Combating Concrete: Alternative and Sustainable Building Materials

Around 5% of the world’s CO2 emissions are caused by concrete production, so finding sustainable alternatives is essential to slowing down climate change. Fortunately, there are plenty of materials out there which are perfect for mass home construction, without the same ecological damage. If you want to continue to do meaningful things, such as travel the world or live in safe and comfortable accommodation, then finding alternative building materials is the route to doing this sustainably.

Hemp Concrete Substitute

By compacting hemp and lime, it is possible to create a building block comparable to concrete. Unlike concrete, however, hemp absorbs carbon dioxide rather than emits it. This means that during the production process, 1m3 of hemp concrete wall will suck up 165kg of CO2. It is just as durable and robust as regular concrete, but will require cannabis legalisation before manufacture can begin.

Nigerians are building fireproof, bulletproof, and eco-friendly homes with plastic bottles and mud

In countries where the plant is already legal to produce, then the switch to hemp alternative building material should begin immediately. Hemp plastic is an attractive sustainable building material which holds great potential worldwide.

Bamboo and Straw

Wood has long been a popular home building material, but not all plants are equally green. Bamboo has the quickest regrowth time of any plant, meaning that it can be replaced as quickly as it is cut down. It is strong and durable. Meanwhile, straw, when packed tightly, is a perfect eco-friendly insulation material. Together, this makes the most environmentally conscious wooden cabin.

In the debate of manufactured vs modular cabins, the latter tends to be preferred due to its rigidity and durability, while the former is more affordable. By constructing modular bamboo cabins, however, you are able to produce a long-lasting, energy efficient home at a much cheaper cost.

Reused Plastic Waste

The world purchases a million plastic bottles a minute or 480 billion a year. We need to seriously start thinking about how we can reduce our consumption of single use plastics, but also what to do with the waste in the meantime.

One thing that the bottles can be used for is the construction of houses. When filled with sand and stacked together, they form a durable and insulating wall. In some countries, this is being used as a way to bring affordable housing to those living in poverty. It is certainly a creative way to build homes without using more of the Earth’s precious resources.

Final Thoughts

There are so many alternatives to concrete out there. Governments and construction companies need to come together to move towards sustainable building practices. This will help to ensure that everyone has a safe place to call home, while recycling resources and cleaning the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Collection Systems for Agricultural Biomass

Biomass collection involves operations pertaining to gathering, packaging, and transporting biomass to a nearby site for temporary storage. The amount of biomass resource that can be collected at a given time depends on a variety of factors. In case of agricultural residues, these considerations include the type and sequence of collection operations, the efficiency of collection equipment, tillage and crop management practices, and environmental restrictions, such as the need to control soil erosion, maintain soil productivity, and maintain soil carbon levels.

biomass-collection-systems

The most conventional method for collecting biomass is baling which can be either round or square. Some of the important modern biomass collection operations have been discussed below:

Baling

Large square bales are made with tractor pulled balers. A bale accumulator is pulled behind the baler that collects the bales in group of 4 and leaves them on the field. At a later date when available, an automatic bale collector travels through the field and collects the bales.

The automatic bale collector travels to the side of the road and unloads the bales into a stack. If the automatic bale collector is not available bales may be collected using a flat bed truck and a front end bale loader. A loader is needed at the stack yard to unload the truck and stack the bales. The stack is trapped using a forklift and manual labor.

Loafing

When biomass is dry, a loafer picks the biomass from windrow and makes large stacks. The roof of the stacker acts as a press pushing the material down to increase the density of the biomass. Once filled, loafer transports the biomass to storage area and unloads the stack. The top of the stack gets the dome shape of the stacker roof and thus easily sheds water.

Dry Chop

In this system a forage harvester picks up the dry biomass from windrow, chops it into smaller pieces (2.5 – 5.0 cm). The chopped biomass is blown into a forage wagon traveling along side of the forage harvester. Once filled, the forage wagon is pulled to the side of the farm and unloaded. A piler (inclined belt conveyor) is used to pile up the material in the form of a large cone.

Wet Chop

Here a forage harvester picks up the dry or wet biomass from the windrow. The chopped biomass is blown into a forage wagon that travels along side of the harvester. Once filled, the wagon is pulled to a silage pit where biomass is compacted to produce silage.

Whole Crop Harvest

The entire material (grain and biomass) is transferred to a central location where the crop is fractionated into grain and biomass.  The McLeod Harvester developed in Canada fractionates the harvested crop into straw and graff (graff is a mixture of grain and chaff). The straw is left on the field. Grain separation from chaff and other impurities take place in a stationary system at the farmyard.

McLeod Harvester fractionates the harvested crop into straw and graff

For the whole crop baling, the crop is cut and placed in a windrow for field drying. The entire crop is then baled and transported to the processing yard. The bales are unwrapped and fed through a stationary processor that performs all the functions of a normal combine. Subsequently, the straw is re-baled.

Rice Straw As Bioenergy Resource

The cultivation of rice results in two types of biomass residues – straw and husk – having attractive potential in terms of energy. Rice husk, the main by-product from rice milling, accounts for roughly 22% of paddy weight, while rice straw to paddy ratio ranges from 1.0 to 4.3. Although the technology for rice husk utilization is well-established worldwide, rice straw is sparingly used as a source of renewable energy. One of the main reasons for the preferred use of husk is its easy procurement. In case of rice straw, however, its collection is difficult and its availability is limited to harvest time.

Rice_straw

Rice straw can either be used alone or mixed with other biomass materials in direct combustion, whereby combustion boilers are used in combination with steam turbines to produce electricity and heat. The energy content of rice straw is around 14 MJ per kg at 10 percent moisture content.  The by-products are fly ash and bottom ash, which have an economic value and could be used in cement and/or brick manufacturing, construction of roads and embankments, etc.

Straw fuels have proved to be extremely difficult to burn in most combustion furnaces, especially those designed for power generation. The primary issue concerning the use of rice straw and other herbaceous biomass for power generation is fouling, slagging, and corrosion of the boiler due to alkaline and chlorine components in the ash. Europe, and in particular, Denmark, currently has the greatest experience with straw-fired power and CHP plants.

Because of the large amount of cereal grains (wheat and oats) grown in Denmark, the surplus straw plays a large role in the country’s renewable energy strategy. Technology developed includes combustion furnaces, boilers, and superheat concepts purportedly capable of operating with high alkali fuels and having handling systems which minimize fuel preparation.

A variety of methods are employed by the European plants to prepare straw for combustion. Most use automated truck unloading bridge cranes that clamp up to 12 bales at a time and stack them 4-5 bales high in covered storage. Some systems feed whole bales into the boiler. Probably the best known whole bale feeder is the “Vølund cigar feeding” concept, originally applied by Vølund (now Babcock and Wilcox-Vølund). Whole bales are pushed into the combustion chamber and the straw burned off the face of the bale.

However, the newer Danish plants have moved away from whole-bale systems to shredded straw feed for higher efficiency. For pulverized coal co-firing, the straw usually needs to be ground or cut to small sizes in order to burn completely within relatively short residence times (suspension fired systems) or to feed and mix upon injection with bed media in fluidized bed systems.

The chemical composition of feedstock has a major influence on the efficiency of biomass cogeneration. The low feedstock quality of rice straw is primarily determined by high ash content (10–17%) as compared with wheat straw (around 3%) and also high silica content in ash. On the other hand, rice straw as feedstock has the advantage of having a relatively low total alkali content, whereas wheat straw can typically have more than 25% alkali content in ash.

However, straw quality varies substantially within seasons as well as within regions. If straw is exposed to precipitation in the field, alkali and alkaline compounds are leached, improving the feedstock quality. In turn, moisture content should be less than 10% for combustion technology.

In straw combustion at high temperatures, potassium is transformed and combines with other alkali earth materials such as calcium. This in turn reacts with silicates, leading to the formation of tightly sintered structures on the grates and at the furnace wall. Alkali earths are also important in the formation of slag and deposits. This means that fuels with lower alkali content are less problematic when fired in a boiler.

Biomass Harvesting

Biomass harvesting and collection is an important step involving gathering and removal of the biomass from field which is dependent on the state of biomass, i.e. grass, woody, or crop residue. The moisture content and the end use of biomass also affect the way biomass is collected. For crop residues, the operations should be organized in sync with the grain harvest as it occupies the centrestage in farming process.

All of other operations such as residue management and collection take place after so-called grain is in the bin. On the other hand, the harvest and collection dedicated crops (grass and woody) can be staged for recovery of the biomass only. In agricultural processing, straw is the stems and leaves of small cereals while chaff is husks and glumes of seed removed during threshing.

Modern combine-harvesters generally deliver straw and chaff together; other threshing equipment separates them. Stover is the field residues of large cereals, such as maize and sorghum. Stubble is the stumps of the reaped crop, left in the field after harvest. Agro-industrial wastes are by-products of the primary processing of crops, including bran, milling offal, press-cakes and molasses. Bran from on-farm husking of cereals and pulses are fed to livestock or foraged directly by backyard fowls.

The proportion of straw, or stover, to grain varies from crop to crop and according to yield level (very low grain yields have a higher proportion of straw) but is usually slightly over half the harvestable biomass. The height of cutting will also affect how much stubble is left in the field: many combine-harvested crops are cut high; crops on small-scale farms where straw is scarce may be cut at ground level by sickle or uprooted by hand.

Modern combine-harvesters generally deliver straw and chaff together

Collection involves operations pertaining to gathering, packaging, and transporting biomass to a nearby site for temporary storage. The amount of a biomass resource that can be collected at a given time depends on a variety of factors. In case of agricultural residues, these considerations include the type and sequence of collection operations, the efficiency of collection equipment, tillage and crop management practices, and environmental restrictions, such as the need to control erosion, maintain soil productivity, and maintain soil carbon levels.

A Primer on Agricultural Residues

The term agricultural residue is used to describe all the organic materials which are produced as by-products from harvesting and processing of agricultural crops. These residues can be further categorized into primary residues and secondary residues. Agricultural residues, which are generated in the field at the time of harvest, are defined as primary or field based residues whereas those co-produced during processing are called secondary or processing based residues.

  • Primary residues – paddy straw, sugarcane top, maize stalks, coconut empty bunches and frond, palm oil frond and bunches;
  • Secondary residues – paddy husk, bagasse, maize cob, coconut shell, coconut husk, coir dust, saw dust, palm oil shell, fiber and empty bunches, wastewater, black liquor.

Agricultural residues are highly important sources of biomass fuels for both the domestic and industrial sectors. Availability of primary residues for energy application is usually low since collection is difficult and they have other uses as fertilizer, animal feed etc. However secondary residues are usually available in relatively large quantities at the processing site and may be used as captive energy source for the same processing plant involving minimal transportation and handling cost.

Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. which come from cereals (rice, wheat, maize or corn, sorghum, barley, millet), cotton, groundnut, jute, legumes (tomato, bean, soy) coffee, cacao, tea, fruits (banana, mango, coco, cashew) and palm oil.

Rice produces both straw and rice husks at the processing plant which can be conveniently and easily converted into energy. Significant quantities of biomass remain in the fields in the form of cob when maize is harvested which can be converted into energy. Sugar cane harvesting leads to harvest residues in the fields while processing produces fibrous bagasse, both of which are good sources of energy. Harvesting and processing of coconuts produces quantities of shell and fibre that can be utilised while peanuts leave shells. All these materials can be converted into useful energy by a wide range of technologies..

Biomass Energy in China

biomass-chinaBiomass energy in China has been developing at a rapid pace. The installed biomass power generation capacity in China increased sharply from 1.4 GW in 2006 to 14.88 GW in 2017. While the energy share of biomass remains relatively low compared to other sources of renewable energy, China plans to increase the proportion of biomass energy up to 15 percent and total installed capacity of biomass power generation to 30 GW by 2030.

In terms of impact, the theoretical biomass energy resource in China is about 5 billion tons coal equivalent, which equals 4 times of all energy consumption. As per conservative estimates, currently China is only using 5 percent of its total biomass potential.

According to IRENA, the majority of biomass capacity is in Eastern China, with the coastal province of Shandong accounting for 14 percent of the total alone. While the direct burning of mass for heat remains the primary use of biomass in China, in 2009, composition of China’s biomass power generation consisted in 62 percent of straw direct-fired power generation and 29 percent of waste incineration, with a mix of other feedstock accounting for the remaining 9 percent.

Biomass Resources in China

Major biomass resources in China include waste from agriculture, forestry, industries, animal manure and sewage, and municipal solid waste. While the largest contributing sources are estimated to be residues from annual crop production like wheat straw, much of the straw and stalk are presently used for cooking and heating in rural households at low efficiencies. Therefore, agricultural residues, forestry residues, and garden waste were found to be the most cited resources with big potential for energy production in China.

Agricultural residues are derived from agriculture harvesting such as maize, rice and cotton stalks, wheat straw and husks, and are most available in Central and northeastern China where most of the large stalk and straw potential is located. Because straw and stalks are produced as by-products of food production systems, they are perceived to be sustainable sources of biomass for energy that do not threaten food security.

Furthermore, it is estimated that China produces around 700 Mt of straw per year, 37 percent of which is corn straw, 28 percent rice, 20 percent wheat and 15 percent from various other crops. Around 50 percent of this straw is used for fertilizers, for which 350 Mt of straw is available for energy production per year.

Biomass resources are underutilized across China

Biomass resources are underutilized across China

Forestry residues are mostly available in the southern and central parts of China. While a few projects that use forestry wastes like tree bark and wood processing wastes are under way, one of the most cited resources with analyzed potential is garden waste. According to research, energy production from garden waste biomass accounted for 20.7 percent of China’s urban residential electricity consumption, or 12.6 percent of China’s transport gasoline demand in 2008.

Future Perspectives

The Chinese government believes that biomass feedstock should neither compete with edible food crops nor cause carbon debt or negative environmental impacts. As biomass takes on an increasing significant role in the China’s national energy-mix, future research specific to technology assessment, in addition to data collection and supply chain management of potential resources is necessary to continue to understand how biomass can become a game-changer in China’s energy future.

References

IRENA, 2014. Renewable Energy Prospects: China, REmap 2030 analysis. IRENA, Abu Dhabi. www.irena.org/remap

National Academy of Engineering and NRC, 2007: Energy Futures and Urban Air Pollution: Challenges for China and the United States.

Xingang, Z., Zhongfu, T., Pingkuo, L, 2013. Development goal of 30 GW for China’s biomass power generation: Will it be achieved? Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 25, September 2013, 310–317.

Xingang, Z., Jieyu, W., Xiaomeng, L., Tiantian, F., Pingkuo, L, 2012. Focus on situation and policies for biomass power generation in China. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 16, Issue 6, August 2012, 3722–3729.

Li, J., Jinming, B. MOA/DOE Project Expert Team, 1998. Assessment of Biomass Resource Availability in China. China Environmental Science Press, Beijing, China.

Klimowicz, G., 2014. “China’s big plans for biomass,” Eco-Business, Global Biomass Series, accessed on Apr 6, 2015.

Shi, Y., Ge, Y., Chang, J., Shao, H., and Tang, Y., 2013. Garden waste biomass for renewable and sustainable energy production in China: Potential, challenges and development. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 22 (2013) 432–437

Xu, J. and Yuan, Z, 2015. “An overview of the biomass energy policy in China,” BESustainable, May 21, 2015.