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.

Miscanthus: Reducing the Establishment Costs

Miscanthus-Elephant-GrassMiscanthus has been lauded as a dynamic high potential biomass crop for some time now due to its high yields, low input requirements and perennial nature. Miscanthus is commonly used as a biomass fuel to produce heat and electricity through combustion, but studies have found that miscanthus can produce similar biogas yields to maize when harvested at certain times of the year.  Miscanthus is a C4 grass closely related to maize and sugarcane, it can grow to heights of three metres in a single growing season.

High Establishment Costs

However, high establishment costs have impeded the popularity of the crop. High establishment costs of miscanthus are as a result of the sterile nature of the crop, which means that miscanthus cannot be propagated from seed and instead must be propagated from vegetative material. The vegetative material commonly used is taken from the root structure known as rhizomes; rhizome harvesting is a laborious process and when combined with low multiplication rates, results in a high cost for miscanthus rhizomes. The current figure based on Irish figures is €1,900 ha for rhizomes.

Promising Breakthrough

Research conducted in Teagasc Oak Park Carlow Ireland, suggests that there may be a cost effective of method of propagating miscanthus by using the stem as the vegetative material rather than having to dig up expensive rhizomes. The system has been proven in a field setting over two growing seasons and plants have been shown to be perennial.

A prototype planter suitable for commercial up scaling has been developed to sow stem segments of miscanthus. Initial costs are predicted at €130 ha for plant material. The image below shows the initial stem that was planted in a field setting and the shoots, roots, and rhizome developed by the stem at the end of the first growing season.


Feedstock for AD Plants

Switching from maize to miscanthus as a feedstock for anaerobic digestion plants would increase profitability and boost the GHG abatement credentials of the systems. Miscanthus is a perennial crop which would provide a harvest every year once established for 20 years in a row without having to be replanted compared to maize which is replanted every year. This would provide an obvious economic saving as well as allowing carbon sequestration in the undisturbed soil.

There would be further GHG savings from the reduced diesel consumption required for the single planting as opposed to carrying out heavy seedbed cultivation each year for maize. Miscanthus harvested as an AD feedstock would also alleviate soil compaction problems associated with maize production through an earlier harvest in more favourable conditions.

Future Perspectives

Miscanthus is a nutrient efficient crop due to nutrient cycling. With the onset of senescence nutrients in the stem are transferred back to the rhizome and over-wintered for the following year’s growth. However the optimum date to harvest biomass to produce biogas is before senescence. This would mean that a significant proportion of the plants nutrient stores would be removed which would need to be replaced. Fertiliser in the form of digestate generated from a biogas plant could be land spread to bridge nutrient deficiencies. However additional more readily available chemical N fertiliser may have to be applied.

Some work at Oak Park on September harvested miscanthus crops has seen significant responses from a range of N application rates. With dwindling subsidies to support anaerobic digestion finding a low cost perennial high yielding feedstock could be key to ensuring economic viability.

Description of a Biogas Power Plant

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

Working of a Biogas Plant

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

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

Biogas Cleanup

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

Utilization of Biogas

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

Treatment of Digestate

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

Monitoring of Environmental Parameters

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

Control System

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

Biogas Plants at Akshaya Patra Kitchens

Akshaya-Patra-Kitchen-BioGasThe Akshaya Patra Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, is focused on addressing two of the most important challenges in India – hunger and education. Established in year 2000, the Foundation began its work by providing quality mid-day meals to 1500 children in 5 schools in Bangalore with the understanding that the meal would attract children to schools, after which it would be easier to retain them and focus on their holistic development. 14 years later, the Foundation has expanded its footprint to cover over 1.4 million children in 10 states and 24 locations across India.

The Foundation has centralised, automated kitchens that can cook close to 6,000 kilos of rice, 4.5 to 5 tonnes of vegetables and 6,000 litres of sambar, in only 4 hours. In order to make sustainable use of organic waste generated in their kitchens, Akshaya Patra Foundation has set up anaerobic digestion plants to produce biogas which is then used as a cooking fuel. The primary equipment used in the biogas plant includes size reduction equipment, feed preparation tank for hydrolysis of waste stream, anaerobic digester, H2S scrubber and biogas holder.

Working Principle

Vegetable peels, rejects and cooked food waste are shredded and soaked with cooked rice water (also known as ganji) in a feed preparation tank for preparation of homogeneous slurry and fermentative intermediates. The hydrolyzed products are then utilized by the microbial culture, anaerobically in the next stage. This pre-digestion step enables faster and better digestion of organics, making our process highly efficient.

The hydrolyzed organic slurry is fed to the anaerobic digester, exclusively for the high rate biomethanation of organic substrates like food waste. The digester is equipped with slurry distribution mechanism for uniform distribution of slurry over the bacterial culture.

Optimum solids are retained in the digester to maintain the required food-to-microorganism ratio in the digester with the help of a unique baffle arrangement. Mechanical slurry mixing and gas mixing provisions are also included in the AD design to felicitate maximum degradation of organic material for efficient biogas production.

After trapping moisture and scrubbing off hydrogen sulphide from the biogas, it is collected in a gas-holder and a pressurized gas tank. This biogas is piped to the kitchen to be used as a cooking fuel, replacing LPG.

Basic Design Data and Performance Projections

Waste handling capacity 1 ton per day cooked and uncooked food waste with 1 ton per day ganji water

Input Parameters                      

Amount of solid organic waste 1000 Kg/day
Amount of organic wastewater ~ 1000 liters/day ganji (cooked rice water)

Biogas Production

Biogas production ~ 120 – 135 m3/day

Output Parameters

Equivalent LPG to replace 50 – 55 Kg/day (> 2.5 commercial LPG cylinders)
Fertilizer (digested leachate) ~ 1500 – 2000 liters/day

Major Benefits

Modern biogas installations are providing Akshaya Patra, an ideal platform for managing organic waste on a daily basis. The major benefits are:

  • Solid waste disposal at kitchen site avoiding waste management costs
  • Immediate waste processing overcomes problems of flies, mosquitos etc.
  • Avoiding instances when the municipality does not pick up waste, creating nuisance, smell, spillage etc.
  • Anaerobic digestion of Ganji water instead of directly treating it in ETP, therefore reducing organic load on the ETPs and also contributing to additional biogas production.

The decentralized model of biogas based waste-to-energy plants at Akshaya Patra kitchens ensure waste destruction at source and also reduce the cost incurred by municipalities on waste collection and disposal.


An on-site system, converting food and vegetable waste into green energy is improving our operations and profits by delivering the heat needed to replace cooking LPG while supplying a rich liquid fertilizer as a by-product.  Replacement of fossil fuel with LPG highlights our organization’s commitment towards sustainable development and environment protection.

The typical ROI of a plug and play system (without considering waste disposal costs, subsidies and tax benifts) is around three years.

Future Plans

Our future strategy for kitchen-based biogas plant revolves around two major points:

  • Utilization of surplus biogas – After consumption of biogas for cooking purposes, Akshaya Patra will consider utilizing surplus biogas for other thermal applications. Additional biogas may be used to heat water before boiler operations, thereby reducing our briquette consumption.
  • Digested slurry to be used as a fertilizer – the digested slurry from biogas plant is a good soil amendment for landscaping purposes and we plan to use it in order to reduce the consumption of water for irrigation as well as consumption of chemical fertilizers.