The enormous increase in the quantum and diversity of waste materials generated by human activity and their potentially harmful effects on the general environment and public health, have led to an increasing awareness about an urgent need to adopt scientific methods for safe disposal of wastes. While there is an obvious need to minimize the generation of wastes and to reuse and recycle them, the technologies for recovery of energy from wastes can play a vital role in mitigating the problems. 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.
Waste generation rates are affected by socio-economic development, degree of industrialization, and climate. Generally, the greater the economic prosperity and the higher percentage of urban population, the greater the amount of solid waste produced. 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. Although numerous waste and byproduct recovery processes have been introduced, anaerobic digestion has unique and integrative potential, simultaneously acting as a waste treatment and recovery process.
Waste-to-Energy Conversion Pathways
A host of technologies are available for realizing the potential of waste as an energy source, ranging from very simple systems for disposing of dry waste to more complex technologies capable of dealing with large amounts of industrial waste. There are three main pathways for conversion of organic waste material to energy - thermochemical, biochemical and physicochemical.
Combustion of waste has been used for many years as a way of reducing waste volume and neutralizing many of the potentially harmful elements within it. Combustion can only be used to create an energy source when heat recovery is included. Heat recovered from the combustion process can then be used to either power turbines for electricity generation or to provide direct space and water heating. Some waste streams are also suitable for fueling a combined heat and power system, although quality and reliability of supply are important factors to consider.
Thermochemical conversion, characterized by higher temperature and conversion rates, is best suited for lower moisture feedstock and is generally less selective for products. Thermochemical conversion includes incineration, pyrolysis and gasification. The incineration technology is the controlled combustion of waste with the recovery of heat to produce steam which in turn produces power through steam turbines. Pyrolysis and gasification represent refined thermal treatment methods as alternatives to incineration and are characterized by the transformation of the waste into product gas as energy carrier for later combustion in, for example, a boiler or a gas engine.
The bio-chemical conversion processes, which include anaerobic digestion and fermentation, are preferred for wastes having high percentage of organic biodegradable (putrescible) 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.
The physico-chemical technology involves various processes to improve physical and chemical properties of solid waste. The combustible fraction of the waste is converted into high-energy fuel pellets which may be used in steam generation. Fuel pellets have several distinct advantages over coal and wood because it is cleaner, free from incombustibles, has lower ash and moisture contents, is of uniform size, cost-effective, and eco-friendly.
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