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.

Pelletization of Municipal Solid Wastes

MSW is a poor-quality fuel and its pre-processing is necessary to prepare fuel pellets to improve its consistency, storage and handling characteristics, combustion behaviour and calorific value. Technological improvements are taking place in the realms of advanced source separation, resource recovery and production/utilisation of recovered fuel in both existing and new plants for this purpose. There has been an increase in global interest in the preparation of RDF containing a blend of pre-processed MSW with coal suitable for combustion in pulverised coal and fluidised bed boilers.

Pelletization of municipal solid waste involves the processes of segregating, crushing, mixing high and low heat value organic waste material and solidifying it to produce fuel pellets or briquettes, also referred to as Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF). The process is essentially a method that condenses the waste or changes its physical form and enriches its organic content through removal of inorganic materials and moisture. The calorific value of RDF pellets can be around 4000 kcal/ kg depending upon the percentage of organic matter in the waste, additives and binder materials used in the process.

The calorific value of raw MSW is around 1000 kcal/kg while that of fuel pellets is 4000 kcal/kg. On an average, about 15–20 tons of fuel pellets can be produced after treatment of 100 tons of raw garbage. Since pelletization enriches the organic content of the waste through removal of inorganic materials and moisture, it can be very effective method for preparing an enriched fuel feed for other thermochemical processes like pyrolysis/ gasification, apart from incineration. Pellets can be used for heating plant boilers and for the generation of electricity. They can also act as a good substitute for coal and wood for domestic and industrial purposes. The important applications of RDF are found in the following spheres:

  • Cement kilns
  • RDF power plants
  • Coal-fired power plants
  • Industrial steam/heat boilers
  • Pellet stoves

The conversion of solid waste into briquettes provides an alternative means for environmentally safe disposal of garbage which is currently disposed off in non-sanitary landfills. In addition, the pelletization technology provides yet another source of renewable energy, similar to that of biomass, wind, solar and geothermal energy. The emission characteristics of RDF are superior compared to that of coal with fewer emissions of pollutants like NOx, SOx, CO and CO2.

RDF production line consists of several unit operations in series in order to separate unwanted components and condition the combustible matter to obtain the required characteristics. The main unit operations are screening, shredding, size reduction, classification, separation either metal, glass or wet organic materials, drying and densification. These unit operations can be arranged in different sequences depending on raw MSW composition and the required RDF quality.

Various qualities of fuel pellets can be produced, depending on the needs of the user or market. A high quality of RDF would possess a higher value for the heating value, and lower values for moisture and ash contents. The quality of RDF is sufficient to warrant its consideration as a preferred type of fuel when solid waste is being considered for co-firing with coal or for firing alone in a boiler designed originally for firing coal.