Biomass boiler proves viable fuel option for processors
31 October 2023
A pilot program to develop and test the potential for biomass boilers to provide sustainable fuel options for Australia’s meat processing facilities has successfully produced heat at a supply cost of below $3 per gigajoule (GJ), at JBS Riverina’s Yanco facility in New South Wales.
Instigated by the Australian Meat Processor Corporation (AMPC), the trial demonstrated how different types of biomass, such as the partially digested grain and grass found in an animal’s paunch, woodchip, nut shells and sawdust, could be blended and processed in a boiler to supply thermal energy.
Bioenergy is currently the third most common source of energy used by meat processing facilities behind grid electricity and grid gas, with coal in fourth place. Multi-fuel biomass can compare favourably with traditional forms of thermal energy such as on-site coal at $10/GJ and grid gas at $25/GJ.
The Australian Beef Sustainability Framework highlights the high cost of energy as one of the factors that puts pressure on processors to be price competitive in global markets. Profitability across the value chain is a key pillar of the Framework, as is a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 (CN30).
Conversion of waste into bioenergy is one option for processors to reduce production, processing and consumption waste, and research is continuing into the use of renewables within the energy mix to achieve CN30.
JBS Sustainability Engineer, Michael Lang, said sharp price rises for natural gas and coal, along with the industry’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, are prompting processors to seek cheaper, more sustainable energy options.
Using biomass can reduce GHG emissions by up to 98 per cent compared to coal, and by 96 per cent compared to natural gas.
“This trial shows that the potential to replace fossil fuels with a lower carbon emission biomass alternative using purpose-built boilers is now a genuine possibility,” Mr Lang said.
“During the trial we monitored the feasibility of various blends of biomass sourced on site and externally and successfully blended paunch materials – usually a waste stream – into multi-fuel blends of up to 80 per cent paunch, 20 per cent woodchip.
“This provided process heat to the plant at sub $3/GJ at the same time as reducing emissions and achieving energy reliability.”
Biomass fuels can include paunch, sludges, unrecyclable wood, woodchip, nut shells, sawdust or agri-wastes, as long as the final fuel blend meets the boiler fuel specifications.
AMPC Program Manager Sustainability, Matt Deegan, said the 500kW trial boiler used at JBS is smaller than full-scale biomass boilers, which may be up to 15 megawatts.
“We imported a small mobile boiler from Italy so that plants in different states can try a range of biomass fuels to make sure it gives them the right heating value, and to help with fuel management for different types of biomass,” Mr Deegan said.
“This pilot program will build the confidence of processors to hopefully advance to a full-scale boiler. It’s a considerable investment but the payoff is reduced energy prices and emissions.”
With a range of materials able to be used in the process, Mr Deegan said bioenergy will also boost the circular economy in regional areas.
“Waste from one business can be fuel for another, and the processing plants in regional locations will require different skillsets to manage and produce bioenergy so an ecosystem may also develop around those different skillsets as well.”
AMPC teamed up with All Energy to design, cost and manage the construction of the biomass boiler, which is now scheduled for trials in South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia.
“A biomass boiler is not so much a new technology for processors, it’s more about helping members to improve in capability and confidence around renewable thermal energy,” he said.
“Since we started this project in mid-2021, processor use of bioenergy has overtaken on-site coal use as the sector’s third largest source of energy, proving that Australian red meat processors are serious about their transition to clean energy.”
AMPC CEO Chris Taylor said: “The processing sector has a strong history of leading advances in sustainable food manufacturing, and the transition to renewable energy sources is the next step in the industry’s sustainable future”.