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. The term “waste-to-energy” has traditionally referred to the practice of incineration of garbage. Today, a new generation of waste-to-energy technologies is emerging which hold the potential to create renewable energy from waste matter, including municipal solid waste, industrial waste, agricultural waste, and industrial byproducts. Waste feedstocks can include municipal solid waste (MSW); construction and demolition debris; agricultural waste, such as crop silage and livestock manure; industrial waste from coal mining, lumber mills, or other facilities; and even the gases that are naturally produced within landfills. Advanced waste-to-energy technologies can be used to produce biogas (methane and carbon dioxide), syngas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide), liquid biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), or pure hydrogen; these fuels can then be converted into electricity.
A host of technologies are available for realizing the energy potential of wastes, ranging from very simple systems for disposing of dry waste to more complex technologies capable of dealing with large amounts of industrial waste. Conversion routes for wastes are generally thermo-chemical or bio-chemical, but may also include chemical and physical. 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 while meeting the pollution control standards.
The biochemical conversion processes, which include anaerobic digestion and fermentation, are preferred for wastes having high percentage of organic biodegradable matter and high moisture content. Anaerobic digestion is a reliable technology for the treatment of wet, organic waste. Organic waste from various sources is composted in highly controlled, oxygen-free conditions circumstances resulting in the production of biogas which can be used to produce both electricity and heat. Anaerobic digestion also results in a dry residue called digestate which can be used as a soil conditioner. Alcohol fermentation is the transformation of organic fraction of biomass to ethanol by a series of biochemical reactions using specialized microorganisms. It finds good deal of application in the transformation of woody biomass into cellulosic ethanol.
Thermochemical conversion systems consist of primary conversion technologies which convert the waste into heat or gaseous and liquid products, together with secondary conversion technologies which convert these products into the more useful forms of energy being heat and electricity. 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.
Gasification of wastes 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. Pyrolysis enables wastes to be converted to a combination of solid char, gas and a liquid bio-oil. 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.