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_Animal

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..

Resource Base for Second-Generation Biofuels

second-generation-biofuelsSecond-generation biofuels, also known as advanced biofuels, primarily includes cellulosic ethanol. The feedstock resource base for the production of second-generation biofuel are non-edible lignocellulosic biomass resources (such as leaves, stem and husk) which do not compete with food resources. The resource base for second-generation biofuels production is broadly divided into three categories – agricultural residues, forestry wastes and energy crops.

Agricultural Residues

Agricultural (or 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.

Sugarcane 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 lignocellulosic materials can be converted into biofuels by a wide range of technologies.

Forestry Biomass

Forest harvesting is a major source of biomass energy. Harvesting in forests may occur as thinning in young stands, or cutting in older stands for timber or pulp that also yields tops and branches usable for production of cellulosic ethanol.

Biomass 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.

Energy Crops

Energy crops are non-food crops which provide an additional potential source of feedstock for the production of second-generation biofuels. Corn and soybeans are considered as the first-generation energy crops as these crops can be also used as the food crops. Second-generation energy crops are grouped into grassy (herbaceous or forage) and woody (tree) energy crops.

Grassy energy crops or perennial forage crops mainly include switchgrass and miscanthus. Switchgrass is the most commonly used feedstock because it requires relatively low water and nutrients, and has positive environmental impact and adaptability to low-quality land. Miscanthus is a grass mainly found in Asia and is a popular feedstock for second-generation biofuel production in Europe.

Woody energy crops mainly consists of fast-growing tree species like poplar, willow, and eucalyptus. The most important attributes of these class species are the low level of input required when compared with annual crops. In short, dedicated energy crops as feedstock are less demanding in terms of input, helpful in reducing soil erosion and useful in improving soil properties.

Biofuels from Lignocellulosic Biomass

Lignocellulose is a generic term for describing the main constituents in most plants, namely cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin. Lignocellulose is a complex matrix, comprising many different polysaccharides, phenolic polymers and proteins. Cellulose, the major component of cell walls of land plants, is a glucan polysaccharide containing large reservoirs of energy that provide real potential for conversion into biofuels. Lignocellulosic biomass consists of a variety of materials with distinctive physical and chemical characteristics. It is the non-starch based fibrous part of plant material.

First-generation biofuels (produced primarily from food crops such as grains, sugar beet and oil seeds) are limited in their ability to achieve targets for oil-product substitution, climate change mitigation, and economic growth. Their sustainable production is under scanner, as is the possibility of creating undue competition for land and water used for food and fibre production.

The cumulative impacts of these concerns have increased the interest in developing biofuels produced from non-food biomass. Feedstocks from ligno-cellulosic materials include cereal straw, bagasse, forest residues, and purpose-grown energy crops such as vegetative grasses and short rotation forests. These second-generation biofuels could avoid many of the concerns facing first-generation biofuels and potentially offer greater cost reduction potential in the longer term.

The largest potential feedstock for ethanol is lignocellulosic biomass, 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. Importantlylignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security. Moreover, bioethanol is very important for both rural and urban areas in terms of energy security reason, environmental concern, employment opportunities, agricultural development, foreign exchange saving, socioeconomic issues etc.

Lignocellulosic biomass consists mainly of lignin and the polysaccharides cellulose and hemicellulose. Compared with the production of ethanol from first-generation feedstocks, the use of lignocellulosic biomass is more complicated because the polysaccharides are more stable and the pentose sugars are not readily fermentable by Saccharomyces cerevisiae. In order to convert lignocellulosic biomass to biofuels the polysaccharides must first be hydrolysed, or broken down, into simple sugars using either acid or enzymes. Several biotechnology-based approaches are being used to overcome such problems, including the development of strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that can ferment pentose sugars, the use of alternative yeast species that naturally ferment pentose sugars, and the engineering of enzymes that are able to break down cellulose and hemicellulose into simple sugars.

Lignocellulosic processing pilot plants have been established in the EU, in Denmark, Spain and Sweden. The world’s largest demonstration facility of lignocellulose ethanol (from wheat, barley straw and corn stover), with a capacity of 2.5 Ml, was first established by Iogen Corporation in Ottawa, Canada. Many other processing facilities are now in operation or planning throughout the world.

Economically, lignocellulosic biomass has an advantage over other agriculturally important biofuels feedstocks such as corn starch, soybeans, and sugar cane, because it can be produced quickly and at significantly lower cost than food crops. Lignocellulosic biomass is an important component of the major food crops; it is the non-edible portion of the plant, which is currently underutilized, but could be used for biofuel production. In short, lignocellulosic biomass holds the key to supplying society’s basic needs for sustainable production of liquid transportation fuels without impacting the nation’s food supply.

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.