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.

Trends in Utilization of Palm Kernel Shells

palm-kernel-shell-usesThe palm kernel shells used to be initially dumped in the open thereby impacting the environment negatively without any economic benefit. However, over time, palm oil mills in Southeast Asia and elsewhere realized their brilliant properties as a fuel and that they can easily replace coal as an industrial fuel for generating heat and steam.

Major Applications

Nowadays, the primary use of palm kernel shells (PKS) is as a boiler fuel supplementing the fibre which is used as primary fuel. In recent years kernel shells are extensively sold as alternative fuel around the world. Besides selling shells in bulk, there are companies that produce fuel briquettes from shells which may include partial carbonisation of the material to improve the combustion characteristics.

Palm kernel shells have a high dry matter content (>80% dry matter). Therefore the shells are generally considered a good fuel for the boilers as it generates low ash amounts and the low K and Cl content will lead to less ash agglomeration. These properties are also ideal for production of biomass for export.

As a raw material for fuel briquettes, palm shells are reported to have the same calorific characteristics as coconut shells. The relatively smaller size makes it easier to carbonise for mass production, and its resulting palm shell charcoal can be pressed into a heat efficient biomass briquette.

Although the literature on using oil palm shells (and fibres) is not as extensive as EFB, common research directions of using shells, besides energy, are to use it as raw material for light-weight concrete, fillers, activated carbon, and other materials. However, none of the applications are currently done on a large-scale. Since shells are dry and suitable for thermal conversion, technologies that further improve the combustion characteristics and increase the energy density, such as torrefaction, could be relevant for oil palm shells.

Torrefaction is a pretreatment process which serves to improve the properties of biomass in relation to the thermochemical conversion technologies for more efficient energy generation. High lignin content for shells affects torrefaction characteristics positively (as the material is not easily degraded compared to EFB and fibres).

Furthermore, palm oil shells are studied as feedstock for fast pyrolysis. To what extent shells are a source of fermentable sugars is still not known, however the high lignin content in palm kernel shells indicates that shells are less suitable as raw material for fermentation.

Future Outlook

The leading palm oil producers in the world should consider limiting the export of palm-kernel shells (PKS) to ensure supplies of the biomass material for renewable energy projects, in order to decrease dependency on fossil fuels. For example, many developers in Indonesia have expressed an interest in building palm kernel shell-fired power plants. However, they have their concerns over supplies, as many producers prefer to sell their shells overseas currently. Many existing plants are facing problems on account of inconsistent fuel quality and increasing competition from overseas PKS buyers. PKS market is well-established in provinces like Sumatra and export volumes to Europe and North Asia as a primary fuel for biomass power plants is steadily increasing.

The creation of a biomass supply chain in palm oil producing countries may be instrumental in discouraging palm mills to sell their PKS stocks to brokers for export to foreign countries. Establishment of a biomass exchange in leading countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria, will also be a deciding factor in tapping the unharnessed potential of palm kernel shells as biomass resource.

Bioenergy in the Middle East

The Middle East region offers tremendous renewable energy potential in the form of solar, wind and bioenergy which has remained unexplored to a great extent. The major biomass producing Middle East countries are Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. Traditionally, biomass energy has been widely used in rural areas for domestic purposes in the Middle East. Since most of the region is arid/semi-arid, the biomass energy potential is mainly contributed by municipal solid wastes, agricultural residues and agro-industrial wastes.

Municipal solid wastes represent the best bioenergy resource in the Middle East. The high rate of population growth, urbanization and economic expansion in the region is not only accelerating consumption rates but also accelerating the generation of municipal waste. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait rank in the top-ten worldwide in terms of per capita solid waste generation. The gross urban waste generation quantity from Middle East countries is estimated at more than 150 million tons annually.

In Middle East countries, huge quantity of sewage sludge is produced on daily basis which presents a serious problem due to its high treatment costs and risk to environment and human health. On an average, the rate of wastewater generation is 80-200 litres per person each day and sewage output is rising by 25 percent every year. According to estimates from the Drainage and Irrigation Department of Dubai Municipality, sewage generation in the Dubai increased from 50,000 m3 per day in 1981 to 400,000 m3 per day in 2006.

The food processing industry in Middle East produces a large number of organic residues and by-products that can be used as source of bioenergy. In recent decades, the fast-growing food and beverage processing industry has remarkably increased in importance in major countries of the Middle East.

Since the early 1990s, the increased agricultural output stimulated an increase in fruit and vegetable canning as well as juice, beverage, and oil processing in countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. There are many technologically-advanced dairy products, bakery and oil processing plants in the region.

date-wastes

Date palm biomass is found in large quantities across 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. Cotton, dates, olives, wheat are some of the prominent crops in the Middle East

Large quantities of crop residues are produced annually in the region, 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 thermochemically 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.

The Middle Eastern countries have strong animal population. The livestock sector, in particular sheep, goats and camels, plays an important role in the national economy of the Middle East countries. Many millions of live ruminants are imported into the Middle Eastern countries each year from around the world. In addition, the region has witnessed very rapid growth in the poultry sector. The biogas potential of animal manure can be harnessed both at small- and community-scale.

Biomass Wastes from Palm Oil Mills

The Palm Oil industry generates large quantity of wastes whose disposal is a challenging task. In the Palm Oil mill, fresh fruit bunches are sterilized after which the oil fruits can be removed from the branches. The empty fruit bunches (are left as residues, and the fruits are pressed in oil mills. The Palm Oil fruits are then pressed, and the kernel is separated from the press cake (mesocarp fibers). The palm kernels are then crushed and the kernels then transported and pressed in separate mills.

In a typical Palm Oil plantation, almost 70% of the fresh fruit bunches are turned into wastes in the form of empty fruit bunches, fibers and shells, as well as liquid effluent. These by-products can be converted to value-added products or energy to generate additional profit for the Palm Oil Industry.

Palm Kernel Shells (PKS)

Palm kernel shells (or PKS) are the shell fractions left after the nut has been removed after crushing in the Palm Oil mill. Kernel shells are a fibrous material and can be easily handled in bulk directly from the product line to the end use. Large and small shell fractions are mixed with dust-like fractions and small fibres.

Moisture content in kernel shells is low compared to other biomass residues with different sources suggesting values between 11% and 13%. Palm kernel shells contain residues of Palm Oil, which accounts for its slightly higher heating value than average lignocellulosic biomass. Compared to other residues from the industry, it is a good quality biomass fuel with uniform size distribution, easy handling, easy crushing, and limited biological activity due to low moisture content.

Press fibre and shell generated by the Palm Oil mills are traditionally used as solid fuels for steam boilers. The steam generated is used to run turbines for electricity production. These two solid fuels alone are able to generate more than enough energy to meet the energy demands of a Palm Oil mill.

Empty Fruit Bunches (EFBs)

In a typical Palm Oil mill, empty fruit bunches are abundantly available as fibrous material of purely biological origin. EFB contains neither chemical nor mineral additives, and depending on proper handling operations at the mill, it is free from foreign elements such as gravel, nails, wood residues, waste etc. However, it is saturated with water due to the biological growth combined with the steam sterilization at the mill. Since the moisture content in EFB is around 67%, pre-processing is necessary before EFB can be considered as a good fuel.

In contrast to shells and fibers, empty fruit bunches are usually burnt causing air pollution or returned to the plantations as mulch. Empty fruit bunches can be conveniently collected and are available for exploitation in all Palm Oil mills. Since shells and fibres are easy-to-handle, high quality fuels compared to EFB, it will be advantageous to utilize EFB for on-site energy demand while making shells and fibres available for off-site utilization which may bring more revenues as compared to burning on-site.

Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME)

Palm Oil processing also gives rise to highly polluting waste-water, known as Palm Oil Mill Effluent, which is often discarded in disposal ponds, resulting in the leaching of contaminants that pollute the groundwater and soil, and in the release of methane gas into the atmosphere. POME could be used for biogas production through anaerobic digestion. At many Palm-oil mills this process is already in place to meet water quality standards for industrial effluent. The gas, however, is flared off.

In a conventional Palm Oil mill, 600-700 kg of POME is generated for every ton of processed FFB. Anaerobic digestion is widely adopted in the industry as a primary treatment for POME. Liquid effluents from palm oil mills can be anaerobically converted into biogas which in turn can be used to generate power through gas turbines or gas-fired engines.

Conclusions

Most of the Biomass residues from Palm Oil Mills are either burnt in the open or disposed off in waste ponds. The Palm Oil industry, therefore, contributes significantly to global climate change by emitting carbon dioxide and methane. Like sugar mills, Palm Oil mills have traditionally been designed to cover their own energy needs (process heat and electricity) by utilizing low pressure boilers and back pressure turbo-generators. Efficient energy conversion technologies, especially thermal systems for crop residues, that can utilize all Palm Oil residues, including EFBs, are currently available.

In the Palm Oil value chain there is an overall surplus of by-products and their utilization rate is negligible, especially in the case of POME and EFBs. For other mill by-products the efficiency of the application can be increased. Presently, shells and fibers are used for in-house energy generation in mills but empty fruit bunches is either used for mulching or dumped recklessly. Palm Oil industry has the potential of generating large amounts of electricity for captive consumption as well as export of surplus power to the public grid.

Major Considerations in Biopower Projects

In recent years, biopower (or biomass power) projects are getting increasing traction worldwide, however there are major issues to be tackled before setting up a biopower project. There are three important steps involved in the conversion of biomass wastes into useful energy. In the first step, the biomass must be prepared for the energy conversion process. While this step is highly dependent on the waste stream and approach, drying, grinding, separating, and similar operations are common.

In addition, the host facility will need material handling systems, storage, metering, and prep-yard systems and biomass handling equipment. In the second step, the biomass waste stream must be converted into a useful fuel or steam. Finally, the fuel or steam is fed into a prime mover to generate useful electricity and heat.

One of the most important factors in the efficient utilization of biomass resource is its availability in close proximity to a biomass power project. An in-depth evaluation of the available quantity of a given agricultural resource should be conducted to determine initial feasibility of a project, as well as subsequent fuel availability issues. The primary reasons for failure of biomass power projects are changes in biomass fuel supply or demand and changes in fuel quality.

Fuel considerations that should be analyzed before embarking on a biomass power project include:

  • Typical moisture content (including the effects of storage options)
  • Typical yield
  • Seasonality of the resource
  • Proximity to the power generation site
  • Alternative uses of the resource that could affect future availability or price
  • Range of fuel quality
  • Weather-related issues
  • Percentage of farmers contracted to sell residues

Accuracy is of great importance in making fuel availability assumptions because miscalculations can greatly impact the successful operation of biomass power projects. If biomass resource is identifies as a bottle-neck in the planning stage, a power generation technology that can handle varying degrees of moisture content and particle size can be selected.

Technologies that can handle several fuels in a broad category, such as agricultural residues, provide security in operation without adversely affecting combustion efficiency, operations and maintenance costs, emissions levels, and reliability.

Consistent and reliable supply of biomass is crucial for any biomass project

Identification of potential sources of biomass fuel can be one of the more challenging aspects of a new biomass energy project. There are two important issues for potential biomass users:

  • Consistent and reliable biomass resource supply to the facility
  • Presence of harvesting, processing and supply infrastructure to provide biomass in a consistent and timely manner

Biomass as an energy source is a system of interdependent components. Economic and technical viability of this system relies on a guaranteed feedstock supply, effective and efficient conversion technologies, guaranteed markets for the energy products, and cost-effective distribution systems.

The biomass system is based on the following steps:

  • Biomass harvesting (or biomass collection of non-agricultural waste)
  • Preparation of biomass as feedstock
  • Conversion of biomass feedstock into intermediate products.
  • Transformation of intermediates into final energy and other bio-based products
  • Distribution and utilization of biofuels, biomass power and bio-based products.

More Reasons To Check Out Alternative Energy Sources

In recent years, the world has seen significant economic progress, which greatly relied on energy fueled by coal and petroleum among others. With the continuously growing demand for energy, it is a fact that these energy sources may be depleted in the near future. Apart from this, there are several other reasons why humankind already needs to find alternative energy sources.

Global Warming

It is a known fact that different manufacturing processes and human activities, such as using vehicles, cause pollution in the atmosphere by releasing carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide traps heat in the earth, and this phenomenon is known as global warming. Global warming has several harmful impacts such as stronger and more frequent storms, as well as drought and heat waves. Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass to name a few, all generate minimal global warming emissions.

Wind power, for instance, has the capability to supply energy with a significantly lower emission compared to burning coal for fuel. This is the reason why wind energy is more beneficial compared to carbon-intensive energy sources. Still, the emissions generated by wind power are even lower compared to other renewable energy sources such as solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power sources. This makes a huge potential for wind power to sustain the world’s energy demands, while preserving the environment.

Public Health

It goes without saying that the pollution caused by burning coal and fuel not only has an environmental impact, but it also has a significant effect on public health. Various diseases and ailments can be attributed to pollution, which usually affects the respiratory tract. Contaminated water also causes various bacterial infections. Wind power, solar energy, and hydroelectric systems have the capability to generate electricity without emitting air pollutants. Additionally, wind and solar energy sources do not need water to operate, thereby, eliminating the probability of polluting water resources. Clean air and water that is free from pollutants, will have a significant positive impact on public health.

Constant Energy Source

While coal and fossil fuels are on the threshold of depletion, renewable energy sources are inexhaustible. Wind can be a constant energy source and no matter how high the demand for energy will be, the wind will not be depleted. In the same manner, as long as the sun shines bright on earth, there will always be an abundant solar energy source. Fast-moving water that can be translated into hydroelectric energy, the earth’s heat that can be converted into a geothermal power source, as well as abundant plant matter that can be used as biomass, can all be constantly replenished. These can never be fully exhausted no matter how great the energy demand will be. The utilization of a combination of each of these energy sources will prove to be even more beneficial. Additionally, with its continued use, there will no longer be a need for combustible energy sources.

Lower Energy Costs

The cost of electricity continues to be a burden on the earth’s greater population. The use of renewable energy sources to light up the earth is considerably cheaper and inexpensive compared to the cost of burning fossil fuels for electricity and other energy needs. Apart from a cheaper cost, renewable energy sources can help stabilize to cost of energy in the long run, with an unlimited supply being able to cater to greater demand. While it cannot be denied that setting up clean energy technologies comes with a cost, it can be noted that the cost of its operation is significantly lower. Conversely, the cost of coal and fossil fuels for energy consumption fluctuates over a wide range and is greatly affected by the economic and political conditions of its country of origin.

Economic Benefits

Fossil fuel technologies, often, revolve around the capitalistic market. Hence, the use of combustible fuels is often linked to unfavorable labor conditions, and even child labor and slavery. On the other hand, the use of renewable energy sources provides decent jobs, contributing to several economic benefits. For instance, workers are needed to install and maintain solar panels. In the same manner, wind farms employ technicians for maintenance. Thus, jobs are created directly in parallel with the unit of energy produced. This means that more jobs will be produced if more renewable energy sources are utilized.

Reliability

Clean energy sources, specifically wind and solar power, are less susceptible to large-scale failures. The reason behind this is that both wind and solar power both employ distributed and modular systems. This means that electricity will not be totally cut off in instances of extreme weather conditions because the energy sources powering up the electricity is spread out over a wider geographical area. In the same manner, there will still be a continuous supply of energy even if certain equipment in the entire system is damaged because clean fuel technologies are made up of modules such as a number of individual wind turbines or solar panels.

With all the reasons to check out alternative energy sources, it still holds true that there remain several barriers that hinder the full implementation of renewable energy technologies. Some of these challenges are capital costs because of reliability misconceptions, as well as a difficult market entry due to an unequal playing field. Because renewable energy sources are cheap to operate, the bulk of the expenses in its implementation is building the technology. Thereby, the rate of return for capitalists and investors in the market entails a longer waiting period. Adding to this barrier is the hidden political agenda that most governments need to overcome.

Economic progress and advancement in technology are not at all bad. On the contrary, it has brought forth a lot of benefits such as cures for ailments and diseases, resources for deep-sea or space explorations, as well as meaningful collaboration and communication. However, this progress came with a price, and unfortunately, it’s the world’s energy resources that are on the brink of exhaustion. Hence, mitigation has been already necessary and finding alternative energy sources is just one of the probable solutions.

Why Biofuels Should Be a Key Part in America’s Future

Biofuels are one of the hottest environmental topics, but they aren’t anything new. When discussing these fuels, experts frequently refer to first, second-and third-generation biofuels to differentiate between more efficient and advanced ones currently in development and more traditional biofuels in use for decades.

Biofuels are increasingly being used to power vehicles around the world

First-generation biofuels are things like methanol, ethanol, biodiesel and vegetable oil, while second-generation biofuels are produced by transforming crops into liquid fuels using highly advanced chemical processes, such as mixed alcohols and biohydrogen. Third-generation, or “advanced” biofuels, are created using oil that is made from algae or closed reactors and then refined to produce conventional fuels such as ethanol, methane, biodiesel, etc.

Cleaner Air and Less Impact on Climate Change

As biofuels come from renewable materials, they have less of an impact on climate change as compared to gasoline, according to multiple studies. Ethanol in gasoline has been helping to decrease smog in major cities, keeping the air cleaner and safer to breathe. Starch-based biofuels can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by around 30- to 60-percent, as compared to gasoline, while cellulosic ethanol can lessen emissions even further, as much as 90 percent.

Reduced Danger of Environmental Disaster

Can you imagine buying one of the oceanfront Jacksonville condos in Florida, looking forward to enjoying peaceful beach strolls every morning only to find injured or killed animals and globs of oil all over the sand? Not exactly the vision of paradise you dreamed of.

A major benefit of using biofuels is the risk of environmental disaster is dramatically reduced. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico released millions of gallons of oil. It not only cost BP nearly $62 billion but caused extensive damage to wildlife and the environment. Biofuels are much safer. For example, a corn field won’t poison the ocean.

More Jobs and an Economic Boom

Numerous studies, including one conducted by the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), have found that biofuels lead to more jobs for Americans. In 2014, the ethanol industry was responsible for nearly 84,000 direct jobs and over 295,000 indirect and induced jobs – all jobs that pay well and are non-exportable. The industry also added nearly $53 billion to the national GDP, $27 billion to the national GDP and over $10 billion in taxes, stimulating local, state and national economies.

Many experts predict that these figures will increase with significant job creation potential in biorefinery construction, operation and biomass collection. If the potential for producing cellulosic ethanol from household waste and forestry residues were utilized at commercial scale, even more jobs are likely to be added.

Energy Independence

When a nation has the land resources to grow biofuel feedstock, it is able to produce its own energy, eliminating dependence on fossil fuel resources. Considering the significant amount of conflict that tends to happen over fuel prices and supplies, this brings a net positive effect.

Analysis of Agro Biomass Projects

The current use of agro biomass for energy generation is low and more efficient use would release significant amounts of agro biomass resources for other energy use. Usually, efficiency improvements are neglected because of the non-existence of grid connections with agro-industries.

Electricity generated from biomass is more costly to produce than fossil fuel and hydroelectric power for two reasons. First, biomass fuels are expensive. The cost of producing biomass fuel is dependent on the type of biomass, the amount of processing necessary to convert it to an efficient fuel, distance to the energy conversion plant, and supply and demand for fuels in the market place. Biomass fuel is low-density and non-homogeneous and has a small unit size.

Consequently, biomass fuel is costly to collect, process, and transport to facilities.  Second, biomass-to-energy facilities are much smaller than conventional fossil fuel-based power plants and therefore cannot produce electricity as cost-effectively as the fossil fuel-based plants.

Agro biomass is costly to collect, process, and transport to facilities.

The biomass-to-energy facilities are smaller because of the limited amount of fuel that can be stored at a single facility. With higher fuel costs and lower economic efficiencies, solid-fuel energy is not economically competitive in a deregulated energy market that gives zero value or compensation for the non-electric benefits generated by the biomass-to-energy industry.

Biomass availability for fuel usage is estimated as the total amount of plant residue remaining after harvest, minus the amount of plant material that must be left on the field for maintaining sufficient levels of organic matter in the soil and for preventing soil erosion. While there are no generally agreed-upon standards for maximum removal rates, a portion of the biomass material may be removed without severely reducing soil productivity.

Technically, biomass removal rates of up to 60 to 70 percent are achievable, but in practice, current residue collection techniques generally result in relatively low recovery rates in developing countries. The low biomass recovery rate is the result of a combination of factors, including collection equipment limitations, economics, and conservation requirements. Modern agricultural equipment can allow for the joint collection of grain and residues, increased collection rates to up to 60 percent, and may help reduce concerns about soil compaction.

Bioenergy Developments in Malaysia

Malaysia is blessed with abundant renewable sources of energy, especially biomass and solar. Under the Eighth Malaysian Plan, renewable energy was added in the energy mix to unveil a Five-Fuel Strategy to achieve 5 percent contribution by 2005.

Among the various sources of renewable energy, bioenergy seems to be the most promising option for Malaysia. The National Biofuel Policy, launched in 2006 encourages the use of environmentally friendly, sustainable and viable sources of biomass energy. Under the Five Fuel Policy, the government of Malaysia has identified biomass as one of the potential renewable energy. Malaysia produces atleast 168 million tonnes of biomass, including timber and oil palm waste, rice husks, coconut trunk fibres, municipal waste and sugar cane waste annually. Being a major agricultural commodity producer in the region Malaysia is well positioned amongst the ASEAN countries to promote the use of biomass as a renewable energy source.

Malaysia has been one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of palm oil for the last forty years. The Palm Oil industry, besides producing Crude Palm Oil (CPO) and Palm Kernel Oil, produces Palm Shell, Press Fibre, Empty Fruit Bunches (EFB), Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME), Palm Trunk (during replanting) and Palm Fronds (during pruning).

Malaysia has approximately 4 million hectares of land under oil palm plantation. Over 75% of total area planted is located in just four states, Sabah, Johor, Pahang and Sarawak, each of which has over half a million hectares under cultivation. The total amount of processed FFB (Fresh Fruit Bunches) was estimated to be 75 million tons while the total amount of EFB produced was estimated to be 16.6 million tons. Around 58 million tons of POME is produced in Malaysia annually, which has the potential to produce an estimated 15 billion m3 of biogas can be produced each year.

Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer of crude palm oil. Almost 70% of the volume from the processing of fresh fruit bunch is removed as wastes in the form of empty fruit bunches, palm kernel shells, palm oil mill effluent etc. With more than 423 mills in Malaysia, this palm oil industry generated around 80 million dry tonnes of biomass in 2010. Malaysia has more than 2400 MW of biomass and 410 MW of biogas potential, out of which only 773MW has been harnessed until 2011.

Rice husk is another important agricultural biomass resource in Malaysia with good potential for power cogeneration. An example of its attractive energy potential is biomass power plant in the state of Perlis which uses rice husk as the main source of fuel and generates 10 MW power to meet the requirements of 30,000 households. The US$15 million project has been undertaken by Bio-Renewable Power Sdn Bhd in collaboration with the Perlis state government, while technology provider is Finland’s Foster Wheeler Energia Oy.

Under the EC-ASEAN Cogeneration Program, there are three ongoing Full Scale Demonstration Projects (FSDPs) – Titi Serong, Sungai Dingin Palm Oil Mill and TSH Bioenergy – to promote biomass energy systems in Malaysia. The 1.5MW Titi Serong power plant, located at Parit Buntar (Perak), is based on rice husk while the 2MW Sungai Dingin Palm Oil Mill project make use of palm kernel shell and fibre to generate steam and electricity. The 14MW TSH Bioenergy Sdn Bhd, located at Tawau (Sabah), is the biggest biomass power plant in Malaysia and utilizes empty fruit bunches, palm oil fibre and palm kernel shell as fuel resources.

Sugarcane Trash as Biomass Resource

cane-trashSugarcane trash (or cane trash) is an excellent biomass resource in sugar-producing countries worldwide. The amount of cane trash produced depends on the plant variety, age of the crop at harvest and soil and weather conditions. Typically it represents about 15% of the total above ground biomass at harvest which is equivalent to about 10-15 tons per hectare of dry matter. During the harvesting operation around 70-80% of the cane trash is left in the field with 20-30% taken to the mill together with the sugarcane stalks as extraneous matter.

Cane trash’s calorific value is similar to that of bagasse but has an advantage of having lower moisture content, and hence dries more quickly. Nowadays only a small quantity of this biomass is used as fuel, mixed with bagasse or by itself, at the sugar mill. The rest is burned in the vicinity of the dry cleaning installation, creating a pollution problem in sugar-producing nations.

Cane trash and bagasse are produced during the harvesting and milling process of sugarcane which normally lasts between 6 to 7 months. Cane trash can potentially be converted into heat and electrical energy. However, most of the trash is burned in the field due to its bulky nature and high cost incurred in collection and transportation.

Cane trash could be used as an off-season fuel for year-round power generation at sugar mills. There is also a high demand for biomass as a boiler fuel during the sugar-milling season. Sugarcane trash can also converted in biomass pellets and used in dedicated biomass power stations or co-fired with coal in power plants and cement kilns.

Burning of cane trash creates pollution in sugar-producing countries

Burning of cane trash creates pollution in sugar-producing countries

Currently, a significant percentage of energy used for boilers in sugarcane processing is provided by imported bunker oil. Overall, the economic, environmental, and social implications of utilizing cane trash in the final crop year as a substitute for bunker oil appears promising. It represents an opportunity for developing biomass energy use in the Sugarcane industry as well as for industries / communities in the vicinity.

Positive socio-economic impacts include the provision of large-scale rural employment and the minimization of oil imports. It can also develop the expertise necessary to create a reliable biomass supply for year-round power generation.

Recovery of Cane Trash

Recovery of cane trash implies a change from traditional harvesting methods; which normally consists of destroying the trash by setting huge areas of sugarcane fields ablaze prior to the harvest.  There are a number of major technical and economic issues that need to be overcome to utilize cane trash as a renewable energy resource. For example, its recovery from the field and transportation to the mill, are major issues.

Alternatives include the current situation where the cane is separated from the trash by the harvester and the two are transported to the mill separately, to the harvesting of the whole crop with separation of the cane and the trash carried out at the mill. Where the trash is collected from the field it maybe baled incurring a range of costs associated with bale handling, transportation and storage. Baling also leaves about 10-20% (1-2 tons per hectare) of the recoverable trash in the field.

A second alternative is for the cane trash to be shredded and collected separately from the cane during the harvesting process. The development of such a harvester-mounted cane trash shredder and collection system has been achieved but the economics of this approach require evaluation. A third alternative is to harvest the sugarcane crop completely which would require an adequate collection, transport and storage system in addition to a mill based cleaning plant to separate the cane from the trash .

A widespread method for cane trash recovery is to cut the cane, chop into pieces and then it is blown in two stages in the harvester to remove the trash. The amount of trash that goes along with the cane is a function of the cleaning efficiency of the harvester. The blowers are adjusted to get adequate cleaning with a bearable cane loss.

On the average 68 % of the trash is blown out of the harvester, and stays on the ground, and 32 % is taken to the mill together with the cane as extraneous matter. The technique used to recover the trash staying on the ground is baling. Several baling machines have been tested with small, large, round and square bales. Cane trash can be considered as a viable fuel supplementary to bagasse to permit year-round power generation in sugar mills.

Thus, recovery of cane trash in developing nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America implies a change from traditional harvesting methods, which normally consists of destroying the trash by setting huge areas of cane fields ablaze prior to the harvest. To recover the trash, a new so-called “green mechanical harvesting” scheme will have to be introduced. By recovering the trash in this manner, the production of local air pollutants, as well as greenhouse gases contributing to adverse climatic change, from the fires are avoided and cane trash could be used as a means of regional sustainable development.

Cane Trash Recovery in Cuba

The sugarcane harvesting system in Cuba is unique among cane-producing countries in two important respects. First, an estimated 70 % of the sugarcane crop is harvested by machine without prior burning, which is far higher than for any other country. The second unique feature of Cuban harvesting practice is the long-standing commercial use of “dry cleaning stations” to remove trash from the cane stalks before the stalks are transported to the crushing mills.

Cuba has over 900 cleaning stations to serve its 156 sugar mills. The cleaning stations are generally not adjacent to the mills, but are connected to mills by a low-cost cane delivery system – a dedicated rail network with more than 7000 km of track. The cleaning stations take in green machine-cut or manually cut cane. Trash is removed from the stalk and blown out into a storage area. The stalks travel along a conveyor to waiting rail cars. The predominant practice today is to incinerate the trash at the cleaning station to reduce the “waste” volume.