Summary of Biomass Combustion Technologies

Direct combustion is the best established and most commonly used technology for converting biomass to heat. During combustion, biomass fuel is burnt in excess air to produce heat. The first stage of combustion involves the evolution of combustible vapours from the biomass, which burn as flames. The residual material, in the form of charcoal, is burnt in a forced air supply to give more heat. The hot combustion gases are sometimes used directly for product drying, but more usually they are passed through a heat exchanger to produce hot air, hot water or steam.

The combustion efficiency depends primarily on good contact between the oxygen in the air and the biomass fuel. The main products of efficient biomass combustion are carbon dioxide and water vapor, however tars, smoke and alkaline ash particles are also emitted. Minimization of these emissions and accommodation of their possible effects are important concerns in the design of environmentally acceptable biomass combustion systems.

Biomass combustion systems, based on a range of furnace designs, can be very efficient at producing hot gases, hot air, hot water or steam, typically recovering 65-90% of the energy contained in the fuel. Lower efficiencies are generally associated with wetter fuels. To cope with a diversity of fuel characteristics and combustion requirements, a number of designs of combustion furnaces or combustors are routinely utilized around the world

Underfeed Stokers

Biomass is fed into the combustion zone from underneath a firing grate. These stoker designs are only suitable for small scale systems up to a nominal boiler capacity of 6 MWth and for biomass fuels with low ash content, such as wood chips and sawdust. High ash content fuels such as bark, straw and cereals need more efficient ash removal systems. Sintered or molten ash particles covering the upper surface of the fuel bed can cause problems in underfeed stokers due to unstable combustion conditions when the fuel and the air are breaking through the ash covered surface.

Grate Stokers

The most common type of biomass boiler is based on a grate to support a bed of fuel and to mix a controlled amount of combustion air, which often enters from beneath the grate. Biomass fuel is added at one end of the grate and is burned in a fuel bed which moves progressively down the grate, either via gravity or with mechanical assistance, to an ash removal system at the other end. In more sophisticated designs this allows the overall combustion process to be separated into its three main activities:

  • Initial fuel drying
  • Ignition and combustion of volatile constituents
  • Burning out of the char.

Grate stokers are well proven and reliable and can tolerate wide variations in fuel quality (i.e. variations in moisture content and particle size) as well as fuels with high ash content. They are also controllable and efficient.

Fluidized Bed Boilers

The basis for a fluidized bed combustion system is a bed of an inert mineral such as sand or limestone through which air is blown from below. The air is pumped through the bed in sufficient volume and at a high enough pressure to entrain the small particles of the bed material so that they behave much like a fluid.

The combustion chamber of a fluidized bed plant is shaped so that above a certain height the air velocity drops below that necessary to entrain the particles. This helps retain the bulk of the entrained bed material towards the bottom of the chamber. Once the bed becomes hot, combustible material introduced into it will burn, generating heat as in a more conventional furnace. The proportion of combustible material such as biomass within the bed is normally only around 5%. The primary driving force for development of fluidized bed combustion is reduced SO2 and NOx emissions from coal combustion.

Bubbling fluidized bed (BFB) combustors are of interest for plants with a nominal boiler capacity greater than 10 MWth. Circulating fluidized bed (CFB) combustors are more suitable for plants larger than 30 MWth. The minimum plant size below which CFB and BFB technologies are not economically competitive is considered to be around 5-10 MWe.

Cogeneration of Bagasse

Cogeneration of bagasse is one of the most attractive and successful energy projects that have already been demonstrated in many sugarcane producing countries such as Mauritius, Reunion Island, India and Brazil. Combined heat and power from sugarcane in the form of power generation offers renewable energy options that promote sustainable development, take advantage of domestic resources, increase profitability and competitiveness in the industry, and cost-effectively address climate mitigation and other environmental goals.

According to World Alliance for Decentralized Energy (WADE) report on Bagasse Cogeneration, bagasse-based cogeneration could deliver up to 25% of current power demand requirements in the world’s main cane producing countries. The overall potential share in the world’s major developing country producers exceeds 7%. There is abundant opportunity for the wider use of bagasse-based cogeneration in sugarcane-producing countries. It is especially great in the world’s main cane producing countries like Brazil, India, Thailand, Pakistan, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Philippines and Vietnam. Yet this potential remains by and large unexploited.

Using bagasse to generate power represents an opportunity to generate significant revenue through the sale of electricity and carbon credits. Additionally, cogeneration of heat and power allows sugar producers to meet their internal energy requirements and drastically reduce their operational costs, in many cases by as much as 25%. Burning bagasse also removes a waste product through its use as a feedstock for the electrical generators and steam turbines.

Most sugarcane mills around the globe have achieved energy self-sufficiency for the manufacture of raw sugar and can also generate a small amount of exportable electricity. However, using traditional equipment such as low-pressure boilers and counter-pressure turbo alternators, the level and reliability of electricity production is not sufficient to change the energy balance and attract interest for export to the electric power grid.

On the other hand, revamping the boiler house of sugar mills with high pressure boilers and condensing extraction steam turbine can substantially increase the level of exportable electricity. This experience has been witnessed in Mauritius, where, following major changes in the processing configurations, the exportable electricity from its sugar factory increased from around 30-40 kWh to around 100–140 kWh per ton cane crushed. In Brazil, the world’s largest cane producer, most of the sugar mills are upgrading their boiler configurations to 42 bars or even higher pressure of up to 67 bars.

Technology Options

The prime technology for sugar mill cogeneration is the conventional steam-Rankine cycle design for conversion of fuel into electricity. A combination of stored and fresh bagasse is usually fed to a specially designed furnace to generate steam in a boiler at typical pressures and temperatures of usually more than 40 bars and 440°C respectively. The high pressure steam is then expanded either in a back pressure or single extraction back pressure or single extraction condensing or double extraction cum condensing type turbo generator operating at similar inlet steam conditions.

Due to high pressure and temperature, as well as extraction and condensing modes of the turbine, higher quantum of power gets generated in the turbine–generator set, over and above the power required for sugar process, other by-products, and cogeneration plant auxiliaries. The excess power generated in the turbine generator set is then stepped up to extra high voltage of 66/110/220 kV, depending on the nearby substation configuration and fed into the nearby utility grid. As the sugar industry operates seasonally, the boilers are normally designed for multi-fuel operations, so as to utilize mill bagasse, procured Bagasse/biomass, coal and fossil fuel, so as to ensure year round operation of the power plant for export to the grid.

Latest Trends

Modern power plants use higher pressures, up to 87 bars or more. The higher pressure normally generates more power with the same quantity of Bagasse or biomass fuel. Thus, a higher pressure and temperature configuration is a key in increasing exportable surplus electricity.

In general, 67 bars pressure and 495°C temperature configurations for sugar mill cogeneration plants are well-established in many sugar mills in India. Extra high pressure at 87 bars and 510°C, configuration comparable to those in Mauritius, is the current trend and there are about several projects commissioned and operating in India and Brazil. The average increase of power export from 40 bars to 60 bars to 80 bars stages is usually in the range of 7-10%.

A promising alternative to steam turbines are gas turbines fuelled by gas produced by thermochemical conversion of biomass. The exhaust is used to raise steam in heat recovery systems used in any of the following ways: heating process needs in a cogeneration system, for injecting back into gas turbine to raise power output and efficiency in a steam-injected gas turbine cycle (STIG) or expanding through a steam turbine to boost power output and efficiency in a gas turbine/steam turbine combined cycle (GTCC). Gas turbines, unlike steam turbines, are characterized by lower unit capital costs at modest scale, and the most efficient cycles are considerably more efficient than comparably sized steam turbines.