A review of thermo-chemical conversion of biomass into biofuels-focusing on gas cleaning and up-grading process steps

Henrik Kusar, Jan Brandin, Christian Hulteberg

Research output: Book/ReportReportResearch


It is not easy to replace fossil-based fuels in the transport sector, however, an appealing solution is to use biomass and waste for the production of renewable alternatives. Thermochemical conversion of biomass for production of synthetic transport fuels by the use of gasification is a promising way to meet these goals.

One of the key challenges in using gasification systems with biomass and waste as feedstock is the upgrading of the raw gas produced in the gasifier. These materials replacing oil and coal contain large amounts of demanding impurities, such as alkali, inorganic compounds, sulphur and chlorine compounds. Therefore, as for all multi-step processes, the heat management and hence the total efficiency depend on the different clean-up units. Unfortunately, the available conventional gas filtering units for removing particulates and impurities, and also subsequent catalytic conversion steps have lower optimum working temperatures than the operating temperature in the gasification units.

This report focuses on on-going research and development to find new technology solutions and on the key critical technology challenges concerning the purification and upgrading of the raw gas to synthesis gas and the subsequent different fuel synthesis processes, such as hot gas filtration, clever heating solutions and a higher degree of process integration as well as catalysts more resistant towards deactivation. This means that the temperature should be as high as possible for any particular upgrading unit in the refining system. Nevertheless, the temperature and pressure of the cleaned synthesis gas must meet the requirements of the downstream application, i.e. Fischer-Tropsch diesel or methanol.

Before using the gas produced in the gasifier a number of impurities needs to be removed. These include particles, tars, sulphur and ammonia. Particles are formed in gasification, irrespective of the type of gasifier design used. A first, coarse separation is performed in one or several cyclone filters at high temperature. Thereafter bag-house filters (e.g. ceramic or textile) maybe used to separate the finer particles. A problem is, however, tar condensation in the filters and there is much work performed on trying to achieve filtration at as high a temperature as possible.

The far most stressed technical barriers regarding cleaning of the gases are tars. To remove the tar from the product gas there is a number of alternatives, but most important is that the gasifier is operated at optimal conditions for minimising initial tar formation. In fluid bed and entrained flow gasification a first step may be catalytic tar cracking after particle removal. In fluid bed gasification a catalyst, active in tar cracking, may be added to the fluidising bed to further remove any tar formed in the bed. In this kind of tar removal, natural minerals such as dolomite and olivine, are normally used, or catalysts normally used in hydrocarbon reforming or cracking. The tar can be reformed to CO and hydrogen by thermal reforming as well, when the temperature is increased to 1300ºC and the tar decomposes. Another method for removing tar from the gas is to scrub it by using hot oil (200-300ºC). The tar dissolves in the hot oil, which can be partly regenerated and the remaining tar-containing part is either burned or sent back to the gasifier for regasification.

Other important aspects are that the sulphur content of the gas depends on the type of biomass used, the gasification agent used etc., but a level at or above 100 ppm is not unusual. Sulphur levels this high are not acceptable if there are catalytic processes down-stream, or if the emissions of e.g. SO2 are to be kept down. The sulphur may be separated by adsorbing it in ZnO, an irreversible process, or a commercially available reversible adsorbent can be used. There is also the possibility of scrubbing the gas with an amine solution. If a reversible alternative is chosen, elementary sulphur may be produced using the Claus process.

Furthermore, the levels of ammonia formed in gasification (3,000 ppm is not uncommon) are normally not considered a problem. When combusting the gas, nitrogen or in the worst case NOx (so-called fuel NOx) is formed; there are, however, indications that there could be problems. Especially when the gasification is followed by down-stream catalytic processes, steam reforming in particular, where the catalyst might suffer from deactivation by long-term exposure to ammonia.

The composition of the product gas depends very much on the gasification technology, the gasifying agent and the biomass feedstock. Of particular significance is the choice of gasifying agent, i.e. air, oxygen, water, since it has a huge impact on the composition and quality of the gas, The gasifying agent also affects the choice of cleaning and upgrading processes to syngas and its suitability for different end-use applications as fuels or green chemicals.

The ideal upgraded syngas consists of H2 and CO at a correct ratio with very low water and CO2 content allowed. This means that the tars, particulates, alkali salts and inorganic compounds mentioned earlier have to be removed for most of the applications. By using oxygen as the gasifying agent, instead of air, the content of nitrogen may be minimised without expensive nitrogen separation.

In summary, there are a number of uses with respect to produced synthesis gas. The major applications will be discussed, starting with the production of hydrogen and then followed by the synthesis of synthetic natural gas, methanol, dimethyl ether, Fischer-Tropsch diesel and higher alcohol synthesis, and describing alternatives combining these methods. The SNG and methanol synthesis are equilibrium constrained, while the synthesis of DME (one-step route), FT diesel and alcohols are not. All of the reactions are exothermal (with the exception of steam reforming of methane and tars) and therefore handling the temperature increase in the reactors is essential. In addition, the synthesis of methanol has to be performed at high pressure (50-100 bar) to be industrially viable.

There will be a compromise between the capital cost of the whole cleaning unit and the system efficiency, since solid waste, e.g. ash, sorbents, bed material and waste water all involve handling costs. Consequently, installing very effective catalysts, results in unnecessary costs because of expensive gas cleaning; however the synthesis units further down-stream, especially for Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and DME/methanol will profit from an effective gas cleaning which extends the catalysts life-time. The catalyst materials in the upgrading processes essentially need to be more stable and resistant to different kinds of deactivation.

Finally, process intensification is an important development throughout chemical industries, which includes simultaneous integration of both synthesis steps and separation, other examples are advanced heat exchangers with heat integration in order to increase the heat transfer rates. Another example is to combine exothermic and endothermic reactions to support reforming reactions by using the intrinsic energy content. For cost-effective solutions and efficient application, new solutions for cleaning and up-grading of the gases are necessary.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationStockholm
Number of pages55
ISBN (Print)978-91-7729-366-8
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

ISSN (Print)1654-1081

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Bioenergy
  • Chemical Engineering


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