California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Conversion of Organic Materials to Energy

Conversion Technologies: Pathways and Processes

Conversion of organic materials for energy can proceed along three main pathways--thermochemical, biochemical, and physicochemical. Useful forms of energy that can be produced include heat, steam, electricity, natural gas, and liquid fuels. Currently, all three pathways are utilized or have been demonstrated using mixed or separated municipal solid wastes (sometimes in combinations with industrial or petroleum refining residues).


Biochemical conversion processes include aerobic conversion (i.e., composting), anaerobic digestion (which occurs in landfills and controlled reactors or digesters), and anaerobic fermentation (for example, the conversion of sugars from cellulose to ethanol). Biochemical conversion proceeds at lower temperatures and lower reaction rates. Higher moisture feedstocks are generally good candidates for biochemical processes. The lignin fraction of biomass cannot be converted by anaerobic biochemical means and only very slowly through aerobic decomposition. As a consequence, a significant fraction of woody and some other fibrous feedstocks exits the process as a residue that may or may not have market value. The residue called digestate can be composted.


Thermochemical conversion processes include combustion, gasification, and pyrolysis. Thermochemical conversion is characterized by higher temperatures and faster conversion rates. It is best suited for lower moisture feedstocks. Thermochemical routes can convert all of the organic portion of suitable feedstocks. The inorganic fraction (ash) of a feedstock does not contribute to the energy products but may contribute to fouling of high temperature equipment, increased nutrient loading in wastewater treatment and disposal facilities, and in some cases by providing marketable coproducts or adding disposal cost. Inorganic constituents may also accelerate some of the conversion reactions.


Physiochemical conversion involves the physical and chemical synthesis of products from feedstocks (for example, biodiesel from waste fats, oils, and grease--known as FOG) and is primarily associated with the transformation of fresh or used vegetable oils, animal fats, greases, tallow, and other suitable feedstocks into liquid fuels or biodiesel. The March 2007 Biofuels from Municipal Wastes-Background Discussion Paper (PDF, 408 KB) provides additional information on biofuels.

Last updated: September 17, 2009
Conversion Technologies