Date Palm as Biomass Resource

date-wastesDate palm is one of the principal agricultural products in the arid and semi-arid region of the world, especially Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. There are more than 120 million date palm trees worldwide yielding several million tons of dates per year, apart from secondary products including palm midribs, leaves, stems, fronds and coir. The Arab world has more than 84 million date palm trees with the majority in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates.

Egypt is the world’s largest date producer with annual production of 1.47 million tons of dates in 2012 which accounted for almost one-fifth of global production. Saudi Arabia has more than 23 millions date palm trees, which produce about 1 million tons of dates per year. Date palm trees produce huge amount of agricultural wastes in the form of dry leaves, stems, pits, seeds etc. A typical date tree can generate as much as 20 kilograms of dry leaves per annum while date pits account for almost 10 percent of date fruits. Some studies have reported that Saudi Arabia alone generates more than 200,000 tons of date palm biomass each year.

Date palm is considered a renewable natural resource because it can be replaced in a relatively short period of time. It takes 4 to 8 years for date palms to bear fruit after planting, and 7 to 10 years to produce viable yields for commercial harvest. Usually date palm wastes are burned in farms or disposed in landfills which cause environmental pollution in dates-producing nations. In countries like Iraq and Egypt, a small portion of palm biomass in used in making animal feed.

The major constituents of date palm biomass are cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. In addition, date palm has high volatile solids content and low moisture content. These factors make date biomass an excellent waste-to-energy resource in the MENA region. A wide range of thermal and biochemical technologies exists to convert the energy stored in date palm biomass to useful forms of energy. The low moisture content in palm wastes makes it well-suited to thermochemical conversion technologies like combustion, gasification and pyrolysis which may yield steam, syngas, bio oil etc. On the other hand, the high volatile solids content in date palm biomass indicates its potential towards biogas production in anaerobic digestion plants, possibly by codigestion with sewage sludge, animal wastes and/and food wastes. The cellulosic content in date palm wastes can be transformed into biofuel (bioethanol) by making use of the fermentation process. The highly organic nature of date palm biomass makes it highly suitable for compost production which can be used to replace chemical fertilizers in date palm plantations. Thus, abundance of date palm trees in the MENA and the Mediterranean region, can catalyze the development of biomass and biofuels sector in the region.

Biomass Wastes to Energy for MENA

The high volatility in oil prices in the recent past and the resulting turbulence in energy markets has compelled many MENA countries, especially the non-oil producers, to look for alternate sources of energy, for both economic and environmental reasons. The significance of renewable energy has been increasing rapidly worldwide due to its potential to mitigate climate change, to foster sustainable development in poor communities, and augment energy security and supply.

The Middle East is well-poised for waste-to-energy development, with its rich feedstock base in the form of municipal solid wastes, crop residues and agro-industrial wastes. The high rate of population growth, urbanization and economic expansion in the Middle East is not only accelerating consumption rates but also accelerating the generation of a wide variety of waste. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait rank in the top-ten worldwide in terms of per capita waste generation. The gross urban waste generation quantity from Arab countries is estimated at more than 80 million tons annually. Open dumping is the most prevalent mode of municipal solid waste disposal in most countries.

Waste-to-energy technologies hold the potential to create renewable energy from waste matter, including municipal solid waste, industrial waste, agricultural waste, and industrial byproducts. Besides recovery of substantial energy, these technologies can lead to a substantial reduction in the overall waste quantities requiring final disposal, which can be better managed for safe disposal in a controlled manner. Waste-to-energy systems can contribute substantially to GHG mitigation through both reductions of fossil carbon emissions and long-term storage of carbon in biomass wastes.

Modern waste-to-energy systems options offer significant, cost-effective and perpetual opportunities for greenhouse gas emission reductions. Additional benefits offered are employment creation in rural areas, reduction of a country’s dependency on imported energy carriers (and the related improvement of the balance of trade), better waste control, and potentially benign effects with regard to biodiversity, desertification, recreational value, etc. In summary, waste-to-energy can significantly contribute to sustainable development both in developed and less developed countries. Waste-to-energy is not only a solution to reduce the volume of waste that is and provide a supplemental energy source, but also yields a number of social benefits that cannot easily be quantified.

Biomass wastes can be efficiently converted into energy and fuels by biochemical and thermal conversion technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, gasification and pyrolysis. Waste-to-energy technologies hold the potential to create renewable energy from waste matter.  The implementation of waste-to-energy technologies as a method for safe disposal of solid and liquid biomass wastes, and as an attractive option to generate heat, power and fuels, can significantly reduce environmental impacts of wastes. In fact, energy recovery from MSW is rapidly gaining worldwide recognition as the fourth ‘R’ in sustainable waste management system – Reuse, Reduce, Recycle and Recover. A transition from conventional waste management system to one based on sustainable practices is necessary to address environmental concerns and to foster sustainable development in the region.

Obstacles in Implementation of Waste-to-Energy

The biggest obstacle to the implementation of Waste-to-Energy (or WTE) lies not in the technology itself but in the acceptance of citizens. Citizens who are environmentally minded but lack awareness of the current status of waste-to-energy bring up concerns of environmental justice and organize around this. They view WTE as ‘dumping’ of pollutants on lower strata of society and their emotional critique rooted in the hope for environmental justice tends to move democracy.

An advocate of public understanding of science, Shawn Lawrence Otto regrets that the facts are not able to hold the same sway. Some US liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress are beginning to realize that the times and science have changed. It will take more consensus on the science and the go ahead from environmental groups before the conversation moves forward, seemingly improbable but not without precedent.

Spittelau Waste-to-Energy Plant

The Spittelau waste-to-energy plant is an example of opposition coming together in consensus over WTE. It was built in Vienna in 1971 with the purpose of addressing district heating and waste management issues. Much later awareness of the risks of dioxins emitted by such plants grew and the people’s faith in the technology was called into question. It also became a political issue whereby opposition parties challenged the mayor on the suitability of the plant. The economic interests of landfill owners also lay in the shutting down of the WTE facility. The alternative was to retrofit the same plant with advanced technology that would remove the dioxins through Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR).

Through public discussions it appeared that the majority of the people were against the plant altogether though thorough studies by informed researchers showed that the science backs WTE. The mayor, Helmut Zilk eventually consulted Green Party members on how to make this technology better perceived in the eyes of the people, and asked the famous Austrian artist Freidensreich Hundertwasser, who was a green party member to design the look of the plant. Freidensreich Hundertwasser after carefully studying the subject wrote a letter of support, stating his belief as to why WTE was needed and accepted Mayor Helmut Zilk’s request. Later public opinion polls showed that there were a majority of people who were either in favor of or not opinionated about the plant, with only 3% in outright opposition of the plant.

Polarized Discussion

Waste-to-Energy or recycling has kept public discourse from questioning whether there may not be intermediate or case specific solutions. This polarization serves to move the conversation nowhere. For now it can be agreed that landfills are devastating in their contribution to Climate Change and must be done away with. The choice then, of treatment processes for municipal solid waste are plentiful. If after recovery of recyclable materials there remains a sizeable waste stream the option of waste-to-energy can be explored.

Primary Considerations

  • Environmental implications (i.e. CO2 emissions vis-à-vis the next best fuel source) given the composition of the local waste stream. If the waste stream consists of a high percentage of recyclables the more sustainable waste strategy would be to ramp up recycling efforts rather than to adopt WTE,
  • Likely composition and variation of the waste stream and the feasibility of the technology to handle such a waste stream,
  • Financial considerations with regards to the revenue stream from the WTE facility and its long term viability,
  • Efforts at making citizens aware of the high standards achieved by this technology in order to secure their approval.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Anaerobic Digestion of Animal Manure

Animal manure is a valuable source of nutrients and renewable energy. However, most of the manure is collected in lagoons or left to decompose in the open which pose a significant environmental hazard. The air pollutants emitted from manure include methane, nitrous oxide, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, which can cause serious environmental concerns and health problems. In the past, livestock waste was recovered and sold as a fertilizer or simply spread onto agricultural land. The introduction of tighter environmental controls on odour and water pollution means that some form of waste management is necessary, which provides further incentives for biomass-to-energy conversion.

Anaerobic digestion is a unique treatment solution for animal manure as it can  deliver  positive  benefits  related  to  multiple  issues,  including  renewable  energy,  water pollution, and air emissions. Anaerobic digestion of animal manure is gaining popularity as a means to protect the environment and to recycle materials efficiently into the farming systems. Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plants, based on anaerobic digestion of cow manure, are highly efficient in harnessing the untapped renewable energy potential of organic waste by converting the biodegradable fraction of the waste into high calorific gases.

The establishment of anaerobic digestion systems for livestock manure stabilization and energy production has accelerated substantially in the past several years. There are thousands of digesters operating at commercial livestock facilities in Europe, United States,  Asia and elsewhere. which are generating clean energy and fuel. Many of the projects that generate electricity also capture waste heat for various in-house requirements.

Important Factors

The main factors that influence biogas production from livestock manure are pH and temperature of the feedstock. It is well established that a biogas plant works optimally at neutral pH level and mesophilic temperature of around 35o C. Carbon-nitrogen ratio of the feed material is also an important factor and should be in the range of 20:1 to 30:1. Animal manure has a carbon – nitrogen ratio of 25:1 and is considered ideal for maximum gas production. Solid concentration in the feed material is also crucial to ensure sufficient gas production, as well as easy mixing and handling. Hydraulic retention time (HRT) is the most important factor in determining the volume of the digester which in turn determines the cost of the plant; the larger the retention period, higher the construction cost.

Process Description

The fresh animal manure is stored in a collection tank before its processing to the homogenization tank which is equipped with a mixer to facilitate homogenization of the waste stream. The uniformly mixed waste is passed through a macerator to obtain uniform particle size of 5-10 mm and pumped into suitable-capacity anaerobic digesters where stabilization of organic waste takes place.

In anaerobic digestion, organic material is converted to biogas by a series of bacteria groups into methane and carbon dioxide. The majority of commercially operating digesters are plug flow and complete-mix reactors operating at mesophilic temperatures. The type of digester used varies with the consistency and solids content of the feedstock, with capital investment factors and with the primary purpose of digestion.

Biogas contain significant amount of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas which needs to be stripped off due to its highly corrosive nature. The removal of H2S takes place in a biological desulphurization unit in which a limited quantity of air is added to biogas in the presence of specialized aerobic bacteria which oxidizes H2S into elemental sulfur. Biogas can be used as domestic cooking, industrial heating, combined heat and power (CHP) generation as well as a vehicle fuel. The digested substrate is passed through screw presses for dewatering and then subjected to solar drying and conditioning to give high-quality organic fertilizer.