Biomass energy is a renewable energy source that is produced by converting organic materials that come from plants and animals into energy such as electricity. We’ve been making good use of this source of energy ever since man discovered fire and used it to burn wood to heat his home and cook his meals.
Wood is still the most common form of biomass materials used today, although other examples include crops such as corn and sugar cane, manure, garbage, forestry residues like sawdust and wood chips, and many other types of plantlife. Even algae can be used as a biomass material to produce biomass energy 1!
How Biomass Energy Is Produced
Biomass materials, during their lifetime, absorb energy from the sun and carbon dioxide gases from the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis. When it’s time for us to harness this power and create biomass energy, we release the solar energy that has been harvested by various methods including burning. The energy released is given off in the form of thermal energy and can be used to heat water and produce steam, which in turn can power a steam turbine to generate electricity.
The production of thermal energy isn’t the only method in which we create energy from biomass materials. Manure and rotting garbage from landfills can be used to harvest methane gases and the fermentation of crops like corn and sugar cane can be used to create liquid biofuel, which can be used to produce the transportation fuel known as ethanol 2.
The Use of Ethanol as a Fuel
Currently, ethanol has the highest volume of production of any biofuel today with more than 100 million barrels coming from corn grain each year. Ethanol is an alcohol fuel that can be made not just from corn, but also wheat, sorghum, potato skins, rice, sugar beets, and yard clippings.
Ethanol can be combined with gasoline to fuel cars, reducing the amount of oil we consume each year. This combination of gas and ethanol in your engine can often make your engine burn hotter and operate more efficiently. Any engine that can be powered by gasoline can use a combination of 90 percent gas and 10 percent ethanol, called E10. Some states, like Minnesota actually require the use of E10, because it helps reduce pollutants like carbon monoxide in the air. Special engines are required for liquid fuel that contains more than 10 percent ethanol 3.
Biomass Energy and Its Impact on the Environment
While it’s been argued that the burning of biomass materials releases carbon dioxide into the air, a known greenhouse gas, this argument doesn’t take into account the fact that the biomass materials only release the carbon dioxide that they had originally consumed. When we grow biomass materials, they naturally store the energy of the sun and consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen. That same amount of carbon dioxide the materials absorbed is then released back into the atmosphere once it is converted to energy.
Fossil fuels on the other hand release pollutants and carbon dioxide that was captured millions of years ago, essentially introducing “new” pollution in the air. Fossil fuels also release sulfur which is the main cause of acid rain.
And, unlike fossil fuels, biomass materials are truly a renewable and sustainable source of energy as long as we continue to replenish what we use in terms of replanting the materials we consume. Biomass crops are easy to grow, harvest, and replace without scarring the earth or depleting natural materials 4.
The Benefits of Biomass Energy to the Economy
When more than 60 percent of the petroleum we consume today is imported from other nations, biomass can have a significant impact on our economy 5. Biomass energy can effectively lessen our dependency on foreign oil imports and can reduce the price of gasoline when we use ethanol as a transportation fuel. With today’s resources and technology, we can effectively replace about 30 percent of our petroleum consumption with biomass 6.
Oil requires massive amounts of capital to explore and find new areas to drill. Ethanol is a reliable, constant source of fuel that can be grown right within our borders, without the harmful effects or consequences that arise from oil spills.
The production of ethanol also takes the money out of the hands of foreign oil giants and puts it into the hands of American farmers who desperately need to develop new ways to increase their revenue. And while some may argue that the use of corn in the production of ethanol has been the major cause for the increase in prices of corn, because the supply was depleted, a recent study by the Agricultural and Food Policy Center of Texas A&M University sites evidence to the contrary.
The study states that the underlying force that is responsible for the increased price in corn and other agricultural commodities is the higher energy costs of oil. Higher energy costs translate to higher production costs for the agricultural industry. Rising fertilizer costs reduced the number of acres planted in 2006 – 2007 by more than 3 million! This reduction in acreage leaves the crops more vulnerable to natural disasters such as storms and can drive the price up significantly 7.
This chain of decreased production has hit the livestock market the hardest, since they have to purchase corn to feed their animals. However, recent advancements in ethanol production through a process called dry grind ethanol production can help offset these prices for livestock producers. In dry grind ethanol production, distiller’s grains are produced, which can be used to feed livestock. Distiller grains have a higher protein and energy content than corn and can help increase the daily weight gain of livestock.
It’s hard to deny the positive effects that developing biomass energy can have on our environment, our economy, and our energy production. In this slumped economy, removing our dependency from oil imports can stimulate the economy by increasing the rural development of the ethanol industry and creating new jobs for Americans. By substituting biomass energy for fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, we can help clean up the environment and create a renewable and sustainable source of energy that we can rely on for thousands of years.