SIRIM's BioNG, the world’s first natural gas derived from palm oil mill effluent (POME)

 HOT GAS IN TOWN. SIRIM’s BioNG is the world’s first natural gas derived from palm oil mill effluent (POME)


After eight years of research, SIRIM’s palm oil mill effluent (POME) BioNG project is now ready for commercialisation. There are two important reasons why natural gas became such an important energy source for Malaysia. Firstly, natural gas has about 30 per cent more energy per kilogramme than oil, which was the most widely used fuel for electricity generation back in the 80’s. Secondly, although methane itself is very polluting, a highly efficient gas-fired power station can be up to 70% less damaging to the environment than other hydrocarbon-fired power plants.

Malaysia’s palm oil industry generates some 140 million tonnes of biomass every year. Much of this waste is effluent generated by palm oil mills, which is generally left to decompose in open ponds where it releases some 67 million cubic metres of methane into the atmosphere annually. Eight years ago, SIRIM decided to find a way to capture, store and refine all this methane so that it could be used as an alternative to natural gas in gas-fired power stations and NGV vehicles. The project culminated with a pilot plant on Carey Island, Selangor that was established in cooperation with Sime Darby Research. 

It might seem counter-intuitive given its origins, but BioNG is actually as versatile and efficient as petroleum natural gas. It burns a clean, blue flame that is at least 95 per cent CH 4 methane, with carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen sulphide making up the rest. In comparison, hydrocarbon natural gas is typically only 93 per cent methane, with the rest comprising carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other hydrocarbon gases. Indeed, nearly five per cent of petroleum natural gas is actually made up of other alkanes, which makes it even more polluting.
What is really attractive about BioNG is the way it could not only reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released by Malaysia’s palm oil industry overnight, but also reduce the use of hydrocarbonbased liquified natural gas (LNG) in Malaysia’s energy and transportation sectors. For all intents and purposes, BioNG
and LNG are almost identical in chemical composition and energy density. The only real difference between them is that BioNG is carbon neutral and environmentally harmless, and LNG is not.
But that is a BIG difference.
BioNG could have a green impact on not just one, but three of the country’s most polluting industries. That’s why SIRIM has recommended that BioNG be included as a bioeconomy entry point project under the Economic Transformation Plan (ETP). The process for turning POME into BioNG is fairly simple: effluent
is channelled into a covered anaerobic pond equipped with a  pump that sucks the gas released from the pond’s surface and blows it through a series of purification chambers. These chambers filter out impurities like hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and moisture. At the end of the process, the purified gas is compressed into a high-pressure storage tank with an attached dispenser.
Unlike wind and solar energy sources, BioNG can be efficiently stored and transported in CNG cylinders. A typical CNG tube trailer can move about 2,000 cubic metres of BioNG, which is equivalent to about 1.5 tons of LNG . Also, unlike hydrocarbon natural gas tapped from underground or undersea wells, BioNG does not need costly pipelines and engineering heroics to bring the gas to the surface. Everything is processed in situ.

Energy security

As energy projects go, it does not really get much easier than BioNG. However, product pricing remains a challenge because the local market for natural gas is distorted by subsidies. 
In any case, Malaysia is going to need all the gas it can get over the next decade: by 2020, the government expects the country to need at least six gigawatts of new generation capacity, 25 per cent more than in 2009. And there won’t be enough gas to generate it.
Currently, nearly 50 per cent of the country’s electricity comes from gas-fired power plants. But with gas production rapidly declining at 12 per cent per year , the country has become increasingly reliant on imported coal. Should a geopolitical crisis destabilise world coal markets, the price for coal would skyrocket
and Malaysia would find itself in a very unpleasant position. This risky outlook has led to flagging investments in industries such as glass, plastics and semi-conductor manufacturing.
For investors, it is vital that Malaysia be able to turn to other imported fuel sources at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, this can only work if those alternatives were to be sold at unsubsidised prices. This is one of the reasons why subsidies are being gradually eliminated. Admittedly, Malaysia’s BioNG capacity will never be able to meet the natural gas needs of the whole country. However, BioNG will give the country some measure of energy security and reduce its
reliance on coal and gas imports. 
As a complementary source of feedstock for gas-fired power plants, BioNG is perfect. Plantation owners stand to gain a lot from producing BioNG. Besides reducing their carbon footprint overnight, BioNG can also be sold to energy producers and vehicle refilling stations.

Greener cars

While there are several ways to reduce CO 2 emissions from electricity generation (say, by encouraging the use of renewable energy), reducing CO2 emissions from transportation is not so easy. Sure, there have been some modest innovations intransportation over the past two decades, but let’s face it: hybrids still need petrol, biodiesels still need to be mixed with diesel and electric vehicles still need to be charged off the grid with electricity generated from hydrocarbon fuels.
Admirable as these innovations are, they are still based on nonrenewable energy sources. Unless you drive a natural gas vehicle (NGV) that runs on 
BioNG, that is, which is the perfect substitute for regular natural gas in NGVs, and it is carbon neutral. Once it is properly refined, BioNG has an energy content that is similar to petrol or diesel – minus the environmental damage.
With about 50,000 natural gas vehicles (NGVs) on the road, Malaysia currently ranks 22nd in the world for the number of natural gas vehicles (NGV) it has
on its roads. NGVs on Malaysian roads comprise a mere 0.5 per cent of the total number of vehicles in Malaysia, which is better than neighbouring Singapore (0.05 per cent) but less than world NGV policy leaders such as Iran (30.1 per cent), Argentina (14.6 per cent) and Thailand (3.8 per cent).
Nonetheless, NGVs are gaining popularity in Malaysia, and for good reason: based on current fuel prices, the typical petrol car costs about 23 sen per kilometre to run. An NGV is estimated to cost less than half that amount to operate, even at subsidised prices. Throwing the government’s 25 per cent road tax rebate for NGVs plus the availability of a carbon-neutral fuel like BioNG and consumers will be scrambling to own one.
Once the subsidies go, NGV will make even more sense to consumers and commercial users. The future seems bright for BioNG.
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