Guide to Biomass
Biomass is organic biological material that can be used as a renewable or regenerative source of energy. This biological carbon based material is made from living or recently living organisms such as agricultural residues, forestry wastage, municipal wastes, energy crops and industrial waste. The energy that is tapped from biomass is manufactured by photosynthesis, a process in which plants and microorganisms use the suns radiation to store energy in the form of glucose. This energy is passed right on to the top of the food chain, from animals to human beings and in turn can be used as a source of renewable energy when biomass sources are processed.
Sources for biomass are known as feedstock. What makes this greener energy so renewable is its large source pool. Feedstock includes:
Municipal Waste - Post-consumer waste from residential and commercial garbage is an organic renewable energy source.
Animal Waste - Farms create animal wastes that are popularly used as feedstock.
Landfills - Bacteria living in landfills that decompose waste can be used to harvest bioenergy.
Dedicated energy crops - These are perennial herbaceous plants such as wheat grass, sweet sorghum, switchgrass and bamboo. Dedicated energy crops also include fast-growing trees like silver maple, black walnut and sycamore, which can be harvested within 8 years of planting.
Agricultural Crops - Products that yield oils and sugars such as corn oil, cornstarch, meal and vegetable oils; these can also produce chemicals and plastics.
Agriculture Crop Residues - Stalks and leaves that are not used in harvests for commercial use such as corn residue and rice straw are also used to source biomass. Corn residue, also known as corn strover is a popular option for bioenergy.
Forestry Residues - These are leftovers from commercial logging sites and forest management processes such as tree thinning and removing dead trees.
Aquatic Crops - Algae, seaweed and marine flora can be used as feedstock without destroying the ecological aquatic systems.
Biomass Processing Byproducts - While processing biomass sources, the residues can be collected and harvested for their energy. These include basic organic material such as leaves, bark or pulp.
Biomass energy has been used since mankind figured out how to burn wood for fire and heat. Today biomass energy is used to heat spaces, water, produce electricity and transportation fuels. Three different types of processes are used to convert biomass into usable energy.
- Thermal conversion - in this process heat is the principal mechanism that creates a usable form of biomass energy.
- Chemical conversion - different chemical processes are applied to derive energy.
- Biochemical conversion - enzymes and bacteria are used to break down and convert biomass to usable energy.
This form of energy, tapped from organic material is considered renewable since biomass can be replenished. There will always be municipal and animal waste and energy crops and sustainable, quick-growing forests can be replanted, ensuring a renewable source of energy. In addition biomass energy is also carbon neutral, unlike fossil fuels, making it a more environment friendly alternative. One of the main differences between fossil fuels and biomass energy is that biomass sources take carbon out of the atmosphere while growing and replace it when they are burned. Fossil fuel takes millions of years to form and when they burn, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to the extant levels.
Products of Biomass Energy
Biofuels are liquid or gaseous fuels produced from biomass. Mostly biofuels are used to supplant traditional transportation fuels. Currently, biofuels can also be used to produce electricity.
Ethanol is an alcohol-based biofuel made from biomass sources high in carbohydrates, such as corn grain. It is possible to derive ethanol from paper or wood residues, but to do so is a more complex process as it requires reducing those materials to their component sugar. To increase octane and to reduce carbon emission and other smog pollutants that are released into the atmosphere when pure gasoline is burned, ethanol is blended with gasoline.
Regular vehicles are not able to run on a fuel blend that has more ethanol than gasoline. A new hybrid generation of cars is being designed to run on E85, which is fuel containing 85 percent ethanol.
Produced by reaction to alcohol by vegetable oils, animal fat and waste cooking oil, biodiesel is a biodegradable fuel. Usable in its pure form, known as B100, biodiesel can also be blended with petroleum diesel. In fact, for usage as a transport fuel in regular cars, it is recommended by many automobile companies to not use a diesel blend with more than 5 percent biodiesel as most vehicles are not designed for biodiesel. B20, which consists of 20 percent biodiesel, however, can be used in most diesel equipment and is more easily compatible than B100.
Although a biodegradable fuel, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with biodiesel. B20 gives 1 percent less energy to the gallon than petroleum diesel, but this difference is not noticeable for most consumers. At the moment, it is an expensive alternative that has yet to be introduced as a mainstream alternative.
Biopower is the production of electrical energy using biomass energy. This electricity can be harnessed using several techniques.
- Direct-firing - In direct-firing, biomass feedstock is burned to produce steam which in-turn powers a turbine to generate electricity.
- Cofiring - This method uses both biomass and fossil fuels to power a plant or process.
- Gasification - Synthetic gas is created by using high temperatures and a limited deoxygenated environment to convert the biomass. This synthetic gas can then be converted to a fuel or used as natural gas.
- Pyrolysis - Pyrolysis uses a similar method; where instead of limiting oxygen, there is total oxygen deprivation. This derives pyrolysis oil from the biomass instead of gas, which acts like the synthetic gas; it can be burned to generate electricity.
- Anaerobic digestion - This refers to the kind of decay process that takes place in landfills. Bacteria and microorganisms decompose organic biomass in an oxygen deprived environment, yielding a gas that can generate power as an end process.
Biomass, just like fossil fuels, can produce products such as plastics, and chemicals. When biomass is used to create these products, they are termed bioproducts. Using biomass to make bioproducts also results in using less energy consumed during production in comparison to products yielded from petroleum.
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