Torrefaction of Biomass: An Overview

To improve the quality of biomass, especially for cofiring purposes, biomass waste can be processed with torrefaction (also known as mild pyrolysis). With the torrefaction process, it becomes easier to make powder (high grindability) so that the desired particle size for cofiring of biomass is easier to obtain. Another advantage of the torrefaction process is that the caloric value of biomass increases by about 20%. Torrified biomass is essentially hydropobic which means ease in storage including outdoor storage. This condition also makes it easier to handle and use, in addition to reduction in transportation costs.


What is Torrefaction

Torrefaction, which is currently being considered for effective biomass utilization, is also a form of pyrolysis. In this process (named for the French word for roasting), the biomass is heated to 230 to 300 °C without contact with oxygen. For comparison, pyrolysis of biomass is typically carried out in a relatively low temperature range of 300 to 650 °C compared to 800 to 1000 °C for gasification. Torrefaction is a relatively new process that heats the biomass in the absence of air to improve its usefulness as a fuel.

Torrefaction, a process different from carbonization, is a mild pyrolysis process carried out in a temperature range of 230 to 300 °C in the absence of oxygen. During this process the biomass dries and partially devolatilizes, decreasing its mass while largely preserving its energy content. The torrefaction process removes H2O and CO2 from the biomass. As a result, both the O/C and the H/C ratios of the biomass decrease.


Advantages of Biomass Torrefaction

Torrefaction of biomass improves its energy density, reduces its oxygen-to-carbon (O/C) ratio, and reduces its hygroscopic nature. Torrefaction also increases the relative carbon content of the biomass. The properties of a torrefied biomass depends on torrefaction temperature, time, and on the type of biomass feed.

Torrefaction also modifies the structure of the biomass, making it more friable or brittle. This is caused by the depolymerization of hemicellulose. As a result, the process of size reduction becomes easier, lowering its energy consumption and the cost of handling. This makes it easier to cofire biomass in a pulverized coal-fired boiler or gasify it in an entrained-flow reactor.

Another special feature of torrefaction is that it reduces the hygroscopic property of biomass; therefore, when torrefied biomass is stored, it absorbs less moisture than that absorbed by fresh biomass. For example, while raw bagasse absorbed 186% moisture when immersed in water for two hours, it absorbed only 7.6% moisture under this condition after torrefying the bagasse for 60 minutes at 250 °C (Pimchua et al., 2009). The reduced hygroscopic (or enhanced hydrophobic) nature of torrefied biomass mitigates one of the major shortcomings for energy use of biomass.

In biomass, hemicellulose is like the cement in reinforced concrete, and cellulose is like the steel rods. The strands of microfibrils (cellulose) are supported by the hemicellulose. Decomposition of hemicellulose during torrefaction is like the melting away of the cement from the reinforced concrete. Thus, the size reduction of biomass consumes less energy after torrefaction. During torrefaction the weight loss of biomass comes primarily from the decomposition of its hemicellulose constituents. Hemicellulose decomposes mostly within the temperature range 150 to 280 °C, which is the temperature window of torrefaction.


As we can see from figure above, the hemicellulose component undergoes the greatest amount of degradation within the 200 to 300 °C temperature window. Thus, hemicellulose decomposition is the primary mechanism of torrefaction. At lower temperatures (< 160 °C), as biomass dries it releases H2O and CO2. Water and carbon dioxide, which make no contribution to the energy in the product gas, constitute a dominant portion of the weight loss during torrefaction.

Above 180 °C, the reaction becomes exothermic, releasing gas with small heating values. The initial stage (< 250 °C) involves hemicellulose depolymerization, leading to an altered and rearranged polysugar structures. At higher temperatures (250–300 °C) these form chars, CO, CO2, and H2O. The hygroscopic property of biomass is partly lost in torrefaction because of the destruction of OH groups through dehydration, which prevents the formation of hydrogen bonds.

Ethanol from Lignocellulosic Biomass

Cellulosic ethanol technology is one of the most commonly discussed second-generation biofuel technologies worldwide. Cellulosic biofuels are derived from the cellulose in plants, some of which are being developed specifically as “energy” crops rather than for food production. These include perennial grasses and trees, such as switchgrass and Miscanthus. Crop residues, in the form of stems and leaves, represent another substantial source of cellulosic biomass.


The largest potential feedstock for ethanol is lignocellulosic biomass, which includes materials such as agricultural residues (corn stover, crop straws, husks 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. Lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks do not interfere with food security and are important for both rural and urban areas in terms of energy security reason, environmental concern, employment opportunities, agricultural development, foreign exchange saving, socioeconomic issues etc.

Production of Ethanol

The production of ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass can be achieved through two different processing routes. They are:

  • Biochemical – in which enzymes and other micro-organisms are used to convert cellulose and hemicellulose components of the feedstocks to sugars prior to their fermentation to produce ethanol;
  • Thermochemical – where pyrolysis/gasification technologies produce a synthesis gas (CO + H2) from which a wide range of long carbon chain biofuels, such as synthetic diesel or aviation fuel, can be reformed.

Lignocellulosic biomass consists mainly of lignin and the polysaccharides cellulose and hemicellulose. Compared with the production of ethanol from first-generation feedstocks, the use of lignocellulosic biomass is more complicated because the polysaccharides are more stable and the pentose sugars are not readily fermentable by Saccharomyces cerevisiae. 

In order to convert lignocellulosic biomass to biofuels the polysaccharides must first be hydrolysed, or broken down, into simple sugars using either acid or enzymes. Several biotechnology-based approaches are being used to overcome such problems, including the development of strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that can ferment pentose sugars, the use of alternative yeast species that naturally ferment pentose sugars, and the engineering of enzymes that are able to break down cellulose and hemicellulose into simple sugars.

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.

Pretreated biomass can directly be converted to ethanol by using the process called simultaneous saccharification and cofermentation (SSCF).  Pretreatment is a critical step which enhances the enzymatic hydrolysis of biomass. Basically, it alters the physical and chemical properties of biomass and improves the enzyme access and effectiveness which may also lead to a change in crystallinity and degree of polymerization of cellulose. The internal surface area and pore volume of pretreated biomass are increased which facilitates substantial improvement in accessibility of enzymes. The process also helps in enhancing the rate and yield of monomeric sugars during enzymatic hydrolysis steps.

Pretreatment of Lignocellulosic Biomass

Pretreatment methods can be broadly classified into four groups – physical, chemical, physio-chemical and biological. Physical pretreatment processes employ the mechanical comminution or irradiation processes to change only the physical characteristics of biomass. The physio-chemical process utilizes steam or steam and gases, like SO2 and CO2.

The chemical processes employs acids (H2SO4, HCl, organic acids etc) or alkalis (NaOH, Na2CO3, Ca(OH)2, NH3 etc). The acid treatment typically shows the selectivity towards hydrolyzing the hemicelluloses components, whereas alkalis have better selectivity for the lignin. The fractionation of biomass components after such processes help in improving the enzymes accessibility which is also important to the efficient utilization of enzymes.


The major cost components in bioethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass are the pretreatment and the enzymatic hydrolysis steps. In fact, these two process are someway interrelated too where an efficient pretreatment strategy can save substantial enzyme consumption. Pretreatment step can also affect the cost of other operations such as size reduction prior to pretreatment. Therefore, optimization of these two important steps, which collectively contributes about 70% of the total processing cost, are the major challenges in the commercialization of bioethanol from 2nd generation feedstock.