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Biomass Energy

Origins

As a fuel or energy source, biomass refers to any non-fossil living matter which can be used to produce energy, generally through combustion. Essentially, plants consume Solar_Energy in the form of sunlight, and through the process of photosynthesis they store that energy as carbohydrates or complex sugars in their own tissues for later use. In the case of animal-derived biomass, animals have consumed that stored solar energy by eating plants, or by eating animals which ate plants. All of these fuels (as well as fossil fuels) thus at some level originated with the sun. In the case of fossil fuels, that solar energy has been stored for millions of years or more, but is the compressed remnant of solar energy absorbed by plants at that time.

Biomass Fuel Types

Biomass fuels are most commonly in a solid form, but they can be liquids or gases as well. The most popular sources are wood or wood waste, agricultural residues, plant oils, alcohols, and methane gas from anaerobic waste digestion. Technically speaking, any use of plant or animal matter to produce heat, electricity or motive energy is a biomass technology. This means that woodstoves, camp fires, biodiesel buses, and ethanol-fuelled cars or trucks are all making use of biomass energy conversion systems.

Most commonly, biomass for energy production purposes is derived from plant sources such as trees, grasses, maize/corn, sugarcane, soybeans, sunflower, canola or other oilseeds. Novel sources such as algae and switchgrass offer the hope of economic competition even with established energy sources after continued scientific development.

Biofuel

Biofuel is a specific subset of biomass energy, mainly referring to the production of liquid fuels to be used in existing engines and power systems with minimal changes to the basic equipment. Major examples are:

  • Biodiesel
  • Straight Vegetable Oils / SVO
  • Ethanol
  • Methanol
  • Methane Gas

Wood Waste

Wood waste is used to produce electricity on site in pulp and paper mills as well as large industrial sawmills. This use alone makes biomass one of the largest renewable or alternative energy sources in Canada and much of Europe. In Sweden for example, nearly one-third of all energy is produced from biomass.

Firewood / Fuelwood

Most people are familiar with the concept of firewood, burned for either heat or cooking. This is rarely used outside of a camping or summertime party scenario in a modern context, however. In most urban areas, wood is limited to a supplemental and primarily aesthetic heating fuel. In developing countries however, wood remains a primary source of energy for heating and cooking. In rural areas even in highly developed countries, wood heating and cooking systems are very common. The industry reporting of usage of these fuels tends to be weak, as they are often harvested, distributed and sold locally or in the form of “barter” exchanges, meaning that they are never reflected in the tax system or official reporting of central government.

During and after the Second World War, fuelwood has also been used as transport fuel in the form of gasification technology or Solid_Fuel_Gasifiers. In these systems, solid fuel such as wood is burned in the absence of sufficient oxygen, creating a gaseous mixture known as woodgas or biogas. This mixture is rich in carbon monoxide and can be used as supplementary or primary fuel for modified gasoline and propane engines. The same technology can be employed for burning coal or other solid fuels as transport fuel in modified vehicles. Even the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has previously released plans for the use of wood-burning gasifiers in the event of a petroleum emergency. An archival copy of these plans can be found here at at the Jonathan Spreadborough's Woodgas webpage (http://www.woodgas.net/files/FEMA_emergency_gassifer.pdf).

Reasons for Use

Biomass is generally characterized as an environmentally preferable fuel to petroleum sources because of the reduction in net carbon dioxide emissions inherent in burning biomass rather than coal or other fossil-based energy sources. Essentially, the plants grow and store carbon dioxide in a similar proportion the rate of carbon dioxide released when biomass fuel is burned. As long as the plants used to produce the biomass fuel are grown in a sustainable manner at at least the same rate that the fuel is consumed, there is a net reduction in the atmospheric release of new carbon dioxide as compared with fossil fuel energy sources.

Biomass is often used as a method for reducing the dependence on fossil fuels. For some, this is a primarily environmental concern, while others express political or economic reasons, including domestic security, utilization of local resources, or creation of skilled and unskilled employment in traditionally less economically active communities such as rural or remote areas. So long as biomass fuels are managed in a sustainable way, they offer substantial advantages in each of these areas – however, it is worth noting that unsustainable woodlot or cropping practices can have a similarly destructive ecological impact to the worst that conventional energy industries have to offer.

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