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Methanisation: Producing Energy from Organic

Among renewable energy sources, waste is all the more attractive since its
valorisation enables to both produce energy and dispose of waste streams.
Methanisation is a fast growing process that transforms organic waste into
biogas through a biological fermentation.

Biomass as a renewable energy source

In the framework of its efforts to enhance the use of renewable energies, the EU adopted a Biomass
Action Plan in December 2005. This action plan sets out measures to increase the development of
biomass energy from wood, wastes, and agricultural crops by creating market-based incentives to its
use and removing barriers to the development of the market. Biomass can be used for transport,
heating, and electricity generation. The plan was expected to double biomass use by 2010.

Among biomass sources, waste material is especially interesting since it does

not raise the issue of land-use competition with food crops. Moreover, it often
provides a solution for waste stream management. Organic wastes come from
a range of agricultural or industrial activities including crop residues, forest and
wood process residues, animal wastes including human sewage, municipal
solid waste (excluding plastics and non-organic components), and food
processing wastes.

Numerous processes can be used in order to produce energy from these

sources. The main commercially available applications include1:

• Direct combustion to produce heat and/or power, for example from solid
municipal waste.
• Advanced thermal processes, gasification and pyrolysis, produce a Photo Ian Britton
Forest residues are a
methane-containing gas mix from waste that has been beforehand main source of biomass
homogenised, for example wood chips.
• Anaerobic digestion (or methanisation) produces a biogas from organic waste streams such as
sewage sludge.

Moreover, some waste streams produce energy carriers almost directly. For instance, biogas production
by anaerobic digestion occurs naturally in landfills and can be recovered directly. Similarly, waste oil
from the food industries can be reused as biofuels with limited processing.

For a summary chart displaying biomass feedstocks and their conversion processes to bioenergy carriers, please
refer to the International Energy Agency paper "Renewables for Heating and Cooling" (2007), figure 3. Available at

February 2008
Edited by BIO Intelligence Service 1/3
Highlight on biomass methanisation
The process called anaerobic digestion or methanisation is
suitable to treat all residues containing organic matter, especially
wet residues, for instance dairy industries waste or cattle manure.
It is a biological treatment: in the absence of oxygen, bacteria
digest the waste and produce a mixture of methane and carbon
dioxide named biogas. Biogas can be burnt to produce heat,
electricity, or both in a co-generation system. In the latter type, the
production of heat directly participates in the methanisation
process (it serves to keep the digester at a constant temperature).
Biogas can also be used as fuel for natural gas vehicles. Once all
its impurities (including carbon dioxide, CO2) have been removed,
the gas can be injected into the town gas distribution network. The
process produces a solid residue which can be used as a soil Biomethanisation of municipal
waste in France
conditioner. This treatment option is used on a broad variety of
The largest biogas producing countries in Europe are Germany and the UK, other countries being way
below in terms of biogas primary energy production (resp. 1923 ktoe (kiloton oil equivalent) in Germany,
1696 ktoe in the UK, and 353 ktoe in the third ranked country, Italy). In the UK, the biogas is directly
recovered from landfills. According to Cardiff University Waste Research Station, anaerobic digestion
has not taken off as a waste treatment and disposal option in the UK mainly due to the lack of market
for the produced soil conditioner2. In Germany, biogas production is mainly due to electricity production
from small agricultural methanisation units operating in combined power and heat production. Six
hundred such units were installed in 2005 and 800 in 2006 to reach a total 3500 by the end of 2006.
This growth has been favoured by an incentive system including subventions, access to low interest
loans and an attractive purchase price for small electricity production plants running on biomass.

Biomass methanisation: a fast-growing sector

As shown by the example of Germany, the number of biomass methanisation units is rapidly increasing
in the EU. The increase of such technologies should be facilitated by their relatively low price compared
to other renewable energies (see the following table3).
Costs of various renewable energies

Projected average
Costs 2005, Costs 2005,
cost reduction by
range € / GJ average € / GJ
2030, % 2005 costs
Solar thermal energy, water
8 to 226 52 -42
and space heating
Solar thermal energy, solar
11 to 307 66 -44
assisted cooling
Bioenergy, pellet heating 8 to 99 26 -5
Bioenergy, anaerobic
6 to 32 15 -3
Geothermal, deep
0.5 to 11 2 +11
Geothermal, deep advanced 1 to 24 3 -13

Source: IEA report " International Energy Agency paper "Renewables for Heating and Cooling", executive
summary p 7. Available at

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Another indication of this sector's dynamism is its wide representation at 2007 Pollutec Horizon show –
a lead trade fair for environmental innovations. Indeed, methanisation and biogas products represented
4 out of the 8 innovations listed in the "Renewable energies" category:

• A French firm presented a new patented system for biogas purification;

• A Belgium society presented a new line of enzymatic products aiming to improve biogas
production yield in anaerobic digestion processes;
• Two firms proposing turnkey methanisation units were represented. A French company was a
newcomer in the field and a German one presented a reduced size methanisation unit. The
company also developed an innovative stirring system that enables to realise maintenance
without emptying the tank.

For more information:

• EU Biomass Action Plan

− The Plan

− Presentation webpage

− Europa press release, December 2005: Renewable energy: European Commission

proposes ambitious biomass and biofuels action plan and calls on Member States to do more
for green electricity

• Biogas production in Europe: EurObserver, 2007 Biogas barometer, available at

• Pollutec 2007 innovations page, Renewable energies category

February 2008
Edited by BIO Intelligence Service 3/3