Combined Heat and Power Systems in the Biomass Industry

Combined heat and power systems in the biomass industry means the simultaneous generation of multiple forms of useful energy (usually mechanical and thermal) from biomass resources in a single, integrated system. In a 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 plant 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 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 uses

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.