Circular Economy: Past, Present and Future

For a society accustomed to the achievements of a linear economy, the transition to a circular economic system is a hard task even to contemplate. Although the changes needed may seem daunting, it is important to remember that we have already come a long way. However, the history of the waste hierarchy has taught that political perseverance and unity of approach are essential to achieving long term visions in supply chain management.

Looking back, it is helpful to view the significance of the Lansink’s Ladder in the light of the sustainability gains it has already instigated. From the outset, the Ladder encountered criticism, in part because the intuitive preference order it expresses is not (and has never been put forward as) scientifically rigorous. Opposition came from those who feared the hierarchy would impede economic growth and clash with an increasingly consumerist society. The business community expressed concerns about regulatory burdens and the cost of implementing change.


However, such criticism was not able to shake political support, either in Holland where the Ladder was adopted in the Dutch Environmental Protection Act of 1979, or subsequently across Europe, as the Waste Hierarchy was transposed into national legislation as a result of the revised Waste Framework Directive.

Prevention, reuse and recycling have become widely used words as awareness has increased that our industrial societies will eventually suffer a shortage of raw materials and energy. So, should we see the waste hierarchy as laying the first slabs of the long road to a circular economy? Or is the circular economy a radical new departure?

Positive and negative thinking

There have been two major transitionary periods in waste management: public health was the primary driver for the first, from roughly 1900 to 1960, in which waste removal was formalised as a means to avoid disease. The second gained momentum in the 1980s, when prevention, reuse and recovery came on the agenda. However, consolidation of the second transition has in turn revealed new drivers for a third. Although analysing drivers is always tricky – requiring a thorough study of causes and effects – a general indication is helpful for further discussion. Positive (+) and negative (-) drivers for a third transition may be:

(+) The development of material supply chain management through the combination of waste hierarchy thinking with cradle to cradle eco design;

(+) The need for sustainable energy solutions;

(+) Scarcity of raw materials necessary for technological innovation; and

(+) Progressive development of circular economy models, with increasing awareness of social, financial and economic barriers.

(-) Growth of the global economy, especially in China and India, and later in Africa;

(-) Continued growth in global travel;

(-) Rising energy demand, exceeding what can be produced from renewable energy sources and threatening further global warming;

(-) Biodiversity loss, causing a further ecological impoverishment; and

(-) Conservation of the principle of ownership, which hinders the development of the so-called ‘lease society’. 

A clear steer

As the direction, scale and weight of these drivers are difficult to assess, it’s necessary to steer developments at all levels to a sustainable solution. The second transition taught that governmental control appears indispensable, and that regulation stimulates innovation so long as adequate space is left for industry and producers to develop their own means of satisfying their legislated responsibilities.

The European Waste Framework Directive has been one such stimulatory piece of legislation. Unfortunately, the EC has decided to withdraw its Circular Economy package, which would otherwise now be on track to deliver the additional innovation needed to achieve its goals – including higher recycling targets. Messrs. Juncker and Timmermans must now either bring forward the more ambitious legislation they have hinted at, or explain why they have abandoned the serious proposals of their predecessors.

Perhaps the major differences between Member States and other countries may require a preliminary two-speed policy, but any differences in timetable between Western Europe and other countries should not stand in the way of innovation, and differences of opinion between the European Parliament and the Commission must be removed for Europe to remain credible.

Governmental control requires clear rules and definitions, and for legislative terminology to be commensurate with policy objectives. One failing in this area is the use of the generic term ‘recovery’ to cover product reuse, recycling and incineration with energy recovery, which confuses the hierarchy’s preference order. The granting of R1 status to waste incineration plants, although understandable in terms of energy diversification, turns waste processors into energy producers benefiting from full ovens. Feeding these plants reduces the scope for recycling (e.g. plastics) and increases COemissions. When relatively inefficient incinerators still appear to qualify for R1 status, it offers confusing policy signals for governments, investors and waste services providers alike.

The key role for government also is to set clear targets and create the space for producers and consumers to generate workable solutions. The waste hierarchy’s preference order is best served by transparent minimum standards, grouped around product reuse, material recycling or disposal by combustion. For designated product or material categories, multiple minimum standards are possible following preparation of the initial waste streams, which can be tightened as technological developments allow.

Where the rubber meets the road

As waste markets increase in scale, are liberalised, and come under international regulation, individual governmental control is diminished. These factors are currently playing out in the erratic prices of secondary commodities and the development of excess incinerator capacity in some nations that has brought about a rise in RDF exports from the UK and Italy. Governments, however, may make a virtue of the necessity of avoiding the minutiae: ecological policy is by definition long-term and requires a stable line; day to day control is an impossible and undesirable task.

The road to the third transition – towards a circular economy – requires a new mind-set from government that acknowledges and empowers individuals. Not only must we approach the issue from the bottom-up, but also from the side and above. Consumer behaviour must be steered by both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ controls: through information and communication, because of the importance of psychological factors; but also through financial instruments, because both consumers and industry are clearly responsive to such stimuli.

Where we see opposition to deposit return schemes, it comes not from consumers but from industry, which fears the administrative and logistical burden. The business community must be convinced of the economic opportunities of innovation. Material supply chain management is a challenge for designers and producers, who nevertheless appreciate the benefits of product lifetime extensions and reuse. When attention to environmental risks seems to lapse – for example due to financial pressures or market failures – then politics must intervene.

Government and industry should therefore get a better grip on the under-developed positive drivers of the third transition, such as eco design, secondary materials policy, sustainable energy policy, and research and development in the areas of bio, info, and nanotechnologies. 

Third time’s the charm

Good supply chain management stands or falls with the way in which producers and consumers contribute to the policies supported by government and society. In order that producers and consumers make good on this responsibility, government must first support their environmental awareness.

The interpretation of municipal duty of care determines options for waste collection, disposal and processing. Also essential is the way in which producer responsibility takes shape, and the government must provide a clear separation of private and public duties. Businesses may be liable for the negative aspects of unbridled growth and irresponsible actions. It is also important for optimal interaction with the European legislators: a worthy entry in Brussels is valuable because of the international aspects of the third transition. Finally, supply chain management involves the use of various policy tools, including:

  • Rewarding good behaviour
  • Sharpening minimum standards
  • Development and certification of CO2 tools
  • Formulation and implementation of end-of-waste criteria
  • Remediation of waste incineration with low energy efficiency
  • Restoration or maintenance of a fair landfill tax
  • Application of the combustion load set at zero

‘Seeing is believing’ is the motto of followers of the Apostle Thomas, who is chiefly remembered for his propensity for doubt. The call for visible examples is heard ever louder as more questions are raised around the feasibility of product renewal and the possibilities of a circular economy.

Ultimately, the third transition is inevitable as we face a future of scarcity of raw materials and energy. However, while the direction is clear, the tools to be employed and the speed of change remain uncertain. Disasters are unnecessary to allow the realisation of vital changes; huge leaps forward are possible so long as government – both national and international – and society rigorously follow the preference order of the waste hierarchy. Climbing Lansink’s Ladder remains vital to attaining a perspective from which we might judge the ways in which to make a circle of our linear economy.

Note: The article is being republished with the permission of our collaborative partner Isonomia. The original article can be found at this link.

A Primer on Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-Energy is the use of modern combustion and biochemical technologies to recover energy, usually in the form of electricity and steam, from urban wastes. These new technologies can reduce the volume of the original waste by 90%, depending upon composition and use of outputs.

Energy is the driving force for development in all countries of the world. The increasing clamor for energy and satisfying it with a combination of conventional and renewable resources is a big challenge. Accompanying energy problems in different parts of the world, another problem that is assuming critical proportions is that of urban waste accumulation.

The quantity of waste produced all over the world amounted to more than 12 billion tonnes in 2006, with estimates of up to 13 billion tonnes in 2011. The rapid increase in population coupled with changing lifestyle and consumption patterns is expected to result in an exponential increase in waste generation of upto 18 billion tonnes by year 2020.

Waste generation rates are affected by socio-economic development, degree of industrialization, and climate. Generally, the greater the economic prosperity and the higher percentage of urban population, the greater the amount of solid waste produced. Reduction in the volume and mass of solid waste is a crucial issue especially in the light of limited availability of final disposal sites in many parts of the world. Millions of tonnes of household wastes are generated each year with the vast majority disposed of in open fields or burnt wantonly.

The main categories of waste-to-energy technologies are physical technologies, which process waste to make it more useful as fuel; thermal technologies, which can yield heat, fuel oil, or syngas from both organic and inorganic wastes; and biological technologies, in which bacterial fermentation is used to digest organic wastes to yield fuel.

The three principal methods of thermochemical conversion are combustion in excess air, gasification in reduced air, and pyrolysis in the absence of air. The most common technique for producing both heat and electrical energy from wastes is direct combustion. Combined heat and power (CHP) or cogeneration 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, can also produce clean energy in the form of biogas which can be converted to power and heat using a gas engine. In addition, wastes can also yield liquid fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, which can be used to replace petroleum-based fuels. Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from grasses, wood chips and agricultural residues by biochemical route using heat, pressure, chemicals and enzymes to unlock the sugars in biomass wastes.

Waste-to-energy plants offer two important benefits of environmentally safe waste management and disposal, as well as the generation of clean electric power.  The growing use of waste-to-energy as a method to dispose of solid and liquid wastes and generate power has greatly reduced environmental impacts of municipal solid waste management, including emissions of greenhouse gases.

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.

Bioenergy Resources in MENA Countries

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region offers almost 45 percent of the world’s total energy potential from all renewable sources that can generate more than three times the world’s total power demand. Apart from solar and wind, MENA also has abundant biomass energy resources which have remained unexplored to a great extent.

According to conservative estimates, the potential of biomass energy in the Euro Mediterranean region is about 400TWh per year. Around the region, pollution of the air and water from municipal, industrial and agricultural operations continues to grow.  The technological advancements in the biomass energy industry, coupled with the tremendous regional potential, promises to usher in a new era of energy as well as environmental security for the region.

The major biomass producing countries are Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. Traditionally, biomass energy has been widely used in rural areas for domestic purposes in the MENA region, especially in Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. Since most of the region is arid or semi-arid, the biomass energy potential is mainly contributed by municipal solid wastes, agricultural residues and industrial wastes.

Municipal solid wastes represent the best source of biomass in Middle East countries. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait rank in the top-ten worldwide in terms of per capita solid waste generation. The gross urban waste generation quantity from Middle East countries is estimated at more than 150 million tons annually. Food waste is the third-largest component of generated waste by weight which mostly ends up rotting in landfill and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The mushrooming of hotels, restaurants, fast-food joints and cafeterias in the region has resulted in the generation of huge quantities of food wastes.

In Middle East countries, huge quantity of sewage sludge is produced on daily basis which presents a serious problem due to its high treatment costs and risk to environment and human health. On an average, the rate of wastewater generation is 80-200 litres per person each day and sewage output is rising by 25 percent every year. According to estimates from the Drainage and Irrigation Department of Dubai Municipality, sewage generation in the Dubai increased from 50,000 m3 per day in 1981 to 400,000 m3 per day in 2006.

The food processing industry in MENA produces a large number of organic residues and by-products that can be used as biomass energy sources. In recent decades, the fast-growing food and beverage processing industry has remarkably increased in importance in major countries of the region. Since the early 1990s, the increased agricultural output stimulated an increase in fruit and vegetable canning as well as juice, beverage, and oil processing in countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

The MENA countries have strong animal population. The livestock sector, in particular sheep, goats and camels, plays an important role in the national economy of respective countries. Many millions of live ruminants are imported each year from around the world. In addition, the region has witnessed very rapid growth in the poultry sector. The biogas potential of animal manure can be harnessed both at small- and community-scale.

Cogeneration of Bagasse

Cogeneration of bagasse is one of the most attractive and successful energy projects that have already been demonstrated in many sugarcane producing countries such as Mauritius, Reunion Island, India and Brazil. Combined heat and power from sugarcane in the form of power generation offers renewable energy options that promote sustainable development, take advantage of domestic resources, increase profitability and competitiveness in the industry, and cost-effectively address climate mitigation and other environmental goals.

According to World Alliance for Decentralized Energy (WADE) report on Bagasse Cogeneration, bagasse-based cogeneration could deliver up to 25% of current power demand requirements in the world’s main cane producing countries. The overall potential share in the world’s major developing country producers exceeds 7%. There is abundant opportunity for the wider use of bagasse-based cogeneration in sugarcane-producing countries. It is especially great in the world’s main cane producing countries like Brazil, India, Thailand, Pakistan, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Philippines and Vietnam. Yet this potential remains by and large unexploited.

Using bagasse to generate power represents an opportunity to generate significant revenue through the sale of electricity and carbon credits. Additionally, cogeneration of heat and power allows sugar producers to meet their internal energy requirements and drastically reduce their operational costs, in many cases by as much as 25%. Burning bagasse also removes a waste product through its use as a feedstock for the electrical generators and steam turbines.

Most sugarcane mills around the globe have achieved energy self-sufficiency for the manufacture of raw sugar and can also generate a small amount of exportable electricity. However, using traditional equipment such as low-pressure boilers and counter-pressure turbo alternators, the level and reliability of electricity production is not sufficient to change the energy balance and attract interest for export to the electric power grid.

On the other hand, revamping the boiler house of sugar mills with high pressure boilers and condensing extraction steam turbine can substantially increase the level of exportable electricity. This experience has been witnessed in Mauritius, where, following major changes in the processing configurations, the exportable electricity from its sugar factory increased from around 30-40 kWh to around 100–140 kWh per ton cane crushed. In Brazil, the world’s largest cane producer, most of the sugar mills are upgrading their boiler configurations to 42 bars or even higher pressure of up to 67 bars.

Technology Options

The prime technology for sugar mill cogeneration is the conventional steam-Rankine cycle design for conversion of fuel into electricity. A combination of stored and fresh bagasse is usually fed to a specially designed furnace to generate steam in a boiler at typical pressures and temperatures of usually more than 40 bars and 440°C respectively. The high pressure steam is then expanded either in a back pressure or single extraction back pressure or single extraction condensing or double extraction cum condensing type turbo generator operating at similar inlet steam conditions.

Due to high pressure and temperature, as well as extraction and condensing modes of the turbine, higher quantum of power gets generated in the turbine–generator set, over and above the power required for sugar process, other by-products, and cogeneration plant auxiliaries. The excess power generated in the turbine generator set is then stepped up to extra high voltage of 66/110/220 kV, depending on the nearby substation configuration and fed into the nearby utility grid. As the sugar industry operates seasonally, the boilers are normally designed for multi-fuel operations, so as to utilize mill bagasse, procured Bagasse/biomass, coal and fossil fuel, so as to ensure year round operation of the power plant for export to the grid.

Latest Trends

Modern power plants use higher pressures, up to 87 bars or more. The higher pressure normally generates more power with the same quantity of Bagasse or biomass fuel. Thus, a higher pressure and temperature configuration is a key in increasing exportable surplus electricity.

In general, 67 bars pressure and 495°C temperature configurations for sugar mill cogeneration plants are well-established in many sugar mills in India. Extra high pressure at 87 bars and 510°C, configuration comparable to those in Mauritius, is the current trend and there are about several projects commissioned and operating in India and Brazil. The average increase of power export from 40 bars to 60 bars to 80 bars stages is usually in the range of 7-10%.

A promising alternative to steam turbines are gas turbines fuelled by gas produced by thermochemical conversion of biomass. The exhaust is used to raise steam in heat recovery systems used in any of the following ways: heating process needs in a cogeneration system, for injecting back into gas turbine to raise power output and efficiency in a steam-injected gas turbine cycle (STIG) or expanding through a steam turbine to boost power output and efficiency in a gas turbine/steam turbine combined cycle (GTCC). Gas turbines, unlike steam turbines, are characterized by lower unit capital costs at modest scale, and the most efficient cycles are considerably more efficient than comparably sized steam turbines.

Overview of Bioenergy Technologies

A wide range of technologies are available for realizing the energy potential of biomass wastes, ranging from very simple systems for disposing of dry waste to more complex technologies capable of dealing with large amounts of industrial waste. Conversion routes for biomass wastes are generally thermo-chemical or bio-chemical, but may also include chemical and physical.

Thermal Technologies

The three principal methods of thermo-chemical conversion corresponding to each of these energy carriers are combustion in excess air, gasification in reduced air, and pyrolysis in the absence of air. Direct combustion is the best established and most commonly used technology for converting wastes to heat. During combustion, biomass is burnt in excess air to produce heat. The first stage of combustion involves the evolution of combustible vapours from wastes, which burn as flames. Steam is expanded through a conventional turbo-alternator to produce electricity. The residual material, in the form of charcoal, is burnt in a forced air supply to give more heat.

Co-firing or co-combustion of biomass wastes 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. Co-firing involves utilizing existing power generating plants that are fired with fossil fuel (generally coal), and displacing a small proportion of the fossil fuel with renewable biomass fuels. Co-firing has the major advantage of avoiding the construction of new, dedicated, waste-to-energy power plant. An existing power station is modified to accept the waste resource and utilize it to produce a minor proportion of its electricity.

Gasification systems operate by heating biomass wastes in an environment where the solid waste breaks down to form a flammable gas. The gasification of biomass takes place in a restricted supply of air or oxygen at temperatures up to 1200–1300°C. The gas produced—synthesis gas, or syngas—can be cleaned, filtered, and then burned in a gas turbine in simple or combined-cycle mode, comparable to LFG or biogas produced from an anaerobic digester. The final fuel gas consists principally of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane with small amounts of higher hydrocarbons. This fuel gas may be burnt to generate heat; alternatively it may be processed and then used as fuel for gas-fired engines or gas turbines to drive generators. In smaller systems, the syngas can be fired in reciprocating engines, micro-turbines, Stirling engines, or fuel cells.

Pyrolysis is thermal decomposition occurring in the absence of oxygen. During the pyrolysis process, biomass waste is heated either in the absence of air (i.e. indirectly), or by the partial combustion of some of the waste in a restricted air or oxygen supply. This results in the thermal decomposition of the waste to form a combination of a solid char, gas, and liquid bio-oil, which can be used as a liquid fuel or upgraded and further processed to value-added products.

Biochemical Technologies

Biochemical processes, like anaerobic digestion, can also produce clean energy in the form of biogas which can be converted to power and heat using a gas engine. 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. In addition, wastes can also yield liquid fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel, which can be used to replace petroleum-based fuels.

Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biogas and biofertilizer. 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. 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 variety of fuels can be produced from biomass wastes 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. 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). The three major steps involved in cellulosic ethanol production 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. Bioethanol production from these feedstocks could be an attractive alternative for disposal of these residues. Importantly, lignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security.

Solar Energy Prospects in Oman

Even the fleetest of glances at a map of worldwide solar energy levels shows Oman to be well placed to exploit the energy-giving rays of the sun. In fact, over the last few years, a gaggle of reports have been published extolling the virtues of exploiting this renewable energy source. However, with increasing and more urbanised populations consuming greater and greater amounts of energy, only now are governments across the Gulf and wider MENA regions seriously looking at harnessing solar power to help fill potential energy deficits.

Mr Jigar Shah, quoted in a recent article, said investors were “desperate to invest in the Middle East solar industry” and were waiting for clear instructions from the governments in the region. He said, “The economics of switching to solar energy are far better here than in South Africa, India, Brazil, China and the US. Now that the costs of developing solar technologies have significantly declined, it is time for the Middle East to turn talk into action.”

That there is huge potential in the solar industry was underlined in no uncertain terms by the announcement last year of a $2 billion project to develop solar energy power resources in Oman. The plans also envisage creating industrial plants for the manufacture of solar panels and aluminium frames, to be used by the power station and also for local consumption and export.

Knowledge and technology transfer were also critical contributors to the success of the project which also aimed to tie-up with major international technology companies and international universities with expertise in renewable energy education, to help train the local population in servicing this burgeoning industry.

David Heimhofer, Chairman of Terra Nex Group and Managing Director of Middle East Best Select Fund, said, “By attracting foreign direct investment in the growing renewable energy sector and using German expertise, Oman will become not just a regional leader in the field, but also benefit from the great intrinsic value within the complete value chain associated with this economic sector. He says“In addition to generating new jobs for the Omani people and boosting exports, this project creates an entire industry that Oman can be proud of.”

The project is expected to deliver more than 2000 jobs for Omanis across a diverse range of industrial sectors and services. In order to increase the skill set of the local population to help service these new jobs, the University of Zurich proposed the setting up of an educational institution in the Sultanate specialising in the field of renewable energy engineering.

Biomass Wastes to Energy for MENA

The high volatility in oil prices in the recent past and the resulting turbulence in energy markets has compelled many MENA countries, especially the non-oil producers, to look for alternate sources of energy, for both economic and environmental reasons. The significance of renewable energy has been increasing rapidly worldwide due to its potential to mitigate climate change, to foster sustainable development in poor communities, and augment energy security and supply.

The Middle East is well-poised for waste-to-energy development, with its rich feedstock base in the form of municipal solid wastes, crop residues and agro-industrial wastes. The high rate of population growth, urbanization and economic expansion in the Middle East is not only accelerating consumption rates but also accelerating the generation of a wide variety of waste. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait rank in the top-ten worldwide in terms of per capita waste generation. The gross urban waste generation quantity from Arab countries is estimated at more than 80 million tons annually. Open dumping is the most prevalent mode of municipal solid waste disposal in most countries.

Waste-to-energy technologies hold the potential to create renewable energy from waste matter, including municipal solid waste, industrial waste, agricultural waste, and industrial byproducts. Besides recovery of substantial energy, these technologies can lead to a substantial reduction in the overall waste quantities requiring final disposal, which can be better managed for safe disposal in a controlled manner. Waste-to-energy systems can contribute substantially to GHG mitigation through both reductions of fossil carbon emissions and long-term storage of carbon in biomass wastes.

Modern waste-to-energy systems options offer significant, cost-effective and perpetual opportunities for greenhouse gas emission reductions. Additional benefits offered are employment creation in rural areas, reduction of a country’s dependency on imported energy carriers (and the related improvement of the balance of trade), better waste control, and potentially benign effects with regard to biodiversity, desertification, recreational value, etc. In summary, waste-to-energy can significantly contribute to sustainable development both in developed and less developed countries. Waste-to-energy is not only a solution to reduce the volume of waste that is and provide a supplemental energy source, but also yields a number of social benefits that cannot easily be quantified.

Biomass wastes can be efficiently converted into energy and fuels by biochemical and thermal conversion technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, gasification and pyrolysis. Waste-to-energy technologies hold the potential to create renewable energy from waste matter.  The implementation of waste-to-energy technologies as a method for safe disposal of solid and liquid biomass wastes, and as an attractive option to generate heat, power and fuels, can significantly reduce environmental impacts of wastes. In fact, energy recovery from MSW is rapidly gaining worldwide recognition as the fourth ‘R’ in sustainable waste management system – Reuse, Reduce, Recycle and Recover. A transition from conventional waste management system to one based on sustainable practices is necessary to address environmental concerns and to foster sustainable development in the region.

Thermal Conversion of Tannery Wastes

tannery-wastesTanneries generate considerable quantities of sludge, shavings, trimmings, hair, buffing dusts and other general wastes and can consist of up to 70% of hide weight processed. Thermal technologies, gasification in particular, by virtue of chemically reducing conditions, provides a viable alternative thermal treatment for Chrome containing materials, and generates a chrome (III) containing ash. This ash has significant commercial value as it can be reconstituted.

All of the wastes created by the tannery can be gasified following pre-treatment methods such as maceration, drying and subsequent densification or briquetting. A combined drying and gasification process could eliminate solid waste, whilst providing a combustible gas as a tax-exempt renewable energy source, which the tannery can directly reuse. Gasification trials have illustrated that up to 70% of the intrinsic energy value of the wastes currently disposed can be recovered as “synthesis gas” energy.

Gasification technology has the potential to provide significant cost benefits in terms of power generation and waste disposal, and increase sustainability within the leather industry. The gasification process converts any carbon-containing material into a combustible gas comprised primarily of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane, which can be used as a fuel to generate electricity and heat.

A wide range of tannery wastes can be macerated, flash dried, densified and gasified to generate a clean syngas for reuse in boilers or other Combined Heat and Power systems. As a result up to 70% of the intrinsic energy value of the waste can be recovered as syngas, with up to 60% of this being surplus to process drying requirements so can be recovered for on-site boiler or thermal energy recovery uses.

A proprietary technology has been in commercial operation at a tanyard on the West Coast of Norway since mid 2001. The process employs gasification-and-plasma-cracking and offer the capability of turning the tannery waste problem to a valorising source that may add values to the plant owner in terms of excessive energy and ferrochrome, a harmless alloy that is widely used by the metallurgical industry. The process leaves no ashes but a non-leaching slag that is useful for civil engineering works, and, hence, no residues for landfill disposal

Energy Potential of Palm Kernel Shells

palm-kernel-shellsThe Palm Oil industry in Southeast Asia and Africa generates large quantity of biomass wastes whose disposal is a challenging task. Palm kernel shells (or PKS) are the shell fractions left after the nut has been removed after crushing in the Palm Oil mill. Kernel shells are a fibrous material and can be easily handled in bulk directly from the product line to the end use. Large and small shell fractions are mixed with dust-like fractions and small fibres. Moisture content in kernel shells is low compared to other biomass residues with different sources suggesting values between 11% and 13%.

Palm kernel shells contain residues of Palm Oil, which accounts for its slightly higher heating value than average lignocellulosic biomass. Compared to other residues from the industry, it is a good quality biomass fuel with uniform size distribution, easy handling, easy crushing, and limited biological activity due to low moisture content. PKS can be readily co-fired with coal in grate fired -and fluidized bed boilers as well as cement kilns in order to diversify the fuel mix.

The primary use of palm kernel shells is as a boiler fuel supplementing the fibre which is used as primary fuel. In recent years kernel shells are sold as alternative fuel around the world. Besides selling shells in bulk, there are companies that produce fuel briquettes from shells which may include partial carbonisation of the material to improve the combustion characteristics. As a raw material for fuel briquettes, palm shells are reported to have the same calorific characteristics as coconut shells. The relatively smaller size makes it easier to carbonise for mass production, and its resulting palm shell charcoal can be pressed into a heat efficient biomass briquette.

Palm kernel shells have been traditionally used as solid fuels for steam boilers in palm oil mills across Southeast Asia. The steam generated is used to run turbines for electricity production. These two solid fuels alone are able to generate more than enough energy to meet the energy demands of a palm oil mill. Most palm oil mills in the region are self-sufficient in terms of energy by making use of kernel shells and mesocarp fibers in cogeneration. In recent years, the demand for palm kernel shells has increased considerably in Europe, Asia-Pacific, China etc resulting in price close to that of coal. Nowadays, cement industries and power producers are increasingly using palm kernel shells to replace coal. In grate-fired boiler systems, fluidized-bed boiler systems and cement kilns, palm kernel shells are an excellent fuel.

Cofiring of PKS yields added value for power plants and cement kilns, because the fuel significantly reduces carbon emissions – this added value can be expressed in the form of renewable energy certificates, carbon credits, etc. However, there is a great scope for introduction of high-efficiency cogeneration systems in the industry which will result in substantial supply of excess power to the public grid and supply of surplus PKS to other nations. Palm kernel shell is already extensively in demand domestically by local industries for meeting process heating requirements, thus creating supply shortages in the market.

Palm oil mills around the world may seize an opportunity to supply electricity for its surrounding plantation areas using palm kernel shells, empty fruit branches and palm oil mill effluent which have not been fully exploited yet. This new business will be beneficial for all parties, increase the profitability for palm oil industry, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the electrification ratio in surrounding plantation regions.