Trends in Utilization of Palm Kernel Shells

The palm kernel shells used to be initially dumped in the open thereby impacting the environment negatively without any economic benefit. However, over time, palm oil mills in Southeast Asia and elsewhere realized their brilliant properties as a fuel and that they can easily replace coal as an industrial fuel for generating heat and steam.


Palm kernel shells is an abundant biomass resource in Southeast Asia

Major Applications

Nowadays, the primary use of palm kernel shells is as a boiler fuel supplementing the fibre which is used as primary fuel. In recent years kernel shells are extensively sold as alternative fuel around the world. Besides selling shells in bulk, there are companies that produce fuel briquettes from shells which may include partial carbonisation of the material to improve the combustion characteristics.

Palm kernel shells have a high dry matter content (>80% dry matter). Therefore the shells are generally considered a good fuel for the boilers as it generates low ash amounts and the low K and Cl content will lead to less ash agglomeration. These properties are also ideal for production of biomass for export.

As a raw material for fuel briquettes, palm shells are reported to have the same calorific characteristics as coconut shells. The relatively smaller size makes it easier to carbonise for mass production, and its resulting palm shell charcoal can be pressed into a heat efficient biomass briquette.

Although the literature on using oil palm shells (and fibres) is not as extensive as EFB, common research directions of using shells, besides energy, are to use it as raw material for light-weight concrete, fillers, activated carbon, and other materials. However, none of the applications are currently done on a large-scale. Since shells are dry and suitable for thermal conversion, technologies that further improve the combustion characteristics and increase the energy density, such as torrefaction, could be relevant for oil palm shells.

Torrefaction is a pretreatment process which serves to improve the properties of biomass in relation to the thermochemical conversion technologies for more efficient energy generation. High lignin content for shells affects torrefaction characteristics positively (as the material is not easily degraded compared to EFB and fibres).

Furthermore, palm oil shells are studied as feedstock for fast pyrolysis. To what extent shells are a source of fermentable sugars is still not known, however the high lignin content in palm kernel shells indicates that shells are less suitable as raw material for fermentation.

Future Outlook

The leading palm oil producers in the world should consider limiting the export of palm kernel shells (PKS) to ensure supplies of the biomass material for renewable energy projects, in order to decrease dependency on fossil fuels. For example, many developers in Indonesia have expressed an interest in building palm kernel shell-fired power plants.

However, they have their concerns over supplies, as many producers prefer to sell their shells overseas currently. Many existing plants are facing problems on account of inconsistent fuel quality and increasing competition from overseas PKS buyers. PKS market is well-established in provinces like Sumatra and export volumes to Europe and North Asia as a primary fuel for biomass power plants is steadily increasing.

The creation of a biomass supply chain in palm oil producing countries may be instrumental in discouraging palm mills to sell their PKS stocks to brokers for export to foreign countries. Establishment of a biomass exchange in leading countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria, will also be a deciding factor in tapping the unharnessed potential of palm kernel shells as biomass resource.

Biomass Pyrolysis Process

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.


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.

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.  Pyrolysis offers a flexible and attractive way of converting solid biomass into an easily stored and transported liquid, 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.

The efficiency and nature of the pyrolysis process is dependent on the particle size of feedstocks. Most of the pyrolysis technologies can only process small particles to a maximum of 2 mm keeping in view the need for rapid heat transfer through the particle. The demand for small particle size means that the feedstock has to be size-reduced before being used for pyrolysis.

Pyrolysis processes can be categorized as slow pyrolysis or fast pyrolysis. Fast pyrolysis is currently the most widely used pyrolysis system. 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.


Bio-oil is a dark brown liquid and has a similar composition to biomass. It has a much higher density than woody materials which reduces storage and transport costs. Bio-oil is not suitable for direct use in standard internal combustion engines. Alternatively, the oil can be upgraded to either a special engine fuel or through gasification processes to a syngas and then biodiesel. 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.

Bio-oil can offer major advantages over solid biomass ands gaification due to the ease of handling, storage and combustion in an existing power station when special start-up procedures are not necessary. In addition, bio-oil is also a vital source for a wide range of organic compounds and speciality chemicals.

Pyrolysis of Scrap Tires

Pyrolysis of scrap tires offers an environmentally and economically attractive method for transforming waste tires into useful products, heat and electrical energy. Pyrolysis refers to the thermal decomposition of scrap tires either in the absence or lack of oxygen. The principal feedstocks for pyrolysis are pre-treated car, bus or truck tire chips. Scrap tires are an excellent fuel because of their high calorific value which is comparable to that of coal and crude oil. The heating value of an average size passenger tire is between 30 – 34MJ/kg.


Pyrolysis is the most recommended alternative for the thermochemical treatment of waste tires and extensively used for conversion of carbonaceous materials in Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Pyrolysis is a two-phase treatment which uses thermal decomposition to heat the rubber in the absence of oxygen to break it into its constituent parts, e.g., pyrolysis oil (or bio oil), synthetic gas and char. Cracking and post-cracking take place progressively as the material is heated to 450-500°C and above.

Process Description

The pyrolysis method for scrap tires recycling involves heating whole or halved or shredded tires in a reactor containing an oxygen free atmosphere and a heat source. In the reactor, the rubber is softened after which the rubber polymers disintegrate into smaller molecules which eventually vaporize and exit from the reactor. These vapors can be burned directly to produce power or condensed into an oily type liquid, called pyrolysis oil or bio oil.

Some molecules are too small to condense and remain as a gas which can be burned as fuel. The minerals that were part of the tire, about 40% by weight, are removed as a solid. When performed well a tire pyrolysis process is a very clean operation and has nearly no emissions or waste.

The heating rate of tire is an important parameter affecting the reaction time, product yield, product quality and energy requirement of the waste tire pyrolysis process. If the temperature is maintained at around 450oC the main product is liquid which could be a mixture of hydrocarbon depending on the initial composition of waste material. At temperature above 700oC, synthetic gas (also known as syngas), a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, becomes the primary product due to further cracking of the liquids.

Schematic for Pyrolysis of Scrap Tires

Schematic for Pyrolysis of Scrap Tires

The nature of the feedstock and process conditions defines the properties of the gas, liquid and solid products. For example, whole tires contain fibers and steel while shredded tires have most of the steel and sometimes most of the fiber removed.

Processes can be either batch or continuous. The energy required for thermal decomposition of the scrap tires can be in the form of directly-fired fuel, electrical induction and or by microwaves (like a microwave oven). A catalyst may also be required to accelerate the pyrolysis process.

Useful Products

The high acceptance of pyrolysis for the treatment of scrap tires is due to the fact that the derived oils and syngas can be used as biofuels or as feedstock for refining crude oil or chemical products. The pyrolysis oil (or bio oil) has higher calorific value, low ash, low residual carbon and low sulphur content.

The use of pyrolysis oil in cement kilns, paper mills, power plants, industrial furnaces, foundries and other industries is one of the best uses of scrap tires.  Pyrolysis of scrap tyres produces oil that can be used as liquid fuels for industrial furnaces, foundries and boilers in power plants due to their higher calorific value, low ash, residual carbon and sulphur content.

The solid residue, called char, contains carbon black, and inorganic matter. It contains carbon black and the mineral matter initially present in the tire. This solid char may be used as reinforcement in the rubber industry, as activated carbon or as smokeless fuel.

Torrified PKS: An Attractive Biomass Commodity in West Africa

Even though palm kernel shell has many similarities with wood pellets, it is not easy to reduce its size which makes it difficult for its optimum cofiring with coal in power plants and industries. Few years ago, Indonesia had exported PKS to Poland for cofiring purposes but because PKS was difficult to make powder (low grindability) it made cofiring performance poor, so the use of PKS for cofiring is currently discontinued.



To improve the quality of PKS, especially for the use of cofiring, PKS must be processed with torrefaction (mild pyrolysis). With the torrefaction process, it becomes easier to make powder from PKS, so that the desired particle size for cofiring is easier to obtain. Another advantage of the torrefaction process is that the caloric value of PKS will also increase by about 20%, Torrified biomass is hygroscopic which means ease in indoor as well as outdoor storage.

During the torrefaction process, PKS is heated at a temperature of around 230 to 300 °C in the absence of oxygen. With continuous pyrolysis technology, torrified PKS production can be carried out at large capacities. The need for biomass fuel for electricity generation is also large, usually requiring 10 thousand tons for each shipment. PKS torrified producers must be able to reach this capacity. The production of 10 thousand tons of PKS that are burned can be done per month or several months, for example, to reach 10 thousand tons it takes 2 months because the factory capacity is 5000 tons per month.


In general, the advantages of the PKS torrefaction process are as follows:

  • It increases the O/C ratio of the biomass, which improves its thermal process
  • It reduces power requirements for size reduction, and improves handling.
  • It offers cleaner-burning fuel with little acid in the smoke.
  • Torrefied PKS absorbs less moisture when stored.
  • One can produce superior-quality PKS pellets with higher volumetric energy density.

Pelletizing of torrefied PKS can be an option to increase the energy density in volume basis. The pelletizing process resolves some typical problems of biomass fuels: transport and storing costs are minimized, handling is improved, and the volumetric calorific value is increased. Pelletization may not increase the energy density on a mass basis, but it can increase the energy content of the fuel on a volume basis.

Africa, especially West Africa, which has many palm oil plantations and also the location where the palm oil trees originate, can supply torrified PKS to Europe to meet its rapidly-increasing biomass fuel demand.

In Africa, palm kernel shell is generally produced from PKO mills. CPO production is generally carried out on a small scale and only processes the fiber portion of the palm oil fruit. This palm oil mesocarp fibre is processed to produce CPO, while the nut that consist kernels and shells are processed elsewhere to produce the main product of PKO (palm kernel oil). PKO mills are usually quite large by collecting nuts from these small scale CPO producers. PKS is produced from this PKO mills.


The nut cracker machine separates kernel and shell

The distance between Africa and Europe is also closer than Europe to Malaysia and Indonesia. Currently, even though Europe has produced wood pellets for their renewable energy program to mitigate climate change and the environment, the numbers are still insufficient and they are importing wood pellets from the United States and Canada in large quantities. European wood pellet imports are estimated to reach more than 1.5 million tons per year. Torrified PKS from West Africa can help in meeting the biomass fuel demands for power plants across Europe.

For more information about PKS trading opportunities and our technical consulting services, please email on or

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.

A Primer on Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-Energy (also known as energy-from-waste) is the use of thermochemical and biochemical technologies to recover energy, usually in the form of electricity, steam and fuels, 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.

Pyrolysis of Municipal Wastes

Pyrolysis is rapidly developing biomass thermal conversion technology and has been garnering much attention worldwide due to its high efficiency and good eco-friendly performance characteristics. Pyrolysis technology provides an opportunity for the conversion of municipal solid wastes, agricultural residues, scrap tires, non-recyclable plastics etc into clean energy. It offers an attractive way of converting urban wastes into products which can be effectively used for the production of heat, electricity and chemicals.


Pyrolysis of Municipal Wastes

Pyrolysis process consists of both simultaneous and successive reactions when carbon-rich organic material is heated in a non-reactive atmosphere. Simply speaking, pyrolysis is the thermal degradation of organic materials in the absence of oxygen. Thermal decomposition of organic components in the waste stream starts at 350°C–550°C and goes up to 700°C–800°C in the absence of air/oxygen.

Pyrolysis of municipal wastes begins with mechanical preparation and separation of glass, metals and inert materials prior to processing the remaining waste in a pyrolysis reactor. The commonly used pyrolysis reactors are rotary kilns, rotary hearth furnaces, and fluidized bed furnaces. The process requires an external heat source to maintain the high temperature required.

Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small-scale which may help in reducing transport and handling costs.  In pyrolysis of MSW, heat transfer is a critical area as the process is endothermic and sufficient heat transfer surface has to be provided to meet process heat requirements.

The main products obtained from pyrolysis of municipal wastes are a high calorific value gas (synthesis gas or syngas), a biofuel (bio oil or pyrolysis oil) and a solid residue (char). Depending on the final temperature, MSW pyrolysis will yield mainly solid residues at low temperatures, less than 4500C, when the heating rate is quite slow, and mainly gases at high temperatures, greater than 8000C, with rapid heating rates. At an intermediate temperature and under relatively high heating rates, the main product is a liquid fuel popularly known as bio oil.

Wide Range of Products

Bio oil is a dark brown liquid and can be upgraded to either engine fuel or through gasification processes to a syngas and then biodiesel. Pyrolysis oil may also be used as liquid fuel for diesel engines and gas turbines to generate electricity.

Bio oil is particularly attractive for co-firing because it can be relatively easy to handle and burn than solid fuel and is cheaper to transport and store. In addition, bio oil is also a vital source for a wide range of organic compounds and specialty chemicals.

Syngas is a mixture of energy-rich gases (combustible constituents include carbon monoxide, hydrogen, methane and a broad range of other VOCs). The net calorific value (NCV) of syngas is between 10 and 20MJ/Nm3. Syngas is cleaned to remove particulates, hydrocarbons, and soluble matter, and then combusted to generate electricity.

Diesel engines, gas turbines, steam turbines and boilers can be used directly to generate electricity and heat in CHP systems using syngas and pyrolysis oil. Syngas may also be used as a basic chemical in petrochemical and refining industries.

The solid residue from MSW pyrolysis, called char, is a combination of non-combustible materials and carbon. Char is almost pure carbon and can be used in the manufacture of activated carbon filtration media (for water treatment applications) or as an agricultural soil amendment.

Overview of Biomass Energy Technologies

A wide range of bioenergy 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.

Thermal Conversion of Biomass

A wide range of thermal technologies exists to harness the energy stored in biomass. These technologies can be classified according to the principal energy carrier produced in the conversion process. Carriers are in the form of heat, gas, liquid and/or solid products, depending on the extent to which oxygen is admitted to the conversion process (usually as air). The major methods for thermal conversion of biomass are combustion, gasification and pyrolysis.



Conventional combustion technologies raise steam through the combustion of biomass. This steam may then be expanded through a conventional turbo-alternator to produce electricity. A number of combustion technology variants have been developed. Underfeed stokers are suitable for small scale boilers up to 6 MWth.

Grate type boilers are widely deployed. They have relatively low investment costs, low operating costs and good operation at partial loads. However, they can have higher NOx emissions and decreased efficiencies due to the requirement of excess air, and they have lower efficiencies.

Fluidized bed combustors (FBC), which use a bed of hot inert material such as sand, are a more recent development. Bubbling FBCs are generally used at 10-30 MWth capacity, while Circulating FBCs are more applicable at larger scales. Advantages of FBCs are that they can tolerate a wider range of poor quality fuel, while emitting lower NOx levels.


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. Co-firing may be implemented using different types and percentages of wastes in a range of combustion and gasification technologies. Most forms of biomass wastes are suitable for co-firing. These include dedicated municipal solid wastes, wood waste and agricultural residues such as straw and husk.


Gasification of biomass takes place in a restricted supply of oxygen and occurs through initial devolatilization of the biomass, combustion of the volatile material and char, and further reduction to produce a fuel gas rich in carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This combustible gas has a lower calorific value than natural gas but can still be used as fuel for boilers, for engines, and potentially for combustion turbines after cleaning the gas stream of tars and particulates.


Layout of a Typical Biomass Gasification Plant

If gasifiers are ‘air blown’, atmospheric nitrogen dilutes the fuel gas to a level of 10-14 percent that of the calorific value of natural gas. Oxygen and steam blown gasifiers produce a gas with a somewhat higher calorific value. Pressurized gasifiers are under development to reduce the physical size of major equipment items.

A variety of gasification reactors have been developed over several decades. These include the smaller scale fixed bed updraft, downdraft and cross flow gasifiers, as well as fluidized bed gasifiers for larger applications. At the small scale, downdraft gasifiers are noted for their relatively low tar production, but are not suitable for fuels with low ash melting point (such as straw). They also require fuel moisture levels to be controlled within narrow levels.


Pyrolysis is the term given to the thermal degradation of wood in the absence of oxygen. It enables biomass to be converted to a combination of solid char, gas and a liquid bio-oil. Pyrolysis technologies are generally categorized as “fast” or “slow” according to the time taken for processing the feed into pyrolysis products. These products are generated in roughly equal proportions with slow pyrolysis. Using fast pyrolysis, bio-oil yield can be as high as 80 percent of the product on a dry fuel basis.


Bio-oil can act as a liquid fuel or as a feedstock for chemical production. A range of bio-oil production processes are under development, including fluid bed reactors, ablative pyrolysis, entrained flow reactors, rotating cone reactors, and vacuum pyrolysis.

Insights into MSW-to-Energy

You know the saying: One person’s trash is another’s treasure. When it comes to recovering energy from municipal solid waste — commonly called garbage or trash— that treasure can be especially useful. Instead of taking up space in a landfill, we can process our trash to produce energy to power our homes, businesses and public buildings.

In 2015, the United States got about 14 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from burning municipal solid waste, or MSW. Seventy-one waste-to-energy plants and four additional power plants burned around 29 million tons of MSW in the U.S. that year. However, just 13 percent of the country’s waste becomes energy. Around 35 percent is recycled or composted, and the rest ends up in landfills.


Recovering Energy Through Incineration

The predominant technology for MSW-to-energy plants is incineration, which involves burning the trash at high temperatures. Similarly to how some facilities use coal or natural gas as fuel sources, power plants can also burn MSW as fuel to heat water, which creates steam, turns a turbine and produces electricity.

Several methods and technologies can play a role in burning trash to create electricity. The most common type of incineration plant is what’s called a mass-burn facility. These units burn the trash in one large chamber. The facility might sort the MSW before sending it to the combustion chamber to remove non-combustible materials and recyclables.

These mass-burn systems use excess air to facilitate mixing, and ensure air gets to all the waste. Many of these units also burn the fuel on a sloped, moving grate to mix the waste even further. These steps are vital because solid waste is inconsistent, and its content varies. Some facilities also shred the MSW before moving it to the combustion chamber.

Gasification Plants

Another method for converting trash into electricity is gasification. This type of waste-to-energy plant doesn’t burn MSW directly, but instead uses it as feedstock for reactions that produce a fuel gas known as synthesis gas, or syngas. This gas typically contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen and water vapor.

Approaches to gasification vary, but typically include high temperatures, high-pressure environments, very little oxygen and shredding MSW before the process begins. Common gasification methods include:

  • Pyrolysis, which involves little to no oxygen, partial pressure and temperatures between approximately 600 and 800 degrees Celsius.
  • Air-fed systems, which use air instead of pure oxygen and temperatures between 800 and 1,800 degrees Celsius.
  • Plasma or plasma arc gasification, which uses plasma torches to increase temperatures to 2,000 to 2,800 degrees Celsius.

Syngas can be burned to create electricity, but it can also be a component in the production of transportation fuels, fertilizers and chemicals. Proponents of gasification report that it is a more efficient waste-to-energy method than incineration, and can produce around 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity from one ton of MSW. Incineration, on average, produces 550 kilowatt-hours.

Challenges of MSW-to-Energy

Turning trash into energy seems like an ideal solution. We have a lot of trash to deal with, and we need to produce energy. MSW-to-energy plants solve both of those problems. However, a relatively small amount of waste becomes energy, especially in the U.S.

Typical layout of MSW-to-Energy Plant

This lack may be due largely to the upfront costs of building a waste-to-energy plant. It is much cheaper in the short term to send trash straight to a landfill. Some people believe these energy production processes are just too complicated and expensive. Gasification, especially, has a reputation for being too complex.

Environmental concerns also play a role, since burning waste can release greenhouse gases. Although modern technologies can make burning waste a cleaner process, its proponents still complain it is too dirty.

Despite these challenges, as trash piles up and we continue to look for new sources of energy, waste-to-energy plants may begin to play a more integral role in our energy production and waste management processes. If we handle it responsibly and efficiently, it could become a very viable solution to several of the issues our society faces.