Carbon Sequestration and Biochar

Biochar sequestration is considered carbon negative as it results in a net decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide over centuries or millennia time scales. Instead of allowing the organic matter to decompose and emit CO2, pyrolysis can be used to sequester the carbon and  remove circulating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in virtually permanent soil carbon pools, making it a carbon-negative process.

According to Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University, biochar sequestration could make a big difference in the fossil fuel emissions worldwide and act as a major player in the global carbon market with its robust, clean and simple production technology. The use of pyrolysis also provides an opportunity for the processing of agricultural residues, wood wastes and municipal solid waste into useful clean energy. Although some  organic matter is necessary for agricultural soil to maintain its productivity, much of the agricultural waste can be turned directly into biochar, bio-oil, and syngas. Pyrolysis transforms organic material such as agricultural residues and wood chips into three main components: syngas, bio-oil and biochar (which contain about 60 per cent of the carbon contained in the biomass.

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Cellulosic Ethanol Feedstock in India

In India, the leading biofuel feedstock today is sugarcane molasses, which is processed to yield bioethanol that can be blended into gasoline (petrol). Sugarcane requires good land and large amounts of irrigation water, which are difficult for the poor to obtain. The bioethanol industry buys its molasses feedstock from the sugar factories. Sugar is the main objective of the sugarcane industry; molasses are simply a byproduct. As such, the unreliability of supply of molasses is a major constraint to biofuels development based on this feedstock.

Even though India is an agrarian economy, the energy potential of agricultural residues has not been realized till now by policy-makers and masses. Most of the biomass wastes are inefficiently used for domestic purposes in absence of reliable and cheaper source of energy. The main crops produced in India are wheat, maize, rice, sorghum, sugarcane and barley. India is among the market leaders in the production of these crops and has tremendous potential to convert lignocellulosic crop residues into ethanol.

Primary Biomass Conversion Technologies – Thermochemical

A wide range of technologies exists to convert the energy stored in biomass to more useful forms of energy. These technologies can be classified according to the principal energy carrier produced in the conversion process. Carriers are in the form of heat, gas, liquid and/or solid products, depending on the extent to which oxygen is admitted to the conversion process (usually as air). The three principal methods of thermo-chemical conversion corresponding to each of these energy carriers are combustion in excess air, gasification in reduced air, and pyrolysis in the absence of air.

Conventional combustion technologies raise steam through the combustion of biomass. This steam may then be expanded through a conventional turbo-alternator to produce electricity. A number of combustion technology variants have been developed. Underfeed stokers are suitable for small scale boilers up to 6 MWth. Grate type boilers are widely deployed. They have relatively low investment costs, low operating costs and good operation at partial loads. However, they can have higher NOx emissions and decreased efficiencies due to the requirement of excess air, and they have lower efficiencies.

Fluidized bed combustors (FBC), which use a bed of hot inert material such as sand, are a more recent development. Bubbling FBCs are generally used at 10-30 MWth capacity, while Circulating FBCs are more applicable at larger scales. Advantages of FBCs are that they can tolerate a wider range of poor quality fuel, while emitting lower NOx levels.

Gasification of biomass takes place in a restricted supply of oxygen and occurs through initial devolatilization of the biomass, combustion of the volatile material and char, and further reduction to produce a fuel gas rich in carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This combustible gas has a lower calorific value than natural gas but can still be used as fuel for boilers, for engines, and potentially for combustion turbines after cleaning the gas stream of tars and particulates. If gasifiers are ‘air blown’, atmospheric nitrogen dilutes the fuel gas to a level of 10-14 percent that of the calorific value of natural gas. Oxygen and steam blown gasifiers produce a gas with a somewhat higher calorific value. Pressurized gasifiers are under development to reduce the physical size of major equipment items.

A variety of gasification reactors have been developed over several decades. These include the smaller scale fixed bed updraft, downdraft and cross flow gasifiers, as well as fluidized bed gasifiers for larger applications. At the small scale, downdraft gasifiers are noted for their relatively low tar production, but are not suitable for fuels with low ash melting point (such as straw). They also require fuel moisture levels to be controlled within narrow levels.

Pyrolysis is the term given to the thermal degradation of wood in the absence of oxygen. It enables biomass to be converted to a combination of solid char, gas and a liquid bio-oil. Pyrolysis technologies are generally categorized as “fast” or “slow” according to the time taken for processing the feed into pyrolysis products. These products are generated in roughly equal proportions with slow pyrolysis. Using fast pyrolysis, bio-oil yield can be as high as 80 percent of the product on a dry fuel basis. Bio-oil can act as a liquid fuel or as a feedstock for chemical production. A range of bio-oil production processes are under development, including fluid bed reactors, ablative pyrolysis, entrained flow reactors, rotating cone reactors, and vacuum pyrolysis.

Biomass Pyrolysis

Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of biomass occurring in the absence of oxygen. It is the fundamental chemical reaction that is the precursor of both the combustion and gasification processes and occurs naturally in the first two seconds. The products of biomass pyrolysis include biochar, bio-oil and gases including methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.  Depending on the thermal environment and the final temperature, pyrolysis will yield mainly biochar at low temperatures, less than 450 0C, when the heating rate is quite slow, and mainly gases at high temperatures, greater than 800 0C, with rapid heating rates. At an intermediate temperature and under relatively high heating rates, the main product is bio-oil.

Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small scale and at remote locations which enhance energy density of the biomass resource and reduce transport and handling costs.  Heat transfer is a critical area in pyrolysis as the pyrolysis process is endothermic and sufficient heat transfer surface has to be provided to meet process heat needs. Pyrolysis offers a flexible and attractive way of converting solid biomass into an easily stored and transported liquid, which can be successfully used for the production of heat, power and chemicals.

A wide range of biomass feedstocks can be used in pyrolysis processes. The pyrolysis process is very dependent on the moisture content of the feedstock, which should be around 10%. At higher moisture contents, high levels of water are produced and at lower levels there is a risk that the process only produces dust instead of oil. High-moisture waste streams, such as sludge and meat processing wastes, require drying before subjecting to pyrolysis.

Biomass pyrolysis has been attracting much attention due to its high efficiency and good environmental performance characteristics. It also provides an opportunity for the processing of agricultural residues, wood wastes and municipal solid waste into clean energy. In addition, biochar sequestration could make a big difference in the fossil fuel emissions worldwide and act as a major player in the global carbon market with its robust, clean and simple production technology.

The Importance of Bio-Oil

Bio-oil is a dark brown liquid and has a similar composition to biomass. It has a much higher density than woody materials which reduces storage and transport costs. Bio-oil is not suitable for direct use in standard internal combustion engines. Alternatively, the oil can be upgraded to either a special engine fuel or through gasification processes to a syngas and then bio-diesel.

Bio-oil is particularly attractive for co-firing because it can be more readily handled and burned than solid fuel and is cheaper to transport and store.  Co-firing of bio-oil has been demonstrated in 350 MW gas fired power station in Holland, when 1% of the boiler output was successfully replaced. It is in such applications that bio-oil can offer major advantages over solid biomass and gasification due to the ease of handling, storage and combustion in an existing power station when special start-up procedures are not necessary. In addition, bio-oil is also a vital source for a wide range of organic compounds and speciality chemicals.

Biochar Sequestration

Biochar sequestration is considered carbon negative as it results in a net decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide over centuries or millennia time scales. Instead of allowing the organic matter to decompose and emit CO2, pyrolysis can be used to sequester the carbon and remove circulating CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in virtually permanent soil carbon pools, making it a carbon-negative process. According to Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University, biochar sequestration could make a big difference in the fossil fuel emissions worldwide and act as a major player in the global carbon market with its robust, clean and simple production technology.

The use of pyrolysis also provides an opportunity for the processing of agricultural residues, wood wastes and municipal solid waste into useful clean energy. Although some organic matter is necessary for agricultural soil to maintain its productivity, much of the agricultural waste can be turned directly into biochar, bio-oil, and syngas. Pyrolysis transforms organic material such as agricultural residues and wood chips into three main components: syngas, bio-oil and biochar (which contain about 60 per cent of the carbon contained in the biomass.

Peat as Biomass Fuel

Upon drying, peat can be used as a fuel. It has industrial importance as a fuel in some countries, such as Ireland and Finland, where it is harvested on an industrial scale. In many countries, including Ireland and Scotland, where trees are often scarce, peat is traditionally used for cooking and domestic heating.

In Ireland, large-scale domestic and industrial peat usage is widespread. Specifically in the Republic of Ireland, a state-owned company called Bord na Móna is responsible for managing peat production. It produces milled peat which is used in power stations. It sells processed peat fuel in the form of peat briquettes which are used for domestic heating. These are oblong bars of densely compressed, dried and shredded peat. Briquettes are largely smokeless when burned in domestic fireplaces and as such are widely used in Irish towns and cities where burning non-smokeless coal is banned.

In Finland, peat (often mixed with wood at an average of 2.6%) is burned in order to produce heat and electricity. Peat provides approximately 6.2% of Finland’s annual energy production, second only to Ireland. Finland classifies peat as a slowly renewing biomass fuel.

Woody Biomass and Energy Conversion Efficiency

Every energy conversion system wastes a portion of its input energy. For biomass to electricity conversion systems, 50% or more of the energy input can be lost – even up to 90% for some small-scale and alternative technologies. However, the energy rejected from a conversion system can often be used productively for industrial or residential heating purposes in place of burning fuels separately for that purpose. When this is done the overall efficiency can jump to 75-80%. Most systems must reduce their electricity production somewhat to make cogeneration feasible.

Thermal applications are the most efficient conversion technology for turning woody biomass into energy and should be considered in the development of a national Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Thermal applications for woody biomass can be up to 90% efficient, compared to 20% for electricity and 50-70% for bio-fuels. Thermal systems can be applied at multiple scales, and are often more economically viable, particularly in rural and remote areas, than electrical generation.

By not including thermal energy, one of the most efficient uses of woody biomass energy is put at a disadvantage to generating electricity and processing liquid bio-fuels. This runs counter to the goals of displacing fossil fuels, promoting energy efficiency, and minimizing carbon emissions.

Woody Biomass Resources

Biomass power is the largest source of renewable energy as well as a vital part of the waste management infrastructure. An increasing global awareness about environmental issues is acting as the driving force behind the use of alternative and renewable sources of energy. A greater emphasis is being laid on the promotion of bioenergy in the industrialized as well as developing world to counter environmental issues.

Biomass may be used for energy production at different scales, including large-scale power generation, CHP, or small-scale thermal heating projects at governmental, educational or other institutions. Biomass comes from both human and natural activities and incorporates by-products from the timber industry, agricultural crops, forestry residues, household wastes, and wood. The resources range from corn kernels to corn stalks, from soybean and canola oils to animal fats, from prairie grasses to hardwoods, and even include algae. The largest source of energy from wood is pulping liquor or black liquor, a waste product from the pulp and paper industry.

Woody biomass is the most important renewable energy source if proper management of vegetation is ensured. The main benefits of woody biomass are as follows:

  • Uniform distribution over the world’s surface, in contrast to finite sources of energy.
  • Less capital-intensive conversion technologies employed for exploiting the energy potential.
  • Attractive opportunity for local, regional and national energy self-sufficiency.
  • Techno-economically viable alternative to fast-depleting fossil fuel reserves.
  • Reduction in GHGs emissions.
  • Provide opportunities to local farmers, entrepreneurs and rural population in making use of its sustainable development potential.

The United States is currently the largest producer of electricity from biomass having more than half of the world’s installed capacity. Biomass represents 1.5% of the total electricity supply compared to 0.1% for wind and solar combined. More than 7800 MW of power is produced in biomass power plants installed at more than 350 locations in the U.S., which represent about 1% of the total electricity generation capacity. According to the International Energy Agency, approximately 11% of the energy is derived from biomass throughout the world.

Biomass Resources

Biomass processing systems constitute a significant portion of the capital investment and operating costs of a biomass conversion facility depending on the type of biomass to be processed as well as the feedstock preparation requirements. Its main constituents are systems for biomass storage, handling, conveying, size reduction, cleaning, drying, and feeding. Harvesting biomass crops, collecting biomass residues, and storing and transporting biomass resources are critical elements in the biomass resource supply chain.

All processing of biomass yields by-products and waste streams collectively called residues, which have significant energy potential. A wide range of biomass resources are available for transformation into energy in natural forests, rural areas and urban centres. Some of the sources have been discussed in the following paragraphs:

Biomass Cycle
A host of natural and human activities contributes to the biomass feedstock

1. Pulp and paper industry residues
The largest source of energy from wood is the waste product from the pulp and paper industry called black liquor. Logging and processing operations generate vast amounts of biomass residues. Wood processing produces sawdust and a collection of bark, branches and leaves/needles. A paper mill, which consumes vast amount of electricity, utilizes the pulp residues to create energy for in-house usage.

2. Forest residues
Forest harvesting is a major source of biomass for energy. Harvesting may occur as thinning in young stands, or cutting in older stands for timber or pulp that also yields tops and branches usable for bioenergy. Harvesting operations usually remove only 25 to 50 percent of the volume, leaving the residues available as biomass for energy. Stands damaged by insects, disease or fire are additional sources of biomass. Forest residues normally have low density and fuel values that keep transport costs high, and so it is economical to reduce the biomass density in the forest itself.

3. Agricultural or crop residues
Agriculture crop residues include corn stover (stalks and leaves), wheat straw, rice straw, nut hulls etc. Corn stover is a major source for bioenergy applications due to the huge areas dedicated to corn cultivation worldwide.

4. Urban wood waste
Such waste consists of lawn and tree trimmings, whole tree trunks, wood pallets and any other construction and demolition wastes made from lumber. The rejected woody material can be collected after a construction or demolition project and turned into mulch, compost or used to fuel bioenergy plants.

5. Energy crops
Dedicated energy crops are another source of woody biomass for energy. These crops are fast-growing plants, trees or other herbaceous biomass which are harvested specifically for energy production. Rapidly-growing, pest-tolerant, site and soil-specific crops have been identified by making use of bioengineering. For example, operational yield in the northern hemisphere is 10-15 tonnes/ha annually. A typical 20 MW steam cycle power station using energy crops would require a land area of around 8,000 ha to supply energy on rotation.

Herbaceous energy crops are harvested annually after taking two to three years to reach full productivity. These include grasses such as switchgrass, elephant grass, bamboo, sweet sorghum, wheatgrass etc.

Short rotation woody crops are fast growing hardwood trees harvested within five to eight years after planting. These include poplar, willow, silver maple, cottonwood, green ash, black walnut, sweetgum, and sycamore.

Industrial crops are grown to produce specific industrial chemicals or materials, e.g. kenaf and straws for fiber, and castor for ricinoleic acid. Agricultural crops include cornstarch and corn oil? soybean oil and meal? wheat starch, other vegetable oils etc. Aquatic resources such as algae, giant kelp, seaweed, and microflora also contribute to bioenergy feedstock.