For hundreds of years people have used fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and oil to provide energy for heating, transportation, and electricity. However fossil fuels are not renewable and are rapidly being depleted. Due to the rapid depletion of fossil fuels people are starting to turn to alternative renewable energy sources, such as biomass energy. Biomass is biological material from living, or recently living organisms, most often referring to plant materials, and plant-based materials; however animals can also be an example of biomass (Biomass Energy Centre, 2011).
Biomass is one of America’s most promising, plentiful and well-utilized renewable energy sources. Although alternative energy is a new concept, biomass energy had been around for thousands of years. Biomass refers to any organic material that can be used to create energy. Trees, grass, land fill waste and animal manure can all be used to create this energy.
Biomass gets its energy through the photosynthesis of light, which is then stored for energy. Roughly three to four percent of America’s energy comes from biomass (Marc Lallanilla, page 1). Biomass can be directly converted into heat energy through combustion such as burning a wood log in a fireplace. Biomass can also be converted into a fuel source for example, ethanol gasoline that is made from corn or methane gas resulting from animal waste (Marc Lallanilla, page 1).
Biomass can be converted to energy in three ways thermal conversion, chemical conversion, and biochemical conversion. Thermal conversion methods use heat as the main method to convert biomass into another chemical form. An example of thermal biomass would be burning wood for warmth. A variety of chemical processes may be used to convert biomass.
In most cases, the first step involves gasification. Biomass gasification means heating the biomass up enough to get the gases out of it but not enough to combust the gases coming out of the biomass resulting in production of combustible gases consisting of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and a small amount of methane.
This combination of gases is called producer gas. Producer gas can be used to run gas or diesel engines or can be used as substitute as heating oil. Since any biomass substance can undertake gasification this process uses the enzymes of bacteria and other micro-organisms to break down biomass. Micro-organisms are used to complete the conversion processes such as anaerobic digestion, fermentation and composting (National Academies Press, 2009).
Biomass has its pros and cons just like any other energy source. However one of the most important pros is that biomass is a carbon neutral cycle. Carbon from the atmosphere is absorbed into plants when plants are undergoing photosynthesis. When the plant decays or is burnt to create the biomass energy the carbon stored into the plant goes back into the atmosphere.
Because it is a cycle, the next crop of plants absorbs that carbon over again. Therefore there is a neutral balance between the amount of carbon that the biomass releases into the atmosphere and the amount that they remove from it. This carbon neutral does not contribute to global warming.
Biomass fuels are the cleanest energy to use. (Mathias Aarre Mæhlum, 2012). Biomass energy is renewable and retainable. There is always an abundance of crops, trees, manure, and garbage that can be used for this alternative energy. As you convert this year’s crop to fuel, you are growing another crop for next year’s fuel. Biomass can also be stored for future use, unlike other renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy. Biomass energy also is plentiful and proven, and is able to give instant results unlike other energy sources such as fossil fuels.
The energy from biomass is very cost effective. Using this alternative energy costs less than fossil fuel does. It is about one third less in price than fossil fuels. Biomass energy is acknowledged as an excellent way for energy-efficient waste disposal, and is all locally grown. Biomass helps convert biological waste into useable energy, which can then be used for numerous purposes. Biomass is a practical solution for the concern of waste disposal plants filling up and an answer for the concerns over depleting fossil fuels.
A disadvantage of biomass is that it requires a lot of space to keep the
biomass materials. This space would take up valuable farm land. This valuable farm land being used up could lead to people having to choose between food and fuel. Biomass production could lead to deforestation. This could lead to more greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. However this can be avoided by focusing on only using wood waste and by having very strict regulation on how much wood gets harvested (Ned Haluzan, 2012).
Even though biomass energy is a carbon neutral cycle it involves emission of other gases that can be harmful to the environment. The production of biomass energy causes the release of nitrous oxide and methane gases that cannot be reabsorbed by replanting the biological material (such as a tree) that was used to create the biomass energy. This results in greenhouse gases storing in the atmosphere during the manufacturing of biomass energy.
Another disadvantage of biomass energy is that the nature and characteristics of the biomass depend of the geography of the land. This limits the type of biomass developers would be able to use in certain regions. For example, dry desert like places would not be able to use wood as a biomass due to the lack of trees, whereas in the north eastern United States there would be a plentiful supply of trees to use for the biomass production. (Peter Kay, 2011)
Just as any other energy source people often hear incorrect information and myths about biomass. A common myth is that cutting down trees causes carbon to be released, causing climate change (Bill Cook, 2009). This is sometimes true for the first several years following harvest, but after those forests have been rebuilt the regenerating forests absorb carbon at a faster rate than the previous forest that was there did, and the carbon released into the atmosphere is the same carbon that came from the atmosphere.
Another myth is that Ethanol gas takes more energy to produce than the energy you get out of it. There is a difference between ethanol from cellulose, such as wood and ethanol from grains. The ethanol from cellulose is much more efficient than ethanol from grains. It takes a lot less energy
consumption to produce cellulose. (Bill Cook, 2009)
Another myth is wood energy will not create as many jobs as fossil fuel currently does. This is completely not true. In Sweden, where there infrastructure is mainly wood based, “250-300 jobs were created for each terawatt of wood energy. Michigan consumes 900 terawatts per year. The jobs related to biomass are in the handling, and support within the feedstock supply chain (Peter Kay, 2011).” These jobs are kept local and keep the energy dollars local, which is good for the economy.
Biomass is a good source of energy, and looks to be promising for America. Biomass is plentiful, renewable and a clean burning fuel. This cleanness when burning causes almost no contribution to the greenhouse gases which are responsible for global warming.
Biomass Energy Centre. (n.d.). Biomass. http://www.biomassenergycentre.org.
Biomass Energy Pros and Cons – Energy Informative. (n.d.). Solar Panels and Home Energy Efficiency – Energy Informative, http://energyinformative.org/biomass-energy-pros-and-cons/
Cook, B. (2009, May. – Jun.). Ten Biomass Myths. Timber West , 1. Retrieved February 4, 2013, from http://www.forestnet.com/TWissues/May_June_10/biomass%20myths.pdf
Kay, P. (n.d.). Biomass energy pros and cons in a nutshell | Renewable Green Energy Power. Renewable Green Energy Power. http://www.renewablegreenenergypower.com/biomass-energy-pros-and-cons-in-a-nutshell
Liquid Transportation Fuels from Coal and Biomass (pp. 117-134). (2009). Biochemical Conversion of Biomass. Washington D.C.: THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS.