What is biomass?
Biomass consists of all of the living matter on the Earth which includes plants and animals and the remains of this living matter. Due to the huge numbers of different types of flora and fauna exists (and has recently existed) it can be said that the different types of biomass are massively diverse although the main source that is used to power biomass applications is generally wood.
Biomass can be used in order to create energy in either a direct or indirect manner. Biomass material can be burnt to create energy in its own right as a heat source for example, or it can be used indirectly in the sense that biomass is burned in order to generate steam which can power machinery (this would be in a more commercial environment).
How is biomass formed?
Biomass consists of all organic plants and animals on the planet that are currently living or have recently died. All of the matter will have stored energy through photosynthesis and this stored energy will be passed along the food chain when for example an animal eats plant life. Eventually when plant or animal dies, new plants and animals will take their place and the cycle will continue. When compared to the large period of time for non-renewable fossil fuels to be created and the geological changes that need to take place over thousands of years it can be seen as a big advantage to focus on biomass because due to the materials involved it is exponentially quicker to derive energy from biomass and as a consequence use biomass as a fuel source.
Different types of biomass
- Different types of wood are common which includes various types of trees (Willow, Poplar, etc.), wood chip, pulp, paper, cardboard and other forestry based material.
- Grasses, plants and crops.
- Waste from agricultural operations.
- Sugarcane by-products (bagasse).
- Municipal waste.
- Industrial waste.
- Domestic waste.
- Animal waste.
- Different types of gases that can be obtained from biomass material such as biodiesel, bioethanol and biogas.
Uses of biomass?
Biomass can be used as an energy source in a variety of different ways.
Biomass material can be burned and turned into an energy source in a domestic or agricultural environment. Different examples of this can include heating ones home through the burning of biomass or heating a stove in order to cook food. In an agricultural sense, biomass can be derived from animal dung and is often burnt for fuel or the dung can be used to form gas which can also be used as a fuel.
The use of biomass is prevalent in the developing world where it accounts for approximately 35% of the energy production in those nations. Primarily this is because biomass energy can be formed through the use of waste material, the material is plentiful and can be derived though everyday living and because biomass material is cheap.
Biomass can be used in a form of bioconversion which leads to biomass being burned in order to distil biofuels such as biodiesel, bioethanol and biogas.
There are biomass powered power stations which work through the burning of biomass, which then heats the water in the power plant to make steam, the steam power then turns the huge turbines, which in turn powers the generators and makes electrical power.
India is a nation that has embraced biomass energy production and they use biomass power stations to produce some of their nation’s energy needs. Primarily the fuel that they use is a by-product of sugarcane which they use to produce sugar. The leftover pulp from the sugarcane that is of no use is called bagasse and it is bagasse that is burned in the power plant to produce energy.
The biomass material from landfill sites can be used in order to harvest methane gas.
The advantages and disadvantages of biomass
Biomass is a renewable type of energy so that means we will not run out of biomass as opposed to fossil fuels which are non-renewable. A lot of biomass material comes from waste material which we will always produce so it makes environmental sense to use waste to our advantage wherever possible.
Due to the fact that biomass often comes from waste material that is not wanted it is usually very cheap.
Using biomass can help the economy. For example, farmers that have biomass waste as a consequence of their industry can see the biomass, thus creating a secondary revenue stream for their business.
As well as using biomass itself to produce energy, we can also use it to produce although types of fuel such as bioethanol, biodiesel and biogas.
Power stations that burn fossil fuels can be easily modified to burn biomass material.
Using biomass for energy purposes helps to reduce our need for oil which can be expensive and subject to significant price fluctuations.
If more biomass is used for the production of energy it means there will be less need (and space) for landfill sites.
For biomass energy to be utilised we need a consistent amount of plant and animal matter which will form into biomass. The more plants that we grow, the more carbon dioxide the plants will absorb which helps cut down greenhouse gases and helps to protect the ozone layer.
Biomass can reduce waste energy by 66% to 25% when compared with burning fossil fuels to produce the equivalent energy.
There is only a certain amount of biomass available unless there is a concerted effort to create more biomass; therefore, energy production is limited by the amount of biomass that can be used.
Crops that are grown for the production of biofuels can make the farmer substantially more money so this disincentives the farmer from producing food crops which would make less money. If all farmers decided to move away from producing food crops we would have a worrying food shortage. Remember there is only so much arable land available that will be suitable for crop production.
An argument can be made that when biomass derived fuels like bioethanol, biodiesel and biogas are burnt that they produce greenhouse gases much in the same way as the burning of fossil fuels. On the other hand to produce biomass in the first place we need plant life and plants absorb CO2 emissions so the argument goes full circle.
The transport of biomass materials from the source to the power plant can be expensive and environmentally unsound because the transport method will involve increasing our carbon footprint.
Some forms of biomass can only be obtained at certain times of the year because different plants have different growth patterns throughout the year. This can mean that there is a limited amount of biomass material available at particular points in the year.