What Is Biomass Energy?

Inspire Clean Energy

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category: Clean Energy 101

What is biomass energy?

Biomass energy produces heat and/or electricity by incinerating organic material that comes from either plants or animals. The organic material from animals consists of manure from cows, horses or chickens. And many indigenous populations in the Andes mountain range of South America collect waste from their llamas and alpacas. Once it's collected, it is dried into a petrified state, then incinerated to heat their homes, boil water and cook food. In other parts of the world, the same process may occur. For organic plant material, the process of incineration is the same. Organic plant material, once dried, can become a fuel used to generate energy in the form of heat.

For many parts of the developing world, burning organic plant material to generate heat for daily life is still common. In the developed world, biomass was the primary source of energy until the mid-to-late 1800s. Now, biomass energy is produced through the incineration of human waste, like garbage. Many municipalities in the United States may have their biomass plants to help create the electricity needed to meet the energy demands of their citizens. Biomass energy plants are also used with other renewable energy sources to help produce electricity at the main facility. For example, a wind farm may work with a biomass power plant to produce electricity when the wind is either too slow or too high to run the wind turbines.

What is used to create biomass energy?

Different types of organic plant material can be used for biomass energy production through photosynthesis. When the plants are alive, they harness the power of the sun to give themselves life. When they die, that energy remains within the plant until it's burned. For example, if a tree is turned to firewood and then burned to heat a home, the tree's original energy absorbed through photosynthesis is released through combustion to heat the house.

Here are some of the examples of the different types of plant organic material commonly used to produce biomass energy:

  • Crops and waste produced from agricultural food processing: Often, leftover waste is not used in food production — like the stalks and husks of corn. When dried, these types of crop waste can be incinerated to produce biomass energy. Typical crops include soybeans, sugar cane, switchgrass, algae and corn.
  • Wood: Firewood, wood pellets, wood chips, lumber, recycled furniture, waste and sawdust from lumber mills, and the leftover pulp from paper mills can all be used as biomass fuel.
  • Municipal solid waste: Many of our products come from paper, cotton and wool products and can be incinerated to create biomass energy. Additionally, yard waste, like lawn clippings and leaves, can also create biomass energy.

Is biomass a renewable source of energy?

Yes, biomass energy is considered renewable. The main reason biomass can be viewed as a renewable energy source is because there is a constant supply of material to burn. In another sense, biomass energy is seen as renewable because the energy source that creates organic plant material comes from the sun. Biomass energy sources also can be grown or produced in a relatively short amount of time. When you compare that to the time it takes the Earth to have sources of fossil fuels, the planet can produce biomass resources as fast as it uses them. Not only is biomass energy renewable, but it could also be considered carbon-neutral. If trees can be planted as quickly as they are burned to produce biomass energy, the carbon dioxide produced during combustion will be absorbed by the living trees, forming a continuous cycle.

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What are some examples of biomass energy?

Biomass energy can come in many forms, like human and animal waste or organic plant material. Different types of organic plant material include firewood, wood pellets, wood chips, lumber and the waste produced from sawmills and paper mills. Additionally, crops like corn, soybeans, sugar cane, switchgrass and algae can be used in one form or another to produce biomass energy.

How does biomass energy work?

Biomass energy is a process of combustion. No matter the organic material used, it's through combustion that the energy is released. Whether it's through the creation of biomass fuels (ethanol and biodiesel) or the design of a biomass electric facility, when the organic material is incinerated, the energy is released. Here is a quick breakdown of how a waste incineration plant works:

  • Preparation: All the waste collected to potentially enter the waste incineration facility needs to be sorted to remove metallic and oversized items. Once sorted, the garbage is shredded to maximize efficiency in preparation for combustion.
  • Combustion: The sorted and shredded waste is sent into an oxygenated combustion chamber, where it is heated to temperatures that range from 1,800 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Energy generation: When the garbage is combusted, the gases produced are cooled with water to create steam. The steam is used to turn turbines which are attached to generators. The generators produce electricity from the turbine motion.
  • Pollutants control: When the steam and gases are cooled, they are treated through several EPA-mandated pollution control systems. These systems contain scrubbers, filters, and precipitators to reduce harmful gases that would otherwise affect the atmosphere.
  • Release: The treated steam and gases are released into the atmosphere.

This is an example of one of the more complicated processes of biomass energy production. A more straightforward example is simply burning wood in a wood stove to heat the interior of a home in the winter. Either way, biomass is a dependable source of energy that is both renewable and carbon-neutral.

What are the advantages of biomass energy?

Biomass is a unique form of energy production; however, it is not new technology having been around since the beginning of humanity. Here are some of the main advantages of using biomass in its modern form to produce energy:

  • A widely available renewable source of energy: Whether it's trees, crops and agricultural byproducts, animal manure, or the garbage produced by our society, the materials needed to produce biomass energy are readily and abundantly available.
  • Carbon-neutral: When biomass energy is produced outside of a facility, say at a family campfire, the carbon dioxide produced from the combustion of organic plant material is absorbed by the plants currently living on Earth. As long as the plants are replaced as quickly as they are consumed, ideally, the entire process should be carbon-neutral.
  • Less waste in landfills: By burning our waste rather than simply collecting it into landfills, we can help reduce the adverse environmental effects that landfills create.

There are other advantages to using biomass energy, these are simply some of the most impactful benefits worth discussing.

What are the disadvantages of biomass energy?

As we discussed the main advantages of biomass energy, it is only fair to discuss some of the main disadvantages. Here are some of the most impactful disadvantages of using biomass to generate energy:

  • Can create harmful gases: Burning biomass fuels can produce many different types of gases. Although biomass can be considered carbon-neutral, the process can still make other dangerous gases such as methane. Regulators in the energy sector are working to implement systems that emit fewer gases.
  • Poor use of resources: Biomass fuels like ethanol and biodiesel are produced through harvesting corn and other agricultural products for the sole purpose of creating energy. Some argue that with so many in the world suffering from food scarcity and starvation, would those resources be better used to feed vulnerable populations rather than burning them for vehicles?

Every type of energy source is going to have its advantages and disadvantages. Despite its drawbacks, the benefits overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives.

How much energy is produced by biomass?

Biomass is used across many sectors of the economy in the United States. You can see biomass energy used in the industrial, transportation, residential, commercial, and electricity generation sectors. In 2020, approximately 4.9% of energy consumption in the U.S. could be attributed to biomass energy.

How efficient is biomass energy?

In general, biomass used for traditional uses like heating homes and cooking food may be considered an inefficient use of resources. However, it is through biomass facilities and power plants that combustion is much more efficient. For biomass to be highly efficient, it can be used alongside other forms of energy production, known as co-firing, which is done by adding biomass material as a partial substitute for fuel in highly efficient coal boilers, which helps decrease harmful emissions.

Is biomass energy sustainable for the future?

Yes, biomass energy is sustainable for the future; however, it cannot be solely relied upon to meet the entire planet's energy needs. Biomass energy is used with other renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy to provide energy in the power grid. Biomass is a part of the future of our planet as we move away from fossil fuels and toward a future of clean and sustainable energy.

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Is biomass a good energy source?

Compared to other renewable energy sources, the benefits of biomass are still debatable. However, biomass offers numerous advantages over fossil fuels, including lower carbon emissions. Biomass does release carbon dioxide, but since it contains energy from the sun, it’s more carbon-neutral.

Biomass energy provides a renewable energy resource from plants, which are also renewable. As long as plants exist, biomass will be a renewable energy source. Next, biomass reduces greenhouse gasses that cause global warming and climate change; fossil fuel carbon increases the greenhouse effect. During growth, all the CO2 absorbed by plants is released back into the atmosphere during biomass energy production. 

Fossil fuels make the planet unclean, while biomass cleans the environment making it a much better energy source. However, population growth means more waste to dispose of and can harm water, ecosystems, and human health. Additionally, biomass is easily accessible from multiple sources such as agriculture, forests, fisheries, and waste. Therefore, biomass is considered one of the best energy sources when combining economic and environmental factors. 

Biomass-fueled electricity and heat greenhouse gas emissions balance to create a neutral effect. Some biomass systems save more than 40% of fossil alternatives' to greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental benefit is broad, and its value depends on the application, such as technology. As biomass is unavoidable and its greenhouse emissions, its carbon footprint remains inevitable and can reduce the use of fossil fuels. 

How does biomass convert into energy?

Biomass is converted to energy through several methods, including direct heat combustion, thermochemical conversion, liquid fuels, and biofuels. Direct combustion is the most common method of bioenergy conversion. All biomass can be burned directly to heat buildings, water, industrial processes, and steam turbines. Researchers are developing new ways to convert and use more biomass for energy but below are the current methods available. 

Hydrotreating processes bio-oil with hydrogen under high temperatures and pressures with a catalyst produce renewable diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel. Transesterification converts vegetable oils, animal fats, and greases into biodiesel-making fatty acid methyl esters (FAME). Biological conversion includes fermentation to produce ethanol and anaerobic digestion to produce natural gas. Biogas is produced in anaerobic digesters at sewage treatment plants and dairy and livestock farms. Renewable natural gas can replace fossil fuel natural gas if properly treated. 

Gasification involves heating organic materials to 1,400–1700oF (800–900oC) with injections of free oxygen and steam to produce synthesis gas or syngas. Syngas can fuel diesel engines, heat homes, and power gas turbines. The hydrogen can be burned or used in fuel cells after being separated from the gas. Fischer–Tropsch can convert syngas into liquid fuels. 

Pyrolysis and gasification convert biomass thermo-chemically. Both processes involve heating biomass feedstock in closed, pressurized vessels called gasifiers. However, they differ in conversion temperatures and oxygen levels. Pyrolysis involves heating organic materials to 800–900oF (400–500 oC) without oxygen. Charcoal, bio-oil, renewable diesel, methane, and hydrogen are produced through biomass pyrolysis. 

Can manure be used as biomass?

High-carbon solid biomass like dried manure can be burned after moisture removal to heat water for processing and drive gas turbines to create electricity. The technical features of gasification using animal manures as biomass fuel are presented to maintain environmental standards.

Manure is a resource that helps plant growth and supplies organic matter to improve soil structure by containing undigested and partially digested dietary nutrients. Carbohydrates from forage and cereal grains, for example, are energy-producing nutrients in animal feed. Proteins and fats are two other nutrients largely made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and nitrogen. 

The energy in feed can be divided into net energy and energy lost. Energy is lost in manure, gases produced by fermentation in the digestive tract of animals, and through heat during the digestion process. Several techniques can convert the energy in manure into bio-energy that can be used.

Manure can turn into biomass via thermo-chemical, biological, and on-site processes for conversion. However, there is minimal benefit in producing biomass heat if there is no demand for it on-site or in the neighborhood of a biomass boiler. Furthermore, even if demand exists, if the cost of heat is cheap, the economics are unlikely to add up. To solve this challenge, manure might be transferred and transformed to heat at a site with high heat demand. Transportation costs, on the other hand, can swiftly deplete project budgets. 

Unlike biomass boilers, gasifiers produce syngas, which can generate sustainable heat, power, or liquid fuels in various applications. Liquid fuels can be transported for offsite use, while electricity can be injected into the local system for sale to a utility. While gasification may be able to meet on-site energy needs, converting syngas to electricity or liquid fuels necessitates the use of additional, sometimes costly machinery.

How is charcoal made from biomass?

Charred wood or the dark residue left behind when burning wood improperly burned can produce incomplete biomass combustion. Charcoal is generated by a process known as pyrolysis from biomass by heating biomass to 300-400 

degrees Celsius in an atmosphere with no air supply. While more complex systems have arisen in some parts of the world, it's still the common procedure for less-developed countries. 

The biomass transformed into charcoal is heaped into a mound and entirely covered by several methods such as plant biomass before turning into mud. Next, a fire is started through a small aperture, then covered. Charcoal removed from the inside of these covered mounds burns for several days before use.

The lack of air to the biomass creates optimal circumstances for pyrolysis. The biomass is not totally burned but transformed into charcoal and some organic gasses, and a bio-oil. This biomass-based charcoal, also known as bio-coal or bio-charcoal, has a high calorific value and can be utilized in heating applications. Another new application for charcoal is the production of activated carbon, which is utilized in the filtration sector. 

What countries use biomass?

Biomass provides 14% of the world's primary energy supply, or 1 billion tons of oil each year. Most biomass is used in poor countries, where half the world's population lives. Here are the top countries using biomass as their main energy source and the amount. 

  • Ethiopia 93%
  • DR Congo 92%
  • Tanzania 85%
  • Nigeria 82 %
  • Haiti 81%
  • Nepal 81%
  • Togo 80%
  • Kenya 75%
  • India 50%
  • China 33%
  • Brazil 25%
  • And many more. 

Alternatively, Finland, Ireland, Sweden, and the USA get 18%, 16%, 9%, and 3%, respectively. Most underdeveloped countries maintain biomass as their main energy source. However, solid biomass dominates all countries' energy use, but liquid biofuels, renewable waste, and biogas are also important. 

Countries that use the most solid biomass for energy have a high forest area per capita and important wood processing businesses. A few countries with limited domestic forest biomass potential import solid biomass for energy. Germany is a biogas leader, and Denmark has made considerable biogas strides recently. 

Liquid biofuels are growing, especially for transportation. For example, Brazil and Sweden already utilize more liquid biofuels than fossil oil for transport and heat production. However, in most other nations, liquid biofuel consumption is equivalent to 2-5% of fossil oil use, indicating that considerable measures are needed to phase out fossil oil.

What is a biofuel?

Since humans grasped fire's power, they have used it to cook, stay warm, and generate energy. However, the traditional burning of biomass and garbage to produce heat and other forms of energy persists in many parts of the third world due to a lack of reliable contemporary energy supplies. Lower-income regions are using more contemporary forms of energy, yet biomass and garbage still account for 14% of global energy output.

Biofuels are liquid fuels made from trees, agricultural wastes, crops, or grass. Biofuel can be made from replenishable carbon sources like plants and they emit less carbon monoxide and sulfur. Switchgrass and soybeans are also planted for biofuel generation. 

In addition, Biofuels can cut greenhouse gas emissions and boost energy security. Biofuels could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 billion tons per year by 2050, or 80% of transportation-related emissions. These fuels can replace petroleum, propane, coal, and natural gas.

How is ethanol created from biomass?

Fuel ethanol is anhydrous, denatured alcohol usually manufactured by fermenting the sugar in corn, sorghum, barley, sugar cane, and sugar beets. In America, practically all fuel ethanol is made from corn kernel starch, a conventional biofuel. Trees and grasses require less fuel, fertilizer, and water than grain and can thrive on unsuitable ground. Therefore, cellulosic ethanol is considered an advanced biofuel. 

Unlike other renewable energy sources, biomass may be immediately transformed into liquid fuels or biofuels. Both ethanol and biodiesel are first-generation biofuels. The Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) works with industry to produce next-generation biofuels from wastes, cellulosic biomass, and algae. In addition, BETO produces hydrocarbon biofuels that can replace petroleum in most existing uses.

Ethanol is a renewable fuel derived from biomass that blends with gasoline to boost octane and reduce smog-causing pollutants. Most ethanol is created from plant starches and sugars, especially corn starch in the US, but scientists are developing strategies to utilize cellulose and hemicellulose, the bulk of plant matter. Fermentation converts biomass to ethanol.

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