Powering our homes and cars with non-polluting fuel that reduces the risk of forest fires is certainly an enticing idea. But biomass is one of the most controversial sources of renewable fuel out there. Take a closer look at the basics of biomass energy, how it’s used, and how far biomass technology still has to go.
Where does Biomass energy come from?
Biomass can come from your trash can, a landfill, the lumber industry, a dairy farm, or anywhere that produces organic waste. That’s because biomass can be any number of living or formerly-living waste material. Common sources of biomass include scrap lumber, forest debris, excess crops, and manure.
How does it create energy?
The most common type of biomass energy production is basically a giant trash can fire. Waste-to-energy plants burn organic material in a massive incinerator. The thermal energy it produces heats water, producing steam. The steam spins a turbine, which powers a generator.
Ethanol production is another form of biomass energy. This process starts with glucose-rich crops like corn and sugarcane. The plants are first processed into glucose. To do this, sugarcane can just be dissolved in water. Starches like corn must be liquefied before the addition of enzymes which separate out their glucose. Once the plants’ glucose is isolated, manufacturers add yeast and allow fermentation to take its course.
Another clever way of producing biomass energy involves gas waste. It’s called biogas, and it works by allowing materials like manure, sewage, and certain agricultural waste to break down at high temperatures with reduced oxygen levels. When biogas plants speed up the decomposition process, it creates higher-than-average levels of methane and carbon dioxide. The gases are trapped and used in the same manner as natural gas – cooking, heating, and even as transportation fuel for certain environmentally-friendly vehicles.
What’s the environmental cost?
Biomass is a controversial fuel source among environmentalists because depending on how it’s manufactured, it has the potential to create more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. To keep emissions is check, the land use, harvesting, and transportation of crops used for biomass energy must be regulated. There are concerns over deforestation and production of biomass crops taking precedence over food production. But according to the Environment Agency, biomass has the potential to generate electricity while producing 98 percent less carbon dioxide than coal. The other potential environmental payoff of biomass is that it disposes of waste in a useful way, reducing pollution and landfill use.
What are its common uses of Biomass energy?
In 2010, biomass fuels accounted for 4 percent of energy use in the United States. Waste-to-energy plants produce electricity that can contribute to local power grids. Some factories and farms produce their own biomass energy on site to power their operations. And ethanol fuels alternative technology, including some cars.
How much does it cost?
Between the cost of growing crops, transporting them to power plants, and processing them into energy, biomass is one of the most expensive sources of fuel and electricity. A large part of the environmental and financial costs has to do with our current infrastructure being dependent on fossil fuels. Transporting material for biomass, for example, would be less expensive and cause less pollution if transportation didn’t depend on fossil fuels. However, another cause of the high price tag is that our biomass technology just isn’t efficient or advanced enough to cut costs yet. Scientists and engineers are constantly working on ways to improve this, though, so that we can put our waste materials to use creating clean energy in the future,