May 12, 2010

Is Biomass Efficient - Biomass Pyrolysis

By: Salman Zafar

Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of biomass occurring in the absence of oxygen. It is the fundamental chemical reaction that is the precursor of both the combustion and gasification processes and occurs naturally in the first two seconds. The products of biomass pyrolysis include biochar, bio-oil and gases including methane, hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. Depending on the thermal environment and the final temperature, pyrolysis will yield mainly biochar at low temperatures, less than 450 0C, when the heating rate is quite slow, and mainly gases at high temperatures, greater than 800 0C, with rapid heating rates. At an intermediate temperature and under relatively high heating rates, the main product is bio-oil.

Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small scale and at remote locations which enhance energy density of the biomass resource and reduce transport and handling costs. Heat transfer is a critical area in pyrolysis as the pyrolysis process is endothermic and sufficient heat transfer surface has to be provided to meet process heat needs. Pyrolysis offers a flexible and attractive way of converting solid biomass into an easily stored and transported liquid, which can be successfully used for the production of heat, power and chemicals.

Feedstock for Pyrolysis

A wide range of biomass feedstocks can be used in pyrolysis processes. The pyrolysis process is very dependent on the moisture content of the feedstock, which should be around 10%. At higher moisture contents, high levels of water are produced and at lower levels there is a risk that the process only produces dust instead of oil. High-moisture waste streams, such as sludge and meat processing wastes, require drying before subjecting to pyrolysis.

The efficiency and nature of the pyrolysis process is dependent on the particle size of feedstocks. Most of the pyrolysis technologies can only process small particles to a maximum of 2 mm keeping in view the need for rapid heat transfer through the particle. The demand for small particle size means that the feedstock has to be size-reduced before being used for pyrolysis.

Types of Pyrolysis

Pyrolysisprocesses can be categorized as slow pyrolysis or fast pyrolysis. Fast pyrolysis is currently the most widely used pyrolysis system. Slow pyrolysis takes several hours to complete and results in biochar as the main product. On the other hand, fast pyrolysis yields 60% bio-oil and takes seconds for complete pyrolysis. In addition, it gives 20% biochar and 20% syngas. Fast pyrolysis processes include open-core fixed bed pyrolysis, ablative fast pyrolysis, cyclonic fast pyrolysis, and rotating core fast pyrolysis systems. The essential features of a fast pyrolysis process are:

Very high heating and heat transfer rates, which require a finely ground feed. Carefully controlled reaction temperature of around 500oC in the vapour phase Residence time of pyrolysis vapours in the reactor less than 1 sec Quenching (rapid cooling) of the pyrolysis vapours to give the bio-oil product.

Uses 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.

Importance of Biochar

The growing concerns about climate change have brought biochar into limelight. Combustion and decomposition of woody biomass and agricultural residues results in the emission of a large amount of carbon dioxide. Biochar can store this CO2 in the soil leading to reduction in GHGs emission and enhancement of soil fertility. In addition to its potential for carbon sequestration, biochar has several other advantages.

Biochar can increase the available nutrients for plant growth, water retention and reduce the amount of fertilizer by preventing the leaching of nutrients out of the soil. Biochar reduces methane and nitrous oxide emissions from soil, thus further reducing GHGs emissions. Biochar can be utilized in many applications as a replacement for other biomass energy systems. Biochar can be used as a soil amendment to increase plant growth yield.


Biomass pyrolysis has been attracting much attention due to its high efficiency and good environmental performance characteristics. It also provides an opportunity for the processing of agricultural residues, wood wastes and municipal solid waste into clean energy. In addition, 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.

Salman Zafar is a Renewable Energy Advisor with expertise in biomass energy, waste-to-energy processes, solid waste management, green investment and sustainable energy systems. Apart from managing his advisory firm BioEnergy Consult, he has been actively involved in fostering sustainable development and creating environmental awareness in developing countries. Salman sits on the advisory board of several reputed biomass energy, cleantech investment and waste management firms from India, Singapore, Nigeria and USA.

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