Biomass Market in Japan: Perspectives

Biomass is being increasingly used in power plants in Japan as a source of fuel, particularly after the tragic accident at Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011.  Palm kernel shell (PKS) has emerged as a favorite choice of biomass-based power plants in the country. Most of these biomass power plants use PKS as their energy source, and only a few operate with wood pellets. Interestingly, most of the biomass power plants in Japan have been built after 2015.


Palm Kernel Shells

Palm Kernel Shell is generating very good traction as a renewable energy resource and biomass commodity in Japan. This is because PKS is the cheapest biomass fuel and is available in large quantities across Southeast Asia. PKS, a biomass waste generated by palm oil mills, can be found in plentiful quantities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

PKS must meet the specifications before being exported to Japan. Some key specifications for PKS exports are: moisture content, calorific value and impurities or contaminants (foreign materials). All three variables must meet a certain level to achieve export quality. Japanese markets or their consumers generally require contaminants from 0.5 to 2%, while European consumers of PKS need 2% – 3%.

Japan usually buys with a volume of 10,000 tonnes per shipment, so PKS suppliers must prepare a sufficient stockpile of the PKS. The location of PKS stockpile that is closest to the seaport is the ideal condition to facilitate transportation of shipment.

PKS has emerged as an attractive biomass commodity in Japan

PKS has emerged as an attractive biomass commodity in Japan

Wood Pellets

Wood pellets are mostly produced in from wood waste such as sawdust, wood shaving, plywood waste, forestry residues and related materials. The development potential for quantity enlargement is also possible with energy plantations. Technically the properties of wood pellets are not much different from the PKS.

Wood pellet price is more expensive than PKS. Wood pellet production process is more complex than PKS, so wood pellet is categorized as finished product. The quality of wood pellet is generally viewed from its density, calorific value and ash content. Indonesia wood pellet export is not as big as PKS, it is also because of the limited producers of wood pellet itself.

Japan buys wood pellets from Indonesia mostly for testing on their biomass power plants. Shipping or export by container is still common in wood pellet sector because the volume is still small. Currently, the world’s leading producer of wood pellets come from North America and Scandinavia. Even for Indonesia itself wood pellet is a new thing, so its production capacity is also not big.

Future Perspectives

For a short-term solution, exporting PKS is a profitable business.  Wood pellets with raw materials from energy plantations by planting the legume types such as calliandra are medium-term solutions to meet biomass fuel needs in Japan.  Torrefaction followed by densification can be a long-term orientation. Torrified pellet is superior to wood pellet because it can save transportation and facilitate handling, are hydrophobic and has higher calorific value.


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.