Thermal Conversion of Wastes

Thermal (or thermochemical) conversion systems consist of primary conversion technologies which convert the waste into heat or gaseous and liquid products. 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).


Direct combustion is the best established and most commonly used technology for converting wastes to heat. During combustion, waste is burnt in excess air to produce heat. The first stage of combustion involves the evolution of combustible vapours from wastes, which burn as flames. Steam is expanded through a conventional turbo-alternator to produce electricity. The residual material, in the form of charcoal, is burnt in a forced air supply to give more heat. The main products of efficient combustion are carbon dioxide and water vapor, however tars, smoke and alkaline ash particles are also emitted. Minimization of these emissions and accommodation of their possible effects are important concerns in the design of environmentally acceptable waste combustion systems.


Co-firing or co-combustion of biomass wastes with coal and other fossil fuels can provide a short-term, low-risk, low-cost option for producing renewable energy while simultaneously reducing the use of fossil fuels. Co-firing involves utilizing existing power generating plants that are fired with fossil fuel (generally coal), and displacing a small proportion of the fossil fuel with renewable biomass fuels. Co-firing has the major advantage of avoiding the construction of new, dedicated, waste-to-energy power plant. An existing power station is modified to accept the waste resource and utilize it to produce a minor proportion of its electricity. Co-firing may be implemented using different types and percentages of wastes in a range of combustion and gasification technologies. Most forms of biomass wastes are suitable for co-firing. These include dedicated municipal solid wastes, wood waste and agricultural residues such as straw and husk.


Gasification systems operate by heating wastes in an environment where the solid waste breaks down to form a flammable gas. The gasification of biomass takes place in a restricted supply of air or oxygen at temperatures up to 1200–1300°C. The gas produced—synthesis gas, or syngas—consists of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane with small amounts of higher hydrocarbons.  Syngas may be burnt to generate heat; alternatively it may be processed and then used as fuel for gas-fired engines or gas turbines to drive generators. In smaller systems, the syngas can be fired in reciprocating engines, micro-turbines, Stirling engines, or fuel cells. There are also small amounts of unwanted by-products such as char particles, tars, oils and ash, which tend to be damaging to engines, turbines or fuel cells and which must therefore first be removed or processed into additional fuel gas. This implies that gasifier operation is significantly more demanding than the operation of combustion systems.


Pyrolysis is thermal decomposition occurring in the absence of oxygen. During pyrolysis process, waste is heated either in the absence of air (i.e. indirectly), or by the partial combustion of some of the waste in a restricted air or oxygen supply. This results in the thermal decomposition of the waste to form a combination of a solid char, gas, and liquid bio-oil, which can be used as a liquid fuel or upgraded and further processed to value-added products. High temperature and longer residence time increase the waste conversion to gas and moderate temperature and short vapour residence time are optimum for producing liquids. Pyrolysis technologies are generally categorized as “fast” or “slow” according to the time taken for processing the feed into pyrolysis products. 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.


Production of Cellulosic Ethanol

The production of biofuels from lignocellulosic feedstocks can be achieved through two very different processing routes. They are:

  • Biochemical – in which enzymes and other micro-organisms are used to convert cellulose and hemicellulose components of the feedstocks to sugars prior to their fermentation to produce ethanol;
  • Thermo-chemical – where pyrolysis/gasification technologies produce a synthesis gas (CO + H2) from which a wide range of long carbon chain biofuels, such as synthetic diesel or aviation fuel, can be reformed.

Lignocellulosic biomass consists mainly of lignin and the polysaccharides cellulose and hemicellulose. Compared with the production of ethanol from first-generation feedstocks, the use of lignocellulosic biomass is more complicated because the polysaccharides are more stable and the pentose sugars are not readily fermentable by Saccharomyces cerevisiae. In order to convert lignocellulosic biomass to biofuels the polysaccharides must first be hydrolysed, or broken down, into simple sugars using either acid or enzymes. Several biotechnology-based approaches are being used to overcome such problems, including the development of strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that can ferment pentose sugars, the use of alternative yeast species that naturally ferment pentose sugars, and the engineering of enzymes that are able to break down cellulose and hemicellulose into simple sugars.

Lignocellulosic processing pilot plants have been established in the EU, in Denmark, Spain and Sweden. The world’s largest demonstration facility of lignocellulose ethanol (from wheat, barley straw and corn stover), with a capacity of 2.5 Ml, was first established by Iogen Corporation in Ottawa, Canada. Many other processing facilities are now in operation or planning throughout the world.

Ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass is produced mainly via biochemical routes. The three major steps involved are pretreatment, enzymatic hydrolysis, and fermentation as shown in Figure. Biomass is pretreated to improve the accessibility of enzymes. After pretreatment, biomass undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis for conversion of polysaccharides into monomer sugars, such as glucose and xylose. Subsequently, sugars are fermented to ethanol by the use of different microorganisms.

Pretreated biomass can directly be converted to ethanol by using the process called simultaneous saccharification and cofermentation (SSCF).  Pretreatment is a critical step which enhances the enzymatic hydrolysis of biomass. Basically, it alters the physical and chemical properties of biomass and improves the enzyme access and effectiveness which may also lead to a change in crystallinity and degree of polymerization of cellulose. The internal surface area and pore volume of pretreated biomass are increased which facilitates substantial improvement in accessibility of enzymes. The process also helps in enhancing the rate and yield of monomeric sugars during enzymatic hydrolysis steps.

Pretreatment methods can be broadly classified into four groups – physical, chemical, physio-chemical and biological. Physical pretreatment processes employ the mechanical comminution or irradiation processes to change only the physical characteristics of biomass. The physio-chemical process utilizes steam or steam and gases, like SO2 and CO2. The chemical processes employs acids (H2SO4, HCl, organic acids etc) or alkalis (NaOH, Na2CO3, Ca(OH)2, NH3 etc). The acid treatment typically shows the selectivity towards hydrolyzing the hemicelluloses components, whereas alkalis have better selectivity for the lignin. The fractionation of biomass components after such processes help in improving the enzymes accessibility which is also important to the efficient utilization of enzymes.

Presently, a ton of dry biomass typically yields 60-70 gallons of bioethanol. The major cost components in bioethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass are the pretreatment and the enzymatic hydrolysis steps. In fact, these two process are someway interrelated too where an efficient pretreatment strategy can save substantial enzyme consumption. Pretreatment step can also affect the cost of other operations such as size reduction prior to pretreatment. Therefore, optimization of these two important steps, which collectively contributes about 70% of the total processing cost, are the major challenges in the commercialization of bioethanol from 2nd generation feedstock.

A Primer on Biofuels

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The term ‘Biofuel’ refers to liquid or gaseous fuels for the transport sector that are predominantly produced from biomass. A variety of fuels can be produced from biomass resources including liquid fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen and methane. The biomass resource base for biofuel production is composed of a wide variety of forestry and agricultural resources, industrial processing residues, and municipal solid and urban wood residues.

The agricultural resources include grains used for biofuels production, animal manures and residues, and crop residues derived primarily from corn and small grains (e.g., wheat straw). A variety of regionally significant crops, such as cotton, sugarcane, rice, and fruit and nut orchards can also be a source of crop residues. The forest resources include residues produced during the harvesting of forest products, fuelwood extracted from forestlands, residues generated at primary forest product processing mills, and forest resources that could become available through initiatives to reduce fire hazards and improve forest health. Municipal and urban wood residues are widely available and include a variety of materials — yard and tree trimmings, land-clearing wood residues, wooden pallets, organic wastes, packaging materials, and construction and demolition debris.

Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking. Biofuel industries are expanding in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Biofuels are generally considered as offering many priorities, including sustainability, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, regional development, social structure and agriculture, and security of supply.

First-generation biofuels are made from sugar, starch, vegetable oil, or animal fats using conventional technology. The basic feedstocks for the production of first-generation biofuels come from agriculture and food processing. The most common first-generation biofuels are:

  • Biodiesel: extraction with or without esterification of vegetable oils from seeds of plants like soybean, oil palm, oilseed rape and sunflower or residues including animal fats derived from rendering applied as fuel in diesel engines
  • Bioethanol: fermentation of simple sugars from sugar crops like sugarcane or from starch crops like maize and wheat applied as fuel in petrol engines
  • Bio-oil: thermo-chemical conversion of biomass. A process still in the development phase
  • Biogas: anaerobic fermentation or organic waste, animal manures, crop residues an energy crops applied as fuel in engines suitable for compressed natural gas.

First-generation biofuels can be used in low-percentage blends with conventional fuels in most vehicles and can be distributed through existing infrastructure. Some diesel vehicles can run on 100 % biodiesel, and ‘flex-fuel’ vehicles are already available in many countries around the world.

Second-generation biofuels are derived from non-food feedstock including lignocellulosic biomass like crop residues or wood. Two transformative technologies are under development.

  • Biochemical: modification of the bio-ethanol fermentation process including a pre-treatment procedure
  • Thermochemical: modification of the bio-oil process to produce syngas and methanol, Fisher-Tropsch diesel or dimethyl ether (DME).

Advanced conversion technologies are needed for a second generation of biofuels. The second generation technologies use a wider range of biomass resources – agriculture, forestry and waste materials. One of the most promising second-generation biofuel technologies – ligno-cellulosic processing (e. g. from forest materials) – is already well advanced. Pilot plants have been established in the EU, in Denmark, Spain and Sweden.

Third-generation biofuels may include production of bio-based hydrogen for use in fuel cell vehicles, e.g. Algae fuel, also called oilgae. Algae are low-input, high-yield feedstocks to produce biofuels.

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Waste-to-Energy Conversion Pathways

The conversion of organic waste material to energy can proceed along three main pathways – thermochemical, biochemical and physicochemical. Thermochemical conversion, characterized by higher temperature and conversion rates, is best suited for lower moisture feedstock and is generally less selective for products.

Thermochemical conversion includes incineration, pyrolysis and gasification. The incineration technology is the controlled combustion of waste with the recovery of heat to produce steam which in turn produces power through steam turbines. Pyrolysis and gasification represent refined thermal treatment methods as alternatives to incineration and are characterized by the transformation of the waste into product gas as energy carrier for later combustion in, for example, a boiler or a gas engine.

Bio-chemical conversion processes, which include anaerobic digestion and fermentation, are preferred for wastes having high percentage of organic biodegradable (putrescible) matter and high moisture content. Anaerobic digestion is a biological treatment method that can be used to recover both nutrients and energy contained in organic wastes such as animal manure. The process generates gases with a high content of methane (55–70 %) as well as biofertilizer. Alcohol fermentation is the transformation of organic fraction of waste to ethanol by a series of biochemical reactions using specialized microorganisms.

The physico-chemical technology involves various processes to improve physical and chemical properties of solid waste. The combustible fraction of the waste is converted into high-energy fuel pellets which may be used in steam generation. The waste is first dried to bring down the high moisture levels. Sand, grit, and other incombustible matter were then mechanically separated before the waste is compacted and converted into pellets. Fuel pellets have several distinct advantages over coal and wood because it is cleaner, free from incombustibles, has lower ash and moisture contents, is of uniform size, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.