Importance of Anaerobic Digestion in Rural Areas

Anaerobic digestion proves to be a beneficial technology in various spheres. Biogas produced is a green replacement of unprocessed fuels (like fuel wood, dung cakes, crop residues). It is a cost effective replacement for dung cakes and conventional domestic fuels like LPG or kerosene. Anaerobic digestion has the potential to meet the energy requirements in rural areas, and also counter the effects of reckless burning of biomass resources.

An additional benefit is that the quantity of digested slurry is the same as that of the feedstock fed in a biogas plant. This slurry can be dried and sold as high quality compost. The nitrogen-rich compost indirectly reduces the costs associated with use of fertilizers. It enriches the soil, improves its porosity, buffering capacity and ion exchange capacity and prevents nutrient depletion thus improving the crop quality. This means increased income for the farmer.

Further, being relatively-clean polluting cooking fuel; biogas reduces the health risks associated with conventional chulhas. Thinking regionally, decreased residue burning brings down the seasonal high pollutant levels in air, ensuring a better environmental quality.

Anaerobic digestion thus proves to be more efficient in utilization of crop residues. The social benefits associated with biomethanation, along with its capacity to generate income for the rural households make it a viable alternative for conventional methods.

Contributed by Ritika Tewari, TERI University, New Delhi

Organic Waste Management

Most of the organic waste generated in developing countries is dumped into the landfills. It is a sheer waste of such biodegradable waste capable of generating energy to be sent into the landfills. There it is not only responsible for large scale green house gas emissions, but also becomes a health hazard and creates terrestrial pollution.

There are numerous places which are the sources of large amounts of food waste and hence a proper food-waste management strategy needs to be devised for them to make sure that either they are disposed off in a safe manner or utilized efficiently. These places include hotels, restaurants, malls, residential societies, college/school/office canteens, religious mass cooking places, airline caterers, food and meat processing industries and vegetable markets which generate organic waste of considerable quantum on a daily basis.

The anaerobic digestion technology is highly apt in dealing with the chronic problem of organic waste management in urban societies. Although the technology is commercially viable in the longer run, the high initial capital cost is a major hurdle towards its proliferation. The onus is on the governments to create awareness and promote such technologies in a sustainable manner. At the same time, entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and environmental agencies should also take inspiration from successful food waste-to-energy projects in other countries and try to set up such facilities in Indian cities and towns.

Contributed by Mr. Setu Goyal, TERI University, New Delhi

Biomass CHP

Biomass conversion technologies transform a variety of wastes into heat, electricity and biofuels by employing a host of strategies. Biomass fuels are typically used most efficiently and beneficially when generating both power and heat through a Combined Heat and Power (or Cogeneration) system. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technologies are well suited for sustainable development projects, because they are, in general, socio-economically attractive and technologically mature and reliable.

In developing countries, cogeneration can easily be integrated in many industries, especially agriculture and food-processing, taking advantage of the biomass residues of the production process. This has the dual benefits of lowering fuel costs and solving waste disposal issues. Prime movers for CHP units include reciprocating engines, combustion or gas turbines, steam turbines, microturbines, and fuel cells. The success of any biomass-fuelled CHP project is heavily dependent on the availability of a suitable biomass feedstock freely available in urban and rural areas.

Energy Recovery from Tannery Wastes

The conventional leather tanning technology is highly polluting as it produces large amounts of organic and chemical pollutants. Wastes generated by the leather processing industries pose a major challenge to the environment. According to conservative estimates, about 600,000 tons per year of solid waste are generated worldwide by leather industry and approximately 40–50% of the hides are lost to shavings and trimmings.

The energy generated by anaerobic digestion or gasification of tannery wastes can be put to beneficial use, in both drying the wastes and as an energy source for the tannery’s own requirements, CHP or electricity export from the site. A large amount of the energy recovered is surplus to the energy conversion process requirements and can be reused by the tannery directly. Infact, implementation of waste-to-energy systems have the potential to make the industry self-sufficient in terms of thermal energy requirements. Tanneries are major energy users, and requires up to 30 kW of energy to produce a single finished hide. Thus, waste-to-energy plant in a tannery promotes the production of electricity from decentralized renewable energy sources, apart from resolving serious environmental issues posed by leather industry wastes.

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Woody Biomass Conversion Technologies

There are many ways to generate electricity from biomass using thermo-chemical pathway. These include directly-fired or conventional steam approach, co-firing, pyrolysis and gasification.

1. Direct Fired or Conventional Steam Boiler

Most of the woody biomass-to-energy plants use direct-fired system or conventional steam boiler, whereby biomass feedstock is directly burned to produce steam leading to generation of electricity. In a direct-fired system, biomass is fed from the bottom of the boiler and air is supplied at the base. Hot combustion gases are passed through a heat exchanger in which water is boiled to create steam.

Biomass is dried, sized into smaller pieces and then pelletized or briquetted before firing. Pelletization is a process of reducing the bulk volume of biomass feedstock by mechanical means to improve handling and combustion characteristics of biomass. Wood pellets are normally produced from dry industrial wood waste, as e.g. shavings, sawdust and sander dust. Pelletization results in:

1. Concentration of energy in the biomass feedstock.
2. Easy handling, reduced transportation cost and hassle-free storage.
3. Low-moisture fuel with good burning characteristics.
4. Well-defined, good quality fuel for commercial and domestic use.

The processed biomass is added to a furnace or a boiler to generate heat which is then run through a turbine which drives an electrical generator. The heat generated by the exothermic process of combustion to power the generator can also be used to regulate temperature of the plant and other buildings, making the whole process much more efficient. Cogeneration of heat and electricity provides an economical option, particularly at sawmills or other sites where a source of biomass waste is already available. For example, wood waste is used to produce both electricity and steam at paper mills.

2. Co-firing

Co-firing is the simplest way to use biomass with energy systems based on fossil fuels. Small portions (upto 15%) of woody and herbaceous biomass such as poplar, willow and switch grass can be used as fuel in an existing coal power plant. Like coal, biomass is placed into the boilers and burned in such systems. The only cost associated with upgrading the system is incurred in buying a boiler capable of burning both the fuels, which is a more cost-effective than building a new plant.

The environmental benefits of adding biomass to coal includes decrease in nitrogen and sulphur oxides which are responsible for causing smog, acid rain and ozone pollution. In addition, relatively lower amount of carbon dioxide is released into the atmospheres. Co-firing provides a good platform for transition to more viable and sustainable renewable energy practices.

3. Pyrolysis

Pyrolysis offers a flexible and attractive way of converting solid biomass into an easily stored and transportable fuel, which can be successfully used for the production of heat, power and chemicals. In pyrolysis, biomass is subjected to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen resulting in the production of pyrolysis oil (or bio-oil), char or syngas which can then be used to generate electricity. The process transforms the biomass into high quality fuel without creating ash or energy directly.

Wood residues, forest residues and bagasse are important short term feed materials for pyrolysis being aplenty, low-cost and good energy source. Straw and agro residues are important in the longer term; however straw has high ash content which might cause problems in pyrolysis. Sewage sludge is a significant resource that requires new disposal methods and can be pyrolysed to give liquids.

Pyrolysis 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.

4. Biomass gasification

Gasification processes convert biomass into combustible gases that ideally contain all the energy originally present in the biomass. In practice, conversion efficiencies ranging from 60% to 90% are achieved. Gasification processes can be either direct (using air or oxygen to generate heat through exothermic reactions) or indirect (transferring heat to the reactor from the outside). The gas can be burned to produce industrial or residential heat, to run engines for mechanical or electrical power, or to make synthetic fuels.

Biomass gasifiers are of two kinds – updraft and downdraft. In an updraft unit, biomass is fed in the top of the reactor and air is injected into the bottom of the fuel bed. The efficiency of updraft gasifiers ranges from 80 to 90 per cent on account of efficient counter-current heat exchange between the rising gases and descending solids. However, the tars produced by updraft gasifiers imply that the gas must be cooled before it can be used in internal combustion engines. Thus, in practical operation, updraft units are used for direct heat applications while downdraft ones are employed for operating internal combustion engines.

Large scale applications of gasifiers include comprehensive versions of the small scale updraft and downdraft technologies, and fluidized bed technologies. The superior heat and mass transfer of fluidized beds leads to relatively uniform temperatures throughout the bed, better fuel moisture utilization, and faster rate of reaction, resulting in higher throughput capabilities.