Unending Benefits of Biomass Energy

Biomass is material originating from plant and animal matter. Biomass energy uses biomass to create energy by burning organic materials. The heat energy released through burning these materials can heat homes or water. Heated water produces steam, which in turn can generate electricity. Using organic materials to create heat and power is an eco-friendlier alternative compared to using fossil fuels.

Indefinitely Renewable

The majority of the world’s energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a finite resource. Once fossil fuel resources run out, new fuel sources will be needed to meet global energy demands. Biomass offers a solution to meet this need.

Organic waste material from agriculture and logging operations, animal manure, and sludge from wastewater treatment are all viable fuels for generating biomass energy. As long as the earth is inhabited, these materials will be readily available.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Waste organic material that would typically be disposed of in landfills could be redirected for biomass energy use. This reduces the amount of material in landfills and slows the rate at which landfills are filled. Some of the most common waste products used for biomass energy are wood chips and agricultural waste products. Wood materials can easily be converted from already existing wood structures that will be destroyed, such as wooden furniture and log cabins, preferably both would also come from responsible logging and practices as well.

As more organic material is diverted from landfills, the number of new landfills needed would be reduced. Older landfills are at risk for leaking leachate. Leachate contains many environmental pollutants that can contaminate groundwater sources.

Burning fossil fuel releases carbon into the atmosphere which was previously trapped below ground. Trapped carbon isn’t at risk for contributing to global climate change since it can’t interact with air. Each time fossil fuels are burned, they allow previously trapped carbon to enter the atmosphere and contribute to global climate change. In comparison, biofuel is carbon-neutral.

The materials used to create biomass energy naturally release carbon into the environment as they decompose. Living plants and trees use carbon dioxide to grow and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide released by burning organic material will be absorbed by existing plants and trees. The biomass cycle is carbon-neutral as no new carbon is introduced to the system.

Smaller Carbon Footprint

The amount of unused farmland is increasing as agriculture becomes more efficient. Maintaining open land is expensive. As a result, farmers are selling off their property for new developments. Unused open agricultural land could be used to grow organic material for biofuels.

Converting open tracts of land to developed areas increases the amount of storm-water runoff. Storm-water runoff from developed areas contains more pollutants than storm-water runoff from undeveloped areas. Using open areas to grow biomass sources instead of creating new developments would reduce water pollution.

Biomass-Resources

A quick glance at popular biomass resources

Forested areas also provide sources of biofuel material. Open land converted to sustainable forestry would create new animal habitats and offset carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel sources as more plants and trees would be available to absorb carbon dioxide.

Societal Benefits

Burning fossil fuels releases sulfur dioxide, mercury and particulate matter into the atmosphere which can cause asthma, cancer and respiratory problems. Biomass energy emits less harmful byproducts compared to fossil fuels, which means cleaner air and healthier people.

Biofuel can improve rural economies by providing more people with unused land the opportunity to grown biomass material for energy use. Workers would be needed to harvest and process the materials needed to generate biofuel.

Since biofuel is a renewable energy source, energy providers can receive tax credits and incentives. Countries with land resources will be less reliant on foreign fossil fuel providers and can improve their local economies.

Increasing biofuel energy usage can reduce forest fires. Selectively reducing brush can still reduce the risk of wildfires spreading. Exposing underbrush and groundcover to rainfall decreases the change of it drying out and creating optimal, fire spreading conditions.

Denmark and Biomass Energy

Denmark is an example of how effective biomass energy can be in developing energy efficiency. Approximately 70 percent of renewable-energy consumption in Denmark comes from biomass.

Woody biomass creates an increasing percentage of heating from combined heat and power (CHP) plants with a goal to for 100 percent of hearing to be derived from woody biomass by 2035. Another form of biomass is agricultural biomass. This form utilizes materials such as straw and corn to create end-products like electricity, heating and biofuels.

The Danish Energy Agency has developed a plan including four scenarios that will help Denmark become fossil fuel free by 2050. The biomass scenario involves CHP for electricity and district heating, indicating that biomass energy is important in Denmark’s energy sector today and will play an increasingly important role in the future.

Biomass offers an eco-friendly and renewable method of reducing pollution and the effects of global climate change. And, like other forms of renewable energy, the products needed to develop biomass energy are readily available.

Description of a Biogas Power Plant

A biogas plant is a decentralized energy system, which can lead to self-sufficiency in heat and power needs, and at the same time reduces environmental pollution. The components of a modern biogas (or anaerobic digestion) plant include: manure collection, anaerobic digester, effluent treatment, biogas storage, and biogas use/electricity generating equipment.

Working of a Biogas Plant

The fresh animal manure is stored in a collection tank before its processing to the homogenization tank which is equipped with a mixer to facilitate homogenization of the waste stream. The uniformly mixed waste is passed through a macerator to obtain uniform particle size of 5-10 mm and pumped into suitable-capacity anaerobic digesters where stabilization of organic waste takes place.

In anaerobic digestion, organic material is converted to biogas by a series of bacteria groups into methane and carbon dioxide. The majority of commercially operating digesters are plug flow and complete-mix reactors operating at mesophilic temperatures. The type of digester used varies with the consistency and solids content of the feedstock, with capital investment factors and with the primary purpose of digestion.

Biogas Cleanup

Biogas contain significant amount of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas which needs to be stripped off due to its highly corrosive nature. The removal of H2S takes place in a biological desulphurization unit in which a limited quantity of air is added to biogas in the presence of specialized aerobic bacteria which oxidizes H2S into elemental sulfur.

Utilization of Biogas

Biogas is dried and vented into a CHP unit to a generator to produce electricity and heat. The size of the CHP system depends on the amount of biogas produced daily.

Treatment of Digestate

The digested substrate is passed through screw presses for dewatering and then subjected to solar drying and conditioning to give high-quality organic fertilizer.  The press water is treated in an effluent treatment plant based on activated sludge process which consists of an aeration tank and a secondary clarifier. The treated wastewater is recycled to meet in-house plant requirements.

Monitoring of Environmental Parameters

A chemical laboratory is necessary to continuously monitor important environmental parameters such as BOD, COD, VFA, pH, ammonia, C:N ratio at different locations for efficient and proper functioning of the process.

Control System

The continuous monitoring of the biogas plant is achieved by using a remote control system such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. This remote system facilitates immediate feedback and adjustment, which can result in energy savings.

Waste to Energy Conversion Routes

Teesside-WTE-plantWaste-to-energy is the use of modern combustion and biological technologies to recover energy from urban wastes. There are three major waste to energy conversion routes – thermochemical, biochemical and physico-chemical. Thermochemical conversion, characterized by higher temperature and conversion rates, is best suited for lower moisture feedstock and is generally less selective for products. On the other hand, biochemical technologies are more suitable for wet wastes which are rich in organic matter.

Thermochemical Conversion

The three principal methods of thermochemical conversion are combustion in excess air, gasification in reduced air, and pyrolysis in the absence of air. The most common technique for producing both heat and electrical energy from household wastes is direct combustion.

Combined heat and power (CHP) or cogeneration systems, ranging from small-scale technology to large grid-connected facilities, provide significantly higher efficiencies than systems that only generate electricity.

WTE_Pathways

Combustion technology is the controlled combustion of waste with the recovery of heat to produce steam which in turn produces power through steam turbines. Pyrolysis and gasification represent refined thermal treatment methods as alternatives to incineration and are characterized by the transformation of the waste into product gas as energy carrier for later combustion in, for example, a boiler or a gas engine. Plasma gasification, which takes place at extremely high temperature, is also hogging limelight nowadays.

Biochemical Conversion

Biochemical processes, like anaerobic digestion, can also produce clean energy in the form of biogas which can be converted to power and heat using a gas engine. Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biofertilizer and biogas.

Anaerobic digestion is a reliable technology for the treatment of wet, organic waste.  Organic waste from various sources is biochemically degraded in highly controlled, oxygen-free conditions circumstances resulting in the production of biogas which can be used to produce both electricity and heat.

In addition, a variety of fuels can be produced from waste resources including liquid fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen and methane. The resource base for biofuel production is composed of a wide variety of forestry and agricultural resources, industrial processing residues, and municipal solid and urban wood residues. Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking.

Physico-chemical Conversion

The physico-chemical technology involves various processes to improve physical and chemical properties of solid waste. The combustible fraction of the waste is converted into high-energy fuel pellets which may be used in steam generation. The waste is first dried to bring down the high moisture levels. Sand, grit, and other incombustible matter are then mechanically separated before the waste is compacted and converted into fuel pellets or RDF.

Fuel pellets have several distinct advantages over coal and wood because it is cleaner, free from incombustibles, has lower ash and moisture contents, is of uniform size, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.

Biomass Resources from Sugar Industry

Sugarcane is one of the most promising agricultural sources of biomass energy in the world. It is the most appropriate agricultural energy crop in most sugarcane producing countries due to its resistance to cyclonic winds, drought, pests and diseases, and its geographically widespread cultivation. Due to its high energy-to-volume ratio, it is considered one of nature’s most effective storage devices for solar energy and the most economically significant energy crop. The climatic and physiological factors that limit its cultivation to tropical and sub-tropical regions have resulted in its concentration in developing countries, and this, in turn, gives these countries a particular role in the world’s transition to sustainable use of natural resources.

According to the International Sugar Organization (ISO), Sugarcane is a highly efficient converter of solar energy, and has the highest energy-to-volume ratio among energy crops. Indeed, it gives the highest annual yield of biomass of all species. Roughly, 1 ton of Sugarcane biomass-based on Bagasse, foliage and ethanol output – has an energy content equivalent to one barrel of crude oil.   Sugarcane produces mainly two types of biomass, Cane Trash and Bagasse. Cane Trash is the field residue remaining after harvesting the Cane stalk and Bagasse is the milling by-product which remains after extracting sugar from the stalk. The potential energy value of these residues has traditionally been ignored by policy-makers and masses in developing countries. However, with rising fossil fuel prices and dwindling firewood supplies, this material is increasingly viewed as a valuable renewable energy resource.

Sugar mills have been using Bagasse to generate steam and electricity for internal plant requirements while Cane Trash remains underutilized to a great extent. Cane Trash and Bagasse are produced during the harvesting and milling process of Sugarcane which normally lasts 6 to 7 months.

Around the world, a portion of the Cane Trash is collected for sale to feed mills, while freshly cut green tops are sometimes collected for farm animals. In most cases, however, the residues are burned or left in the fields to decompose. Cane Trash, consisting of Sugarcane tops and leaves can potentially be converted into around 1kWh/kg, but is mostly burned in the field due to its bulkiness and its related high cost for collection/transportation.

On the other hand, Bagasse has been traditionally used as a fuel in the Sugar mill itself, to produce steam for the process and electricity for its own use. In general, for every ton of Sugarcane processed in the mill, around 190 kg Bagasse is produced. Low pressure boilers and low efficiency steam turbines are commonly used in developing countries. It would be a good business proposition to upgrade the present cogeneration systems to highly efficient, high pressure systems with higher capacities to ensure utilization of surplus Bagasse.

Palm Kernel Shells as Biomass Resource

Biomass residue from palm oil industries are attractive renewable energy fuel in Southeast Asia. The abundance of these biomass resources is increasing with the fast development of palm oil industries in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. In the Palm Oil value chain there is an overall surplus of by-products and the utilisation rate of these by-products is low.

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. Most palm oil mills in the region are self-sufficient in terms of energy by making use of kernel shells and mesocarp fibers in cogeneration. The demand for palm kernel shells has increased considerably in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand resulting in price close to that of coal. Nowadays, cement industries are using palm kernel shells to replace coal mainly because of CDM benefits.

The problems associated with the burning of these solid fuels are the emissions of dark smoke and the carry-over of partially carbonized fibrous particulates due to incomplete combustion of the fuels can be tackled by commercially-proven technologies in the form of high-pressure boilers. Dual-fired boilers capable of burning either diesel oil or natural gas are the most suitable for burning palm Oil waste since they could also facilitate the use of POME-derived biogas as a supplementary fuel. However, there is a great scope for introduction of high-efficiency CHP systems in the industry which will result in substantial supply of excess power to the public grid.

Combined Heat and Power Systems in Biomass Industry

Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is the simultaneous generation of multiple forms of useful energy (usually mechanical and thermal) in a single, integrated system. In conventional electricity generation systems, about 35% of the energy potential contained in the fuel is converted on average into electricity, whilst the rest is lost as waste heat. CHP systems use both electricity and heat and therefore can achieve an efficiency of up to 90%.

CHP technologies are well suited for sustainable development projects because they are socio-economically attractive and technologically mature and reliable. In developing countries, cogeneration can easily be integrated in many industries, especially agriculture and food-processing, taking advantage of the biomass residues of the production process. This has the dual benefits of lowering fuel costs and solving waste disposal issues.

CHP systems consist of a number of individual components—prime mover (heat engine), generator, heat recovery, and electrical interconnection—configured into an integrated whole. Prime movers for CHP units include reciprocating engines, combustion or gas turbines, steam turbines, microturbines, and fuel cells. A typical CHP system provides:

  • Distributed generation of electrical and/or mechanical power.
  • Waste-heat recovery for heating, cooling, or process applications.
  • Seamless system integration for a variety of technologies, thermal applications, and fuel types.

The success of any biomass-fuelled CHP project is heavily dependent on the availability of a suitable biomass feedstock freely available in urban and rural areas.

Rural Resources Urban Resources
Forest residues Urban wood waste
Wood wastes Municipal solid wastes
Crop residues Agro-industrial wastes
Energy crops Food processing residues
Animal manure Sewage

Technology Options

Reciprocating or internal combustion engines (ICEs) are among the most widely used prime movers to power small electricity generators. Advantages include large variations in the size range available, fast start-up, good efficiencies under partial load efficiency, reliability, and long life.

Steam turbines are the most commonly employed prime movers for large power outputs. Steam at lower pressure is extracted from the steam turbine and used directly or is converted to other forms of thermal energy. System efficiencies can vary between 15 and 35% depending on the steam parameters.

Co-firing 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. Most forms of biomass are suitable for co-firing.

Steam engines are also proven technology but suited mainly for constant speed operation in industrial environments. Steam engines are available in different sizes ranging from a few kW to more than 1 MWe.

A gas turbine system requires landfill gas, biogas, or a biomass gasifier to produce the gas for the turbine. This biogas must be carefully filtered of particulate matter to avoid damaging the blades of the gas turbine.  

Stirling engines utilize any source of heat provided that it is of sufficiently high temperature. A wide variety of heat sources can be used but the Stirling engine is particularly well-suited to biomass fuels. Stirling engines are available in the 0.5 to 150 kWe range and a number of companies are working on its further development.

A micro-turbine recovers part of the exhaust heat for preheating the combustion air and hence increases overall efficiency to around 20-30%. Several competing manufacturers are developing units in the 25-250kWe range. Advantages of micro-turbines include compact and light weight design, a fairly wide size range due to modularity, and low noise levels.

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices in which hydrogen-rich fuel produces heat and power. Hydrogen can be produced from a wide range of renewable and non-renewable sources. A future high temperature fuel cell burning biomass might be able to achieve greater than 50% efficiency.

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.

The most common use is where the biogas fuels an internal combustion gas engine in a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) unit to produce electricity and heat. In Sweden the compressed gas is used as a vehicle fuel and there are a number of biogas filling stations for cars and buses. The 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.

The Concept of Biorefinery

A biorefinery is a facility that integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, power, and value-added chemicals from biomass. Biorefinery is analogous to today’s petroleum refinery, which produces multiple fuels and products from petroleum. By producing several products, a biorefinery takes advantage of the various components in biomass and their intermediates, therefore maximizing the value derived from the biomass feedstock.

A biorefinery could, for example, produce one or several low-volume, but high-value, chemical products and a low-value, but high-volume liquid transportation fuel such as biodiesel or bioethanol. At the same time, it can generate electricity and process heat, through CHP technology, for its own use and perhaps enough for sale of electricity to the local utility. The high value products increase profitability, the high-volume fuel helps meet energy needs, and the power production helps to lower energy costs and reduce GHG emissions from traditional power plant facilities.

Biorefinery Platforms

There are several platforms which can be employed in a biorefinery with the major ones being the sugar platform and the thermochemical platform (also known as syngas platform).

Sugar platform biorefineries breaks down biomass into different types of component sugars for fermentation or other biological processing into various fuels and chemicals. On the other hand, thermochemical biorefineries transform biomass into synthesis gas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide) or pyrolysis oil.

The thermochemical biomass conversion process is complex, and uses components, configurations, and operating conditions that are more typical of petroleum refining. Biomass is converted into syngas, and syngas is converted into an ethanol-rich mixture. However, syngas created from biomass contains contaminants such as tar and sulphur that interfere with the conversion of the syngas into products. These contaminants can be removed by tar-reforming catalysts and catalytic reforming processes. This not only cleans the syngas, it also creates more of it, improving process economics and ultimately cutting the cost of the resulting ethanol.

Plus Points

Biorefineries can help in utilizing the optimum energy potential of organic wastes and may also resolve the problems of waste management and GHGs emissions. Biomass wastes can be converted, through appropriate enzymatic/chemical treatment, into either gaseous or liquid fuels. The pre-treatment processes involved in biorefining generate products like paper-pulp, HFCS, solvents, acetate, resins, laminates, adhesives, flavour chemicals, activated carbon, fuel enhancers, undigested sugars etc. which generally remain untapped in the traditional processes. The suitability of this process is further enhanced from the fact that it can utilize a variety of biomass resources, whether plant-derived or animal-derived.

Future Perspectives

The concept of biorefinery is still in early stages at most places in the world. Problems like raw material availability, feasibility in product supply chain, scalability of the model are hampering its development at commercial-scales. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of USA is leading the front in biorefinery research with path-breaking discoveries and inventions. Although the technology is still in nascent stages, but it holds the key to the optimum utilization of wastes and natural resources that humans have always tried to achieve. The onus now lies on governments and corporate sector to incentivize or finance the research and development in this highly promising field.

Anaerobic Digestion of Tannery Wastes

The conventional leather tanning technology is highly polluting as it produces large amounts of organic and chemical pollutants. Wastes generated by tanneries pose a major challenge to the environment. Anaerobic digestion of tannery wastes is an attractive method to recover energy from tannery wastes.

According to conservative estimates, more than 600,000 tons per year of solid waste are generated worldwide by leather industry and approximately 40–50% of the hides are lost to shavings and trimmings. Everyday a huge quantity of solid waste, including trimmings of finished leather, shaving dusts, hair, fleshing, trimming of raw hides and skins, are being produced from the industries. Chromium, sulphur, oils and noxious gas (methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulphide) are the elements of liquid, gas and solid waste of tannery industries.

Biogas from Tannery Wastes

Anaerobic digestion (or biomethanation) systems are mature and proven processes that have the potential to convert tannery wastes into energy efficiently, and achieve the goals of pollution prevention/reduction, elimination of uncontrolled methane emissions and odour, recovery of biomass energy potential as biogas, production of stabilized residue for use as low grade fertilizer.

Anaerobic digestion of tannery wastes is an attractive method to recover energy from tannery wastes. This method degrades a substantial part of the organic matter contained in the sludge and tannery solid wastes, generating valuable biogas, contributing to alleviate the environmental problem, giving time to set-up more sustainable treatment and disposal routes. Digested solid waste is biologically stabilized and can be reused in agriculture.

Until now, biogas generation from tannery wastewater was considered that the complexity of the waste water stream originating from tanneries in combination with the presence of chroming would result in the poisoning of the process in a high loaded anaerobic reactor.

When the locally available industrial wastewater treatment plant is not provided by anaerobic digester, a large scale digestion can be planned in regions accommodating a big cluster of tanneries, if there is enough waste to make the facility economically attractive.

In this circumstance, an anaerobic co-digestion plant based on sludge and tanneries may be a recommendable option, which reduces the quantity of landfilled waste and recovers its energy potential. It can also incorporate any other domestic, industrial or agricultural wastes. Chrome-free digested tannery sludge also has a definite value as a fertilizer based on its nutrient content.

Potential Applications of Biogas

Biogas produced in anaerobic digesters consists of methane (50%–80%), carbon dioxide (20%–50%), and trace levels of other gases such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen sulfide.  Biogas can be used for producing electricity and heat, as a natural gas substitute and also a transportation fuel. A combined heat and power plant (CHP) not only generates power but also produces heat for in-house requirements to maintain desired temperature level in the digester during cold season.

CHP systems cover a range of technologies but indicative energy outputs per m3 of biogas are approximately 1.7 kWh electricity and 2.5kWh heat. The combined production of electricity and heat is highly desirable because it displaces non-renewable energy demand elsewhere and therefore reduces the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

AD Plant at ECCO’s Tannery (Netherlands)

A highly advanced wastewater treatment plant and biogas system became fully operational in 2012 at ECCO’s tannery in the Netherlands. A large percentage of the waste is piped directly into the wastewater plant to be converted into biogas. This biogas digester provides a source of renewable fuel and also helps to dispose of waste materials by converting waste from both the leather-making processes, and the wastewater treatment plant, into biogas. All excess organic material from the hides is also converted into biogas.

This project enables ECCO Tannery to reduce waste and to substitute virtually all of its consumption of non-renewable natural gas with renewable biogas. The aim is to use more than 40% of the total tannery waste and replace up to 60% of the total natural gas consumption with biogas.

Food Waste Management in UK

Food-Waste-UKFood waste in the United Kingdom is a matter of serious environmental, economic and social concern that has been attracting widespread attention in recent years. According to ‘Feeding the 5K’ organisation, 13,000 slices of crusts are thrown away every day by a single sandwich factory which is featured in the figure above. More recently, Tesco, one of the largest UK food retailers, has published its sustainability report admitting that the company generated 28,500 tonnes of food waste in the first six months of 2013. TESCO’s report also state that 47% of the bakery produced is wasted. In terms of GHG emissions, DEFRA estimated that food waste is associated with 20 Mt of CO2 equivalent/year, which is equivalent to 3% of the total annual GHG emissions.

Globally, 1.2 to 2 billion tonnes (30%-50%) of food produced is thrown away before it reaches a human stomach. Food waste, if conceived as a state, is responsible for 3.3 Bt-CO2 equivalent/year, which would make it the third biggest carbon emitter after China and USA. What makes food waste an even more significant issue is the substantially high demand for food which is estimated to grow 70% by 2050 due to the dramatic increase of population which is expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2075. Therefore, there is an urgent need to address food waste as a globally challenging issue which should be considered and tackled by sustainable initiatives.

A War on Food Waste

The overarching consensus to tackle the food waste issue has led to the implementation of various policies. For instance, the European Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC) set targets to reduce organic waste disposed to landfill in 2020 to 35% of that disposed in 1995 (EC 1999). More recently, the European Parliament discussed a proposal to “apply radical measures” to halve food waste by 2025 and to designate the 2014 year as “the European Year Against Food Waste”. In the light of IMechE’s report (2013), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in cooperation with FAO has launched the Save Food Initiative in an attempt to reduce food waste generated in the global scale.

In the UK, WRAP declared a war on food waste by expanding its organic waste programme in 2008 which was primarily designed to “establish the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways of diverting household food waste from landfill that leads to the production of a saleable product”. DEFRA has also identified food waste as a “priority waste stream” in order to achieve better waste management performance. In addition to governmental policies, various voluntary schemes have been introduced by local authorities such as Nottingham Declaration which aims to cut local CO2 emissions 60% by 2050.

Sustainable Food Waste Management

Engineering has introduced numerous technologies to deal with food waste. Many studies have been carried out to examine the environmental and socio-economic impacts of food waste management options. This article covers the two most preferable options; anaerobic digestion and composting.

In-vessel composting (IVC) is a well-established technology which is widely used to treat food waste aerobically and convert it into a valuable fertilizer. IVC is considered a sustainable option because it helps by reducing the amount of food waste landfilled. Hence, complying with the EU regulations, and producing a saleable product avoiding the use of natural resources. IVC is considered an environmentally favourable technology compared with other conventional options (i.e. landfill and incineration). It contributes less than 0.06% to the national greenhouse gas inventories. However, considering its high energy-intensive collection activities, the overall environmental performance is “relatively poor”.

Anaerobic Digestion (AD) is a leading technology which has had a rapidly growing market over the last few years. AD is a biologically natural process in which micro-organisms anaerobically break down food waste and producing biogas which can be used for both Combined Heat & Power (CHP) and digestate that can be used as soil fertilizers or conditioners. AD has been considered as the “best option” for food waste treatment. Therefore, governmental and financial support has been given to expand AD in the UK.

AD is not only a food waste treatment technology, but also a renewable source of energy. For instance, It is expected that AD would help the UK to meet the target of supplying 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Furthermore, AD technology has the potential to boost the UK economy by providing 35,000 new jobs if the technology is adopted nationally to process food waste. This economic growth will significantly improve the quality of life among potential beneficiaries and thus all sustainability elements are considered.