Waste to Energy Conversion Routes

Teesside-WTE-plantWaste-to-energy is the use of modern combustion and biological technologies to recover energy from urban wastes. There are three major waste to energy conversion routes – thermochemical, biochemical and physico-chemical. Thermochemical conversion, characterized by higher temperature and conversion rates, is best suited for lower moisture feedstock and is generally less selective for products. On the other hand, biochemical technologies are more suitable for wet wastes which are rich in organic matter.

Thermochemical Conversion

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 household 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.


Combustion technology is the controlled combustion of waste with the recovery of heat to produce steam which in turn produces power through steam turbines. Pyrolysis and gasification represent refined thermal treatment methods as alternatives to incineration and are characterized by the transformation of the waste into product gas as energy carrier for later combustion in, for example, a boiler or a gas engine. Plasma gasification, which takes place at extremely high temperature, is also hogging limelight nowadays.

Biochemical Conversion

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 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.

In addition, 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.

Physico-chemical Conversion

The physico-chemical technology involves various processes to improve physical and chemical properties of solid waste. The combustible fraction of the waste is converted into high-energy fuel pellets which may be used in steam generation. The waste is first dried to bring down the high moisture levels. Sand, grit, and other incombustible matter are then mechanically separated before the waste is compacted and converted into fuel pellets or RDF.

Fuel pellets have several distinct advantages over coal and wood because it is cleaner, free from incombustibles, has lower ash and moisture contents, is of uniform size, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.

Energy Potential of Coconut Biomass

coconut-shell-biomassCoconuts are produced in 92 countries worldwide on about more than 10 million hectares. Indonesia, Philippines and India account for almost 75% of world coconut production with Indonesia being the world’s largest coconut producer. A coconut plantation is analogous to energy crop plantations, however coconut plantations are a source of wide variety of products, in addition to energy. The current world production of coconuts has the potential to produce electricity, heat, fiberboards, organic fertilizer, animal feeds, fuel additives for cleaner emissions, health drinks, etc.

The coconut fruit yields 40 % coconut husks containing 30 % fiber, with dust making up the rest. The chemical composition of coconut husks consists of cellulose, lignin, pyroligneous acid, gas, charcoal, tar, tannin, and potassium. Coconut dust has high lignin and cellulose content. The materials contained in the casing of coco dusts and coconut fibers are resistant to bacteria and fungi.

Coconut husk and shells are an attractive biomass fuel and are also a good source of charcoal. The major advantage of using coconut biomass as a fuel is that coconut is a permanent crop and available round the year so there is constant whole year supply. Activated carbon manufactured from coconut shell is considered extremely effective for the removal of impurities in wastewater treatment processes.

Coconut Shell

Coconut shell is an agricultural waste and is available in plentiful quantities throughout tropical countries worldwide. In many countries, coconut shell is subjected to open burning which contributes significantly to CO2 and methane emissions.  Coconut shell is widely used for making charcoal. The traditional pit method of production has a charcoal yield of 25–30% of the dry weight of shells used. The charcoal produced by this method is of variable quality, and often contaminated with extraneous matter and soil. The smoke evolved from pit method is not only a nuisance but also a health hazard.

The coconut shell has a high calorific value of 20.8MJ/kg and can be used to produce steam, energy-rich gases, bio-oil, biochar etc. It is to be noted that coconut shell and coconut husk are solid fuels and have the peculiarities and problems inherent in this kind of fuel.  Coconut shell is more suitable for pyrolysis process as it contain lower ash content, high volatile matter content and available at a cheap cost. The higher fixed carbon content leads to the production to a high-quality solid residue which can be used as activated carbon in wastewater treatment. Coconut shell can be easily collected in places where coconut meat is traditionally used in food processing.

Coconut Husk

Coconut husk has high amount of lignin and cellulose, and that is why it has a high calorific value of 18.62MJ/kg. The chemical composition of coconut husks consists of cellulose, lignin, pyroligneous acid, gas, charcoal, tar, tannin, and potassium. The predominant use of coconut husks is in direct combustion in order to make charcoal, otherwise husks are simply thrown away. Coconut husk can be transformed into a value-added fuel source which can replace wood and other traditional fuel sources. In terms of the availability and costs of coconut husks, they have good potential for use in power plants.

Gasification of Municipal Wastes

utishinai-gasification-plantGasification of municipal wastes involves the reaction of carbonaceous feedstock with an oxygen-containing reagent, usually oxygen, air, steam or carbon dioxide, generally at temperatures above 800°C. The process is largely exothermic but some heat may be required to initialise and sustain the gasification process. The main product of the gasification process is syngas, which contains carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane. Typically, the gas generated from gasification has a low heating value (LHV) of 3 – 6 MJ/Nm3.The other main product produced by gasification is a solid residue of non-combustible materials (ash) which contains a relatively low level of carbon. Syngas can be used in a number of ways, including:

  • Syngas can be burned in a boiler to generate steam for power generation or industrial heating.
  • Syngas can be used as a fuel in a dedicated gas engine.
  • Syngas, after reforming, can be used in a gas turbine
  • Syngas can also be used as a chemical feedstock.

Gasification has been used worldwide on a commercial scale for several decades by the chemical, refining, fertilizer and electric power industries. MSW gasification plants are relatively small-scale, flexible to different inputs and modular development. The quantity of power produced per tonne of waste by gasification process is larger than when applying the incineration method. The most important reason for the growing popularity of gasification of municipal wastes has been the increasing technical, environmental and public dissatisfaction with the performance of conventional incinerators.

Plasma Gasification

Plasma gasification uses extremely high temperatures in an oxygen-starved environment to completely decompose input waste material into very simple molecules in a process similar to pyrolysis. The heat source is a plasma discharge torch, a device that produces a very high temperature plasma gas. It is carried out under oxygen-starved conditions and the main products are vitrified slag, syngas and molten metal.


Vitrified slag may be used as an aggregate in construction; the syngas may be used in energy recovery systems or as a chemical feedstock; and the molten metal may have a commercial value depending on quality and market availability. The technology has been in use for steel-making and is used to melt ash to meet limits on dioxin/furan content. There are several commercial-scale plants already in operation in Japan for treating MSW and auto shredder residue.

Advantages of Gasification

There are numerous solid waste gasification facilities operating or under construction around the world. Gasification of solid wastes has several advantages over traditional combustion processes for MSW treatment. It takes place in a low oxygen environment that limits the formation of dioxins and of large quantities of SOx and NOx. Furthermore, it requires just a fraction of the stoichiometric amount of oxygen necessary for combustion. As a result, the volume of process gas is low, requiring smaller and less expensive gas cleaning equipment.

The lower gas volume also means a higher partial pressure of contaminants in the off-gas, which favours more complete adsorption and particulate capture. Finally, gasification generates a fuel gas that can be integrated with combined cycle turbines, reciprocating engines and, potentially, with fuel cells that convert fuel energy to electricity more efficiently than conventional steam boilers.

Disadvantages of Gasification

The gas resulting from gasification of municipal wastes contains various tars, particulates, halogens, heavy metals and alkaline compounds depending on the fuel composition and the particular gasification process. This can result in agglomeration in the gasification vessel, which can lead to clogging of fluidised beds and increased tar formation. In general, no slagging occurs with fuels having ash content below 5%. MSW has a relatively high ash content of 10-12%.

Utilization of Date Palm Biomass

Date palm trees produce huge amount of agricultural wastes in the form of dry leaves, stems, pits, seeds etc. A typical date tree can generate as much as 20 kilograms of dry leaves per annum while date pits account for almost 10 percent of date fruits.


Date palm biomass is found in large quantities across the Middle East

Date palm is considered a renewable natural resource because it can be replaced in a relatively short period of time. It takes 4 to 8 years for date palms to bear fruit after planting, and 7 to 10 years to produce viable yields for commercial harvest. Usually date palm wastes are burned in farms or disposed in landfills which cause environmental pollution in dates-producing nations.

The major constituents of date palm biomass are cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. In addition, date palm has high volatile solids content and low moisture content. These factors make date palm residues an excellent biomass resource in date-palm producing nations.

Date palm biomass is an excellent resource for charcoal production in Middle East

A wide range of physico-chemical, thermal and biochemical technologies exists for sustainable utilization of date palm biomass. Apart from charcoal production and energy conversion (using technologies like combustion and gasification), below are few ways for utilization of date palm wastes:

Conversion into fuel pellets or briquettes

Biomass pellets are a popular type of alternative fuel (analogous to coal), generally made from wood wastes and agricultural biomass. The biomass pelletization process consists of multiple steps including pre-treatment, pelletization and post-treatment of biomass wastes. Biomass pellets can be used as a coal replacement in power plant, industries and other application.

Conversion into energy-rich products

Biomass pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of date palm biomass occurring in the absence of oxygen. The products of biomass pyrolysis include biochar, bio-oil and gases including methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.

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.

Bio-oil can be upgraded to either a special engine fuel or through gasification processes to a syngas which can then be processed into biofuels. Bio-oil is particularly attractive for co-firing because it can be more readily handled and burned than solid fuel and is cheaper to transport and store.

Conversion into biofertilizer

Composting is the most popular method for biological decomposition of organic wastes. Date palm waste has around 80% organic content which makes it very well-suited for the composting process. Commercial-scale composting of date palm wastes can be carried out by using the traditional windrow method or a more advanced method like vermicomposting.

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.

Biomass Cogeneration Systems

Biomass fuels are typically used most efficiently and beneficially when generating both power and heat through biomass cogeneration systems (also known as combined heat and power or CHP system). Biomass conversion technologies transform a variety of wastes into heat, electricity and biofuels by employing a host of strategies. Conversion routes are generally thermochemical or biochemical, but may also include chemical and physical.

The simplest way is to burn the biomass in a furnace, exploiting the heat generated to produce steam in a boiler, which is then used to drive a steam turbine. Advanced biomass conversion technologies include biomass integrated gasification combined cycle (BIGCC) systems, cofiring (with coal or gas), pyrolysis and second generation biofuels.

Biomass Cogeneration Systems

A typical biomass cogeneration (or biomass cogen) 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 into existing building infrastructure.

Biomass cogeneration systems consist of a number of individual components—prime mover (heat engine), generator, heat recovery, and electrical interconnection—configured into an integrated whole. The type of equipment that drives the overall system (i.e., the prime mover) typically identifies the CHP unit.

Prime Movers

Prime movers for biomass cogeneration units include reciprocating engines, combustion or gas turbines, steam turbines, microturbines, and fuel cells. These prime movers are capable of burning a variety of fuels, including natural gas, coal, oil, and alternative fuels to produce shaft power or mechanical energy.

Key Components

A biomass-fueled cogeneration facility is an integrated power system comprised of three major components:

  • Biomass receiving and feedstock preparation.
  • Energy conversion – Conversion of the biomass into steam for direct combustion systems or into biogas for the gasification systems.
  • Power and heat production – Conversion of the steam or syngas or biogas into electric power and process steam or hot water

Feedstock for Biomass Cogeneration Plants

The lowest cost forms of biomass for cogeneration plants are residues. Residues are the organic byproducts of food, fiber, and forest production, such as sawdust, rice husks, wheat straw, corn stalks, and sugarcane bagasse. Forest residues and wood wastes represent a large potential resource for energy production and include forest residues, forest thinnings, and primary mill residues.


Energy crops are perennial grasses and trees grown through traditional agricultural practices that are produced primarily to be used as feedstocks for energy generation, e.g. hybrid poplars, hybrid willows, and switchgrass. Animal manure can be digested anaerobically to produce biogas in large agricultural farms and dairies.

To turn a biomass resource into productive heat and/or electricity requires a number of steps and considerations, most notably evaluating the availability of suitable biomass resources; determining the economics of collection, storage, and transportation; and evaluating available technology options for converting biomass into useful heat or electricity.

Guide to Effective Waste Management

waste-mountainThe best way of dealing with waste, both economically and environmentally, is to avoid creating it in the first place. For effective waste management, waste minimization, reuse, recycle and energy recovery are more sustainable than conventional landfill or dumpsite disposal technique.

Waste Minimization

Waste minimization is the process of reducing the amount of waste produced by a person or a society. Waste minimization is about the way in which the products and services we all rely on are designed, made, bought and sold, used, consumed and disposed of.

Waste Reuse

Reuse means using an item more than once. This includes conventional reuse where the item is used again for the same function and new-life reuse where it is used for a new function. For example, concrete  is a type of construction waste which can be recycled and used as a base for roads; inert material may be used as a layer that covers the dumped waste on landfill at the end of the day.

Waste Recycling

Recycling of waste involves reprocessing the particular waste materials so that it can be used as raw materials in another process. This is also known as material recovery. A well-known process for recycling waste is composting, where biodegradable wastes are biologically decomposed leading to the formation of nutrient-rich compost.


As far as waste-to-energy is concerned, major processes involved are mass-burn incineration, RDF incineration, anaerobic digestion, gasification and pyrolysis. Gasification and pyrolysis involves super-heating of municipal solid waste in an oxygen-controlled environment to avoid combustion. The primary differences among them relate to heat source, oxygen level, and temperature, from as low as about 300°C for pyrolysis to as high as 11 000°C for plasma gasification. The residual gases like carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane etc are released after a sophisticated gas cleaning mechanism.

MSW incineration produce significant amounts of a waste called bottom ash, of which about 40% must be landfilled. The remaining 60% can be further treated to separate metals, which are sold, from inert materials, which are often used as road base.

The above mentioned techniques are trending in many countries and region. As of 2014, Tokyo (Japan) has nineteen advanced and sophisticated waste incinerator plants making it one of the cleanest cities. From the legislature standpoint, the country has implemented strict emission parameters in incinerator plants and waste transportation.

The European Union also has a similar legislature framework as they too faced similar challenges with regards to waste management. Some of these policies include – maximizing recycling and re-use, reducing landfill, ensuring the guidelines are followed by the member states.

Singapore has also turned to converting household waste into clean fuel, which both reduced the volume going into landfills and produced electricity. Now its four waste-to-energy plants account for almost 3% of the country’s electricity needs, and recycling rates are at an all-time high of 60%. By comparison, the U.S. sent 53% of its solid waste to landfills in 2013, recycled only 34% of waste and converted 13% into electricity, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Trends in Waste Collection

Since the municipal solid waste can be a mixture of all possible wastes and not just ones belonging to the same category and recommended process, recent advances in physical processes, sensors, and actuators used as well as control and autonomy related issues in the area of automated sorting and recycling of source-separated municipal solid waste.

Automated vacuum waste collection systems that are located underground are also actively used in various parts of the world like Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Leon, Mecca and New York etc. The utilization of the subsurface space can provide the setting for the development of infrastructure which is capable of addressing in a more efficient manner the limitations of existing waste management schemes.

AI-based waste management systems can help in route optimization and waste disposal

This technique also minimizes operational costs, noise and provides more flexibility. There are various new innovations like IoT-enabled garbage cans, electric garbage trucks, waste sorting robots and mechanisms etc are also being developed and deployed at various sites.


Waste management is a huge and ever growing industry that has to be analyzed and updated at every point based on the new emergence of threats and technology. With government educating the normal people and creating awareness among different sector of the society, setting sufficient budgets and assisting companies and facilities for planning, research and waste management processes  can help to relax the issues to an extent if not eradicating it completely. These actions not only help in protecting environment, but also help in employment generation and boosting up the economy.

Biomass Gasification Power Systems

Biomass gasification power systems have followed two divergent pathways, which are a function of the scale of operations. At sizes much less than 1MW, the preferred technology combination today is a moving bed gasifier and ICE combination, while at scales much larger than 10 MW, the combination is of a fluidized bed gasifier and a gas turbine.

Larger scale units than 25 MW would justify the use of a combined cycle, as is the practice with natural gas fired gas turbine stations. In the future it is anticipated that extremely efficient gasification based power systems would be based on a combined cycle that incorporates a fuel cell, gas turbine  and possibly a Rankine bottoming cycle.

Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle

The most attractive means of utilising a biomass gasifier for power generation is to integrate the gasification process into a gas turbine combined cycle power plant. This will normally require a gasifier capable of producing a gas with heat content close to 19 MJ/Nm3. A close integration of the two parts of the plant can lead to significant efficiency gains.

The gas from the gasifier must first be cleaned to remove impurities such as alkali metals that might damage the gas turbine. The clean gas is fed into the combustor of the gas turbine where it is burned, generating a flow of hot gas which drives the turbine, generating electricity.

Hot exhaust gases from the turbine are then utilised to generate steam in a heat recovery steam generator. The steam drives a steam turbine, producing more power. Low grade waste heat from the steam generator exhaust can be used within the plant, to dry the biomass fuel before it is fed into the gasifier or to preheat the fuel before entry into the gasifier reactor vessel.

Schematic of integrated biomass gasification combined cycle

The gas-fired combined cycle power plant has become one of the most popular configurations for power generation in regions of the world where natural gas is available. The integration of a combined cycle power plant with a coal gasifier is now considered a potentially attractive means of burning coal cleanly in the future.

Biomass Fuel Cell Power Plant

Another potential use for the combustible gas from a biomass gasification plant is as fuel for a fuel cell power plant. Modern high temperature fuel cells are capable of operating with hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. Thus product gas from a biomass gasifier could become a suitable fuel.

As with the integrated biomass gasification combined cycle plant, a fuel cell plant would offer high efficiency. A future high temperature fuel cell burning biomass might be able to achieve greater than 50% efficiency.

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.

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.