Biomass Gasification Process

Biomass gasification involves burning of biomass in a limited supply of air to give a combustible gas consisting of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane, water, nitrogen, along with contaminants like small char particles, ash and tars. The gas is cleaned to make it suitable for use in boilers, engines and turbines to produce heat and power (CHP).

Biomass gasification provides a means of deriving more diverse forms of energy from the thermochemical conversion of biomass than conventional combustion. The basic gasification process involves devolatization, combustion and reduction.

During devolatization, methane and other hydrocarbons are produced from the biomass by the action of heat which leaves a reactive char.

During combustion, the volatiles and char are partially burned in air or oxygen to generate heat and carbon dioxide. In the reduction phase, carbon dioxide absorbs heat and reacts with the remaining char to produce carbon monoxide (producer gas). The presence of water vapour in a gasifier results in the production of hydrogen as a secondary fuel component.

There are two main types of gasifier that can be used to carry out this conversion, fixed bed gasifiers and fluidized bed gasifiers. The conversion of biomass into a combustible gas involves a two-stage process. The first, which is called pyrolysis, takes place below 600°C, when volatile components contained within the biomass are released. These may include organic compounds, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, tars and water vapour.

Pyrolysis leaves a solid residue called char. In the second stage of the gasification process, this char is reacted with steam or burnt in a restricted quantity of air or oxygen to produce further combustible gas. Depending on the precise design of gasifier chosen, the product gas may have a heating value of 6 – 19 MJ/Nm3.

Layout of a Typical Biomass Gasification Plant

The products of gasification are a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen and various hydrocarbons, which can then be used directly in gas turbines, and boilers, or used as precursors for synthesising a wide range of other chemicals.

In addition there are a number of methods that can be used to produce higher quality product gases, including indirect heating, oxygen blowing, and pressurisation. After appropriate treatment, the resulting gases can be burned directly for cooking or heat supply, or used in secondary conversion devices, such as internal combustion engines or gas turbines, for producing electricity or shaft power (where it also has the potential for CHP applications).

 

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Issues Confronting Biomass Energy Ventures

Biomass resources can be transformed into clean energy and/or fuels by thermal and biochemical technologies. Besides recovery of substantial energy, these technologies can lead to a substantial reduction in the overall waste quantities requiring final disposal. However, biomass energy projects worldwide are often hampered by a variety of techno-commercial issues. The issues enumerated below are not geography-specific and are usually a matter of concern for project developers, entrepreneurs and technology companies:

  1. Large Project Costs: In India, a 1 MW gasification plant usually costs about USD 1-1.5 million. A combustion-based 1 MW plant would need a little more expenditure, to the tune of USD 1-2 million. An anaerobic digestion-based plant of the same capacity, on the other hand, could range anywhere upwards USD 3 million. Such high capital costs prove to be a big hurdle for any entrepreneur or cleantech enthusiast to come forward and invest into these technologies.
  2. Low Conversion Efficiencies: In general, efficiencies of combustion-based systems are in the range of 20-25% and gasification-based systems are considered even poorer, with their efficiencies being in the range of a measly 10-15%. The biomass resources themselves are low in energy density, and such poor system efficiencies could add a double blow to the entire project.
  3. Dearth of Mature Technologies: Poor efficiencies call for a larger quantum of resources needed to generate a unit amount of energy. Owing to this reason, investors and project developers find it hard to go for such plants on a larger scale. Moreover, the availability of only a few reliable technology and operation & maintenance service providers makes these technologies further undesirable. Gasification technology is still limited to scales lesser than 1 MW in most parts of the world. Combustion-based systems have although gone upwards of 1 MW, a lot many are now facing hurdles because of factors like unreliable resource chain, grid availability, and many others.
  4. Lack of Funding Options: Financing agencies usually give a tough time to biomass project developers as compared to what it takes to invest in other renewable energy technologies.
  5. Non-Transparent Trade Markets: Usually, the biomass energy resources are obtained through forests, farms, industries, animal farms etc. There is no standard pricing mechanism for such resources and these usually vary from vendor to vendor, even with the same resource in consideration.
  6. High Risks / Low Pay-Backs: Biomass energy projects are not much sought-after owing to high project risks which could entail from failed crops, natural disasters, local disturbances, etc.
  7. Resource Price Escalation: Unrealistic fuel price escalation too is a major cause of worry for the plant owners. Usually, an escalation of 3-5% is considered while carrying out the project’s financial modelling. However, it has been observed that in some cases, the rise has been as staggering as 15-20% per annum, forcing the plants to shut down.