iGEM registry, the world largest collection of biological parts for synthetic biology. Another challenge is an apparent neglect of synthetic biology by the biogas industry. Symposiums bringing professionals from biogas industry and synthetic biology together for discussions are rare, as are major investments for promoting synthetic biology.

As a result, few research groups are developing synthetic tools and parts for the biogas industry. For example, the aforementioned three iGEM parts were all contributed by only one group, the UGA-iGEM team at the University of Georgia.

Future Perspectives

Synthetic biology is developing faster than ever, and its cost continues to fall. Thanks to prompt actions of many industrial pioneers in embracing and supporting synthetic biology, it is already starting to revolutionize a few fields.

Synthetic biology also holds great potentials to revolutionize the biogas industry. To achieve this goal, joint efforts between the biogas industry and academia must be made. The former side needs to understand what synthetic biology can achieve, while the latter side should identify which parts of the process in the biogas industry can be re-designed and optimized by synthetic biology.

Once the two sides start to work together, novel synthetic parts and tools are bound to be invented, and they will make anaerobic digestion a better process for the biogas industry.