Biogas from Agricultural Wastes

The main problem with anaerobic digestion of agricultural wastes is that most of the agricultural residues are lignocellulosic with low nitrogen content. To obtain biogas from agricultural wastes, pre-treatment methods like size reduction, electron irradiation, heat treatment, enzymatic action etc are necessary. For optimizing the C/N ratio of agricultural residues, co-digestion with sewage sludge, animal manure or poultry litter is recommended.

Types of Agricultural Wastes

Several organic wastes from plants and animals have been exploited for biogas production as reported in the literature. Plant materials include agricultural crops such as sugar cane, cassava, corn etc, agricultural residues like rice straw, cassava rhizome, corn cobs etc, wood and wood residues (saw dust, pulp wastes, and paper mill waste)

Others include molasses and bagasse from sugar refineries, waste streams such as rice husk from rice mills and residues from palm oil extraction and municipal solid wastes, etc. However, plant materials such as crop residues are more difficult to digest than animal wastes (manures) because of difficulty in achieving hydrolysis of cellulosic and lignocellulosic constituents.

Codigestion of Crop Wastes

Crop residues can be digested either alone or in co-digestion with other materials, employing either wet or dry processes. In the agricultural sector one possible solution to processing crop biomass is co-digested together with animal manures, the largest agricultural waste stream.

In addition to the production of renewable energy, controlled anaerobic digestion of animal manures reduces emissions of greenhouse gases, nitrogen and odour from manure management, and intensifies the recycling of nutrients within agriculture.

In co-digestion of plant material and manures, manures provide buffering capacity and a wide range of nutrients, while the addition of plant material with high carbon content balances the carbon to nitrogen (C/N) ratio of the feedstock, thereby decreasing the risk of ammonia inhibition.

The gas production per digester volume can be increased by operating the digesters at a higher solids concentration. Batch high solids reactors, characterized by lower investment costs than those of continuously fed processes, but with comparable operational costs, are currently applied in the agricultural sector to a limited extent.

Codigestion offers good opportunity to farmers to treat their own waste together with other organic substrates. As a result, farmers can treat their own residues properly and also generate additional revenues by treating and managing organic waste from other sources and by selling and/or using the products viz heat, electrical power and stabilised biofertiliser.

Biomass as Renewable Energy Resource

biomass_resourcesBiomass is a key renewable energy resource that includes plant and animal material, such as wood from forests, material left over from agricultural and forestry processes, and organic industrial, human and animal wastes. The energy contained in biomass originally came from the sun. Through photosynthesis carbon dioxide in the air is transformed into other carbon containing molecules (e.g. sugars, starches and cellulose) in plants. The chemical energy that is stored in plants and animals (animals eat plants or other animals) or in their waste is called biomass energy or bioenergy

What is Biomass

Biomass comes from a variety of sources which include:

  • Wood from natural forests and woodlands
  • Forestry plantations
  • Forestry residues
  • Agricultural residues such as straw, stover, cane trash and green agricultural wastes
  • Agro-industrial wastes, such as sugarcane bagasse and rice husk
  • Animal wastes (cow manure, poultry litter etc)
  • Industrial wastes, such as black liquor from paper manufacturing
  • Sewage
  • Municipal solid wastes (MSW)
  • Food processing wastes

Biomass energy projects provide major business opportunities, environmental benefits, and rural development.  Feedstocks for biomass energy project can be obtained from a wide array of sources without jeopardizing the food and feed supply, forests, and biodiversity in the world.

Agricultural Residues

Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as bagasse, straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. Large quantities of crop residues are produced annually worldwide, and are vastly underutilised. Rice produces both straw and rice husks at the processing plant which can be conveniently and easily converted into energy.

Significant quantities of biomass remain in the fields in the form of cob when maize is harvested which can be converted into energy. Sugar cane harvesting leads to harvest residues in the fields while processing produces fibrous bagasse, both of which are good sources of energy. Harvesting and processing of coconuts produces quantities of shell and fibre that can be utilized.

Current farming practice is usually to plough these residues back into the soil, or they are burnt, left to decompose, or grazed by cattle. These residues could be processed into liquid fuels or thermochemically processed to produce electricity and heat. Agricultural residues are characterized by seasonal availability and have characteristics that differ from other solid fuels such as wood, charcoal, char briquette. The main differences are the high content of volatile matter and lower density and burning time.

Animal Waste

There are a wide range of animal wastes that can be used as sources of biomass energy. The most common sources are animal and poultry manure. In the past this waste was recovered and sold as a fertilizer or simply spread onto agricultural land, but the introduction of tighter environmental controls on odour and water pollution means that some form of waste management is now required, which provides further incentives for waste-to-energy conversion.

The most attractive method of converting these organic waste materials to useful form is anaerobic digestion which gives biogas that can be used as a fuel for internal combustion engines, to generate electricity from small gas turbines, burnt directly for cooking, or for space and water heating.

Forestry Residues

Forestry residues are generated by operations such as thinning of plantations, clearing for logging roads, extracting stem-wood for pulp and timber, and natural attrition. Harvesting may occur as thinning in young stands, or cutting in older stands for timber or pulp that also yields tops and branches usable for biomass energy. Harvesting operations usually remove only 25 to 50 percent of the volume, leaving the residues available as biomass for energy.

Stands damaged by insects, disease or fire are additional sources of biomass. Forest residues normally have low density and fuel values that keep transport costs high, and so it is economical to reduce the biomass density in the forest itself.

Wood Wastes

Wood processing industries primarily include sawmilling, plywood, wood panel, furniture, building component, flooring, particle board, moulding, jointing and craft industries. Wood wastes generally are concentrated at the processing factories, e.g. plywood mills and sawmills. The amount of waste generated from wood processing industries varies from one type industry to another depending on the form of raw material and finished product.

Generally, the waste from wood industries such as saw millings and plywood, veneer and others are sawdust, off-cuts, trims and shavings. Sawdust arise from cutting, sizing, re-sawing, edging, while trims and shaving are the consequence of trimming and smoothing of wood. In general, processing of 1,000 kg of wood in the furniture industries will lead to waste generation of almost half (45 %), i.e. 450 kg of wood. Similarly, when processing 1,000 kg of wood in sawmill, the waste will amount to more than half (52 %), i.e. 520 kg wood.

Industrial Wastes

The food industry produces a large number of residues and by-products that can be used as biomass energy sources. These waste materials are generated from all sectors of the food industry with everything from meat production to confectionery producing waste that can be utilised as an energy source.

Solid wastes include peelings and scraps from fruit and vegetables, food that does not meet quality control standards, pulp and fibre from sugar and starch extraction, filter sludges and coffee grounds. These wastes are usually disposed of in landfill dumps.

Liquid wastes are generated by washing meat, fruit and vegetables, blanching fruit and vegetables, pre-cooking meats, poultry and fish, cleaning and processing operations as well as wine making.

These waste waters contain sugars, starches and other dissolved and solid organic matter. The potential exists for these industrial wastes to be anaerobically digested to produce biogas, or fermented to produce ethanol, and several commercial examples of waste-to-energy conversion already exist.

Pulp and paper industry is considered to be one of the highly polluting industries and consumes large amount of energy and water in various unit operations. The wastewater discharged by this industry is highly heterogeneous as it contains compounds from wood or other raw materials, processed chemicals as well as compound formed during processing.  Black liquor can be judiciously utilized for production of biogas using anaerobic UASB technology.

Municipal Solid Wastes and Sewage

Millions of tonnes of household waste are collected each year with the vast majority disposed of in open fields. The biomass resource in MSW comprises the putrescibles, paper and plastic and averages 80% of the total MSW collected. Municipal solid waste can be converted into energy by direct combustion, or by natural anaerobic digestion in the engineered landfill.

At the landfill sites, the gas produced, known as landfill gas or LFG, by the natural decomposition of MSW (approximately 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide) is collected from the stored material and scrubbed and cleaned before feeding into internal combustion engines or gas turbines to generate heat and power. The organic fraction of MSW can be anaerobically stabilized in a high-rate digester to obtain biogas for electricity or steam generation.

Sewage is a source of biomass energy that is very similar to the other animal wastes. Energy can be extracted from sewage using anaerobic digestion to produce biogas. The sewage sludge that remains can be incinerated or undergo pyrolysis to produce more biogas.

Biomass Energy Potential in Philippines

The Philippines has abundant supplies of biomass energy resources in the form of agricultural crop residues, forest residues, animal wastes, agro-industrial wastes, municipal solid wastes and aquatic biomass. The most common agricultural wastes are rice hull, bagasse, cane trash, coconut shell/husk and coconut coir. The use of crop residues as biofuels is increasing in the Philippines as fossil fuel prices continue to rise. Rice hull is perhaps the most important, underdeveloped biomass resource that could be fully utilized in a sustainable manner.

At present, biomass technologies utilized in the country vary from the use of bagasse as boiler fuel for cogeneration, rice/coconut husks dryers for crop drying, biomass gasifiers for mechanical and electrical applications, fuelwood and agricultural wastes for oven, kiln, furnace and cook-stoves for cooking and heating purposes. Biomass technologies represent the largest installations in the Philippines in comparison with the other renewable energy, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas abatement technologies.

Biomass energy plays a vital role in the nation’s energy supply. Nearly 30 percent of the energy for the 80 million people living in the Philippines comes from biomass, mainly used for household cooking by the rural poor. Biomass energy application accounts for around 15 percent of the primary energy use in the Philippines. The resources available in the Philippines can generate biomass projects with a potential capacity of more than 200 MW.

Almost 73 percent of this biomass use is traced to the cooking needs of the residential sector while industrial and commercial applications accounts for the rest. 92 percent of the biomass industrial use is traced to boiler fuel applications for power and steam generation followed by commercial applications like drying, ceramic processing and metal production. Commercial baking and cooking applications account for 1.3 percent of its use.

The EC-ASEAN COGEN Programme estimated that the volume of residues from rice, coconut, palm oil, sugar and wood industries is 16 million tons per year. Bagasse, coconut husks and shell can account for at least 12 percent of total national energy supply. The World Bank-Energy Sector Management Assistance Program estimated that residues from sugar, rice and coconut could produce 90 MW, 40 MW, and 20 MW, respectively.

The development of crop trash recovery systems, improvement of agro-forestry systems, introduction of latest energy conversion technologies and development of biomass supply chain can play a major role in biomass energy development in the Philippines. The Philippines is among the most vulnerable nations to climatic instability and experiences some of the largest crop losses due to unexpected climatic events. The country has strong self-interest in the advancement of clean energy technologies, and has the potential to become a role model for other developing nations on account of its broad portfolio of biomass energy resources and its potential to assist in rural development.

Biorefinery Prospects in India

India has a tremendous biomass potential which could easily be relied upon to fulfil most of our energy needs. An estimated 50 MMT (million metric tonnes) of liquid fuels are consumed annually in India, but with the actual biomass potential and its full utilization, India is capable of generating almost double that amount per annum. These biomass estimates only constitute the crop residues available in the country and essentially the second-generation fuels since the use of first-generation crop bases fuels in such food-starved nations is a criminal thought.

Existing Technologies

Currently, there are various technologies available to process such crop residues and generate value products from them. However, essentially, they all revolve around two main kinds of processes, either biochemical or thermal.

The biochemical process involves application of aerobic/anaerobic digestion for the production of biogas; or fermentation, which results in the generation of ethanol. Both these products could be subsequently treated chemically and through trans-esterification process, leading to production of biodiesel.

Alternatively, the thermochemical processes involve either the combustion, gasification or pyrolysis techniques, which produces heat, energy-rich gas and liquid fuels respectively. These products can be used as such, or could be further processed to generate high quality biofuels or chemicals.

The Need

The estimated organized energy breakup for India is 40 percent each for domestic and transport sectors and 20 percent for the industrial sectors. The current share of crude oil and gases is nearly 90 percent for the primary and transport sectors and the remaining 10 percent for the generation of industrial chemicals. The escalating prices of crude oil in the international market and the resulting concern over energy security, has lead developing nations to explore alternative and cheap sources of energy to meet the growing energy demand. One of the promising solution for agrarian economies is Biorefinery.

The Concept

Biorefinery is analogous to the traditional petroleum refineries employing fractional distillation process for obtaining different fractions or components from the same raw material, i.e. the crude oil. Biorefinery involve the integration of different biomass treatment and processing methods into one system, which results in the production of different components from the same biomass.  This makes the entire chain more viable economically and also reduces the waste generated.

Typical Model of a Biorefinery

The outcome ranges from high-volume, low-energy content liquid fuels, which could serve the transportation industry needs, to the low-volume but high-value chemicals, which could add to the feasibility of such a project. Steam and heat generated in the process could be utilized for meeting process heat requirements. By-products like chemicals, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, polymers etc are also obtained which provide additional revenue streams.


Biorefineries can help in utilizing the optimum energy potential of organic wastes and may also resolve the problems of waste management and GHGs emissions. 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.


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 to incentivize or finance the research and development in this field.

Agricultural Wastes in the Philippines

The Philippines is mainly an agricultural country with a land area of 30 million hectares, 47 percent of which is agricultural. The total area devoted to agricultural crops is 13 million hectares distributed among food grains, food crops and non-food crops. Among the crops grown, rice, coconut and sugarcane are major contributors to biomass energy resources.

The most common agricultural wastes in the Philippines are rice husk, rice straw, coconut husk, coconut shell and bagasse. The country has good potential for biomass power plants as one-third of the country’s agricultural land produces rice, and consequently large volumes of rice straw and hulls are generated.

Rice is the staple food in the Philippines. The Filipinos are among the world’s biggest rice consumers. The average Filipino consumes about 100 kilograms per year of rice.  Though rice is produced throughout the country, the Central Luzon and Cagayan Valley are the major rice growing regions. With more than 1.2 million hectares of rain-fed rice-producing areas, the country produced around 16 million tons of rice in 2007. The estimated production of rice hull in the Philippines is more than 2 million tons per annum which is equivalent to approximately 5 million BOE (barrels of oil equivalent) in terms of energy. Rice straw is another important biomass resource with potential availability exceeding 5 million tons per year across the country.

With the passing of Biofuels Act of 2006, the sugar industry in the Philippines which is the major source of ethanol and domestic sugar will become a major thriving industry. Around 380,000 hectares of land is devoted to sugarcane cultivation. It is estimated that 1.17 million tonnes of sugarcane trash is recoverable as a biomass resource in the Philippines. In addition, 6.4 million tonnes of surplus bagasse is available from sugar mills. There are 29 operating sugar mills in the country with an average capacity of 6,900 tonnes of cane per day. Majority is located in Negros Island which provides about 46% of the country’s annual sugar production.

The Philippines has the largest number of coconut trees in the world as it produces most of the world market for coconut oil and copra meal. The major coconut wastes include coconut shell, coconut husks and coconut coir dust. Coconut shell is the most widely utilized but the reported utilization rate is very low.  Approximately 500 million coconut trees in the Philippines produce tremendous amounts of biomass as husk (4.1 million tonnes), shell (1.8 million tonnes), and frond (4.5 million tonnes annually).

Maize is a major crop in the Philippines that generates large amounts of agricultural residues. It is estimated that 4 million tonnes of grain maize and 0.96 million tonnes of maize cobs produced yearly in the Philippines. Maize cob burning is the main energy application of the crop, and is widely practiced by small farmers to supplement fuelwood for cooking.

Agricultural Wastes in the Middle East

Agriculture plays an important role in the economies of most of the countries in the Middle East.  The contribution of the agricultural sector to the overall economy varies significantly among countries in the region, ranging, for example, from about 3.2 percent in Saudi Arabia to 13.4 percent in Egypt.  Large scale irrigation is expanding, enabling intensive production of high value cash and export crops, including fruits, vegetables, cereals, and sugar.

The term ‘crop residues’ covers the whole range of biomass produced as by-products from growing and processing crops. Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as bagasse, straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. Wheat and barley are the major staple crops grown in the Middle East region. In addition, significant quantities of rice, maize, lentils, chickpeas, vegetables and fruits are produced throughout the region, mainly in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Date palm is one of the principal agricultural products in the arid and semi-arid region of the world, especially Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The Arab world has more than 84 million date palm trees with the majority in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates. 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. Some studies have reported that Saudi Arabia alone generates more than 200,000 tons of date palm biomass each year.

In Egypt, crop residues are considered to be the most important and traditional source of domestic fuel in rural areas. These crop residues are by-products of common crops such as cotton, wheat, maize and rice. The total amount of residues reaches about 16 million tons of dry matter per year. Cotton residues represent about 9% of the total amount of residues. These are materials comprising mainly cotton stalks, which present a disposal problem. The area of cotton crop cultivation accounts for about 5% of the cultivated area in Egypt.

A cotton field in Egypt

Large quantities of crop residues are produced annually in the Middle East, and are vastly underutilised. Current farming practice is usually to plough these residues back into the soil, or they are burnt, left to decompose, or grazed by cattle. These residues could be processed into liquid fuels or thermochemical processed to produce electricity and heat in rural areas. Energy crops, such as Jatropha, can be successfully grown in arid regions for biodiesel production. Infact, Jatropha is already grown at limited scale in some Middle East countries and tremendous potential exists for its commercial exploitation.

A wide range of thermal and biochemical technologies exists to convert the energy stored in agricultural wastes into useful forms of energy. Thermochemical conversion technologies like combustion, gasification and pyrolysis can yield steam, syngas, bio oil etc. On the other hand, the high volatile solids content in agro wastes can be transformed into biogas in anaerobic digestion plants, possibly by codigestion with MSW, sewage sludge, animal wastes and/and food wastes. The cellulosic content in agricultural residues can be transformed into biofuel (bioethanol) by making use of the fermentation process. In addition, the highly organic nature of agricultural wastes makes it highly suitable for compost production which can be used to replace chemical fertilizers in agricultural farms. Thus, abundance of agro residues in the Middle East can catalyze the development of biomass energy sector in the region.

Biomass Harvesting

Biomass harvesting and collection is an important step involving gathering and removal of the biomass from field which is dependent on the state of biomass, i.e. grass, woody, or crop residue. The moisture content and the end use of biomass also affect the way biomass is collected. For crop residues, the operations should be organized in sync with the grain harvest as it occupies the centrestage in farming process.

All of other operations such as residue management and collection take place after so-called grain is in the bin. On the other hand, the harvest and collection dedicated crops (grass and woody) can be staged for recovery of the biomass only. In agricultural processing, straw is the stems and leaves of small cereals while chaff is husks and glumes of seed removed during threshing.

Modern combine-harvesters generally deliver straw and chaff together; other threshing equipment separates them. Stover is the field residues of large cereals, such as maize and sorghum. Stubble is the stumps of the reaped crop, left in the field after harvest. Agro-industrial wastes are by-products of the primary processing of crops, including bran, milling offal, press-cakes and molasses. Bran from on-farm husking of cereals and pulses are fed to livestock or foraged directly by backyard fowls.

The proportion of straw, or stover, to grain varies from crop to crop and according to yield level (very low grain yields have a higher proportion of straw) but is usually slightly over half the harvestable biomass. The height of cutting will also affect how much stubble is left in the field: many combine-harvested crops are cut high; crops on small-scale farms where straw is scarce may be cut at ground level by sickle or uprooted by hand.

Modern combine-harvesters generally deliver straw and chaff together

Collection involves operations pertaining to gathering, packaging, and transporting biomass to a nearby site for temporary storage. The amount of a biomass resource that can be collected at a given time depends on a variety of factors. In case of agricultural residues, these considerations include the type and sequence of collection operations, the efficiency of collection equipment, tillage and crop management practices, and environmental restrictions, such as the need to control erosion, maintain soil productivity, and maintain soil carbon levels.

Biogas Sector in India: Perspectives

Biogas is an often overlooked and neglected aspect of renewable energy in India. While solar, wind and hydropower dominate the discussion in the cuntry, they are not the only options available. Biogas is a lesser known but highly important option to foster sustainable development in agriculture-based economies, such as India.

What is Biogas

Briefly speaking, biogas is the production of gaseous fuel, usually methane, by fermentation of organic material. It is an anaerobic process or one that takes place in the absence of oxygen. Technically, the yeast that causes your bread to rise or the alcohol in beer to ferment is a form of biogas. We don’t use it in the same way that we would use other renewable sources, but the idea is similar. Biogas can be used for cooking, lighting, heating, power generation and much more. Infact, biogas is an excellent and effective to promote development of rural and marginalized communities in all developing countries.

This presents a problem, however. The organic matter is putting off a gas, and to use it, we have to turn it into a liquid. This requires work, machinery and manpower. Research is still being done to figure out the most efficient methods to make it work, but there is a great deal of progress that has been made, and the technology is no longer new.

Fossil Fuel Importation

India has a rapidly expanding economy and the population to fit. This has created problems with electricity supplies to expanding areas. Like most countries, India mainly uses fossil fuels. However, as oil prices fluctuate and the country’s demand for oil grows, the supply doesn’t always keep up with the demand. In the past, India has primarily imported oil from the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Without a steady and sustainable fossil fuels supply, India has looking more seriously into renewable sources they can produce within the country. Biogas is an excellent candidate to meet those requirements and has been used for this goal before.

Biogas in India

There are significant differences between biogas and fossil fuels, but for India, one of the biggest is that you can create biogas at home. It’s pretty tricky to find, dig up and transform crude oil into gas, but biogas doesn’t have the same barriers. In fact, many farmers who those who have gardens or greenhouses could benefit with proper water management and temperature control so that plants can be grown year round, It still takes some learning and investment, but for many people, especially those who live in rural places, it’s doable.

This would be the most beneficial to people in India because it would help ease the strain of delivering reliable energy sources based on fossil fuels, and would allow the country to become more energy independent. Plus, the rural areas are places where the raw materials for biogas will be more available, such animal manure, crop residues and poultry litter. But this isn’t the first time most people there are hearing about it.

Biogas in India has been around for a long time. In the 1970’s the country began a program called the National Biogas and Manure Management Program (NBMMP) to deal with the same problem — a gas shortage. The country did a great deal of research and implemented a wide variety of ideas to help their people become more self-sufficient, regardless of the availability of traditional gasoline and other fossil fuel based products.

The original program was pioneering for its time, but the Chinese quickly followed suit and have been able to top the market in biogas production in relatively little time. Comparatively, India’s production of biogas is quite small. It only produces about 2.07 billion m3/year of biogas, while it’s estimated that it could produce as much as 48 billion m3/year. This means that there are various issues with the current method’s India is using in its biogas production.


Biogas has the potential to rejuvenate India’s agricultural sector

The original planning in the NBMMP involved scientists who tried to create the most efficient biogas generators. This was good, but it slowed people’s abilities to adopt the techniques individually. China, on the other hand, explicitly worked to help their most rural areas create biogas. This allowed the country to spread the development of biogas to the most people with the lowest barriers to its proliferation.

If India can learn from the strategy that China has employed, they may be able to give their biogas production a significant boost which will also help in the rejuvenation of biomass sector in the country. Doing so will require the help and willingness of both the people and the government. Either way, this is an industry with a lot of room for growth.

Biochemical Conversion of Biomass

Biochemical conversion of biomass involves use of bacteria, microorganisms and enzymes to breakdown biomass into gaseous or liquid fuels, such as biogas or bioethanol. The most popular biochemical technologies are anaerobic digestion (or biomethanation) and fermentation. Anaerobic digestion is a series of chemical reactions during which organic material is decomposed through the metabolic pathways of naturally occurring microorganisms in an oxygen depleted environment. Biomass wastes can also yield liquid fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, which can be used to replace petroleum-based fuels.

Anaerobic Digestion

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. Almost any organic material can be processed with anaerobic digestion. This includes biodegradable waste materials such as municipal solid waste, animal manure, poultry litter, food wastes, sewage and industrial wastes.

An anaerobic digestion plant produces two outputs, biogas and digestate, both can be further processed or utilized to produce secondary outputs. 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 system (CHP) not only generates power but also produces heat for in-house requirements to maintain desired temperature level in the digester during cold season. In Sweden, the compressed biogas is used as a transportation fuel for cars and buses. Biogas can also be upgraded and used in gas supply networks.

Working of Anaerobic Digestion Process

Digestate can be further processed to produce liquor and a fibrous material. The fiber, which can be processed into compost, is a bulky material with low levels of nutrients and can be used as a soil conditioner or a low level fertilizer. A high proportion of the nutrients remain in the liquor, which can be used as a liquid fertilizer.

Biofuel Production

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.

The largest potential feedstock for ethanol is lignocellulosic biomass wastes, which includes materials such as agricultural residues (corn stover, crop straws and bagasse), herbaceous crops (alfalfa, switchgrass), short rotation woody crops, forestry residues, waste paper and other wastes (municipal and industrial). Bioethanol production from these feedstocks could be an attractive alternative for disposal of these residues. Importantly, lignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security.

Ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass is produced mainly via biochemical routes. The three major steps involved are pretreatment, enzymatic hydrolysis, and fermentation. Biomass is pretreated to improve the accessibility of enzymes. After pretreatment, biomass undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis for conversion of polysaccharides into monomer sugars, such as glucose and xylose. Subsequently, sugars are fermented to ethanol by the use of different microorganisms.

A Primer on Agricultural Residues

The term agricultural residue is used to describe all the organic materials which are produced as by-products from harvesting and processing of agricultural crops. These residues can be further categorized into primary residues and secondary residues. Agricultural residues, which are generated in the field at the time of harvest, are defined as primary or field based residues whereas those co-produced during processing are called secondary or processing based residues.

  • Primary residues – paddy straw, sugarcane top, maize stalks, coconut empty bunches and frond, palm oil frond and bunches;
  • Secondary residues – paddy husk, bagasse, maize cob, coconut shell, coconut husk, coir dust, saw dust, palm oil shell, fiber and empty bunches, wastewater, black liquor.

Agricultural residues are highly important sources of biomass fuels for both the domestic and industrial sectors. Availability of primary residues for energy application is usually low since collection is difficult and they have other uses as fertilizer, animal feed etc. However secondary residues are usually available in relatively large quantities at the processing site and may be used as captive energy source for the same processing plant involving minimal transportation and handling cost.

Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. which come from cereals (rice, wheat, maize or corn, sorghum, barley, millet), cotton, groundnut, jute, legumes (tomato, bean, soy) coffee, cacao, tea, fruits (banana, mango, coco, cashew) and palm oil.

Rice produces both straw and rice husks at the processing plant which can be conveniently and easily converted into energy. Significant quantities of biomass remain in the fields in the form of cob when maize is harvested which can be converted into energy. Sugar cane harvesting leads to harvest residues in the fields while processing produces fibrous bagasse, both of which are good sources of energy. Harvesting and processing of coconuts produces quantities of shell and fibre that can be utilised while peanuts leave shells. All these materials can be converted into useful energy by a wide range of technologies..