Summary of Biomass Combustion Technologies

Direct combustion is the best established and most commonly used technology for converting biomass to heat. During combustion, biomass fuel is burnt in excess air to produce heat. The first stage of combustion involves the evolution of combustible vapours from the biomass, which burn as flames. The residual material, in the form of charcoal, is burnt in a forced air supply to give more heat. The hot combustion gases are sometimes used directly for product drying, but more usually they are passed through a heat exchanger to produce hot air, hot water or steam.


The combustion efficiency depends primarily on good contact between the oxygen in the air and the biomass fuel. The main products of efficient biomass combustion are carbon dioxide and water vapor, however tars, smoke and alkaline ash particles are also emitted. Minimization of these emissions and accommodation of their possible effects are important concerns in the design of environmentally acceptable biomass combustion systems.

Biomass combustion systems, based on a range of furnace designs, can be very efficient at producing hot gases, hot air, hot water or steam, typically recovering 65-90% of the energy contained in the fuel. Lower efficiencies are generally associated with wetter fuels. To cope with a diversity of fuel characteristics and combustion requirements, a number of designs of combustion furnaces or combustors are routinely utilized around the world

Underfeed Stokers

Biomass is fed into the combustion zone from underneath a firing grate. These stoker designs are only suitable for small scale systems up to a nominal boiler capacity of 6 MWth and for biomass fuels with low ash content, such as wood chips and sawdust. High ash content fuels such as bark, straw and cereals need more efficient ash removal systems.

Sintered or molten ash particles covering the upper surface of the fuel bed can cause problems in underfeed stokers due to unstable combustion conditions when the fuel and the air are breaking through the ash covered surface.

Grate Stokers

The most common type of biomass boiler is based on a grate to support a bed of fuel and to mix a controlled amount of combustion air, which often enters from beneath the grate. Biomass fuel is added at one end of the grate and is burned in a fuel bed which moves progressively down the grate, either via gravity or with mechanical assistance, to an ash removal system at the other end. In more sophisticated designs this allows the overall combustion process to be separated into its three main activities:

  • Initial fuel drying
  • Ignition and combustion of volatile constituents
  • Burning out of the char.

Grate stokers are well proven and reliable and can tolerate wide variations in fuel quality (i.e. variations in moisture content and particle size) as well as fuels with high ash content. They are also controllable and efficient.

Fluidized Bed Boilers

The basis for a fluidized bed combustion system is a bed of an inert mineral such as sand or limestone through which air is blown from below. The air is pumped through the bed in sufficient volume and at a high enough pressure to entrain the small particles of the bed material so that they behave much like a fluid.

The combustion chamber of a fluidized bed power plant is shaped so that above a certain height the air velocity drops below that necessary to entrain the particles. This helps retain the bulk of the entrained bed material towards the bottom of the chamber. Once the bed becomes hot, combustible material introduced into it will burn, generating heat as in a more conventional furnace. The proportion of combustible material such as biomass within the bed is normally only around 5%. The primary driving force for development of fluidized bed combustion is reduced SO2 and NOx emissions from coal combustion.

Bubbling fluidized bed (BFB) combustors are of interest for plants with a nominal boiler capacity greater than 10 MWth. Circulating fluidized bed (CFB) combustors are more suitable for plants larger than 30 MWth. The minimum plant size below which CFB and BFB technologies are not economically competitive is considered to be around 5-10 MWe.

Trends in Utilization of Biogas

The valuable component of biogas is methane (CH4) which typically makes up 60%, with the balance being carbon dioxide (CO2) and small percentages of other gases. The proportion of methane depends on the feedstock and the efficiency of the process, with the range for methane content being 40% to 70%. Biogas is saturated and contains H2S, and the simplest use is in a boiler to produce hot water or steam.

DaishThe gas can also be upgraded and used in gas supply networks. The use of biogas in solid oxide fuel cells is also being researched.

Biogas can be combusted directly to produce heat. In this case, there is no need to scrub the hydrogen sulphide in the biogas. Usually the process utilize dual-fuel burner and the conversion efficiency is 80 to 90%. The main components of the system are anaerobic digester, biogas holder, pressure switch, booster fan, solenoid valve, dual fuel burner and combustion air blower.

The most common method for utilization of biogas in developing countries is for cooking and lighting. Conventional gas burners and gas lamps can easily be adjusted to biogas by changing the air to gas ratio. In more industrialized countries boilers are present only in a small number of plants where biogas is used as fuel only without additional CHP. In a number of industrial applications biogas is used for steam production.

Burning biogas in a boiler is an established and reliable technology. Low demands are set on the biogas quality for this application. Pressure usually has to be around 8 to 25 mbar. Furthermore it is recommended to reduce the level of hydrogen sulphide to below 1 000 ppm, this allows to maintain the dew point around 150 °C.

CHP Applications

Biogas is the ideal fuel for generation of electric power or combined heat and power. A number of different technologies are available and applied. The most common technology for power generation is internal combustion. Engines are available in sizes from a few kilowatts up to several megawatts. Gas engines can either be SI-engines (spark ignition) or dual fuel engines. Dual fuel engines with injection of diesel (10% and up) or sometimes plant oil are very popular in smaller scales because they have good electric efficiencies up to guaranteed 43%.

The biogas pressure is turbo-charged and after-cooled and has a high compression ratio in the gas engines. The cooling tower provides cooling water for the gas engines. The main component of the system required for utilizing the technology are anaerobic digester, moisture remover, flame arrester, waste gas burner, scrubber, compressor, storage, receiver, regulator, pressure switch and switch board.

Gas turbines are an established technology in sizes above 500 kW. In recent years also small scale engines, so called micro-turbines in the range of 25 to 100kW have been successfully introduced in biogas applications. They have efficiencies comparable to small SI-engines with low emissions and allow recovery of low pressure steam which is interesting for industrial applications. Micro turbines are small, high-speed, integrated power plants that include a turbine, compressor, generator and power electronics to produce power.

New Trends

The benefit of the anaerobic treatment will depend on the improvement of the process regarding a higher biogas yield per m3 of biomass and an increase in the degree of degradation. Furthermore, the benefit of the process can be multiplied by the conversion of the effluent from the process into a valuable product.

In order to improve the economical benefit of biogas production, the future trend will go to integrated concepts of different conversion processes, where biogas production will still be a significant part. In a so-called biorefinery concept, close to 100% of the biomass is converted into energy or valuable by-products, making the whole concept more economically profitable and increasing the value in terms of sustainability.

Typical layout of a modern biogas facility

One example of such biorefinery concept is the Danish Bioethanol Concept that combines the production of bioethanol from lignocellulosic biomass with biogas production of the residue stream. Another example is the combination of biogas production from manure with manure separation into a liquid and a solid fraction for separation of nutrients. One of the most promising concepts is the treatment of the liquid fraction on the farm-site in a UASB reactor while the solid fraction is transported to the centralized biogas plant where wet-oxidation can be implemented to increase the biogas yield of the fiber fraction. Integration of the wet oxidation pre-treatment of the solid fraction leads to a high degradation efficiency of the lignocellulosic solid fraction.

Cofiring of Biomass

Cofiring of biomass involves utilizing existing power generating plants that are fired with fossil fuel (generally coal), and displacing a small proportion of the fossil fuel with renewable biomass fuels. Cofiring of biomass with coal and other fossil fuels can provide a short-term, low-risk, low-cost option for producing renewable energy while simultaneously reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Biomass can typically provide between 3 and 15 percent of the input energy into the power plant. Cofiring of biomass has the major advantage of avoiding the construction of new, dedicated, biomass power plant. An existing power station is modified to accept the biomass resource and utilize it to produce a minor proportion of its electricity.

Cofiring of biomass may be implemented using different types and percentages of biomass in a range of combustion and gasification technologies. Most forms of biomass are suitable for cofiring. These include dedicated energy crops, urban wood waste and agricultural residues such as rice straw and rice husk.

The fuel preparation requirements, issues associated with combustion such as corrosion and fouling of boiler tubes, and characteristics of residual ash dictate the cofiring configuration appropriate for a particular plant and biomass resource. These configurations may be categorized into direct, indirect and parallel firing.

1. Direct Cofiring

This is the most common form of biomass cofiring involving direct cofiring of the biomass fuel and the primary fuel (generally coal) in the combustion chamber of the boiler. The cheapest and simplest form of direct cofiring for a pulverized coal power plant is through mixing prepared biomass and coal in the coal yard or on the coal conveyor belt, before the combined fuel is fed into the power station boiler.

2. Indirect Cofiring

If the biomass fuel has different attributes to the normal fossil fuel, then it may be prudent to partially segregate the biomass fuel rather than risk damage to the complete station.

For indirect cofiring, the ash of the biomass resource and the main fuel are kept separate from one another as the thermal conversion is partially carried out in separate processing plants. As indirect co-firing requires a separate biomass energy conversion plant, it has a relatively high investment cost compared with direct cofiring.

Parallel Firing

For parallel firing, totally separate combustion plants and boilers are used for the biomass resource and the coal-fired power plants. The steam produced is fed into the main power plant where it is upgraded to higher temperatures and pressures, to give resulting higher energy conversion efficiencies. This allows the use of problematic fuels with high alkali and chlorine contents (such as wheat straw) and the separation of the ashes.

Cogeneration of Bagasse

Cogeneration of bagasse is one of the most attractive and successful biomass energy projects that have already been demonstrated in many sugarcane producing countries such as Mauritius, Reunion Island, India and Brazil. Combined heat and power from sugarcane in the form of power generation offers renewable energy options that promote sustainable development, take advantage of domestic resources, increase profitability and competitiveness in the industry, and cost-effectively address climate mitigation and other environmental goals.


According to World Alliance for Decentralized Energy (WADE) report on Bagasse Cogeneration, bagasse-based cogeneration could deliver up to 25% of current power demand requirements in the world’s main cane producing countries. The overall potential share in the world’s major developing country producers exceeds 7%.

There is abundant opportunity for the wider use of bagasse-based cogeneration in sugarcane-producing countries. It is especially great in the world’s main cane producing countries like Brazil, India, Thailand, Pakistan, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Philippines and Vietnam. Yet this potential remains by and large unexploited.

Using bagasse to generate power represents an opportunity to generate significant revenue through the sale of electricity and carbon credits. Additionally, cogeneration of heat and power allows sugar producers to meet their internal energy requirements and drastically reduce their operational costs, in many cases by as much as 25%. Burning bagasse also removes a waste product through its use as a feedstock for the electrical generators and steam turbines.

Most sugarcane mills around the globe have achieved energy self-sufficiency for the manufacture of raw sugar and can also generate a small amount of exportable electricity. However, using traditional equipment such as low-pressure boilers and counter-pressure turbo alternators, the level and reliability of electricity production is not sufficient to change the energy balance and attract interest for export to the electric power grid.


On the other hand, revamping the boiler house of sugar mills with high pressure boilers and condensing extraction steam turbine can substantially increase the level of exportable electricity. This experience has been witnessed in Mauritius, where, following major changes in the processing configurations, the exportable electricity from its sugar factory increased from around 30-40 kWh to around 100–140 kWh per ton cane crushed.

In Brazil, the world’s largest cane producer, most of the sugar mills are upgrading their boiler configurations to 42 bars or even higher pressure of up to 67 bars.

Technology Options

The prime technology for sugar mill cogeneration is the conventional steam-Rankine cycle design for conversion of fuel into electricity. A combination of stored and fresh bagasse is usually fed to a specially designed furnace to generate steam in a boiler at typical pressures and temperatures of usually more than 40 bars and 440°C respectively.

The high pressure steam is then expanded either in a back pressure or single extraction back pressure or single extraction condensing or double extraction cum condensing type turbo generator operating at similar inlet steam conditions.


35MW Bagasse and Coal CHP Plant in Mauritius


Due to high pressure and temperature, as well as extraction and condensing modes of the turbine, higher quantum of power gets generated in the turbine–generator set, over and above the power required for sugar process, other by-products, and cogeneration plant auxiliaries. The excess power generated in the turbine generator set is then stepped up to extra high voltage of 66/110/220 kV, depending on the nearby substation configuration and fed into the nearby utility grid.

As the sugar industry operates seasonally, the boilers are normally designed for multi-fuel operations, so as to utilize mill bagasse, sugarcane trash, crop residues, coal and other fossil fuel, so as to ensure year round operation of the power plant for export to the grid.

Latest Trends

Modern power plants use higher pressures, up to 87 bars or more. The higher pressure normally generates more power with the same quantity of Bagasse or biomass fuel. Thus, a higher pressure and temperature configuration is a key in increasing exportable surplus electricity.

In general, 67 bars pressure and 495°C temperature configurations for sugar mill cogeneration plants are well-established in many sugar mills in India. Extra high pressure at 87 bars and 510°C, configuration comparable to those in Mauritius, is the current trend and there are about several projects commissioned and operating in India and Brazil. The average increase of power export from 40 bars to 60 bars to 80 bars stages is usually in the range of 7-10%.

A promising alternative to steam turbines are gas turbines fuelled by gas produced by thermochemical conversion of biomass. The exhaust is used to raise steam in heat recovery systems used in any of the following ways: heating process needs in a cogeneration system, for injecting back into gas turbine to raise power output and efficiency in a steam-injected gas turbine cycle (STIG) or expanding through a steam turbine to boost power output and efficiency in a gas turbine/steam turbine combined cycle (GTCC).

Gas turbines, unlike steam turbines, are characterized by lower unit capital costs at modest scale, and the most efficient cycles are considerably more efficient than comparably sized steam turbines.

Bagasse-Based Cogeneration in Pakistan: Challenges and Opportunities

Considering the fact that Pakistan is among the world’s top-10 sugarcane producers, the potential of generating electricity from bagasse is huge.  Almost all the sugar mills in Pakistan have in-house plants for cogeneration but they are inefficient in the consumption of bagasse. If instead, high pressure boilers are installed then the production capacity can be significantly improved with more efficient utilization of bagasse.


However, due to several reasons; mostly due to financing issues, the sugar mill owners were not able to set up these plants. Only recently, after financial incentives have been offered and a tariff rate agreed upon between the government and mill owners, are these projects moving ahead.

The sugar mill owners are more than willing to supply excess electricity generated form the in-house power plants to the national grid but were not able to before, because they couldn’t reach an agreement with the government over tariff. The demand for higher tariff was justified because of large investments in setting up new boilers. It would also have saved precious foreign exchange which is spent on imported oil.

By estimating the CDM potential of cogeneration (or CHP) projects based on biofuels, getting financing for these projects would be easier. Renewable energy projects can be developed through Carbon Development Mechanism or any other carbon credit scheme for additional revenue.

Since bagasse is a clean fuel which emits very little carbon emissions it can be financed through Carbon Development Mechanism. One of the reasons high cogeneration power plants are difficult to implement is because of the high amount of costs associated. The payback period for the power plants is unknown which makes the investors reluctant to invest in the high cogeneration project. CDM financing can help improve the rate of return of the project.

Bagasse power plants generate Carbon Emission Reductions in 2 ways; one by replacing electricity produced from fossil fuels.  Secondly if not used as a fuel, it would be otherwise disposed off in an unsafe manner and the methane emissions present in biomass would pollute the environment far more than CO2 does.

Currently there are around 83 sugar mills in Pakistan producing about 3.5 million metric tons of sugar per annum with total crushing capacity 597900 TCD, which can produce approximately 3000 MW during crop season Although it may seem far-fetched at the moment, if the government starts to give more attention to  sugar industry biomass rather than coal, Pakistan can fulfill its energy needs without negative repercussions or damage to the environment.

However some sugar mills are opting to use coal as a secondary fuel since the crushing period of sugarcane lasts only 4 months in Pakistan. The plants would be using coal as the main fuel during the non-crushing season. The CDM effect is reduced with the use of coal. If a high cogeneration plant is using even 80% bagasse and 20% of coal then the CERs are almost nullified. If more than 20% coal is used then the CDM potential is completely lost because the emissions are increased. However some sugar mills are not moving ahead with coal as a secondary fuel because separate tariff rates have to be obtained for electricity generation if coal is being used in the mix which is not easily obtained.

Pakistan has huge untapped potential for bagasse-based power generation

One of the incentives being offered by the State Bank of Pakistan is that if a project qualifies as a renewable project it is eligible to get loan at 6% instead of 12%. However ones drawback is that, in order to qualify as a renewable project, CDM registration of a project is not taken into account.

Although Pakistan is on the right track by setting up high cogeneration power plants, the use of coal as a secondary fuel remains debatable.  The issue that remains to be addressed is that with such huge amounts of investment on these plants, how to use these plants efficiently during non-crushing period when bagasse is not available. It seems almost counter-productive to use coal on plants which are supposed to be based on biofuels.


With the demand for energy in Pakistan growing, the country is finally exploring alternatives to expand its power production. Pakistan has to rely largely on fossils for their energy needs since electricity generation from biomass energy sources is considered to be an expensive option despite abundance of natural resources. However by focusing on growing its alternate energy options such as bagasse-based cogeneration, the country will not only mitigate climate change but also tap the unharnessed energy potential of sugar industry biomass.