Biomass Pelletization Process

Biomass pellets are a popular type of biomass fuel, generally made from wood wastes, agricultural biomass, commercial grasses and forestry residues. In addition to savings in transportation and storage, pelletization of biomass facilitates easy and cost effective handling. Dense cubes pellets have the flowability characteristics similar to those of cereal grains. The regular geometry and small size of biomass pellets allow automatic feeding with very fine calibration. High density of pellets also permits compact storage and rational transport over long distance. Pellets are extremely dense and can be produced with a low moisture content that allows them to be burned with very high combustion efficiency.

Biomass pelletization is a standard method for the production of high density, solid energy carriers from biomass. Pellets are manufactured in several types and grades as fuels for electric power plants, homes, and other applications. Pellet-making equipment is available at a variety of sizes and scales, which allows manufacture at domestic as well industrial-scale production. Pellets have a cylindrical shape and are about 6-25 mm in diameter and 3-50 mm in length. There are European standards for biomass pellets and raw material classification (EN 14961-1, EN 14961-2 and EN 14961-6) and international ISO standards under development (ISO/DIS 17225-1, ISO/DIS 17225-2 and ISO/DIS 17225-6).

Process Description

The biomass pelletization process consists of multiple steps including raw material pre-treatment, pelletization and post-treatment. The first step in the pelletization process is the preparation of feedstock which includes selecting a feedstock suitable for this process, its filtration, storage and protection. Raw materials used are sawdust, wood shavings, wood wastes, agricultural residues like straw, switchgrass etc. Filtration is done to remove unwanted materials like stone, metal, etc. The feedstock should be stored in such a manner that it is away from impurities and moisture. In cases where there are different types of feedstock, a blending process is used to achieve consistency.

The moisture content in biomass can be considerably high and are usually up to 50% – 60% which should be reduced to 10 to 15%. Rotary drum dryer is the most common equipment used for this purpose. Superheated steam dryers, flash dryers, spouted bed dryers and belt dryers can also be used. Drying increases the efficiency of biomass and it produces almost no smoke on combustion. It should be noted that the feedstock should not be over dried, as a small amount of moisture helps in binding the biomass particles. The drying process is the most energy intensive process and accounts for about 70% of the total energy used in the pelletization process.

Schematic of Pelletization of Woody Biomass

Before feeding biomass to pellet mills, the biomass should be reduced to small particles of the order of not more than 3mm.  If the pellet size is too large or too small, it affects the quality of pellet and in turn increases the energy consumption. Therefore the particles should have proper size and should be consistent. Size reduction is done by grinding using a hammer mill equipped with a screen of size 3.2 to 6.4 mm. If the feedstock is quite large, it goes through a chipper before grinding.

The next and the most important step is pelletization where biomass is compressed against a heated metal plate (known as die) using a roller. The die consists of holes of fixed diameter through which the biomass passes under high pressure. Due to the high pressure, frictional forces increase, leading to a considerable rise in temperature. High temperature causes the lignin and resins present in biomass to soften which acts as a binding agent between the biomass fibers. This way the biomass particles fuse to form pellets.

The rate of production and electrical energy used in the pelletization of biomass  are strongly correlated to the raw material type and processing conditions such as moisture content and feed size. The The average energy required to pelletize biomass is roughly between 16 kWh/t and 49kWh/t. During pelletization, a large fraction of the process energy is used to make the biomass flow into the inlets of the press channels.

Binders or lubricants may be added in some cases to produce higher quality pellets. Binders increase the pellet density and durability. Wood contains natural resins which act as a binder. Similarly, sawdust contains lignin which holds the pellet together. However, agricultural residues do not contain much resins or lignin, and so a stabilizing agent needs to be added in this case. Distillers dry grains or potato starch is some commonly used binders. The use of natural additives depends on biomass composition and the mass proportion between cellulose, hemicelluloses, lignin and inorganics.

Due to the friction generated in the die, excess heat is developed. Thus, the pellets are very soft and hot (about 70 to 90oC). It needs to be cooled and dried before its storage or packaging. The pellets may then be passed through a vibrating screen to remove fine materials. This ensures that the fuel source is clean and dust free.

The pellets are packed into bags using an overhead hopper and a conveyor belt. Pellets are stored in elevated storage bins or ground level silos. The packaging should be such that the pellets are protected from moisture and pollutants. Commercial pellet mills and other pelletizing equipment are widely available across the globe.

Biomass Storage Methods

Sufficient storage for biomass is necessary to accommodate seasonality of production and ensure regular supply to the biomass utilization plant. The type of storage will depend on the properties of the biomass, especially moisture content. For high moisture biomass intended to be used wet, such as in fermentation and anaerobic digestion systems, wet storage systems can be used, with storage times closely controlled to avoid excessive degradation of feedstock. Storage systems typically used with dry agricultural residues should be protected against spontaneous combustion and excess decomposition, and the maximum storage moisture depends on the type of storage employed.

Moisture limits must be observed to avoid spontaneous combustion and the emission of regulated compounds. Cost of storage is important to the overall feasibility of the biomass enterprise. In some cases, the storage can be on the same site as the source of the feedstock. In others, necessary volumes can only be achieved by combining the feedstock from a number of relatively close sources. Typically, delivery within about 50 miles is economic, but longer range transport is sometimes acceptable, especially when disposal fees can be reduced.

Storage of biomass fuels is expensive and increases with capacity.

Agricultural residues such as wheat straw, rice husk, rice straw and corn stover are usually spread or windrowed behind the grain harvesters for later baling. Typically these residues are left in the field to air dry to moisture levels below about 14% preferred for bales in stacks or large piles of loose material. After collection, biomass may be stored in the open or protected from the elements by tarps or various structures. Pelletizing may be employed to increase bulk density and reduce storage and transport volume and cost.

Biomass Storage Options

  • Feedstock is hauled directly to the plant with no storage at the production site.
  • Feedstock is stored at the production site and then transported to the plant as needed.
  • Feedstock is stored at a collective storage facility and then transported to the plant from the intermediate storage location.

Biomass Storage Systems

The type of biomass storage system used at the production site, intermediate site, or plant can greatly affect the cost and the quality of the fuel. The most expensive storage systems, no doubt, are the most efficient in terms of maintaining the high fuel quality. Typical storage systems, ranked from highest cost to lowest cost, include:

  • Enclosed structure with crushed rock floor
  • Open structure with crushed rock floor
  • Reusable tarp on crushed rock
  • Outside unprotected on crushed rock
  • Outside unprotected on ground
  • Subterranean

The storage of biomass is often necessary due to its seasonal production versus the need to produce energy all year round. Therefore to provide a constant and regular supply of fuel for the plant requires either storage or multi-feedstocks to be used, both of which tend to add cost to the system.

Reducing the cost of handling and stable storage of biomass feedstocks are both critical to developing a sustainable infrastructure capable of supplying large quantities of biomass to biomass processing plants. Storage and handling of biomass fuels is expensive and increases with capacity. The most suitable type of fuel store for solid biomass fuel depends on space available and the physical characteristics of the fuel.

Energy Value of Agricultural Wastes

Large quantities of agricultural wastes resulting from crop cultivation activity are a promising source of energy supply for production, processing and domestic activities in rural areas of the concerned region. The available crop 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 gas), 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 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 technologies 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.