Biomass is a fuel that can be burned in the place of carbon. It is made of renewable and organic material that comes from plants and animals. Until the mid-1800s, biomass was used for most energy consumption. While it is still common in developing countries, its use has decreased in developed countries.
In the United States alone, biomass only provides about five percent of total energy use.
Some examples of biomass include:
- Wood – firewood, wood pellets, wood chips
- Wood waste – Wasted lumber, old wood furniture, sawdust, black liquor
- Crops – Corn, soybeans, sugar cane, algae
- Municipal solid waste – Paper, cotton, wool, food waste
- Animal manure – manure from farms
- Human sewage – sewage and gas from sewer lines
Essentially, anything you would use to start a fire, or has been historically used for fires can generally be used for biomass.
How Biomass Energy Compares to Other Renewable Energy Sources
Biomass is a good option on paper for a green and environmentally friendly energy source. It eliminates the need for storage of power, as we can burn fuel and harvest biomass as needed, instead of having to store the power when we do get it so we can use it later.
Biomass has a lot of potential. Instead of having to create batteries that use lithium, which can be very harmful to the environment to mine, it has the potential to be harmful as well.
In theory, biofuel can be incredibly beneficial. We simply collect waste from products such as the byproducts of creating paper and furniture, and even the waste of animals and humans, and burn it. While it does create greenhouse gasses, those can be recycled.
However, in practice, the energy we can gather isn’t quite so benign. Many worry that we are going to need more energy than just what we can get from waste materials. This means that crops or plants will have to be grown solely to provide us with electricity.
If not done with the environment and economy in mind, we can rapidly increase the price of electricity and power, while also harming the environment. We may also ruin natural lands and environments at some point to make room for the crops we have to grow, which sets back the movement towards bettering the world and is not harming the environment further.
Also, if the products have to be transported too far, it no longer is economically feasible, as a lot of biomass is simply water, and so about 50 percent of the total biomass is simply waste.
If done right, it can be a cheap option that doesn’t harm our environment. However, at most, it should be used in conjunction with other renewable resources and not be a sole source of power.
How Biomass Energy Compares to Fossil Fuels
Unfortunately, fossil fuels are still the cheaper option. Even natural gas is cheaper than biomass. On average, coal generally runs about twenty percent cheaper than biomass energy.
Steps are being made to make biomass energy more economically feasible, however, such as turning the biomass into more energy-dense fuel by converting it to pellets before transplanting. Unlike the burning of carbon, biofuels are considered carbon-neutral.
This is because, though it does still release greenhouse gasses while burning, trees and plants must be planted to continue to have products to burn. These plants absorb carbon from the air as they are growing.
This essentially means that the carbon is being recycled. However, it is important to note that biomass is only carbon neutral and considered a clean energy source if sustainable growth methods and harvesting practices are used.
The Different Types of Biomass Energy
Tree & Plant Waste
Pretty much all parts of a tree and tree byproducts can be used to produce biofuel. Everything such as logs, wood chips, sawdust, and bark can be used. However, it isn’t just a tree that can be used, but the by-products of turning trees into other materials like paper and lumber that can be burned for biofuel as well.
Additionally, waste from crops can also be used. For example, the stems and husks of corn can be burned as well after harvesting the corn for sale.
Most of our garbage is sitting in a landfill somewhere. But what if there was some other way we could put it to use? By burning it for biomass, we can free up space and produce energy. Unfortunately, since a lot of our trash is plastic, burning it for fuel wouldn’t be as clean as other methods.
Currently, most of the world’s top biofuels are crops or plants. The top ten most commonly used biofuel crops are:
- Cottonseed oil
- Palm oil
- Sugar cane
Landfill Gas & Biogas
Landfills are the places where all of our trash is stored. The conditions are usually airtight so that no oxygen can be brought in. However, there are still bacteria that can break down the trash in an anaerobic environment.
This process produces a gas composed mostly of carbon dioxide and methane. Since this gas is highly combustible, it is usually removed from the landfill by vents or via controlled burning. However, we could convert this gas into fuel to make biofuel.
Natural gas is primarily composed of methane, so it makes sense that we can convert this landfill waste gas into something more useful. It would take some restructuring, as a lot of the gas is burned at the source, and not transported, but it is a way to turn our giant heaps of trash into something useful.
Biogas is the gas produced by microscopic organisms as they eat dead plants and animals. These gasses can be used to produce a large amount of gas that can be converted to energy.
The same goes for animal waste. Animal waste also produces a large amount of methane, which makes it ideal to burn and use to produce energy.
How Biomass Energy Is Used
Biomass energy is used both to produce electricity and biofuel. These can be done by either burning the material, allowing bacteria to decay it to produce gas, or conversion of the gas into liquid fuel.
Bio-oil can even be produced to replace oil and biodiesel can replace diesel and gasoline. Even in the U.S., it has the power to meet the energy demand throughout every state.
How Biomass Energy Is Produced
Most of the time, biomass is produced from burning and combustion. Usually, biomass is burned in a boiler to produce steam under pressure. This steam then creates a wind that turns a series of turbine blades, which in turn rotates a generator, which finally produces electricity.
However, it can also be produced by bacterial decomposition, also known as anaerobic digestion. This is often done with animal and human waste and sewage.
The material is placed into tanks that are sealed off, allowing no oxygen to come in. Then, it is decomposed by bacteria and turned into a gas via anaerobic digestion.
Finally, the last method is to turn biomass into liquid fuel. This is done by separating and purifying the hydrogen after steam is produced. This produces a synthetic gas, also known as synthesis gas and shorted to syngas via pyrolysis and gasification.
This is simply just the processes of heating oxygen up to a very high temperatures and getting synthetic residues.
The History of Biomass Energy
Biomass has been used for as long as people could make fires. Anything that can be burned to produce heat or energy that is made from plants and animals is considered biomass.
When you burn a fire to cook smores over, you are using biomass energy to heat the marshmallows. Any time there is cooking done over the fire that is done with agriculture byproducts instead of charcoal, it is considered biomass.
However, it was not given the name biomass until the 1970s. It was titled so by a Danish man known as Jens Dall Bentzen who worked to increase the products we could use to make biomass energy and increase the efficiency of burning biomass.
The Future of Biomass Energy
For the most part, biomass energy is simply being looked at as transition energy. This means it is a way to get us to step back from using greenhouse-heavy products like coal and natural gasses.
But, it isn’t being looked at for long-term energy production as there are safer and more environmentally-friendly methods. There are some industries, though, where biomass may be standard even in the future until we can create a more intensive form of renewable and clean energy.
Industries that need a lot of power and heat and rely a lot on carbon can move towards decarbonization and crude oil by using biomass fuels. Some examples of industries that may benefit from switching to a more biofuel-based system include:
- Steel production
- Cement production
- Lime mining
- Aviation fuels
- Chemical manufacturing
The Pros and Cons of Biomass Energy
Biomass is clean and renewable. The energy from the sun is converted by plants or algae and then burned. Trees and crops can be made to be constantly available and release little to no carbon emissions.
While it technically doesn’t have zero emissions, the greenhouse gasses can be recycled to create a reliable carbon-neutral system that is safe. Some of these fuels, like switchgrass, manure, and algae, can be used without having to compete with agricultural land dedicated to food.
This allows it to be a useful alternative to biomass energy that can be used in any industry. Unlike other forms of clean and renewable resources, storage of energy isn’t a problem.
The energy is stored within the organism, and it just has to be harvested and burned when needed.
While the products we use for biomass are renewable, they aren’t able to be replenished very quickly. For example, trees can take hundreds of years to regrow, and peat moss takes up to 900 years to replenish itself.
Additionally, land is needed to develop these products. That takes more land away from natural habitats and food crops. It also makes it not cost effective, as land, water, time, energy, and the actual production of the gas all take up a large amount of money, time, and operations.
The reason that biomass is clean is because even though burning these products produces carbon dioxide, the products, in turn, can absorb greenhouse gasses. For example, peat moss and old-growth forests both absorb large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
However, if these materials aren’t harvested sustainably, then we can get rid of these carbon sinks and actually make things worse. Though the bioenergy process is essentially clean, most plants will still require fossil fuels to be cost-effective.
This means the use of fossil fuels is only being slowed down and not stopped. Biomass isn’t very efficient. About 50% of biomass is water, which isn’t used to produce energy.
Therefore, to be economically efficient, transporting biomass more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) shouldn’t ever happen. Though, studies have also found that converting biomass to pellets can increase the energy density to make it a bit more economically feasible.
Biomass still releases greenhouse gasses like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. If these aren’t contained and recycled, the pollutants released can be worse than fossil fuels.
Biomass Energy Myths and Facts
One common myth is that biomass is new. However, biomass has been around as long as human ancestors were making fire.
Another myth associated with biomass is that it promotes deforestation. While it can, if not done right, there are many ways to get biomass and deforestation isn’t one of the more practical ways. Plus, if guidelines are put in place, then deforestation can be prevented.
Biomass is considered renewable, so it can be replenished over time, as long as it is done well.
How biomass is formed?
Biomass energy is made from animal and plant parts. This means that biomass itself is made from plants and energy from the sun. As plants grow, they gather energy from the sun. This energy can either be burned to produce biofuel or can be eaten by an animal to give them energy.
Then, the waste that the animals produce can be burned for biofuel. Since they are digesters of the energy, animals can be used in addition to plants to produce a number of biomass energies.
Even animal fats can be used, though animal waste was most often chosen as it has more benefits and is easier to gather in any scenario. Plus, it is already abundant in CO2. However, photosynthesis is the main source.
Where is biomass found?
Biomass is found throughout the world. Anywhere where plants, animals, or humans roam is a place where you can find biomass.
Even a forest or a garden near homes uses photosynthesis. This is also what allows the gasses that is released into the atmosphere to be absorbed and put back into the soil in most areas.
Where is biomass used the most?
Biomass is currently used the most in developing countries. For example, in Ethiopia, biomass is used by roughly 84 percent of the population. Biomass also provides:
– 65 percent of Haiti’s energy
– 72 percent of Kenya’s energy
– 78 percent of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s energy
– 81.5 percent of Nigeria’s energy
– 85 percent of Tanzania’s energy
Is biomass good for the environment?
If done right, biomass has the potential to at least slow carbon emissions on the planet. At best, it is a carbon-neutral fuel.
This means while it still produces greenhouse gasses, those greenhouse gasses go back into the earth to create the next round of biofuels. So while it isn’t perfect, it is far better for the environment than natural gasses or fossil fuels.
Is biomass clean energy?
Biomass refers to any renewable energy source derived from decomposing organic materials, such as wood, crops, or animal manure. The heat released when biomass is burned may be utilized to power generators or warm up buildings.
Biomass may be a sustainable energy source if it is exploited in the right way. This is due to the fact that via the natural process of development and decay, it does not add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than it removes.
Carbon neutrality can be achieved, for instance, when wood is used for electricity and the trees used as biomass are replaced after being harvested. Using biomass in this way can help lessen our dependency on fossil fuels and cut down on emissions of greenhouse gases.
How efficient is biomass energy?
Biomass energy, sometimes known as “green” or “renewable” energy, is generated from organic materials including wood, crops, and animal waste. Currently, the efficiency of biomass energy is somewhere around 50%, which implies that only approximately 50% of the energy in the biomass is turned into useful energy.
Biomass energy has the potential to be a substantial source of renewable energy, hence efforts are being undertaken to increase its efficiency. Inefficient as it may be, biomass energy has its limits due to the high water content of many biomass materials.
Much of the bulk of biomass materials is lost in the form of water vapor during combustion, which does not contribute to net energy production. As a result, biomass energy may become less efficient as a whole. Despite this, research and development into biomass energy continue, as it is seen as a viable renewable energy source.
What is the cost of biomass energy?
Unfortunately, biomass energy isn’t cheap. Most of the time, on a small scale, biomass energy can cost about eight to 15 cents per kilowatt hour. Unfortunately, this means it can be over five times the cost of traditional fossil fuels.
While there are currently subsidies to lower the cost, there is also a prediction that large-scale biomass can cause more drain on boilers and generators, and increase the price due to maintenance.
What are the land requirements for biomass energy?
For the burning of biomass itself, there isn’t much space required. However, if large-scale biomass started, it could easily take up a large amount of space. Right now, we could produce a fair amount of power simply with the byproducts we are already producing.
Over time, however, we would have to plant and grow crops to use for biofuel, which takes up a large amount of space.
What are the water requirements for biomass energy?
Water requirements for biomass energy could also be high. Not only is water needed to heat the biomass, but when crops are planted, a good amount of water will have to go to keep them alive and growing.
However, water is also a byproduct of biomass production. If done right, that water could be repurposed to reduce the cost.