Biomass gasification and the future of hydrogen fuel

Even though hydrogen is a clean energy carrier (fuel), its production adds significantly to the global carbon footprint. In addition, environmentally friendly hydrogen production is very expensive. But there is a better solution: the gasification of biomass.

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What is biomass gasification?

Biomass is any renewable organic material, such as agricultural crop residues, organic municipal solid waste, forestry waste and animal waste. The conversion of these resources into fuel and high temperature gases is gasification. Biomass gasification is the production of biofuel from organic and renewable raw materials.

In this process, the biomass is dehydrated at 150°C before being heated to 800–900°C in a gasifier with an oxidizing agent. Due to the increase in heat, the dry waste residue degrades and then the complex solid hydrocarbons decompose into flammable gases such as hydrogen and syngas. These gases can be used as fuel once separated and purified.

How is biomass gasification currently used?

producer gas

The formation of combustible gases called producer gas results from the incomplete combustion of biomass during gasification. Producer gas can power internal combustion engines, replace heating oil and make methanol, which can be used as fuel for heat engines and as chemical raw material for industries.

Syngas

Gasification of biomass at higher temperature with an oxidizing agent produces syngas. Syngas can be used for heating and the production of synthetic compounds such as ammonia, methanol and dimethyl ether.

Hydrogen production

Hydrogen can be produced by gasification of biomass. This method uses a thermochemical reaction at high temperature and low pressure. Hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, carbon dioxide and other gases are produced due to this process.

If the goal is to optimize hydrogen production, the process should include syngas purification, a water-gas shift reaction to increase H2 concentration and carbon capture technology to store CO2 emissions. Using carbon capture and storage, generating hydrogen from biomass is the only method that generates net negative CO2 emissions.

The production of hydrogen by gasification of biomass contributes to solving two critical environmental problems: the growth of waste stocks and the carbon-intensive method of hydrogen production.

Importance of hydrogen as a fuel and its effect on the environment / Objectives of the Paris Agreement

Hydrogen (H) is the most common element on Earth, although it does not exist alone under normal conditions. Due to its reactive properties, it quickly combines with other elements to form different organic and inorganic compounds, for example water (H2O).

There are several methods of producing hydrogen, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages in terms of cost and environmental friendliness. The more carbon dioxide emitted during hydrogen synthesis, the less beneficial its production will be for the environment.

Traditional use of hydrogen in industries

Hydrogen has been used in the petroleum refining and chemical sectors. According to the IEA, the world produces around 69 million tonnes of hydrogen per year. A total of 63% is used in the chemical industry, 31% in petroleum refining, 6% in processing and less than 1% as fuel for cars, trucks and rockets.

How can hydrogen help achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement?

The energy density of hydrogen (33 kWh/kg) is much higher than that of gasoline and diesel (around 12 kWh/kg), which makes it an excellent energy carrier or fuel. The most important advantage of hydrogen is that it is a clean fuel because when burned, only water is formed as a by-product without the emission of harmful gases.

It has the potential to decarbonise economic sectors and industrial processes where reducing carbon emissions is both critical and complex.

But only in the last decade, in the context of the active implementation by industrialized countries of environmental programs to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and the signing of the Paris climate agreement, hydrogen began to be considered as a real alternative to hydrocarbons.

What is necessary?

Innovations for the mass production of hydrogen at a competitive cost will be essential for the transition to zero carbon emissions and to reduce global warming to 1.5°C. Testing and optimizing various technologies, including methane pyrolysis and plasma-chemical methods of producing hydrogen from natural gas using carbon capture technology, will be key to advancing towards deep decarbonization to reach the target set in the Paris Climate Agreement.

While the new hydrogen economy is far from complete, hampered by economic constraints and the immaturity of many end-use technologies, H2 has a potentially important role. As a fuel that leaves no carbon footprint when burned, hydrogen could be the solution to the critical problems of new renewables.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

Hydrogen BECCS Innovation Program

The UK government launched a new program in January 2022 to help develop hydrogen generation technologies using biomass and sustainable waste.

Using $5 million in government funds, the new Hydrogen BECCS Innovation Program will assist in the development of a hydrogen generation system that uses BECCS (BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage).

In the BECCS process, the carbon emitted during the production of hydrogen is captured and stored, ensuring clean energy production. The effort shows how biomass and hydrogen can play a part in achieving net zero in the UK.

World’s Largest Net Negative CO2 Biomass Processing Facility

Babcock & Wilcox and Kiewit Industrial have partnered to build a biomass power plant at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge in Louisiana. The 200 megawatt Project Cyclus power station will be the largest of its kind.

The planned facility will create aviation fuel, green hydrogen, bioplastic feedstocks and carbon-free renewable diesel. Biomass fuels will be used in the Cyclus project, including wood waste, wood chips, bagasse, etc., with carbon capture technology that will isolate CO2 underground emissions.

Ontario Hydrogen Strategy

The Ontario government released its first Low Carbon Hydrogen Strategy on April 7, 2022, outlining the province’s vision and expectations for the development of the hydrogen sector.

Several proposed activities are included in the strategy to enable hydrogen production and develop the low-carbon hydrogen economy. According to the plan, low-grade forest biomass will now be used to make low-carbon hydrogen through pyrolysis and gasification.

Future prospects

The potential of hydrogen as a fuel has long been recognized. Its potential as an emission-free energy carrier is being rediscovered as the world races to limit the effects of global warming. It has the potential to decarbonize transportation, heating systems and industrial operations, which are currently difficult to decarbonize with renewables.

References and further reading

Babcock and Wilcox. (2022). B&W and Kiewit partner to deliver 200 MW biomass power plant in Louisiana. [Online]. Available at: https://biomassmagazine.com/articles/18852/bw-kiewit-partner-to-deliver-200-mw-biomass-plant-in-louisiana (accessed April 24, 2022).

Bhatia, SC (ed.). (2014). Biomass gasification. Advanced Renewable Energy Systems (Part 1 and 2). CRC Press. pages 473-489. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-1-78242-269-3.50018-8

Binder, M., Kraussler, M., Kuba, M. & Luisser, M. (2018). Hydrogen from the gasification of biomass. IEA Bioenergy. Retrieved from: https://www.ieabioenergy.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Wasserstoffstudie_IEA-final.pdf

Cao, L., Iris, KM, Xiong, X., Tsang, DC, Zhang, S., Clark, JH, … & Ok, YS (2020). Production of biorenewable hydrogen by gasification of biomass: results and future prospects. Environmental research186, 109547. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2020.109547

Rosa, L., & Mazzotti, M. (2022). Potential for hydrogen production from sustainable biomass with carbon capture and storage. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews157, 112123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2022.112123

Voegele, E. (2022). The British government launches the Hydrogen BECCS innovation programme. [Online]. Available at: https://biomassmagazine.com/articles/18625/uk-government-launches-hydrogen-beccs-innovation-program (accessed 24 April 2022).

Widjaja, A. (2022). Ontario Establishes Low-Carbon Hydrogen Strategy, Including Technical Input. [Online]. Available at: https://ospe.on.ca/uncategorized/policy-win-ontario-sets-out-a-low-carbon-hydrogen-strategy-inclusive-engineering-input/ (accessed April 24, 2022).

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