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IMA Energy & Environment Blog

Biomass Conversion Technologies

by John Baker

BBJ Group is an IMA B2B Partner

There are many different types of biomass that include crop wastes, forestry residues, purpose-grown grasses, woody energy crops, algae, industrial and municipal organic wastewaters and sludges, non-recyclable municipal solid waste, urban wood waste, and food waste.  Biomass is considered renewable as either a feedstock or waste and due to government incentives, corporate sustainability goals and climate change initiatives, a majority of the conversion technologies use biomass to produce various forms of renewable energy.  The type of energy includes electrical power, thermal energy, renewable natural gas, biodiesel, jet fuel, and ethanol.

Biomass also can be used as a substitute for fossil fuels in the manufacturing of high value products including plastics, lubricants, industrial chemicals, and many other products derived from petroleum or natural gas. The US Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office also is promoting the existing “petroleum refinery” model, where these “bioproducts” can be produced alongside biofuels at an integrated “biorefinery.” This co-production strategy offers a more efficient, cost-effective, and integrated approach to the utilization of our nation’s biomass resources. Revenue generated from bioproducts provides added value, improving the economics of biorefinery operations and creating more cost-competitive biofuels. 

There are four types of conversion technologies currently available that may result in specific energy and potential renewable products:

Thermal conversion is the use of heat, with or without the presence of oxygen, to convert biomass into other forms of energy and products.  These include direct combustion, pyrolysis, and torrefaction.  

  • Combustion is the burning of biomass in the presence of oxygen. The waste heat is used to for hot water, heat, or with a waste heat boiler to operate a steam turbine to produce electricity.  Biomass also can be co-fired with existing fossil fuel power stations.
  • Pyrolysis convert biomass feedstocks under controlled temperature and absent oxygen into gas, oil and biochar (used as valuable soil conditioner and also to make graphene). The gases and oil can be used to power a generator and some technologies can also make diesel and chemicals from the gases.
  • Torrefaction is similar to pyrolysis but in a lower operating temperature range. The final product is an energy dense solid fuel often referred to as “bio-coal”.

Thermochemical conversion is commonly referred to as gasification. This technology uses high temperatures in a controlled partial combustion to form a producer gas and charcoal followed by chemical reduction. A major use for biomass is for agriculture residues with gas turbines. Advanced uses include production of diesel, jet fuel and chemicals.

Biochemical Conversion involves the use of enzymes, bacteria or other microbes to break down biomass into liquids and gaseous feedstocks and includes anaerobic digestion and fermentation. These feedstocks can be converted to energy, transportation fuels and renewable chemicals.

Chemical Conversion involves the use of chemical agents to convert biomass into liquid fuels which mostly is converted to biodiesel.

BBJ Group offers owners, developers and investors a team of experts experienced with a wide variety of biomass conversion technologies. Services provided include due diligence and validation of technologies, technology applications, planning, optimum site location including site investigation, permitting, environmental risk management, insurance advisory and opinion of cost. BBJ Group will also assist in evaluating the most cost-effective and most reliable technologies for the type of biomass feedstocks available and determining which renewable products have the highest value for the site specific locations available.

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