Rationale for Biomass Supply Chain

Biomass resources have been in use for a variety of purposes since ages. The multiple uses of biomass includes usage as a livestock or for meeting domestic and industrial thermal requirements or for the generation of power to fulfill any electrical or mechanical needs. One of the major issues, however, associated with the use of any biomass resources is its supply chain management. The resource being bulky, voluminous and only seasonally available creates serious hurdles in the reliable supply of the feedstock, regardless of its application. The idea is thus to have something which plugs in this gap between the biomass resource availability and its demand.

The Problem

The supply chain management in any biomass based project is nothing less than a big management conundrum. The complexity deepens owing to the large number of stages which encompass the entire biomass value chain. It starts right from the resource harvesting and goes on to include the resource collection, processing, storage and eventually its transportation to the point of ultimate utilization.

Owing to the voluminous nature of the resource, its handling becomes a major issue since it requires bigger modes of logistics, employment of a larger number of work-force and a better storage infrastructure, as compared to any other fuel or feedstock. Not only this their lower energy density characteristic, makes it inevitable for the resource to be first processed and then utilized for power generation to make for better economics.

All these hassles associated with such resources, magnify the issue of their utilization when it comes to their supply chain. The seasonal availability of most of the biomass resources, alternative application options, weather considerations, geographical conditions and numerous other parameters make it difficult for the resource to be made consistently available throughout the year. This results in poor feedstock inputs at the utilization point which ends up generating energy in a highly erratic and unreliable manner.

The Solution

Although most of the problems discussed above, are issues inherently associated with the usage of biomass resources, they can be curtailed to a larger extent by strengthening the most important loophole in such projects – The Biomass Resource Supply Chain.

World over, major emphasis has been laid in researching upon the means to improve the efficiencies of such technologies. However, no significant due diligence has been carried out in fortifying the entire resource chain to assure such plants for a continuous resource supply.

The usual solution to encounter such a problem is to have long term contracts with the resource providers to not only have an assured supply but also guard the project against unrealistic escalations in the fuel costs. Although, this solution has been found to be viable, it becomes difficult to sustain such contracts for longer duration since these resources are also susceptible to numerous externalities which could be in the form of any natural disaster, infection from pests or any other socio-political or geographical disturbances, which eventually lead to an increased burden on the producers.

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.

Logistics of a Biopower Plant

Biomass feedstock logistics encompasses all of the unit operations necessary to move biomass feedstock from the land to the energy plant and to ensure that the delivered feedstock meets the specifications of the conversion process. The packaged biomass can be transported directly from farm or from stacks next to the farm to the processing plant. Biomass may be minimally processed before being shipped to the plant, as in case of biomass supply from the stacks. Generally the biomass is trucked directly from farm to biorefinery if no processing is involved.

Another option is to transfer the biomass to a central location where the material is accumulated and subsequently dispatched to the energy conversion facility. While in depot, the biomass could be pre-processed minimally (ground) or extensively (pelletized). The depot also provides an opportunity to interface with rail transport if that is an available option. The choice of any of the options depends on the economics and cultural practices. For example in irrigated areas, there is always space on the farm (corner of the land) where quantities of biomass can be stacked.  The key components to reduce costs in harvesting, collecting and transportation of biomass can be summarized as:

  • Reduce the number of passes through the field by amalgamating collection operations.
  • Increase the bulk density of biomass
  • Work with minimal moisture content.
  • Granulation/pelletization is the best option, though the existing technology is expensive.
  • Trucking seems to be the most common mode of biomass transportation option but rail and pipeline may become attractive once the capital costs for these transport modes are reduced.

The logistics of transporting, handling and storing the bulky and variable biomass material for delivery to the biopower plant is a key part of the supply chain that is often overlooked by project developers. Whether the biomass comes from forest residues on hill country, straw residues from cereal crops grown on arable land, or the non-edible components of small scale, subsistence farming systems, the relative cost of collection will be considerable. Careful development of a system to minimize machinery use, human effort and energy inputs can have a considerable impact on the cost of the biomass as delivered to the processing plant gate.

The logistics of supplying a biomass power plant with consistent and regular volumes of biomass are complex.

Most of the agricultural biomass resources tend to have a relatively low energy density compared with fossil fuels. This often makes handling, storage and transportation more costly per unit of energy carried. Some crop residues are often not competitive because the biomass resource is dispersed over large areas leading to high collection and transport costs. The costs for long distance haulage of bulky biomass will be minimized if the biomass can be sourced from a location where it is already concentrated, such as sugar mill. It can then be converted in the nearby biomass energy plant to more transportable forms of energy carrier if not to be utilized on-site.

The logistics of supplying a biomass power plant with sufficient volumes of biomass from a number of sources at suitable quality specifications and possibly all year round, are complex. Agricultural residues can be stored on the farm until needed. Then they can be collected and delivered directly to the conversion plant on demand. At times this requires considerable logistics to ensure only a few days of supply are available on-site but that the risk of non-supply at any time is low.

Losses of dry matter, and hence of energy content, commonly occur during the harvest transport and storage process. This can either be from physical losses of the biomass material in the field during the harvest operation or dropping off a truck, or by the reduction of dry matter of biomass material which occurs in storage over time as a result of respiration processes and as the product deteriorates. Dry matter loss is normally reduced over time if the moisture content of the biomass can be lowered or oxygen can be excluded in order to constrain pathological action.

To ensure sufficient and consistent biomass supplies, all agents involved with the production, collection, storage, and transportation of biomass require compensation for their share of costs incurred. In addition, a viable biomass production and distribution system must include producer incentives, encouraging them to sell their post-harvest plant residue.

How is Biomass Transported

Transporting biomass fuel to a power plant is an important aspect of any biomass energy project. Because a number of low moisture fuels can be readily collected and transported to a centralized biomass plant location or aggregated to enhance project size, this opportunity should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

It will be a good proposition to develop biomass energy plants at the location where the bulk of the agricultural waste stream is generated, without bearing the additional cost of transporting waste streams. Effective capture and use of thermal energy at the site for hot water, steam, and even chilled water requirements raises the energy efficiency of the project, thereby improving the value of the waste-to-energy project.

Important Factors

  • The maximum rate of biomass supply to the conversion facility.
  • The form and bulk density of biomass.
  • The hauling distance for biomass transportation to the processing plant.
  • Transportation infrastructure available between the points of biomass dispatch and processing plant

Transportation is primarily concerned with loading and unloading operation and transferring biomass from pre-processing sites to the main processing plant or biorefinery. Truck transport and for a few cases train transport may be the only modes of transport. Barge and pipeline transport and often train transport involve truck transport. Trucks interface with trains at loading and unloading facilities of a depot or processing facility. Barge and pipeline require interfacing with train and/or truck transport at major facilities either on land or at the shores.

Physical form and quality of biomass has the greatest influence on the selection of equipment for the lowest delivered cost possible. A higher bulk density will allow more mass of material to be transported per unit distance. Truck transport is generally well developed, is usually cheapest mode of transport but it becomes expensive as travel distance increases. Pipeline biomass transport is the least known technology and may prove to be the cheapest and safest mode of transport in the near future.

A biomass freight train in England

Transportation costs of low-density and high-moisture agricultural residues straw are a major constraint to their use as an energy source. As a rule of thumb, transportation distances beyond a 25–50- km radius (depending on local infrastructure) are uneconomical. For long distances, agricultural residues could be compressed as bales or briquettes in the field, rendering transport to the site of use a viable option.

Greater use of biomass and larger?scale conversion systems demand larger?scale feedstock handling and delivery infrastructure. To accommodate expansion in feedstock collection and transportation, production centres can be established where smaller quantities of biomass are consolidated, stored, and transferred to long?distance transportation systems, in much the same way that transfer stations are used in municipal waste handling. Pre?processing equipment may be used to densify biomass, increasing truck payloads and reducing transportation costs over longer haul distances.

Biogas from Crop Wastes: European Perspectives

Most, if not all of Europe has a suitable climate for biogas production. The specific type of system depends on the regional climate. Regions with harsher winters may rely more on animal waste and other readily available materials compared to warmer climates, which may have access to more crop waste or organic material.

Regardless of suitability, European opinions vary on the most ethical and appropriate materials to use for biogas production. Multiple proponents argue biogas production should be limited to waste materials derived from crops and animals, while others claim crops should be grown with the intention of being used for biogas production.

Biogas Production From Crops

Europeans in favor of biogas production from crops argue the crops improve the quality of the soil. Additionally, they point to the fact that biogas is a renewable energy resource compared to fossil fuels. Crops can be rotated in fields and grown year after year as a sustainable source of fuel.

Extra crops can also improve air quality. Plants respire carbon dioxide and can help reduce harmful greenhouse gasses in the air which contribute to global climate change.

Biogas crops can also improve water quality because of plant absorption. Crops grown in otherwise open fields reduce the volume of water runoff which makes it to lakes, streams and rivers. The flow of water and harmful pollutants is impeded by the plants and eventually absorbed into the soil, where it is purified.

Urban residents can also contribute to biogas production by growing rooftop or vertical gardens in their homes. Waste from tomatoes, beans and other vegetables is an excellent source of biogas material. Residents will benefit from improved air quality and improved water quality as well by reducing runoff.

Proponents of biogas production from crops aren’t against using organic waste material for biogas production in addition to crop material. They believe crops offer another means of using more sustainable energy resources.

Biogas Production From Waste Materials Only

Opponents to growing crops for biogas argue the crops used for biogas production degrade soil quality, making it less efficient for growing crops for human consumption. They also argue the overall emissions from biogas production from crops will be higher compared to fossil fuels.

Growing crops can be a labor-intensive process. Land must be cleared, fertilized and then seeded. While crops are growing, pesticides and additional fertilizers may be used to promote crop growth and decrease losses from pests. Excess chemicals can run off of fields and degrade the water quality of streams, lakes and rivers and kill off marine life.

Once crops reach maturity, they must be harvested and processed to be used for biogas material. Biogas is less efficient compared to fossil fuels, which means it requires more material to yield the same amount of energy. Opponents argue that when the entire supply chain is evaluated, biogas from crops creates higher rates of emissions and is more harmful to the environment.

Agricultural residues, such as rice straw, are an important carbon source for anaerobic digestion

The supply chain for biogas from agricultural waste materials is more efficient compared to crop materials. Regardless of whether or not the organic waste is reused, it must be disposed of appropriately to prevent any detrimental environmental impacts. When the waste material is then used for biogas production, it creates an economical means of generating useful electricity from material which would otherwise be disposed of.

Rural farms which are further away from the electric grid can create their own sources of energy through biogas production from waste material as well. The cost of the energy will be less expensive and more eco-friendly as it doesn’t have the associated transportation costs.

Although perspectives differ on the type of materials which should be used for biogas production, both sides agree biogas offers an environmentally friendly and sustainable alternative to using fossil fuels.

Importance of Biomass Energy

Biomass energy has rapidly become a vital part of the global renewable energy mix and account for an ever-growing share of electric capacity added worldwide. As per a recent UNEP report, total renewable power capacity worldwide exceeded 1,470 GW in 2012, up 8.5% from 2011. Renewable energy supplies around one-fifth of the final energy consumption worldwide, counting traditional biomass, large hydropower, and “new” renewables (small hydro, modern biomass, wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels).

Traditional biomass, primarily for cooking and heating, represents about 13 percent and is growing slowly or even declining in some regions as biomass is used more efficiently or replaced by more modern energy forms. Some of the recent predictions suggest that biomass energy is likely to make up one third of the total world energy mix by 2050. Infact, biofuel provides around 3% of the world’s fuel for transport.

Biomass energy resources are readily available in rural and urban areas of all countries. Biomass-based industries can foster rural development, provide employment opportunities and promote biomass re-growth through sustainable land management practices. The negative aspects of traditional biomass utilization in developing countries can be mitigated by promotion of modern waste-to-energy technologies which provide solid, liquid and gaseous fuels as well as electricity. Biomass wastes encompass a wide array of materials derived from agricultural, agro-industrial, and timber residues, as well as municipal and industrial wastes.

The most common technique for producing both heat and electrical energy from biomass wastes is direct combustion. Thermal efficiencies as high as 80 – 90% can be achieved by advanced gasification technology with greatly reduced atmospheric emissions. Combined heat and power (CHP) systems, ranging from small-scale technology to large grid-connected facilities, provide significantly higher efficiencies than systems that only generate electricity. Biochemical processes, like anaerobic digestion and sanitary landfills, can also produce clean energy in the form of biogas and producer gas which can be converted to power and heat using a gas engine.

Advantages of Biomass Energy

Bioenergy systems offer significant possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to their immense potential to replace fossil fuels in energy production. Biomass reduces emissions and enhances carbon sequestration since short-rotation crops or forests established on abandoned agricultural land accumulate carbon in the soil.

Bioenergy usually provides an irreversible mitigation effect by reducing carbon dioxide at source, but it may emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels unless biomass fuels are produced unsustainably. Biomass can play a major role in reducing the reliance on fossil fuels by making use of thermo-chemical conversion technologies. In addition, the increased utilization of biomass-based fuels will be instrumental in safeguarding the environment, generation of new job opportunities, sustainable development and health improvements in rural areas.

The development of efficient biomass handling technology, improvement of agro-forestry systems and establishment of small and large-scale biomass-based power plants can play a major role in rural development. Biomass energy could also aid in modernizing the agricultural economy.

When compared with wind and solar energy, biomass plants are able to provide crucial, reliable baseload generation. Biomass plants provide fuel diversity, which protects communities from volatile fossil fuels. Since biomass energy uses domestically-produced fuels, biomass power greatly reduces our dependence on foreign energy sources and increases national energy security.

A large amount of energy is expended in the cultivation and processing of crops like sugarcane, coconut, and rice which can met by utilizing energy-rich residues for electricity production. The integration of biomass-fueled gasifiers in coal-fired power stations would be advantageous in terms of improved flexibility in response to fluctuations in biomass availability and lower investment costs. The growth of the bioenergy industry can also be achieved by laying more stress on green power marketing.

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.

Biomass Resources from Rice Industry

The cultivation of rice results in two major types of residues – Straw and Husk –having attractive potential in terms of energy. Although the technology for rice husk utilization is well-proven in industrialized countries of Europe and North America, such technologies are yet to be introduced in the developing world on commercial scale. The importance of Rice Husk and Rice Straw as an attractive source of energy can be gauged from the following statistics:

Rice Straw

  • 1 ton of Rice paddy produces 290 kg Rice Straw
  • 290 kg Rice Straw can produce 100 kWh of power
  • Calorific value = 2400 kcal/kg

Rice Husk

  • 1 ton of Rice paddy produces 220 kg Rice Husk
  • 1 ton Rice Husk is equivalent to 410- 570 kWh electricity
  • Calorific value = 3000 kcal/kg
  • Moisture content = 5 – 12%

Rice husk is the most prolific agricultural residue in rice producing countries around the world. It is one of the major by-products from the rice milling process and constitutes about 20% of paddy by weight. Rice husk, which consists mainly of lingo-cellulose and silica, is not utilized to any significant extent and has great potential as an energy source.

Rice husk can be used for power generation through either the steam or gasification route. For small scale power generation, the gasification route has attracted more attention as a small steam power plant is very inefficient and is very difficult to maintain due to the presence of a boiler. In addition for rice mills with diesel engines, the gas produced from rice husk can be used in the existing engine in a dual fuel operation.

The benefits of using rice husk technology are numerous. Primarily, it provides electricity and serves as a way to dispose of agricultural waste. In addition, steam, a byproduct of power generation, can be used for paddy drying applications, thereby increasing local incomes and reducing the need to import fossil fuels. Rice husk ash, the byproduct of rice husk power plants, can be used in the cement and steel industries further decreasing the need to import these materials.

Rice straw can either be used alone or mixed with other biomass materials in direct combustion. In this technology, combustion boilers are used in combination with steam turbines to produce electricity and heat. The energy content of rice straw is around 14 MJ per kg at 10 percent moisture content.  The by-products are fly ash and bottom ash, which have an economic value and could be used in cement and/or brick manufacturing, construction of roads and embankments, etc.

Straw fuels have proved to be extremely difficult to burn in most combustion furnaces, especially those designed for power generation. The primary issue concerning the use of rice straw and other herbaceous biomass for power generation is fouling, slagging, and corrosion of the boiler due to alkaline and chlorine components in the ash. Europe, and in particular, Denmark, currently has the greatest experience with straw fired power and CHP plants.

Energy Value of Agricultural Wastes

Large quantities of agricultural wastes resulting from crop cultivation activity are a promising source of energy supply for production, processing and domestic activities in rural areas of the concerned region. The available crop residues are either being used inefficiently or burnt in the open to clear the fields for subsequent crop cultivation. On an average 1.5 tons of crop residue are generated for processing 1 ton of the main product. In addition, substantial quantities of secondary residues are produced in agro-industries processing farm produce such as paddy, sugarcane, coconut, fruits and vegetables.

Agricultural crop residues often have a disposal cost associated with them. Therefore, the “waste-to-energy” conversion processes for heat and power generation, and even in some cases for transport fuel production, can have good economic and market potential. They have value particularly in rural community applications, and are used widely in countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, USA, Canada, Austria and Finland.

The energy density and physical properties of agricultural biomass wastes are critical factors for feedstock considerations and need to be understood in order to match a feedstock and processing technology. There are six generic biomass processing technologies based on direct combustion (for power), anaerobic digestion (for methane-rich gas), fermentation (of sugars for alcohols), oil exaction (for biodiesel), pyrolysis (for biochar, gas and oils) and gasification (for carbon monoxide and hydrogen-rich syngas). These technologies can then be followed by an array of secondary treatments (stabilization, dewatering, upgrading, refining) depending on specific final products.

It is well-known that power plants based on baled agricultural residues are efficient and cost-effective energy generators. Residues such as Rice Husks, Wheat Straw and Maize Cobs are already concentrated at a point where it is an easily exploitable source of energy, particularly if it can be utilized on-site to provide heat and power.

The selection of processing technologies needs to be aligned to the nature and structure of the biomass feedstock and the desired project outputs. It can be seen that direct combustion or gasification of biomass are appropriate when heat and power are required. Anaerobic digestion, fermentation and oil extraction are suitable when specific Biomass wastes are available that have easily extractable oils and sugars or high water contents. On the other hand, only thermal processing of biomass by pyrolysis can provide the platform for all of the above forms of product. Many thermal technologies require the water content of Biomass to be low (<15 per cent) for proper operation. For these technologies the energy cost of drying can represent a significant reduction in process efficiency.

Moisture content is of important interest since it corresponds to one of the main criteria for the selection of energy conversion process technology. Thermal conversion technology requires biomass fuels with low moisture content, while those with high moisture content are more appropriate for biological-based process such as fermentation or anaerobic digestion.

The ash content of biomass influences the expenses related to handling and processing to be included in the overall conversion cost. On the other hand, the chemical composition of ash is a determinant parameter in the consideration of a thermal conversion unit, since it gives rise to problems of slagging, fouling, sintering and corrosion.

Ethanol from Lignocellulosic Biomass

Cellulosic ethanol technology is one of the most commonly discussed second-generation biofuel technologies worldwide. Cellulosic biofuels are derived from the cellulose in plants, some of which are being developed specifically as “energy” crops rather than for food production. These include perennial grasses and trees, such as switchgrass and Miscanthus. Crop residues, in the form of stems and leaves, represent another substantial source of cellulosic biomass.

The largest potential feedstock for ethanol is lignocellulosic biomass, which includes materials such as agricultural residues (corn stover, crop straws, husks 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. Lignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security and are 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.

Production of Ethanol

The production of ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass can be achieved through two different processing routes. They are:

  • Biochemical – in which enzymes and other micro-organisms are used to convert cellulose and hemicellulose components of the feedstocks to sugars prior to their fermentation to produce ethanol;
  • Thermochemical – where pyrolysis/gasification technologies produce a synthesis gas (CO + H2) from which a wide range of long carbon chain biofuels, such as synthetic diesel or aviation fuel, can be reformed.

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.

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.

Pretreated biomass can directly be converted to ethanol by using the process called simultaneous saccharification and cofermentation (SSCF).  Pretreatment is a critical step which enhances the enzymatic hydrolysis of biomass. Basically, it alters the physical and chemical properties of biomass and improves the enzyme access and effectiveness which may also lead to a change in crystallinity and degree of polymerization of cellulose. The internal surface area and pore volume of pretreated biomass are increased which facilitates substantial improvement in accessibility of enzymes. The process also helps in enhancing the rate and yield of monomeric sugars during enzymatic hydrolysis steps.

Pretreatment of Lignocellulosic Biomass

Pretreatment methods can be broadly classified into four groups – physical, chemical, physio-chemical and biological. Physical pretreatment processes employ the mechanical comminution or irradiation processes to change only the physical characteristics of biomass. The physio-chemical process utilizes steam or steam and gases, like SO2 and CO2. The chemical processes employs acids (H2SO4, HCl, organic acids etc) or alkalis (NaOH, Na2CO3, Ca(OH)2, NH3 etc). The acid treatment typically shows the selectivity towards hydrolyzing the hemicelluloses components, whereas alkalis have better selectivity for the lignin. The fractionation of biomass components after such processes help in improving the enzymes accessibility which is also important to the efficient utilization of enzymes.


The major cost components in bioethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass are the pretreatment and the enzymatic hydrolysis steps. In fact, these two process are someway interrelated too where an efficient pretreatment strategy can save substantial enzyme consumption. Pretreatment step can also affect the cost of other operations such as size reduction prior to pretreatment. Therefore, optimization of these two important steps, which collectively contributes about 70% of the total processing cost, are the major challenges in the commercialization of bioethanol from 2nd generation feedstock.