Overview of Biomass Pyrolysis

Biomass pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of biomass occurring in the absence of oxygen. It is the fundamental chemical reaction that is the precursor of both the combustion and gasification processes and occurs naturally in the first two seconds. The products of biomass pyrolysis include biochar, bio-oil and gases including methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.

The pyrolysis process consists of both simultaneous and successive reactions when organic material is heated in a non-reactive atmosphere. Thermal decomposition of organic components in biomass starts at 350 °C–550 °C and goes up to 700 °C–800 °C in the absence of air/oxygen. The long chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen compounds in biomass break down into smaller molecules in the form of gases, condensable vapours (tars and oils) and solid charcoal under pyrolysis conditions. Rate and extent of decomposition of each of these components depends on the process parameters of the reactor temperature, biomass heating rate, pressure, reactor configuration, feedstock etc

Depending on the thermal environment and the final temperature, pyrolysis will yield mainly biochar at low temperatures, less than 450 0C, when the heating rate is quite slow, and mainly gases at high temperatures, greater than 800 0C, with rapid heating rates. At an intermediate temperature and under relatively high heating rates, the main product is bio-oil.

Slow and Fast Pyrolysis

Pyrolysis processes can be categorized as slow or fast. Slow pyrolysis takes several hours to complete and results in biochar as the main product. On the other hand, fast pyrolysis yields 60% bio-oil and takes seconds for complete pyrolysis. In addition, it gives 20% biochar and 20% syngas.  Fast pyrolysis is currently the most widely used pyrolysis system.

The essential features of a fast pyrolysis process are:

  • Very high heating and heat transfer rates, which require a finely ground feed.
  • Carefully controlled reaction temperature of around 500oC in the vapour phase
  •  Residence time of pyrolysis vapours in the reactor less than 1 sec
  • Quenching (rapid cooling) of the pyrolysis vapours to give the bio-oil product.

Advantages of Biomass Pyrolysis

Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small scale and at remote locations which enhance energy density of the biomass resource and reduce transport and handling costs.  Heat transfer is a critical area in pyrolysis as the pyrolysis process is endothermic and sufficient heat transfer surface has to be provided to meet process heat needs. Biomass pyrolysis offers a flexible and attractive way of converting organic matter into energy products which can be successfully used for the production of heat, power and chemicals.

A wide range of biomass feedstocks can be used in pyrolysis processes. The pyrolysis process is very dependent on the moisture content of the feedstock, which should be around 10%. At higher moisture contents, high levels of water are produced and at lower levels there is a risk that the process only produces dust instead of oil. High-moisture waste streams, such as sludge and meat processing wastes, require drying before subjecting to pyrolysis.

Furthermore, the bio-char produced can be used on the farm as an excellent soil amender as it is highly absorbent and therefore increases the soil’s ability to retain water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals, preventing water contamination and soil erosion. Soil application of bio-char may enhance both soil quality and be an effective means of sequestering large amounts of carbon, thereby helping to mitigate global climate change through carbon sequestration.  Use of bio-char as a soil amendment will offset many of the problems associated with removing crop residues from the land.

Biomass pyrolysis has been garnering much attention due to its high efficiency and good environmental performance characteristics. It also provides an opportunity for the processing of agricultural residues, wood wastes and municipal solid waste into clean energy. In addition, biochar sequestration could make a big difference in the fossil fuel emissions worldwide and act as a major player in the global carbon market with its robust, clean and simple production technology.