Anaerobic Digestion of Agricultural Residues


The main problem with anaerobic digestion of crop residues is that most of the agricultural residues are lignocellulosic with low nitrogen content. To improve the digestibility of crop residues, pre-treatment methods like size reduction, electron irradiation, heat treatment, enzymatic action etc are necessary. For optimizing the C/N ratio of agricultural residues, co-digestion with sewage sludge, animal manure or poultry litter is recommended.

Several organic wastes from plants and animals have been exploited for biogas production as reported in the literature. Plant materials include agricultural crops such as sugar cane, cassava, corn etc, agricultural residues like rice straw, cassava rhizome, corn cobs etc, wood and wood residues (saw dust, pulp wastes, and paper mill. Others include molasses and bagasse from sugar refineries, waste streams such as rice husk from rice mills and residues from palm oil extraction and municipal solid wastes, etc. However, plant materials such as crop residues are more difficult to digest than animal wastes (manures) because of difficulty in achieving hydrolysis of cellulosic and lignocellulosic constituents.

Crop residues can be digested either alone or in co-digestion with other materials, employing either wet or dry processes. In the agricultural sector one possible solution to processing crop biomass is co-digestion together with animal manures, the largest agricultural waste stream. In addition to the production of renewable energy, controlled anaerobic digestion of animal manures reduces emissions of greenhouse gases, nitrogen and odour from manure management, and intensifies the recycling of nutrients within agriculture.

In co-digestion of plant material and manures, manures provide buffering capacity and a wide range of nutrients, while the addition of plant material with high carbon content balances the carbon to nitrogen (C/N) ratio of the feedstock, thereby decreasing the risk of ammonia inhibition. The gas production per digester volume can be increased by operating the digesters at a higher solids concentration. Batch high solids reactors, characterized by lower investment costs than those of continuously fed processes, but with comparable operational costs, are currently applied in the agricultural sector to a limited extent.

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Role of Waste-to-Energy in Waste Management

Waste-to-energy provides the fourth “R” in a comprehensive solid waste management program: reduction, reuse, recycling, and energy recovery. The benefits of full-scale implementation of energy recovery as a final step in waste management are evident:

  • conservation of natural resources and fossil fuels
  • drastic landfill reduction
  • lower greenhouse emissions

The need for an integrated solid waste management strategy in a city, state, or country becomes more evident as that region’s economy grows and the standard of living improves. With increases in consumption, the amount of waste generated also increases. This creates stresses on the land used for disposal, can lead to environmental pollution, and can be detrimental to public health if the waste is not disposed properly.

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.

Biomass Energy in Southeast Asia

The rapid economic growth and industrialization in Southeast Asia is characterized by a significant gap between energy supply and demand. The energy demand in the region is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years which will have a profound impact on the global energy market. In addition, the region has many locations with high population density, which makes public health vulnerable to the pollution caused by fossil fuels. Another important rationale for transition from fossil-fuel-based energy systems to renewable ones arises out of observed and projected impacts of climate change. Due to the rising share of greenhouse gas emissions from Asia, it is imperative on all Asian countries to promote sustainable energy to significantly reduce GHGs emissions and foster sustainable energy trends. Rising proportion of greenhouse gas emissions is causing large-scale ecological degradation, particularly in coastal and forest ecosystems, which may further deteriorate environmental sustainability in the region.

The reliance on conventional energy sources can be substantially reduced as the region is one of the leading producers of biomass resources in the world. The energy generating capacity of biomass-based CHP plants is comparatively much higher than other alternative energy technologies like solar, wind and geothermal energy. In addition, solar and wind projects are confined to remote rural electrification and community centres, where the required installed capacity is low. On the other hand, biomass-based cogeneration plants can generate higher capacities of electrical and heat energy that could benefit an entire township and industries in the immediate area.

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.