Biofuels – the good, the bad, and the dirty

The basic premise of biofuels is that they emit less carbon than traditional fossil fuels. When biofuels are burnt, the gases are less toxic than fossil fuels, the handling and storage is safer, and there is a carbon sequestration credit that occurs when growing crops for the use of biofuels

Environmental Folklore

We all know that driving our cars around town creates a lot of GHG emissions that are not helping the global warming crisis. We know that burning fossil fuels for transport energy contributes to pollution and climate change. But does buying ethanol or biodiesel to fuel our cars actually mitigate any of the carbon emissions? Or is this simply another way for fuel producers to scam extra dollars from the concerned citizen’s wallet?

As with all of the topics we will discuss on this website, there is no easy answer as to what is the most environmentally friendly option for fuelling our energy-intensive world. Certainly our transport system is fossil fuel intensive, and searching for new ways to reduce carbon emissions produced by this large system is a start to creating a world that is sustainable (whatever that means). But as the environmental blogger Damian Carrington states; “there are good…

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Focus on Wood-based Bioenergy

the benefits of wood-based bioenergy all depend on what is harvested, where it is harvested from, how it is harvested, how it is transported, how it is utilized as an energy source, the time horizon considered, and the alternative fate of the feedstock material. An energy portfolio that includes wood-based bioenergy is a better long-term strategy than other viable alternatives.

Much of our nation’s energy (both liquid transportation fuels and electric power) is derived from “fossil fuels,” which include oil, coal, and natural gas.

There are several drawbacks to these energy sources:

  • They are non-renewable resources. Once existing deposits are used up, they are gone. Through new technology we have gotten better at finding and accessing more of these deposits, which has kept supplies plentiful, but ultimately they are finite.
  • Their use converts carbon stored the earth to carbon dioxide which is released into the atmosphere. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere changes global climate, with a myriad of consequences.
  • Prices are unstable and usually climbing, impacting all areas of our lives and economy and our nation’s foreign policy.
  • Extraction (e.g. mining, offshore drilling, fracking, etc.) can harm the environment, especially if there is an accident.

The advantages of bioenergy is that it can be renewable, locally…

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Agricultural Farm Management in India

Prabumj's Blog

The main objective of technology-based agriculture must be to reduce input cost while increasing the yield, particularly for small and marginal farmers. Agriculture scientists would like farmers to realise that reduction of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides can benefit both man and earth over the long run. Farmers in particular would stand to gain as a major portion of their money is spent on buying these chemicals. The focus, they believe, must shift to educating farmers on the value of waste matter being generated in both their fields and homes, and availability of technologies to convert waste into wealth. Their farm economics will definitely improve if they realise and adopt this. It is precisely on these lines that scientists at the Myrada Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Gobichettipalayam, in Erode, Tamil Nadu have beenworking for the past several years in implementing a project called IFD (Integrated farm development model). Also called as…

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Energy from Food Wastes

Jay F. Nelson

Animal waste may become our next source of green energy.

Private corporations in the U.K. have begun investing big bucks to convert leftover food and animal byproducts into a new source of green energy that produces electricity and cuts costs.

Marketplace BBC World Service recently reported that big U.K. chains such as Walmart and Tesco are now actively running some of their stores on electricity converted from leftover foods.

Fish heads, old lamb chops, stale sandwiches, and chicken fat represent just a few of the food waste products whose biogas can be burned to create electricity.

How do you get electricity from stale sandwiches?

Basically speaking, large vats of rotting organic waste ferment in the absence of oxygen in a kind of biogenic bath. Fermentation produces biogases, such as methane, which can be burned to run the machinery that generates green electricity. Anyone who’s kept a compost pile knows that…

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About Data Centers and Biogas

Gigaom

At first glance biogas — gas that is produced by the breakdown of organic matter — and data centers that are powering the world’s always-on websites don’t seem like a clear fit. The first is an industry in the U.S. in its infancy, and the second is undergoing a rapidly exploding construction boom.

But an increasing number of Internet companies are experimenting with turning to biogas as an emerging source to power part of their data centers. Why? Well, for quite a few reasons. Here’s what you need to know about this emerging phenomenon of biogas and data centers:

1). Where does biogas come from?: Biogas is created when organic matter is broken down in an anaerobic digester and the gas is captured. An anaerobic digestor is a closed tank that doesn’t let any oxygen in, and enables anaerobic bacteria to digest the organic material at a nice, warm…

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A Glance at Biomass Resources

Manure, a field in Randers in Denmark
Image via Wikipedia

Biomass energy projects provide major business opportunities, environmental benefits, and rural development.  Feedstocks can be obtained from a wide array of sources without jeopardizing the food and feed supply, forests, and biodiversity in the world.

Agricultural Residues

Crop residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as bagasse, straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. Large quantities of crop residues are produced annually worldwide, and are vastly underutilised. Rice produces both straw and rice husks at the processing plant which can be conveniently and easily converted into energy. Significant quantities of biomass remain in the fields in the form of cob when maize is harvested which can be converted into energy. Sugar cane harvesting leads to harvest residues in the fields while processing produces fibrous bagasse, both of which are good sources of energy. Harvesting and processing of coconuts produces quantities of shell and fibre that can be utilized.

Current farming practice is usually to plough these residues back into the soil, or they are burnt, left to decompose, or grazed by cattle. These residues could be processed into liquid fuels or thermochemical processed to produce electricity and heat. Agricultural residues are characterized by seasonal availability and have characteristics that differ from other solid fuels such as wood, charcoal, char briquette. The main differences are the high content of volatile matter and lower density and burning time.

Animal Waste

There are a wide range of animal wastes that can be used as sources of biomass energy. The most common sources are animal and poultry manures. In the past this waste was recovered and sold as a fertilizer or simply spread onto agricultural land, but the introduction of tighter environmental controls on odour and water pollution means that some form of waste management is now required, which provides further incentives for waste-to-energy conversion.

The most attractive method of converting these waste materials to useful form is anaerobic digestion which gives biogas that can be used as a fuel for internal combustion engines, to generate electricity from small gas turbines, burnt directly for cooking, or for space and water heating.

Forestry Residues

Forestry residues are generated by operations such as thinning of plantations, clearing for logging roads, extracting stem-wood for pulp and timber, and natural attrition. 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 biomass energy. 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.

Wood Wastes

Wood processing industries primarily include sawmilling, plywood, wood panel, furniture, building component, flooring, particle board, moulding, jointing and craft industries. Wood wastes generally are concentrated at the processing factories, e.g. plywood mills and sawmills. The amount of waste generated from wood processing industries varies from one type industry to another depending on the form of raw material and finished product.

Generally, the waste from wood industries such as saw millings and plywood, veneer and others are sawdust, off-cuts, trims and shavings. Sawdust arise from cutting, sizing, re-sawing, edging, while trims and shaving are the consequence of trimming and smoothing of wood. In general, processing of 1,000 kg of wood in the furniture industries will lead to waste generation of almost half (45 %), i.e. 450 kg of wood. Similarly, when processing 1,000 kg of wood in sawmill, the waste will amount to more than half (52 %), i.e. 520 kg wood.

Industrial Wastes

The food industry produces a large number of residues and by-products that can be used as biomass energy sources. These waste materials are generated from all sectors of the food industry with everything from meat production to confectionery producing waste that can be utilised as an energy source.

Solid wastes include peelings and scraps from fruit and vegetables, food that does not meet quality control standards, pulp and fibre from sugar and starch extraction, filter sludges and coffee grounds. These wastes are usually disposed of in landfill dumps.

Liquid wastes are generated by washing meat, fruit and vegetables, blanching fruit and vegetables, pre-cooking meats, poultry and fish, cleaning and processing operations as well as wine making.

These waste waters contain sugars, starches and other dissolved and solid organic matter. The potential exists for these industrial wastes to be anaerobically digested to produce biogas, or fermented to produce ethanol, and several commercial examples of waste-to-energy conversion already exist.

Pulp and paper industry is considered to be one of the highly polluting industries and consumes large amount of energy and water in various unit operations. The wastewater discharged by this industry is highly heterogeneous as it contains compounds from wood or other raw materials, processed chemicals as well as compound formed during processing.  Black liquor can be judiciously utilized for production of biogas using anaerobic UASB technology.

Municipal Solid Wastes and Sewage

Millions of tonnes of household waste are collected each year with the vast majority disposed of in open fields. The biomass resource in MSW comprises the putrescibles, paper and plastic and averages 80% of the total MSW collected. Municipal solid waste can be converted into energy by direct combustion, or by natural anaerobic digestion in the engineered landfill. At the landfill sites the gas produced by the natural decomposition of MSW (approximately 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide) is collected from the stored material and scrubbed and cleaned before feeding into internal combustion engines or gas turbines to generate heat and power. The organic fraction of MSW can be anaerobically stabilized in a high-rate digester to obtain biogas for electricity or steam generation.

Sewage is a source of biomass energy that is very similar to the other animal wastes. Energy can be extracted from sewage using anaerobic digestion to produce biogas. The sewage sludge that remains can be incinerated or undergo pyrolysis to produce more biogas.

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Rationale for Aluminium Recycling

Shredded aluminium beverage cans.
Image via Wikipedia

Aluminium is used extensively in aircraft, building construction, electrical transmission and consumer durables such as fridges, cooking utensils and air conditioners as well as in food processing equipment and cans. Infact, the use of aluminum exceeds that of any other metal except iron. Aluminium is the second most widely used metal whereas the aluminum can is the most recycled consumer product in the world. Aluminium exposed to fires at dumps can be a serious environmental problem in the form of poisonous gases and mosquito breeding. Recycled aluminium can be utilized for almost all applications, and can preserve raw materials and reduce toxic emissions, apart from significant energy conservation.

The demand for aluminium products is growing steadily because of their positive contribution to modern living. Aluminium finds extensive use in air, road and sea transport; food and medicine; packaging; construction; electronics and electrical power transmission. Aluminum has a high market value and continues to provide an economic incentive to recycle it. The excellent recyclability of aluminium, together with its high scrap value and the low energy needs during recycling make aluminium lightweight solutions highly desirable.

The contribution of the recycled metal to the global output of aluminium products has increased from 17 percent in 1960 to 34 percent today, and expected to rise to almost 40 percent by 2020. Global recycling rates are high, with approximately 90 per cent of the metal used for transport and construction applications recovered, and over 60 per cent of used beverage cans are collected.

Aluminium does not degrade during the recycling process, since its atomic structure is not altered during melting. Aluminium recycling is both economically and environmentally effective, as it requires a lot less energy to recycle than it does to mine, extract and smelt aluminium ore.  Recycled aluminium requires only 5% of the energy used to make primary aluminium, and can have the same properties as the parent metal. However, in the course of multiple recycling, more and more alloying elements are introduced into the metal cycle. This effect is put to good use in the production of casting alloys, which generally need these elements to attain the desired alloy properties.

The industry has a long tradition of collecting and recycling used aluminium products. Over the years, USA and European countries have developed robust separate collection systems for aluminium packaging with a good degree of success. Recycling aluminium reduces the need for raw materials and reduces the use of valuable energy resources. Recycled aluminium is made into aircraft, automobiles, bicycles, boats, computers, cookware, gutters, siding, wire and cans.

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Lignocellulosic Biomass

Farmer plowing in Fahrenwalde, Mecklenburg-Vor...
Image via Wikipedia

First-generation biofuels (produced primarily from food crops such as grains, sugar beet and oil seeds) are limited in their ability to achieve targets for oil-product substitution, climate change mitigation, and economic growth. Their sustainable production is under scanner, as is the possibility of creating undue competition for land and water used for food and fibre production.

The cumulative impacts of these concerns have increased the interest in developing biofuels produced from non-food biomass. Feedstocks from ligno-cellulosic materials include cereal straw, bagasse, forest residues, and purpose-grown energy crops such as vegetative grasses and short rotation forests. These second-generation biofuels could avoid many of the concerns facing first-generation biofuels and potentially offer greater cost reduction potential in the longer term.

The largest potential feedstock for ethanol is lignocellulosic biomass, which includes materials such as agricultural residues (corn stover, crop straws and bagasse), herbaceous crops (alfalfa, switchgrass), short rotation woody crops, forestry residues, waste paper and other wastes (municipal and industrial). Bioethanol production from these feedstocks could be an attractive alternative for disposal of these residues. Importantlylignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security. Moreover, bioethanol is very important for both rural and urban areas in terms of energy security reason, environmental concern, employment opportunities, agricultural development, foreign exchange saving, socioeconomic issues etc.

Economically, lignocellulosic biomass has an advantage over other agriculturally important biofuels feedstocks such as corn starch, soybeans, and sugar cane, because it can be produced quickly and at significantly lower cost than food crops. Lignocellulosic biomass is an important component of the major food crops; it is the non-edible portion of the plant, which is currently underutilized, but could be used for biofuel production. In short, lignocellulosic biomass holds the key to supplying society’s basic needs for sustainable production of liquid transportation fuels without impacting the nation’s food supply.

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Biomass Energy – An Introduction

Biomass is the material derived from plants that use sunlight to grow which include plant and animal material such as wood from forests, material left over from agricultural and forestry processes, and organic industrial, human and animal wastes. Biomass comes from a variety of sources which include:

  • Wood from natural forests and woodlands
  • Forestry plantations
  • Forestry residues
  • Agricultural residues such as straw, stover, cane trash and green agricultural wastes
  • Agro-industrial wastes, such as sugarcane bagasse and rice husk
  • Animal wastes
  • Industrial wastes, such as black liquor from paper manufacturing
  • Sewage
  • Municipal solid wastes (MSW)
  • Food processing wastes

In nature, if biomass is left lying around on the ground it will break down over a long period of time, releasing carbon dioxide and its store of energy slowly. By burning biomass its store of energy is released quickly and often in a useful way. So converting biomass into useful energy imitates the natural processes but at a faster rate.

Biomass wastes can be transformed into clean energy and/or fuels by a variety of technologies, ranging from conventional combustion process to state-of-the art thermal depolymerization technology. 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 while meeting the pollution control standards.

 Biomass waste-to-energy conversion reduces greenhouse gas emissions in two ways.  Heat and electrical energy is generated which reduces the dependence on power plants based on fossil fuels.  The greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced by preventing methane emissions from landfills.  Moreover, waste-to-energy plants are highly efficient in harnessing the untapped sources of energy from wastes.

Solutions for Major Issues arising in Biomass Energy Projects

This article makes an attempt at collating some of the most prominent issues associated with biomass technologies and provides plausible solutions in order to seek further promotion of these technologies. The solutions provided below are based on author’s understanding and experience in this field.

  1. Large Project Costs: The project costs are to a great extent comparable to these technologies which actually justify the cause. Also, people tend to ignore the fact, that most of these plants, if run at maximum capacity could generate a Plant Load Factor (PLF) of 80% and above. This figure is about 2-3 times higher than what its counterparts wind and solar energy based plants could provide. This however, comes at a cost – higher operational costs.
  2. Technologies have lower efficiencies: The solution to this problem, calls for innovativeness in the employment of these technologies. To give an example, one of the paper mill owners in India, had a brilliant idea to utilize his industrial waste to generate power and recover the waste heat to produce steam for his boilers. The power generated was way more than he required for captive utilization. With the rest, he melts scrap metal in an arc and generates additional revenue by selling it. Although such solutions are not possible in each case, one needs to possess the acumen to look around and innovate – the best means to improve the productivity with regards to these technologies.
  3. Technologies still lack maturity: One needs to look beyond what is directly visible. There is a humongous scope of employment of these technologies for decentralized power generation. With regards to scale, few companies have already begun conceptualizing ultra-mega scale power plants based on biomass resources. Power developers and critics need to take a leaf out of these experiences.
  4. Lack of funding options: The most essential aspect of any biomass energy project is the resource assessment. Investors if approached with a reliable resource assessment report could help regain their interest in such projects. Moreover, the project developers also need to look into community based ownership models, which have proven to be a great success, especially in rural areas. The project developer needs to not only assess the resource availability but also its alternative utilization means. It has been observed that if a project is designed by considering only 10-12% of the actual biomass to be available for power generation, it sustains without any hurdles.
  5. Non-Transparent Trade markets: Most countries still lack a common platform to the buyers and sellers of biomass resources. As a result of this, their price varies from vendor to vendor even when considering the same feedstock. Entrepreneurs need to come forward and look forward to exploiting this opportunity, which could not only bridge the big missing link in the resource supply chain but also could transform into a multi-billion dollar opportunity.
  6. High Risks / Low pay-backs: Biomass energy plants are plagued by numerous uncertainties including fuel price escalation and unreliable resource supply to name just a few. Project owners should consider other opportunities to increase their profit margins. One of these could very well include tying up with the power exchanges as is the case in India, which could offer better prices for the power that is sold at peak hour slots. The developer may also consider the option of merchant sale to agencies which are either in need of a consistent power supply and are presently relying on expensive back-up means (oil/coal) or are looking forward to purchase “green power” to cater to their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
  7. Resource Price escalation: A study of some of the successful biomass energy plants globally would result in the conclusion of the inevitability of having own resource base to cater to the plant requirements. This could be through captive forestry or energy plantations at waste lands or fallow lands surrounding the plant site. Although, this could escalate the initial project costs, it would prove to be a great cushion to the plants operational costs in the longer run. In cases where it is not possible to go for such an alternative, one must seek case-specific procurement models, consider help from local NGOs, civic bodies etc. and go for long-term contracts with the resource providers.

Contributed by Mr. Setu Goyal (TERI University, New Delhi) who can be reached at setu.goyal@gmail.com

Salman Zafar’s Articles in ISER

Renewable energy in South Africa

Issue 4 2010 / 13 December 2010 / Salman Zafar, Renewable Energy Advisor

South Africa, the most industrialised country in Africa, has a population of approximately 50 million living on a land area of 1.2 million km2. The country has large reserves of coal and uranium, and small reserves of crude oil and natural gas. Coal provides 75% of the fossil fuel demand and accounts for 91% of electricity generation. South Africa is enjoying sustained GDP growth of approximately 5% per annum. (more…)

Renewable Energy in Jordan

Issue 3 2010 / 14 October 2010 / Salman Zafar, Renewable Energy Advisor

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is heavily dependent on oil imports from neighbouring countries to meet its energy requirements. The huge cost associated with energy imports creates a financial burden on the national economy and Jordan had to spend almost 20% of its GDP on the purchase of energy in 2008. Electricity demand is growing rapidly, and the Jordanian Government has been seeking ways to attract foreign investment to fund additional capacity. In 2008, the demand for electricity in Jordan was 2,260 MW, which is expected to rise to 5,770 MW by 2020. Therefore, provision of reliable and clean energy supply will play a vital role in Jordan’s economic growth.

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Biomass energy resources in the MENA region

Issue 4 2009Past issues / 22 December 2009 / Salman Zafar, Renewable Energy Advisor

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 major biomass producing MENA countries are Sudan, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. Traditionally, biomass energy has been widely used in rural areas for domestic purposes in the MENA region. Since most of the region is arid/semi-arid, the biomass energy potential is mainly contributed by municipal solid wastes, agricultural residues and agro-industrial wastes.

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Woody Biomass Utilization and Sustainability

Harvesting practices remove only a small portion of branches and tops leaving sufficient biomass to conserve organic matter and nutrients. Moreover, the ash obtained after combustion of biomass compensates for nutrient losses by fertilizing the soil periodically in natural forests as well as fields. The impact of forest biomass utilization on the ecology and biodiversity has been found to be insignificant. Infact, forest residues are environmentally beneficial because of their potential to replace fossil fuels as an energy source.

Plantation of energy crops on abandoned agricultural land will lead to an increase in species diversity. The creation of structurally and species diverse forests helps in reducing the impacts of insects, diseases and weeds. Similarly the artificial creation of diversity is essential when genetically modified or genetically identical species are being planted. Short-rotation crops give higher yields than forests so smaller tracts are needed to produce biomass which results in the reduction of area under intensive forest management. An intelligent approach in forest management will go a long way in the realization of sustainability goals.

Improvements in agricultural practices promises to increased biomass yields, reductions in cultivation costs, and improved environmental quality. Extensive research in the fields of plant genetics, analytical techniques, remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) will immensely help in increasing the energy potential of biomass feedstock.

Bioenergy systems offer significant possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to their immense potential to replace fossil fuels in energy production. Biomass reduces emissions and enhances carbon sequestration since short-rotation crops or forests established on abandoned agricultural land accumulate carbon in the soil. Bioenergy usually provides an irreversible mitigation effect by reducing carbon dioxide at source, but it may emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels unless biomass fuels are produced unsustainably.

Biomass can play a major role in reducing the reliance on fossil fuels by making use of thermo-chemical conversion technologies. In addition, the increased utilization of biomass-based fuels will be instrumental in safeguarding the environment, generation of new job opportunities, sustainable development and health improvements in rural areas. The development of efficient biomass handling technology, improvement of agro-forestry systems and establishment of small and large-scale biomass-based power plants can play a major role in rural development. Biomass energy could also aid in modernizing the agricultural economy.

A large amount of energy is expended in the cultivation and processing of crops like sugarcane, coconut, and rice which can met by utilizing energy-rich residues for electricity production. The integration of biomass-fueled gasifiers in coal-fired power stations would be advantageous in terms of improved flexibility in response to fluctuations in biomass availability and lower investment costs. The growth of the bioenergy industry can also be achieved by laying more stress on green power marketing.