Biomass energy, or energy that’s generated by living or once-living organisms, is one of our most abundant sources of energy.
It’s derived from common natural products such as wood, crops, and manure. Humans first discovered it when our earliest ancestors made wood fires to cook food and keep themselves warm.
From then on until the mid-1800s, biomass energy was the world’s primary energy source for cooking, heating, and lighting. Civilizations all over the world relied on it to forge weapons and make bricks. But the advent of fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution brought about coal-fired electricity and natural gas, which led to a slow decline in our appetite for biomass energy.
Today, just 5 percent of the United States’ energy consumption comes from biomass energy. But the damage that fossil fuels have done to our planet has reignited the debate about whether biomass energy could become a major renewable energy source in the fight against climate change.
In this article, we explore how biomass energy works, and what implications it has for the future of our planet.
What is biomass energy?
Biomass is any organic material or waste that contains stored chemical energy from the sun. It’s considered the single largest source of carbon on our planet and a sustainable replacement for fossil fuels.
Many people today still use biomass energy for their cooking and heating needs. The International Energy Agency estimates that around 10 percent of the world’s energy supply still comes from biomass, of which two-thirds is used by mostly rural communities living in developing countries.
How does biomass produce energy?
We can produce energy from biomass by burning it or converting it into fuels through thermochemical and biological processes.
The easiest and most straightforward method of transforming biomass into useful energy is to burn it using a process called direct combustion.
The biomass is heated to 200 to 320 degrees celsius through a process known as torrefaction that completely dries it. The biomass shrinks by about 20 percent but retains 90 percent of its energy, turning it into an energy-dense block of organic material.
As the block is burned, it releases heat that can be used to cook food or heat homes. It can also be used to generate electricity – the heat boils water to produce steam, which creates enough pressure to turn a turbine, which in turn powers a generator that creates electricity.
Biomass can also be burned through thermochemical processes such as pyrolysis and gasification. The biomass is placed in a closed, pressurized container and heated at high temperatures using different amounts of oxygen.
Without oxygen, biomass converts into fuels such as charcoal, methane, and even renewable diesel. With a bit of free oxygen, the biomass produces a hydrogen-rich synthetic gas that can be used for diesel engines.
Fermentation is another way of converting biomass into ethanol. It solicits the help of microbes to break down corn starch or wood chips into sugar, which is then fermented into alcohol. Ethanol can be mixed with gasoline to produce vehicle fuel.
What are the 5 types of biomass?
Biomass energy is derived from five types of biomass, which include wood, crops, garbage, landfill gas, and animal waste. Here’s a look at what types of energy each produces.
Wood is the oldest and most common type of biomass that can be converted to solid or liquid fuels through direct combustion, pelletizing, or gasification.
Any part of a tree can be used as biomass. Wood residue from post-consumer wood waste such as wood chips and sawdust as well as unsellable parts of timber can be turned into energy.
Dedicated energy crops such as corn, bamboo, and sugarcane can be grown in a few years and harvested annually for biofuel. The sugars and starches in the plants are fermented and distilled to produce ethanol, which is fast becoming a complementary fuel source to gasoline.
Wet animal dung, along with green agricultural waste, can be broken down using helpful bacteria to produce methane biogas. The process, known as anaerobic digestion, can produce enough biogas to run an electric power plant or supply homes with natural gas.
Mixed commercial and residential garbage, such as cardboard, textiles, and food waste, can be burned to generate electricity in waste-to-energy plants. It’s believed that a ton of garbage produces the same amount of heat as a ton of coal to power an industrial boiler.
Landfills may naturally produce methane as bacteria and fungi, plus the lack of oxygen causes organic material in them to decay. The methane can be collected, purified, and used as an alternative source of energy. In the town of Collinsville, Alabama, three to four thousand homes are supplied with electricity generated using the town’s landfill gas.
What are the advantages of biomass energy?
Biomass energy has the potential to reduce the world’s waste problem and bring hundreds of communities out of energy poverty. It has already played a key role in making us less dependent on fossil fuels.
Renewable energy experts now believe that the wide availability of biomass can help countries around the world switch to clean energy with ease. These are the three advantages of biomass energy.
Biomass is widely available
Whether you live in the city or a rural area, there’s bound to be biomass available around you. It may be wet waste from our kitchens or timber from plantations. Most of these materials are renewable in that they can be turned into compost for growing more biomass. Plus, biomass such as trees can be continuously replanted to replenish supplies.
It’s a reliable source of energy
Biomass can be stored as liquid, solid, or gaseous fuels for long periods. It burns just like fossil fuels and can be used in the same energy infrastructure as them. Unlike wind or solar power which are susceptible to changes in the weather, biomass can be stored and converted to energy around the clock.
Biomass can help reduce the world’s waste problem
Biomass is probably the only energy source that can convert waste into energy. If biomass energy becomes widespread, it could help us divert hazardous waste from landfills and sewage systems to biomass power plants that can purify it.
There would be less pollution in our towns and cities and people would be at less risk of health problems.
Is biomass energy bad for the environment?
Although biomass does have its perks, many experts are concerned about the impact that extended biomass energy use could have on the environment.
Citing new data, scientists now believe that certain types of biomass, like wood specially harvested for biofuel purposes, may not be replenished quickly enough to cancel the carbon dioxide emitted during burning.
Some studies have even gone as far as to claim that biomass power plants produce almost twice the amount of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations, and up to four times the amount from natural gas plants, per unit of energy produced.
Unregulated use of biomass energy could lead to deforestation as existing forests get cut down to make space for trees that will be made into wood pellets. Farms may also switch to planting high-cellulose crops that require heavy amounts of pesticides and water to grow.
Also, the mishandling of methane from landfills and animal waste at processing facilities may contribute to fugitive emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that can trap heat more quickly than carbon dioxide, a quality that could potentially accelerate climate change.
Is it truly renewable?
Biomass is considered by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to be a renewable energy source. Most plant-based biomass harnesses energy from the sun and can regrow in a relatively short amount of time.
In practice, the situation is a bit more complicated. While most types of biomass can indeed be regrown, a certain set of conditions prevent it from being truly renewable.
Firstly, biomass must be carbon neutral for it to be truly renewable. Unfortunately, when most land or forests are cleared for biomass growing, existing trees and plants have to be cut down.
As they decay, the carbon that’s sequestered in them gets released back into the atmosphere.
Secondly, biomass is a more finite resource than wind, solar, or hydropower which can be harnessed almost continuously. Biomass needs land, water, nutrients, and plenty of time to grow. Collecting it for energy purposes produces significant impacts on the environment and takes away critical resources that could be used to grow food.
Support businesses that encourage sustainable, eco-friendly energy
While biomass energy may still take a while to become truly sustainable, there is another way to support the growth of eco-friendly energy.
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