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Carbon neutral biomass is becoming a potential alternative energy source for fossil fuels in our Carbon constrained economy. More and more waste –to-energy projects is implemented all over the world due to the availability of biomass on a larger scale; thanks to the increasing population and farming activities. New technological developments are taking place side by side to enhance the quality of Biogas for power generation. Distributed power generation using biogas is an ideal method for rural electrification especially, where grid power is unreliable or unavailable. Countries like India which is predominantly an agricultural country, requires steady power for irrigation as well as domestic power and fuel for her villages. Large quantity of biomass in the form of agriculture waste, animal wastes and domestic effluent from sewage treatment plants are readily available for generation of biogas. However, generation of biogas of specified quality is a critical factor in utilizing such large quantities of biomass. In fact, large quantity of biomass can be sensibly used for both power generations as well as for the production of value added chemicals, which are otherwise produced from fossil fuels, by simply integrating suitable technologies and methods depending upon the quantity and quality of biomass available at a specific location. Necessary technology is available to integrate biomass gasification plants with existing coal or oil based power plants as well as with chemical plants such as Methanol and Urea. By such integration, one can gradually change from fossil fuel economy to biofuel economy without incurring very large capital investments and infrastructural changes. For example, a coal or oil-fired power plant can be easily integrated with a large-scale biomass plant so that our dependency on coal or oil can be gradually eliminated.

Generation of biogas using anaerobic digestion is a common method. But this method generates biogas with 60% Methane content only, and it has to be enriched to more than 95% Methane content and free from Sulfur compounds, so that it can substitute piped natural gas with high calorific value or LPG (liquefied petroleum gas). Several methods of biogas purification are available but chemical-free methods such as pressurized water absorption or cryogenic separation or hollow fiber membrane separation are preferred choices.

The resulting purified biogas can be stored under pressure in tanks and supplied to each house through underground pipelines for heating and cooking. Small business and commercial establishments can generate their own power from this gas using spark-ignited reciprocating gas engines (lean burnt gas engines) or micro turbines or PAFCs (phosphoric acid fuel cells) and use the waste heat to air-condition their premises using absorption chillers. In tropical countries like India, such method of distributed power generation is absolutely necessary to eliminate blackouts and grid failures. By using this method, the rural population need not depend upon the state-owned grid supplies but generate their own power and generate their own gas, and need not depend on the supply of rationed LPG cylinders for cooking. If the volume of Bio-methane gas is large enough, then it can also be liquefied into a liquified bio-methane gas (LBG) similar to LNG and LPG. The volume of biomethane gas will be reduced by 600 times, on liquefaction. It can be distributed in small cryogenic cylinders and tanks just like a diesel fuel. The rural population can use this liquid bio-methane gas as a fuel for transportation like cars, trucks, buses, and farm equipment like tractors and even scooters and auto-rickshaws.

Alternatively, large-scale biomass can be converted into syngas by gasification methods so that resulting biomass can be used as a fuel as well as raw materials to manufacture various chemicals. By gasification methods, the biomass can be converted into a syngas (a mixture of Hydrogen and Carbon monoxide) and free from sulfur and other contaminants. Syngas can be directly used for power generation using engines and gas turbines.

Hydrogen rich syngas is a more value added product and serves not only as a fuel for power generation, but also for cooking, heating and cooling. A schematic flow diagram Fig 3,  Fig4 and Fig 6 (Ref: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Review) shows how gasification of biomass to syngas can  compete with existing fossil fuels for various applications such as for power generation, as a raw material for various chemical synthesis and as a fuel for cooking, heating and cooling and finally as a liquid fuel for transportation. Bio-gasification has a potential to transform our fossil fuel dependant world into Carbon-free world and to help us to mitigate the global warming.

Fuel cell technology is emerging as a base-load power generation technology as well as back-up power for intermittent renewable energy such as solar and wind, substituting conventional storage batteries. However, Fuelcell requires a Fuel in the form of Hydrogen of high purity. The advantage of Fuel cell is, its high electrical efficiency compared to conventional fossil fuel power generation technology, using Carnot cycle. Fuel cell is an electro-chemical device like a battery and generates power using electro-chemical redox reaction silently with no gaseous emission, unlike engines and turbines with combustion, rotary movements and gaseous emissions. The fuel Hydrogen can be generated using a renewable energy sources such as solar and wind as described in my previous articles, “Solar Hydrogen for cleaner future” dated 4 July 2012, and “Renewable Hydrogen for remote power supply “dated 28 June 2012.

Alternatively, Hydrogen can also be generated using biomass through Biogas. Biogas is an important source of renewable energy in the carbon constrained economy of today’s world. The biogas can be generated from waste water and agro-waste by anaerobic digestion using enzymes. Biomass such as wood waste can also be gasified to get syngas, a mixture of Hydrogen and Carbon dioxide. In anaerobic digestion, the main product will be methane gas accompanied by carbon dioxide and nitrogen while the main product in gasification will be Hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and oxides of Nitrogen. Whatever may be the composition of the resulting gas mixture, our focus will be to separate methane or Hydrogen from the above mixture. In anaerobic digestion, the resulting Methane gas has to be steam reformed to get Hydrogen gas suitable for Fuel cell application. In gasification, the resulting Syngas has to be separated into pure Hydrogen and Carbon dioxide so that pure Hydrogen can be used as a fuel in Fuel cell applications. As I have outlined in many of my previous articles, Hydrogen was the only fuel we have used all these years and we are still using it  in the form of Hydrocarbons and it will continue to be the fuel in the future also. The only difference is future Hydrogen will be free from carbon.

We have to discuss two issues to mitigate Carbon emission, and it can be done by 1.Elimination of Carbon from the fuel source. 2. Generation of Renewable and Carbon free clean energy directly from solar and wind. One option  to cut Carbon from the fuel source is to use Biomass as the raw material to generate Hydrogen so that fresh Carbon will not be added  into the atmosphere by emissions .The second option is to generate pure Hydrogen from water by electrolysis using renewable energy such as wind and solar. Environmentally friendly waste-to-energy projects are becoming popular all over the world. But now most of these waste-to-energy projects generate either Biogas (Methane) by anaerobic digestion or Syngas (Hydrogen and Carbon dioxide) by gasification. Both these gases need further purification before they can be used as a fuel for power generation. The Methane content in the Biogas (about 60% methane and 40% Carbon dioxide with other impurities) needs to be enriched to 90% Methane and free from other impurities. The composition of a typical Biogas is shown in table1.

The resulting purified methane gas will be reformed using steam reformation in presence of a catalyst to get syngas; finally Hydrogen should be separated from resulting syngas so that it can be used directly into the Fuelcell.The common Fuel cell used for this application is invariably Phosphoric acid fuel cell.

PAFC uses 100% Phosphoric acid in Silicon carbide matrix as an electrolyte. PAFC is a self-contained unit completely enclosed in a cabin consisting of a gas reformer, Fuellcell power generator, Power conditioning unit and other auxiliaries. The PAFC is of modular construction with capacities ranging from 100Kw up to 500Kw as a single unit. It can be installed outdoor in the open and it can be readily connected to a piped Biogas. It can also be connected to existing piped natural gas or LPG bullet as a stand-by fuel. Any waste-to energy project can be integrated with Fuel cell power generation with CHP application to get greatest economic and environmental benefits. Hydrogen derived from biomass will be an important source of fuel in the future of clean energy; and Fuel cell will become an alternative power generation technology for both stationary power generation and transportation such as Fuel cell car or Hybrid cars.

PAFC is a compact, self-contained power generation unit that is used even for base load power. The electrical efficiency of PAFC  is about 42% .It is suitable for CHP applications so that the total energy efficiency can reach up to 85%.It is ideal for supplying continuous power 24×7 and also to use waste heat for space heating or space air-conditioning with an absorption chiller in CHP applications. The ideal candidates for PAFC power generation using CHP will be hospitals, super markets, Data centers, Universities or any continuous process industry.PAFC is now used as a backup power for large-scale renewable energy project with an access to piped natural gas. A schematic flow diagram of a fuel cell power generation is shown in Fig 3 using biogas at Yamagata sewage treatment plant in Japan. Biomass  based  Fuecell  power generation has a great potential all over the world irrespective of location and size of the country.

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