When we’re talking about emerging applications, it’s difficult to overlook the rapidly arising biogas market.

Our ‘green’ issue of April highlighted the rise of biofuels, biomass and alternative energy solutions, as the traditional energy resources and fossil fuels continue to deplete – and allegedly harm the environment.

It seems that biogas is likely to play a significant role in a transposed energy future, if its current proliferation is anything to go by. Biogas studies, projects and plants appear to be gaining momentum as their feasibility is recognised, with popularity growing across the globe.

Rapidly growing
One of the latest examples to have made the gasworld headlines was the launch of an agricultural biogas project in rural South Africa.

The initiative launched by Trade plus Aid (TPA), with the help of the South African arm of Swiss biogas technology company Acrona, is hoped to implement domestic biogas projects throughout impoverished rural areas in South Africa.

This is just one example of the biogas uptake that’s gradually spreading throughout the world from Scandinavia to Singapore, and Australia to Azerbaijan. In Japan, biogas and the utilisation of biomass have been on the radar for years and, we understand, the concept of ‘Biomass Towns’ appears to be reaching fruition.

Under the ‘Biomass Nippon Strategy’ introduced by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2006, a target of up to 300 biomass towns was set for 2010 (according to issue 336 of The Gas Review) and as of November 2010, up to 286 had been announced. At the very least, this essentially means that all of those towns submitted a framework document that met the standards and approval to be designated as a so-called biomass town – a further goal has been set, to promote biomass activity in 600 cities, towns and villages by 2020.

With such public encouragement given for biomass, propaedeutic work appears to be underway which could ultimately lead to the adoption of biogas as a resource in Japan. Tokyo Gas, in conjunction with Bioenergy, has this year begun the trial of the input of biogas into city gas conduit piping, representing the first trial of this kind to be conducted in Japan. Comprising of 60% methane and 40% CO2, the biogas originates from the decomposition of food waste.

Earlier, in October 2010, a trial began in Japan involving the supply of biogas that originated from the decomposition of sewerage material.

Aside from developments in Japan, biogas is a topical subject in the UK right now too. The world’s first financial incentive of its kind to revolutionise the way heat is generated and used in buildings was launched by the UK’s Energy Secretary Chris Huhne is March (2011).

According to a UK Government Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) press release (Press Notice: 2011/023), the newly introduced Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) will support emerging technologies and businesses in the UK, strengthening security of supply by reducing dependence on fossil fuel heating and emissions.

The new financial incentive will apparently encourage the installation of equipment like renewable heat pumps, biomass boilers and solar thermal panels to both reduce emissions and support the existing 150,000 jobs in the heating industry.

Why is this so significant? In the UK, anything from a pub to a public library or a school to a power plant will be eligible under the RHI to install technologies like biomass boilers. For households, up to 25,000 installations from July (2011) will be supported by a ‘RHI Premium Payment’ to help people cover the purchase price of green heating systems.

Full details and implications of the RHI scheme are still to follow, though it is thought that the incentive as a whole will increase the number of industrial, commercial and public sector installations by seven times to 2020.

The RHI is significant as a tool for the encouragement and promotion of renewable resources and biogas in particular, as well as strengthening support for the development of equipment and technologies.

Ahead of the introduction of the RHI, the UK’s Chesterfield BioGas (CBG) has been providing turnkey solutions for the cleaning, storage and dispensing of biomethane produced from wastewater treatment and the anaerobic digestion of organic waste. In fact, in October 2010 CBG successfully completed the first biogas upgrading project to inject organically produced biomethane directly into the UK national gas grid.

The project involved raw biogas from a wastewater treatment being processed using a CBG ‘Manuka Plus’ upgrading unit to output biomethane of up to 99% purity. Speaking about the installation and the prospects for biogas, the company told gasworld, “This achievement was a defining moment for the UK energy industry and it is expected that the process will be monitored closely by many looking to apply cost-effective renewable solutions from organic waste.”

“The process is environmentally friendly, energy consumption is low and the product is easy to install, manage and maintain.”

The establishment of CBG (part of the Pressure Technologies group and the sister company of Chesterfield Special Cylinders) and its developments in biogas upgrading plants, it might be suggested, exemplifies the growing interest of the gas and equipment industry where biogas applications are concerned.

Recent years have also seen other examples of the exchange between the industrial gases business and the emerging biogas sector. In 2008 The Linde Group announced a joint venture with US company Waste Management Inc. that would see the construction of the world’s biggest plant for the conversion of landfill gas into environmentally friendly biogas in California, at a then investment of around $15m. The liquefied biogas was intended to be used for the fuelling of Waste Management’s 300 trash and recycling collection vehicles in California.

And in 2009 gasworld reported on the construction of Europe’s first liquid to compressed biogas (LCBG) refuelling station, located in the city of Sundsvall, Sweden. Supported by Cryostar, AGA Gas AB built the station with a capacity of 530 Nm3/h and strategically located near a major highway to supply fuel to a large number of vehicles.

This propagation is of little surprise, given the functional nature of biogas and its capacity to fuel a number of applications.

The term biogas essentially refers to a gas product that is produced via the biological breakdown of organic matter, in the absence of oxygen. A type of biofuel, biogas is produced by the anaerobic digestion or fermentation of biomass feedstock such as sewage, municipal waste, energy crops and other plant materials and is generally comprised of methane and carbon dioxide.

As methane, hydrogen and carbon monoxide are all combustible with oxygen, the resulting energy release ensures that biogas has a role to play as a fuel, whether this is compressed to power vehicles or for heating purposes. In anaerobic digestors, it can be converted into electricity and heat, while biogas also be cleaned and upgraded to natural gas standards and biomethane, similarly to the case of the CBG installation in the UK.

By removing gases such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide to leave an almost pure (98%) methane gas, biomethane can be produced and upgraded from raw biogas to meet with UK gas pipeline specifications, for example.

When we consider the aforementioned projects that CBG, Cryostar, AGA and Linde have been involved with, coupled with the increasing uptake around the world, the burgeoning biogas sector appears set to be an enterprising market or avenue for the industrial gas and equipment industry.

So what role could the industrial gas community play in the biogas market in the future? Technology and knowledge transfer, as well as the possible demand creation for gas related products and facilities, could be the answers to this question.

Biogas, once produced from a biomass, often includes impurities like carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide as described earlier, which can actually corrode cylinders and piping and therefore make biogas as a product difficult to purify and transport. Thus, a new demand could exist for the development of new trailers and transport technologies and methods, in addition to new utilisation and adoption technologies?

What has been learned from the work being carried out in Japan? Well, it is suggested that this could in fact be the case, with a new demand anticipated for gas related facilities such as methane purifiers, compressors and storage tanks, according to The Gas Review.

It seems there is little question of the role of biogas in a transformed energy future. A question we might ask is, does the increasing talk of biogas and biofuels mean the monomania with hydrogen is over?