Trends in Utilization of Biogas

The valuable component of biogas is methane (CH4) which typically makes up 60%, with the balance being carbon dioxide (CO2) and small percentages of other gases. The proportion of methane depends on the feedstock and the efficiency of the process, with the range for methane content being 40% to 70%. Biogas is saturated and contains H2S, and the simplest use is in a boiler to produce hot water or steam.

The most common use is where the biogas fuels an internal combustion gas engine in a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) unit to produce electricity and heat. In Sweden the compressed gas is used as a vehicle fuel and there are a number of biogas filling stations for cars and buses. The gas can also be upgraded and used in gas supply networks. The use of biogas in solid oxide fuel cells is also being researched.

Biogas can be combusted directly to produce heat. In this case, there is no need to scrub the hydrogen sulphide in the biogas. Usually the process utilize dual-fuel burner and the conversion efficiency is 80 to 90%. The main components of the system are anaerobic digester, biogas holder, pressure switch, booster fan, solenoid valve, dual fuel burner and combustion air blower.

The most common method for utilization of biogas in developing countries is for cooking and lighting. Conventional gas burners and gas lamps can easily be adjusted to biogas by changing the air to gas ratio. In more industrialized countries boilers are present only in a small number of plants where biogas is used as fuel only without additional CHP. In a number of industrial applications biogas is used for steam production.

Burning biogas in a boiler is an established and reliable technology. Low demands are set on the biogas quality for this application. Pressure usually has to be around 8 to 25 mbar. Furthermore it is recommended to reduce the level of hydrogen sulphide to below 1 000 ppm, this allows to maintain the dew point around 150 °C.

CHP Applications

Biogas is the ideal fuel for generation of electric power or combined heat and power. A number of different technologies are available and applied. The most common technology for power generation is internal combustion. Engines are available in sizes from a few kilowatts up to several megawatts. Gas engines can either be SI-engines (spark ignition) or dual fuel engines. Dual fuel engines with injection of diesel (10% and up) or sometimes plant oil are very popular in smaller scales because they have good electric efficiencies up to guaranteed 43%.

The biogas pressure is turbo-charged and after-cooled and has a high compression ratio in the gas engines. The cooling tower provides cooling water for the gas engines. The main component of the system required for utilizing the technology are anaerobic digester, moisture remover, flame arrester, waste gas burner, scrubber, compressor, storage, receiver, regulator, pressure switch and switch board.

Gas turbines are an established technology in sizes above 500 kW. In recent years also small scale engines, so called micro-turbines in the range of 25 to 100kW have been successfully introduced in biogas applications. They have efficiencies comparable to small SI-engines with low emissions and allow recovery of low pressure steam which is interesting for industrial applications. Micro turbines are small, high-speed, integrated power plants that include a turbine, compressor, generator and power electronics to produce power.

New Trends

The benefit of the anaerobic treatment will depend on the improvement of the process regarding a higher biogas yield per m3 of biomass and an increase in the degree of degradation. Furthermore, the benefit of the process can be multiplied by the conversion of the effluent from the process into a valuable product. In order to improve the economical benefit of biogas production, the future trend will go to integrated concepts of different conversion processes, where biogas production will still be a significant part. In a so-called biorefinery concept, close to 100% of the biomass is converted into energy or valuable by-products, making the whole concept more economically profitable and increasing the value in terms of sustainability.

Typical layout of a modern biogas facility

One example of such biorefinery concept is the Danish Bioethanol Concept that combines the production of bioethanol from lignocellulosic biomass with biogas production of the residue stream. Another example is the combination of biogas production from manure with manure separation into a liquid and a solid fraction for separation of nutrients. One of the most promising concepts is the treatment of the liquid fraction on the farm-site in a UASB reactor while the solid fraction is transported to the centralized biogas plant where wet-oxidation can be implemented to increase the biogas yield of the fiber fraction. Integration of the wet oxidation pre-treatment of the solid fraction leads to a high degradation efficiency of the lignocellulosic solid fraction.

Biogas-to-Biomethane Conversion Technologies

biogas-biomethaneRaw biogas contains approximately 30-45% of CO2, and some H2S and other compounds that have to be removed prior to utilization as natural gas, CNG or LNG replacement. Removing these components can be performed by several biogas upgrading techniques. Each process has its own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the biogas origin, composition and geographical orientation of the plant. The biogas-to-biomethane conversion technologies taken into account are pressurized water scrubbing (PWS), catalytic absorption/amine wash (CA), pressure swing absorption (PSA), highly selective membrane separation (MS) and cryogenic liquefaction (CL) which are the most common used biogas cleanup techniques.

The Table below shows a comparison of performance for these techniques at 8 bar (grid) injection.

Table:  Comparison of performance for various upgrading techniques (result at 8 bar) (Robert Lems, 2010) , (Lems R., 2012)

  PWS CA PSA MS CL Unit
Produced gas quality*2 98 99 97-99 99 99.5 CH4%
Methane slip 1 0.1-0.2 1-3 0.3-0.5 0.5 %
Electrical use 0.23-0.25 0.15-0.18 0.25 0.21-0.24 0.35 kWh/Nm3 feed
Thermal energy use 0,82-1.3 kWth/Nm3 prod.
Reliability / up time 96 94 94 98 94 %
Turn down ratio 50-100 50-100 85-100 0-100 75-100 %
CAPEX Medium Medium Medium Low High  
Operation cost Low Medium Medium Low High  
Foot print Large Large Medium Small Large  
Maintenance needed Medium Medium+ Medium+ Low High  
Ease of operation Medium Medium+ Medium Easy Complex  
Consumables &

waste streams

AC*3/Water AC*3/amines AC*3/ absorbents AC*3/None AC*3/None  
References Many Many Medium Medium Very few  

*2 If no oxygen of nitrogen is present in the raw biogas

*3 Activated carbon (AC) consumption is depending on the presence of certain pollutants (trace components) within the raw biogas.

From the above Table, it can be concluded that the differences between technologies with respect to performance seem to be relatively small. However, some “soft factors” can have a significant impact on technology selection. For example, water scrubber technology is a broadly applied technology. The requirement for clean process water, to make up for discharge and condensation, could be a challenging constraint for remote locations.

Moreover, PWS systems are prone to biological contamination (resulting in clogged packing media and foaming), especially when operated at elevated temperatures. Without additional preventative measures this will result in an increase of operational issues and downtime.

Amine scrubbers are a good choice when surplus heat is available for the regeneration of the washing liquid. The transport and discharge of this washing liquid could however be a burden, as well as the added complexity of operation. With respect to cryogenic Liquefaction (CL) one may conclude that, this technology has a questionable track-record, is highly complex, hard to operate, and should therefore not be selected for small-medium scale applications.

Both PSA and MS provide a “dry” system, both technologies operate without the requirement for a solvent/washing liquid, which significantly simplifies operation and maintenance. Distinctive factor between these technologies is that the membrane based system operates in a continuous mode, while the PSA technology is based on columns filled with absorption materials which operate in a rotating/non-continuous mode.

Moreover, the membrane based system has a more favourable methane slip, energy consumption and turndown ratio. The biggest advantage over PSA however, is that membrane systems do not require any transport of absorbents, its ease of operation and superior up-time.

Main disadvantage of membrane systems are that they are sensitive to pollution by organic compounds, which can decrease efficiency. However, by applying a proper pre-treatment (generally based on activated carbon and condensation) in which these compounds are eliminated, this disadvantage can be relatively easy nullified.

Based on membrane technology, DMT Environmental Technology, developed the Carborex ®MS. A cost-effective plug and play, containerized (and therefore), easy to build in remote locations) biogas upgrading system. The Carborex ®MS membrane system has relatively little mechanical moving components (compared to other upgrading technologies) and therefore, ensures stability of biomethane production, and consequently, the viability of the biogas plant operation.

Moreover, its design for ease of operation and robustness makes this technological platform perfectly suitable for operation at locations with limited experience and expertise on handling of biogas plants.

Impression of a membrane system; Carborex ®MS – by courtesy of DMT

Impression of a membrane system; Carborex ®MS – by courtesy of DMT

Conclusions

Capture of biogas through application of closed ponds or AD’s is not only a necessity for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, it is also a method of optimizing liquid waste treatment and methane recovery. Billions of cubic meters of biomethane can be produced on a yearly basis, facilitating a significant reduction of fossil fuel dependency.

Moreover, upgrading of raw biogas-to-biomethane (grid, CNG or LNG quality) provides additional utilization routes that have the extra advantage to be independent of existing infrastructure. To sum up, membrane based technology is the best way forward due to its ease of operation, robustness and the high quality of the end-products.

References

  • Lems R., D. E. (2012). Next generation biogas upgrading using high selective gas separation membranes. 17th European Biosolids Organic Resources Conference. Leeds: Aqua Enviro Technology .
  • Robert Lems, E. D. (2010). Making pressurized water scrubbing the ultimate biogas upgrading technology with the DMT TS-PWS® system. Energy from Biomass and Waste UK . London: EBW-UK .

Co-Authors: H. Dekker and E.H.M. Dirkse (DMT Environmental Technology)

Note: This is the final article in the special series on ‘Sustainable Utilization of POME-based Biomethane’ by Langerak et al of DMT Environmental Technology (Holland). The first two articles can be viewed at these links

http://www.bioenergyconsult.com/biomethane-utilization/

http://www.bioenergyconsult.com/pome-biogas/

POME as a Source of Biomethane

POME-BiogasDuring the production of crude palm oil, large amount of waste and by-products are generated. The solid waste streams consist of empty fruit bunch (EFB), mesocarp fruit fibers (MF) and palm kernel shells (PKS). Reuse of these waste streams in applications for heat, steam, compost and to lesser extent power generation are practised widely across Southeast Asia. POME or Palm Oil Mill Effluent is an underutilized liquid waste stream from palm oil mills which is generated during the palm oil extraction/decanting process and often seen as a serious environmental issue but it is a very good source for biomethane production. Therefore, discharge of POME is subject to increasingly stringent regulations in many palm oil-producing nations.

Anaerobic Digestion of POME

POME is an attractive feedstock for biomethane production and is abundantly available in all palm oil mills. Hence, it ensures continuous supply of substrates at no or low cost for biogas production, positioning it as a great potential source for biomethane production. (Chin May Ji, 2013).

POME is a colloidal suspension containing 95-96% water, 0.6-0.7% oil and 4-5% total solids, which include 2-4% suspended solids. Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) generally ranges between 25,000 and 65,714 mg/L, Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) ranges between 44,300 and 102,696 mg/L.

Most palm oil mills and refineries have their own treatment systems for POME, which is easily amenable to biodegradation due to its high organic content. The treatment system usually consists of anaerobic and aerobic ponds. (Sulaiman, 2013).

Open pond systems are still commonly applied. Although relatively cheap to install, these system often fail to meet discharge requirements (due to lack of operational control, long retention time, silting and short circuiting issues).

Moreover, the biogas produced during the anaerobic decomposition of POME in open pond systems is not recovered for utilization. The produced gas dissipates into the atmosphere where it causes adverse environment effects (due to the fact that CH4 is a twenty times stronger greenhouse gas then CO2 (Chin May Ji, 2013).

Biogas capture from POME can be carried out using a number of various technologies ranging in cost and complexity. The closed-tank anaerobic digester system with continuous stirred-tank reactor (CSTR), the methane fermentation system employing special microorganisms and the reversible flow anaerobic baffled reactor (RABR) system are among the technologies offered by technology providers. (Malaysian Palm Oil Board, 2015).

Biogas production largely depends on the method deployed for biomass conversion and capture of the biogas, and can, therefore, approximately range from 5.8 to 12.75 kg of CH4 per cubic meter of POME. Application of enclosed anaerobic digestion will significantly increase the quality of the effluent/ discharge stream as well as the biogas composition, as mentioned in table below.

 Table: Performance comparison between open and closed digester systems

Parameters Open digester system Closed anaerobic digester
COD removal efficiency (%) 81% 97%
HRT (days) 20 10
Methane utilization Released to atmosphere Recoverable
Methane yield (kg CH4/kg COD removed) 0.11 0.2
Methane content (%) 36 55
Solid discharge (g/L) 20 8

*This table has been reproduced from (Alawi Sulaiman, 2007)

A closed anaerobic system is capable of producing and collecting consistently high quality of methane rich biogas from POME. Typical raw biogas composition will be: 50-60 % CH4, 40-50 % CO2, saturated with water and with trace amounts of contaminants (H2S, NH3, volatiles, etc.).

Biomethane Potential in Southeast Asia

The amount of biomethane (defined as methane produced from biomass, with properties close to natural gas) that can be potentially produced from POME (within the Southeast Asian region) exceeds 2.25 billion cubic meter of biomethane (on a yearly basis).

Especially Indonesia and Malaysia, as key producers within the palm oil industry, could generate significant quantities of biomethane. An impression of the biomethane potential of these countries including other feedstock sources is being highlighted below (VIV Asia, 2015).

Indonesia (4.35 billion m3 of biomethane):

  • 25 billion m3 of biomethane from Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME).
  • 2 billion m3 of bio-methane from Sewage Treatment Plant (STP).
  • 9 billion m3 of bio-methane from Municipal Solid Waste (MSW).

Malaysia (3 billion m3 of biomethane):

  • 1 billion m3 of biomethane from Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME).
  • 2 billion m3 of biomethane from Sewage Treatment Plant (STP).
  • 8 billion m3 of biomethane from Municipal Solid Waste (MSW).

The Asian Pacific Biogas Alliance estimates that the potential of conversion of biomass to biomethane is sufficient to replace 25 percent of the natural gas demand by renewable biogas (Asian Pacific Biogas Alliance, 2015).

To sum up, due to the high fraction of organic materials, POME has a large energetic potential. By unlocking the energetic potential of these streams through conversion/ digesting and capture of biomethane, plant owners have the opportunity to combine waste management with a profitable business model.

Co-Authors: H. Dekker and E.H.M. Dirkse (DMT Environmental Technology)

References

Alawi Sulaiman, Z. B. (2007). Biomethane production from pal oil mill effluent (POME) in a semi-commercial closed anaerobic digester. Seminar on Sustainable Palm Biomass initiatives. Japan Society on Promotion of Science (JSPS).

Asia Biogas Group. (2015, 08 15). Retrieved from Asia Biogas : http://www.asiabiogas.com

Asian Pacific Biogas Alliance. (2015). Biogas Opportunities in South East Asia. Asian Pacific Biogas Alliance/ICESN.

Chin May Ji, P. P. (2013). Biogas from palm oil mill effluent (POME): Opportunities and challenges from Malysia’s perspective. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews , 717-726.

Malaysian Palm Oil Board. (2015, 08 26). Biogas capture and CMD project implementation for palm oil mills. Retrieved from Official Portal Of Malaysian Palm Oild Board:

Sulaiman, N. A. (2013). The Oil Palm Wastes in Malaysia. In M. D. Matovic, “Biomass Now – Sustainable Growth and Use”. InTech.

VIV Asia. (2015, 08 26). The international platform from feed to food in Asia. Retrieved from http://www.vivasia.nl

Note: This is the first article in the special series on ‘Sustainable Utilization of POME-based Biomethane’ by Langerak et al of DMT Environmental Technology (Holland)

Synthetic Biology – A Catalyst to Revolutionize Biogas Industry

Essentially a process operating by living organisms, the biogas industry is a natural target for synthetic biology. Synthetic biology combines biology and engineering to design and construct biological devices. Contrary to traditional genetic engineering that only alters an already existing DNA sequence, synthetic biology allows us to build entirely new sequences of DNA and put them to work in cells. This allows us to build novel biological devices that would never exist in nature.

Constructions and operations of devices that do not exist in nature, such as tools, vehicles, computers and the internet, have crafted modern civilization. Now, it is synthetic biology that is challenging nature’s limitations and advancing civilization to a higher level.

Generating biogas via anaerobic digestion of biomass and organic waste is one of the few proven, cost-effective, scalable biomass energy strategies. Biogas consists of mainly methane and carbon dioxide, and combustion of methane with air generates energy which can be used for many purposes such as cooking, heating, producing electricity and vehicle fuel. As a result, countless biogas plants are operating around the globe helping to clean up waste and generate energy. With more plants being built, they come in all sizes ranging from household to factory scales.

Anaerobic digestion is a process where extremely complex microbial communities degrade organic matter, such as sugars, fats and proteins, resulting in biogas as the primary end-product. Such inherent complexity makes this process very difficult to optimize. Mechanical engineers have made tremendous progress to optimize this process, but in many places it still requires government subsidies to be profitable.

Synthetic Biology and Biogas Industry

Essentially a process operating by living organisms, the biogas industry is a natural target for synthetic biology. In terms of their genetic content, organisms are classified into three natural groups, Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya. Most microbes are Archaea and Bacteria, while humans are Eukarya.

In an anaerobic digester, many different types of Bacteria convert the complex organic matter in waste or biomass to hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide, formate and acetate. A unique group of methanogenic Archaea then produces the invaluable part of biogas, methane, by eating hydrogen and carbon dioxide, formate or acetate.

One can imagine creating a super microbe to convert the complex organic matter directly into biogas, thus making anaerobic digestion faster, more efficient and easier-to-manipulate. Making a synthetic microbial community by reprogramming key microbes may also help them work together when a tough job (i.e., eating extremely complex waste) needs to be done.

Among numerous microbes in anaerobic digester, methanogenic Archaea are one of a few microbial groups that have been extensively studied, and a number of genetic tools are available for engineering via synthetic biology. Therefore, scientists have begun to reprogram methanogenic archaea, allowing them to eat organic matter such as sugars and directly produce methane. If they succeed, they may engineer a super microbe that never existed in nature and revolutionize the biogas industry by making anaerobic digestion much simpler and more efficient.

There is also the possibility of more applications downstream. For instance, upgrading biogas by removal of carbon dioxide improves its combustibility. A super microbe could be made to upgrade biogas using hydrogen gas or even electricity to form more methane from carbon dioxide.

Conceptualized super cell that converts idealized organic matter (2CH2O) directly into biogas.

Grand Challenges

However promising, grand challenges remain when it comes to applying synthetic biology to the biogas industry. About 10,000 moving parts are needed to make an automobile, millions of parts for an airplane, and all the parts are standardized.

Similar to those engineering sectors, synthetic biology also needs many standardized genetic parts and modules to be able to create biological devices that can really revolutionize an industry. Sophisticated genetic tools are needed as well to assemble these parts and put them to work. However, few such parts, modules and tools are at disposal for engineering microbes in an anaerobic digester.

Take methanogenic Archaea for example, only three parts are available in the iGEM registry, the world largest collection of biological parts for synthetic biology. Another challenge is an apparent neglect of synthetic biology by the biogas industry. Symposiums bringing professionals from biogas industry and synthetic biology together for discussions are rare, as are major investments for promoting synthetic biology.

As a result, few research groups are developing synthetic tools and parts for the biogas industry. For example, the aforementioned three iGEM parts were all contributed by only one group, the UGA-iGEM team at the University of Georgia.

Future Perspectives

Synthetic biology is developing faster than ever, and its cost continues to fall. Thanks to prompt actions of many industrial pioneers in embracing and supporting synthetic biology, it is already starting to revolutionize a few fields.

Synthetic biology also holds great potentials to revolutionize the biogas industry. To achieve this goal, joint efforts between the biogas industry and academia must be made. The former side needs to understand what synthetic biology can achieve, while the latter side should identify which parts of the process in the biogas industry can be re-designed and optimized by synthetic biology.

Once the two sides start to work together, novel synthetic parts and tools are bound to be invented, and they will make anaerobic digestion a better process for the biogas industry.