Industrial Biomass and the Full Life Cycle of Carbon Emissions

The scramble to meet that 2020 target is creating a new sort of energy business. In the past, electricity from wood was a small-scale waste-recycling operation: Scandinavian pulp and paper mills would have a power station nearby which burned branches and sawdust. Later came co-firing, a marginal change.

The Carbon Times Blog


Which source of renewable energy is most important to the European Union? Solar power, perhaps? (Europe has three-quarters of the world’s total installed capacity of solar photovoltaic energy.) Or wind? (Germany trebled its wind-power capacity in the past decade.) The answer is neither. By far the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.

In its various forms, from sticks to pellets to sawdust, wood (or to use its fashionable name, biomass) accounts for about half of Europe’s renewable-energy consumption. In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand. Even in Germany, home of the Energiewende (energy transformation) which has poured huge subsidies into wind and solar power, 38% of non-fossil fuel consumption comes from the stuff. After years in which European governments have boasted about their high-tech, low-carbon energy revolution, the main beneficiary seems to be the favoured fuel of pre-industrial…

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Carbon Dioxide Removal Can Lower Costs of Climate Protection

Options for carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere include afforestation and chemical approaches like direct air capture of CO2 from the atmosphere or reactions of CO2 with minerals to form carbonates. But the use of biomass for energy generation combined with carbon capture and storage is less costly than chemical options, as long as sufficient biomass feedstock is available, the scientists point out.

After Big Bang

Directly removing CO2 from the air has the potential to alter the costs of climate change mitigation. It could allow prolonging greenhouse-gas emissions from sectors like transport that are difficult, thus expensive, to turn away from using fossil fuels. And it may help to constrain the financial burden on future generations, a study now published by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) shows. It focuses on the use of biomass for energy generation, combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS). According to the analysis, carbon dioxide removal could be used under certain requirements to alleviate the most costly components of mitigation, but it would not replace the bulk of actual emissions reductions.

“Carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere allows to separate emissions control from the time and location of the actual emissions. This flexibility can be important for climate protection,” says lead-author Elmar Kriegler. “You don’t have…

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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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A Primer on Waste-to-Energy

NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 18: Indian workers...
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Energy is the driving force for development in all countries of the world. The increasing clamor for energy and satisfying it with a combination of conventional and renewable resources is a big challenge. Accompanying energy problems in different parts of the world, another problem that is assuming critical proportions is that of urban waste accumulation. The quantity of waste produced all over the world amounted to more than 12 billion tonnes in 2006, with estimates of up to 13 billion tonnes in 2011. The rapid increase in population coupled with changing lifestyle and consumption patterns is expected to result in an exponential increase in waste generation of upto 18 billion tonnes by year 2020.

Waste generation rates are affected by socio-economic development, degree of industrialization, and climate. Generally, the greater the economic prosperity and the higher percentage of urban population, the greater the amount of solid waste produced. Reduction in the volume and mass of solid waste is a crucial issue especially in the light of limited availability of final disposal sites in many parts of the world. Millions of tonnes of waste are generated each year with the vast majority disposed of in open fields or burnt wantonly.

Waste-to-Energy (WTE) is the use of modern combustion and biochemical technologies to recover energy, usually in the form of electricity and steam, from urban wastes. These new technologies can reduce the volume of the original waste by 90%, depending upon composition and use of outputs. The main categories of waste-to-energy technologies are physical technologies, which process waste to make it more useful as fuel; thermal technologies, which can yield heat, fuel oil, or syngas from both organic and inorganic wastes; and biological technologies, in which bacterial fermentation is used to digest organic wastes to yield fuel. Waste-to-energy technologies can address a host of environmental issues, such as land use and pollution from landfills, and increasing reliance on fossil fuels.

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A Primer on Biofuels

In some countries, filling stations sell bio-d...
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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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Biomass Combined Heat and Power (CHP) Systems

Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is the simultaneous generation of multiple forms of useful energy (usually mechanical and thermal) in a single, integrated system. In conventional electricity generation systems, about 35% of the energy potential contained in the fuel is converted on average into electricity, whilst the rest is lost as waste heat. CHP systems use both electricity and heat and therefore can achieve an efficiency of up to 90%.

CHP systems consist of a number of individual components—prime mover (heat engine), generator, heat recovery, and electrical interconnection—configured into an integrated whole. Prime movers for CHP units include reciprocating engines, combustion or gas turbines, steam turbines, microturbines, and fuel cells.

A typical CHP system provides:

  • Distributed generation of electrical and/or mechanical power.
  • Waste-heat recovery for heating, cooling, or process applications.
  • Seamless system integration for a variety of technologies, thermal applications, and fuel types.

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.

Rural Resources Urban Resources
Forest residues Urban wood waste
Wood wastes Municipal solid wastes
Crop residues Agro-industrial wastes
Energy crops Food processing residues
Animal manure Sewage

Technology Options

Reciprocating or internal combustion engines (ICEs) are among the most widely used prime movers to power small electricity generators. Advantages include large variations in the size range available, fast start-up, good efficiencies under partial load efficiency, reliability, and long life.

Steam turbines are the most commonly employed prime movers for large power outputs. Steam at lower pressure is extracted from the steam turbine and used directly or is converted to other forms of thermal energy. System efficiencies can vary between 15 and 35% depending on the steam parameters.

Co-firing of biomass 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. Biomass can typically provide between 3 and 15 percent of the input energy into the power plant. Most forms of biomass are suitable for co-firing.

Steam engines are also proven technology but suited mainly for constant speed operation in industrial environments. Steam engines are available in different sizes ranging from a few kW to more than 1 MWe.

A gas turbine system requires landfill gas, biogas, or a biomass gasifier to produce the gas for the turbine. This biogas must be carefully filtered of particulate matter to avoid damaging the blades of the gas turbine.  

Stirling engines utilize any source of heat provided that it is of sufficiently high temperature. A wide variety of heat sources can be used but the Stirling engine is particularly well-suited to biomass fuels. Stirling engines are available in the 0.5 to 150 kWe range and a number of companies are working on its further development.

A micro-turbine recovers part of the exhaust heat for preheating the combustion air and hence increases overall efficiency to around 20-30%. Several competing manufacturers are developing units in the 25-250kWe range. Advantages of micro-turbines include compact and light weight design, a fairly wide size range due to modularity, and low noise levels.

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices in which hydrogen-rich fuel produces heat and power. Hydrogen can be produced from a wide range of renewable and non-renewable sources. A future high temperature fuel cell burning biomass might be able to achieve greater than 50% efficiency.


CHP technologies are well suited for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and 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.


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.

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.

Socio-economic and Environmental Benefits of Waste-to-Energy

Waste-to-energy technologies hold the potential to create renewable energy from waste matter, including municipal solid waste, industrial waste, agricultural waste, and industrial byproducts. 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. Waste-to-energy systems can contribute substantially to GHG mitigation through both reductions of fossil carbon emissions and long-term storage of carbon in biomass wastes. Modern waste-to-energy systems options offer significant, cost-effective and perpetual opportunities for greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Additional benefits offered are employment creation in rural areas, reduction of a country’s dependency on imported energy carriers (and the related improvement of the balance of trade), better waste control, and potentially benign effects with regard to biodiversity, desertification, recreational value, etc. In summary, waste-to-energy can significantly contribute to sustainable development both in developed and less developed countries. Waste-to-energy is not only a solution to reduce the volume of waste that is and provide a supplemental energy source, but also yields a number of social benefits that cannot easily be quantified.

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 Energy and its Importance

Biomass can play a dual role in greenhouse gas mitigation related to the objectives of the UNFCCC, i.e. as an energy source to substitute for fossil fuels and as a carbon store. However, compared to the maintenance and enhancement of carbon sinks and reservoirs, it appears that the use of bioenergy has so far received less attention as a means of mitigating climate change. Modern bioenergy options offer significant, cost-effective and perpetual opportunities toward meeting emission reduction targets while providing additional ancillary benefits. Moreover, via the sustainable use of the accumulated carbon, bioenergy has the potential for resolving some of the critical issues surrounding long-term maintenance of biotic carbon stocks.

It has become clear that biomass can contribute substantially to GHG mitigation through both reductions of fossil carbon emissions and long-term storage of carbon in biomass. All forms of biomass utilization can be considered part of a closed carbon cycle. The mass of biospheric carbon involved in the global carbon cycle provides a scale for the potential of biomass mitigation options; whereas fossil fuel combustion accounts for some 6 Gigatons of carbon (GtC) release to the atmosphere annually, the net amount of carbon taken up from and released to the atmosphere by terrestrial plants is around 60 GtC annually (corresponding to a gross energy content of approximately 2100 EJ p.a., of which bioenergy is a part), and an estimated 600 GtC is stored in the terrestrial living biomass.

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.