An Overview of Biomass Energy
Energy can be produced in a number of ways. We can burn fossil fuels, use the sun’s light for solar energy, use water for hydroelectric generators or even the heat of the Earth’s core in geothermal energy. One often overlooked source of energy that belongs among all these others is biomass energy. Indeed, President Bush seems particular keen on the subject.
Biomass is biological (natural) material that was once living, or still is living, that can be used to produce energy. For example, lawn clippings, dead trees, unused crops, wood chips and other wood byproducts are all biomass. Even household trash can be considered biomass, as can “landfill gas”, produced when garbage decomposes in landfills.
Biomass energy is produced when these materials are burned as fuel to produce energy. Some biomass materials are burned to produce steam, which is then used with generators to produce energy and heat. Other biomass materials, such as landfill gas, ethanol (produced from corn and other leftover crops) and biodiesel (this fuel is made from leftover animal fats and vegetable oils) can be used to create biomass energy that can even power transportation vehicles.
While biomass energy should be used as frequently as possible, as the biomass fuels are readily available, this type of energy is often overlooked. Biomass energy only accounts for about three percent of the energy used yearly in the United States. Some people feel that using biomass for energy is not safe for the environment, or that they do not want a “garbage” burning power plant in their area. In fact, biomass energy is actually very safe for the environment – the only byproduct is carbon dioxide, which comes from the burning of any fuel. This greenhouse gas does have some harmful properties, but not near as many as the pollutants that are released with the burning of fossil fuels.
In order to see just what biomass energy can do for our world, society needs to become more open to the use of biomass as an energy source. Using discarded and waste products can help to reduce the amount of trash going into our landfills, as well as cut down on our need to use fossil fuels. This, in turn, will not only help the environment but also the world’s economy. Biomass energy is an under-utilized energy source that needs to be fully researched and used in the years to come.
Using Biomass Power for Our Electric Needs
Biomass is a term used to describe natural, biological materials that can be used as fuel to produce energy. Biomass is a broad term that includes many different types of fuels, from garbage to landfill gas to ethanol. The electricity biomass produces can be used to power many different things from industries to homes, and once properly researched and put into use, biomass will definitely cut down on the world’s use of fossil fuels and other harmful sources of energy.
The most common types of biomass can be grouped into one of three categories. Wood (and related) products are things like lawn clippings, wood chips, leftover wood scraps from lumber production, dead trees and leaves. Garbage products are items within garbage that people generate that can be used to burn as fuel, or landfill gases, which are produced when garbage rots (methane). Ethanol and biodiesel are both fossil fuel replacements made from either corn or other crops (ethanol) or vegetable oil and animal fat (biodiesel). All of these can result in biomass fuel to produce electricity.
The landfill gas, also known as biogas or methane, is often collected by landfill owners or farmers to be used as fuel. The burning of this fuel can either power a generator for electricity or be used to heat property. The vegetation or wood related products can be pressed into pellets, and then used as fuel for heat and electricity generation. Ethanol and biodiesel are of even more interest in the world climate these days, as they are both used to power cars and other vehicles. Ethanol and biodiesel are much cleaner burning than fossil fuels, and less expensive to produce since they come from waste which is easy to find in our modern world. Both types of fuel are also biodegradable, making them safer for the environment. While neither fuel can be used in all types of cars at present, car manufacturers are working to make more vehicles that will run on these alternative fuels. Any of these approaches can be used as electricity biomass platforms.
While the idea of using electricity biomass as a power platform may seem far-fetched at present, the resources are already in place to use biomass as fuel. What needs to be done right now is more research on how to use these biomass fuels efficiently, and without the stigma of “burning garbage”. Other fuels at present are much more user-friendly and easy to store, as they are concentrated and in familiar formats.
Once we learn to concentrate biomass and make it easily usable, it will be a great alternative to any of the other energy sources available today with the possible exception of nano-solar technology. Electricity biomass as an energy platform is definite a concept coming into its own.
Is Biomass Really a Clean Energy Resource?
As we strive to find alternative energy resources, many potential solutions are on the table. Biomass energy is one such solution or is it?
Biomass energy is unique in that it has existed in primitive forms since the early days of mankind. Burning wood in a cave is a form of biomass energy, which is simply the conversion of an organic material in a manner that produces heat. For example, a fire converts the organic wood into heat. Therein, however, lays the problem.
Global warming is a much debated issue with everyone having a strong opinion and no one seemingly willing to listen to the other side. Whatever your view on this subject, what is clear is we are producing an absolute ton of carbon-based gases in our modern civilization. This is a key issue since the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is a key factor in climate regulation on our planet.
To understand the problems of biomass as an energy form, one has to understand the biomass cycle that occurs on the planet. Simplified, the biomass cycle regulates the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. The biomass, primarily in the form of plants, uses carbon to grow and the biosphere effectively acts as a sponge for carbon. This sponge effect, however, has limits. As with a sponge in your kitchen, the biomass can only suck up so much carbon at one time. When there is too much carbon in the atmosphere or we shrink our “sponge” with deforestation and such, we run the risk of overwhelming the atmosphere with carbon gases. If our atmosphere has excessive carbon, heat is trapped and all hell begins to break loose. From a practical standpoint, this means our relatively mild climate on Earth will start becoming more chaotic. After the most recent hurricane season, that definitely is not a good thing.
Taking the biomass cycle into consideration, the negatives of all biomass energy production are that they create more carbon gases. A caveman sitting next to a fire in a cave is using biomass energy to produce heat, but the black smoke is a very nasty carbon pollutant. In modern terms, biomass energy doesn’t really resolve the amount of carbon we are putting into the atmosphere. Yet, there is an argument on the other side of the biomass coin.
Proponents of biomass argue it is a better energy source than fossil fuels. The basis of this argument is that plants [biomass] have taken in much smaller amounts of carbon gases over a shorter period of time than fossil fuels. Thus, burning them is a carbon neutral situation. The problem, of course, is that even if this concept is correct, we are not cutting down our carbon emissions. At this point in time, we need to be reducing carbon gasses, not maintaining our current output.
It is undisputable biomass has its problems. It is a better alternative than fossil fuels, but how much so?