Energy Value of Agricultural Wastes

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

Biomass Gasification Process

Biomass gasification involves burning of biomass in a limited supply of air to give a combustible gas consisting of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane, water, nitrogen, along with contaminants like small char particles, ash and tars. The gas is cleaned to make it suitable for use in boilers, engines and turbines to produce heat and power (CHP).

Biomass gasification provides a means of deriving more diverse forms of energy from the thermochemical conversion of biomass than conventional combustion. The basic gasification process involves devolatization, combustion and reduction.

During devolatization, methane and other hydrocarbons are produced from the biomass by the action of heat which leaves a reactive char.

During combustion, the volatiles and char are partially burned in air or oxygen to generate heat and carbon dioxide. In the reduction phase, carbon dioxide absorbs heat and reacts with the remaining char to produce carbon monoxide (producer gas). The presence of water vapour in a gasifier results in the production of hydrogen as a secondary fuel component.

There are two main types of gasifier that can be used to carry out this conversion, fixed bed gasifiers and fluidized bed gasifiers. The conversion of biomass into a combustible gas involves a two-stage process. The first, which is called pyrolysis, takes place below 600°C, when volatile components contained within the biomass are released. These may include organic compounds, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, tars and water vapour.

Pyrolysis leaves a solid residue called char. In the second stage of the gasification process, this char is reacted with steam or burnt in a restricted quantity of air or oxygen to produce further combustible gas. Depending on the precise design of gasifier chosen, the product gas may have a heating value of 6 – 19 MJ/Nm3.

Layout of a Typical Biomass Gasification Plant

The products of gasification are a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen and various hydrocarbons, which can then be used directly in gas turbines, and boilers, or used as precursors for synthesising a wide range of other chemicals.

In addition there are a number of methods that can be used to produce higher quality product gases, including indirect heating, oxygen blowing, and pressurisation. After appropriate treatment, the resulting gases can be burned directly for cooking or heat supply, or used in secondary conversion devices, such as internal combustion engines or gas turbines, for producing electricity or shaft power (where it also has the potential for CHP applications).


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