How Does Biomass Work?

  • Biomass is our oldest form of renewable energy. Organic materials, such as plants and animal waste contain this precious resource and it's readily available for use. What makes biomass renewable is the process by which it is formed.

  • Biomass is made up of solar energy, carbon dioxide and water. Plants manufacture biomass through the photosynthesis process wherein the chlorophyll in plants absorbs the sun's energy by converting carbon dioxide from the ground into carbohydrates. Plants draw from the air and water stored in the ground in the making of carbohydrates. When the carbohydrates are burned, they convert back into carbon dioxide and water, thereby releasing the sun's energy back into the atmosphere.

  • Types of biomass are plants, wood, grass, animal waste, landfill waste, and even sewer waste. The most typical method of accessing the biomass in these materials is through burning; however, most of the energy is lost when biomass is burned, and there are environmental problems to deal with as well.

  • Alternative methods for accessing biomass energy are :
    · Co-firing--used by power plants in which biomass materials are mixed with coal during the burning process. This cuts down on the pollution factor.
    · Chemical Processing--where plant oils are chemically converted into liquid for use as fuel.
    · Biochemical Processing--used in sewage treatment plants and waste management facilities; carbohydrates are processed through the fermentation of bacteria, yeasts and enzymes found in waste and sewage.
    · Thermochemical--where plant materials are liquefied instead of burned, providing gases, liquids and solids for use as energy to power electricity and water treatment plants.

  • Currently, biomass energy provides 14 percent of the world's main energy consumption. It accounts for 38 percent of the primary energy used in developing countries, as compared to 4 percent for the United States. Research and development efforts are working towards finding more efficient biomass conversion technologies in an effort to take advantage of this natural energy resource. With ample land and agricultural resources, the United States can see biomass energy consumption rise as high as 20 percent within the next 20 years.

  • Some concerns have come to light regarding the current energy crop programs taking place in developing countries as to whether food supplies will suffer as a result of biomass energy needs. Not unlike agricultural crops, energy crops require land, water, fertilizers and skilled labor to run. Should food crops be skimmed, food prices will rise, placing an additional burden on the population.

  • Overall, the outlook for biomass energy is promising. Our present-day crisis concerning fuel and energy costs sees biomass energy production as a definite direction for the future.

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