Energy Value of Agricultural Wastes

Large quantities of agricultural wastes, resulting from crop cultivation activities, are a promising source of energy supply for production, processing and domestic activities in rural areas of the concerned region. The available agricultural 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 biogas), 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 combined 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 processing technologies for agricultural wastes 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.