Processing Biomass for Combustion

Farm Energy January 18, 2013 Print Friendly and PDF
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Unprocessed biomass comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and other properties, ranging from a gooey puddle of microscopic algae to the massive trunk of a large oak tree. If any feedstock is to be used effectively for combustion, it usually needs some form of processing to ensure that it is suitable for effective use in combustion equipment. The most common types of processing for combustion include drying, resizing, and densification.

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Drying Biomass

Dry fuel burns better than wet fuel because the water in fuel must be "boiled off" before the fuel can heat up enough to combust. Dry fuel is also desirable for storage because it is less susceptible to rot and microbial degradation. Some processes (i.e. pelletizing) are also very sensitive to moisture levels and may require careful treatment. The three most common methods for drying biomass (in order of increasing cost and effectiveness) are 1) ambient air drying, 2) forced air drying, and 3) kiln drying. One unusual approach to drying, called Torrefaction, partially burns the fuel, using the heat from the flames to dry the remaining fuel.

Resizing Biomass

The size of a biomass fuel has a big impact on how it performs in a combustion system. Not only are its combustion characteristics affected, but the feed and handling equipment for a combustion system often works only with fuel of a specific size. The main methods for resizing biomass are sawing, splitting, chipping, shredding and grinding. A key consideration in sizing is fuel is consistency in shape and size, particularly in the case of woodchips or pellets, to enable the fuel handling system to operate with greater ease.

Densifying Biomass

Biomass briquettes made from switchgrass.

While some biomass fuels, most notably wood, are fairly dense on a weight and energy basis, many types of biomass are relatively light. This makes them difficult to transport and handle in an effective way. However, it may be possible to densify the biomass to make it more compact and easy to use. The most common methods used are pelletizing, briquetting, and cubing. Densification also increases the size of the biomass fuel, which may also be beneficial.

Transforming Biomass

It is remarkable that biomass can be transformed into a variety of other types of solid, liquid or gaseous fuel. Sometimes it is worthwhile to transform the fuel before combusting, if the transformed fuel is easier to handle or use. Most farmers will not transform their biomass on-site, but instead sell their biomass to a processing company. However, it is worthwhile to understand the ways their feedstock can be altered for different uses.

Some possible products from biomass include:

  • Charcoal
  • Biocrude, a thick oily liquid somewhat similar to crude oil
  • Ethanol and other liquid fuels
  • Combustible gas, similar to natural gas

For Additional Information

Intro | Feedstocks | Processing | Utilization

  • Sun Grant Bioweb Resources. This is a list of resources related to combustion, including direct-firing, co-firing, gasification, technologies, and others.
  • State of the Science and Technology Report. Wood to Energy, University of Tennessee. The literature review includes characterizations of process design, stage of development or commercialization, and suitability for the marketplace. The review also provides an analysis of market sustainability, including opportunities and barriers, of wood to energy production.
  • Manufacturing Fuel Pellets from Biomass. Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Other articles in this Combustion Series:

Woody Biomass Processing:

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.