Palm Kernel Shells: An Attractive Biomass Fuel for Europe

palm-kernel-shellsEurope is targeting an ambitious renewable energy program aimed at 20% renewable energy in the energy mix by 2020 with biomass energy being key renewable energy resource across the continent. However, the lack of locally-available biomass resources has hampered the progress of biomass energy industry in Europe as compared with solar and wind energy industries. The European biomass industry is largely dependent on wood pellets and crop residues.

Europe is the largest producer of wood pellets, which is currently estimated at 13.5 million tons per year while its consumption is 18.8 million tons per year. The biggest wood pellet producing countries in Europe are Germany and Sweden. Europe relies on America and Canada to meet its wood pellet requirements and there is an urgent need to explore alternative biomass resources. In recent years, palm kernel shells (popularly known as PKS) from Southeast Asia has emerged has an attractive biomass resources which can replace wood pellets in biomass power plants across Europe.

What are Palm Kernel Shells

Palm kernel shells 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.

Advantages of Palm Kernel Shells

PKS has almost the same combustion characteristics as wood pellets, abundantly available are and are cheap. Indonesia and Malaysia are the two main producers of PKS. Indonesian oil palm plantations cover 12 million hectares in Indonesia and 5 million hectares in Malaysia, the number of PKS produced from both countries has exceeded 15 million tons per year. Infact, the quantity of PKS generated in both countries exceeds the production of wood pellets from the United States and Canada, or the two largest producers of wood pellets today.

Interestingly, United States and Canada cannot produce PKS, because they do not have oil palm plantations, but Indonesia and Malaysia can also produce wood pellets because they have large forests. The production of wood pellets in Indonesia and Malaysia is still small today, which is less than 1 million tons per year, but the production of PKS is much higher which can power biomass power plants across Europe and protect forests which are being cut down to produce wood pellets in North America and other parts of the world.

PKS as a Boiler Fuel

Although most power plants currently use pulverized coal boiler technology which reaches around 50% of the world’s electricity generation, the use of grate combustion boiler technology and fluidized bed boilers is also increasing. Pulverized coal boiler is mainly used for very large capacity plants (> 100 MW), while for ordinary medium capacity uses fluidized bed technology (between 20-100 MW) and for smaller capacity with combustor grate (<20 MW). The advantage of boiler combustion and fluidized bed technology is fuel flexibility including tolerance to particle size.

When the pulverized coal boiler requires a small particle size (1-2 cm) like sawdust so that it can be atomized on the pulverizer nozzle, the combustor grate and fluidized bed the particle size of gravel (max. 8 cm) can be accepted. Based on these conditions, palm kernel shells has a great opportunity to be used as a boiler fuel in large-scale power plants.

Use of PKS in pulverized coal boiler

There are several things that need to be considered for the use of PKS in pulverized coal boilers. The first thing that can be done is to reduce PKS particle size to a maximum of 2 cm so that it can be atomized in a pulverized system. The second thing to note is the percentage of PKS in coal, or the term cofiring. Unlike a grate and a fluidized bed combustion that can be flexible with various types of fuel, pulverized coal boilers use coal only. There are specific things that distinguish biomass and coal fuels, namely ash content and ash chemistry, both of which greatly influence the combustion characteristics in the pulverized system.

PKS-biomass

PKS has emerged as an attractive biomass commodity in Japan

Coal ash content is generally greater than biomass, and coal ash chemistry is very different from biomass ash chemistry. Biomass ash has lower inorganic content than coal, but the alkali content in biomass can change the properties of coal ash, especially aluminosilicate ash.

Biomass cofiring with coal in small portions for example 3-5% does not require modification of the pulverized coal power plant. For example, Shinci in Japan with a capacity of 2 x 1,000 MW of supercritical pulverized fuel with 3% cofiring requires 16,000 tons per year of biomass and no modification. Similarly, Korea Southeast Power (KOSEP) 5,000 MW with 5% cofiring requires 600,000 tons per year of biomass without modification.

PKS cofiring in coal-based power plants

Pulverized coal-based power plants are the predominant method of large-scale electricity production worldwide including Europe. If pulverised fuel power plants make a switch to co-firing of biomass fuels, it will make a huge impact on reducing coal usage, reducing carbon emissions and making a transition to renewable energy. Additionally, the cheapest and most effective way for big coal-based power plants to enter renewable energy sector is biomass cofiring. Palm kernel shells can be pyrolyzed to produce charcoal while coal will produce coke if it is pyrolyzed. Charcoal can be used for fuel, briquette production and activated charcoal.

Charcoal Briquette Production in the Middle East: Perspectives

There is a huge demand for charcoal briquettes in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE. However the production of charcoal is in nascent stages despite the availability of biomass resources, especially date palm biomass. The key reason for increasing demand of charcoal briquettes is the large consumption of meat in the region which uses charcoal briquettes as fuel for barbecue, outdoor grills and related activities.

The raw materials for charcoal briquette production are widely available across the Middle East in the form of date palm biomass, crop wastes and woody biomass. With a population of date palm trees of 84 million or 70% of the world’s population, the potential biomass waste from date palm trees is estimated at 730,000 tons / year (approximately 200,000 tons from Saudi Arabia and 300,000 tons from Egypt). Date palm trees produce huge amount of agricultural wastes in the form of dry leaves, stems, pits, seeds etc. A typical date tree can generate as much as 20 kilograms of dry leaves per annum while date pits account for almost 10 percent of date fruits.

The fronds and trunks of date palm trees are potential raw materials for charcoal because of the potential to produce high calorific value and low ash content charcoal. Leaf waste will produce a low calorific value due to high ash content. In addition, woody biomass waste such as cotton stalks that are widely available in Egypt can also be a raw material for making charcoal. The contribution of the agricultural sector in Egypt is quite high at 13.4%.

Charcoal is compacted into briquettes for ease in handling, packaging, transportation and use. Briquettes can be made in different shapes such as oval, hexagonal, cube, cylinder or octagonal. An adhesive (called binder) is needed for the manufacture of the briquette. Two common binders are saw dust and corn starch.

Date palm biomass is an excellent resource for charcoal production in Middle East

Continuous pyrolysis is the best technology for charcoal production. Continuous pyrolysis has the ability to handle large biomass volumes, the process is fast and smoke production is negligible. When using conventional pyrolysis technology  (or batch carbonization), the process is lengthy, processing capacity is small and there are concerns related to harmful smoke emissions.

Apart from charcoal, continuous pyrolysis also gives bio oil, wood vinegar and syngas. Syngas can be converted into electricity by using a gas engine or converted into a wide variety of biofuels through different processes. Bio oil can be used as boiler fuel and marine fuel. Wood vinegar can be used as biopesticide and liquid organic fertilizer. Low water content in date palm waste fronds and trunks make it very suitable for thermochemical conversion technologies, especially pyrolysis and gasification.

 

Charcoal can also be used for the production of activated charcoal/carbon. Activated carbon is used by a lot of industries for purification processes. In addition, a number of industries that are using petcoke as fuel can switch to charcoal due to its better combustion properties and eco-friendly nature.

For more information on how to set up charcoal production plant based on date palm biomass or other crop residues in the Middle East, please email salman@bioenergyconsult.com or eko.sb.setyawan@gmail.com

Energy Potential of Coconut Biomass

coconut-shell-biomassCoconuts are produced in 92 countries worldwide on about more than 10 million hectares. Indonesia, Philippines and India account for almost 75% of world coconut production with Indonesia being the world’s largest coconut producer. A coconut plantation is analogous to energy crop plantations, however coconut plantations are a source of wide variety of products, in addition to energy. The current world production of coconuts has the potential to produce electricity, heat, fiberboards, organic fertilizer, animal feeds, fuel additives for cleaner emissions, health drinks, etc.

The coconut fruit yields 40 % coconut husks containing 30 % fiber, with dust making up the rest. The chemical composition of coconut husks consists of cellulose, lignin, pyroligneous acid, gas, charcoal, tar, tannin, and potassium. Coconut dust has high lignin and cellulose content. The materials contained in the casing of coco dusts and coconut fibers are resistant to bacteria and fungi.

Coconut husk and shells are an attractive biomass fuel and are also a good source of charcoal. The major advantage of using coconut biomass as a fuel is that coconut is a permanent crop and available round the year so there is constant whole year supply. Activated carbon manufactured from coconut shell is considered extremely effective for the removal of impurities in wastewater treatment processes.

Coconut Shell

Coconut shell is an agricultural waste and is available in plentiful quantities throughout tropical countries worldwide. In many countries, coconut shell is subjected to open burning which contributes significantly to CO2 and methane emissions.  Coconut shell is widely used for making charcoal. The traditional pit method of production has a charcoal yield of 25–30% of the dry weight of shells used. The charcoal produced by this method is of variable quality, and often contaminated with extraneous matter and soil. The smoke evolved from pit method is not only a nuisance but also a health hazard.

The coconut shell has a high calorific value of 20.8MJ/kg and can be used to produce steam, energy-rich gases, bio-oil, biochar etc. It is to be noted that coconut shell and coconut husk are solid fuels and have the peculiarities and problems inherent in this kind of fuel.  Coconut shell is more suitable for pyrolysis process as it contain lower ash content, high volatile matter content and available at a cheap cost. The higher fixed carbon content leads to the production to a high-quality solid residue which can be used as activated carbon in wastewater treatment. Coconut shell can be easily collected in places where coconut meat is traditionally used in food processing.

Coconut Husk

Coconut husk has high amount of lignin and cellulose, and that is why it has a high calorific value of 18.62MJ/kg. The chemical composition of coconut husks consists of cellulose, lignin, pyroligneous acid, gas, charcoal, tar, tannin, and potassium. The predominant use of coconut husks is in direct combustion in order to make charcoal, otherwise husks are simply thrown away. Coconut husk can be transformed into a value-added fuel source which can replace wood and other traditional fuel sources. In terms of the availability and costs of coconut husks, they have good potential for use in power plants.