Biomass Energy


Biomass energy (also called biomass power or biopower for short) refers to energy derived from organic matter, generally plants or manure.

Simple wood burning is a form of biomass energy. I write about that on other pages.

Here, I describe more innovative ways of extracting energy from biologic matter.

As I mentioned on the Solar Energy page , biological matter really represents stored energy from the sun. The chemical reaction of photosynthesis converts the energy of the sun to a form that drives plant growth and development.

When we burn the plant matter, the oxidative reaction releases that stored energy as heat. As we’ll see, decay and digestion also convert organic matter to a usable form of energy.

Energy from plants is generally carbon neutral. That is, as plants grow, they capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That carbon is released when the plant matter decays or burns. The end sum of this cycle is energy produced with a zero net carbon release.

Of course plant matter has to be regrown for this to remain true.

Also, growing, harvesting and transporting biomass may involve the use of machines that burn fossil fuel so some carbon may be released as part of the overall process.

Still, the net carbon release is very small compared to burning fossil fuels for energy.

Aside from the low carbon impact, the fact that this form of energy often helps solve another environmental appeals to me.

Waste Material As Biomass Energy

For example, biomass power generators often use what would otherwise be waste material as fuel. This provides energy while reducing the environmental impact of waste disposal.

For example, wood and paper scrap can be used to produce fuel pellets. That means the material produces energy instead of going to a landfill.

Another example: herds of cattle produce a tremendous amount of manure as well as methane in the form of flatus. Biomass techniques process the manure and capture the methane in ways that produce energy while minimizing environmental impact

Homegrown Energy

In addition to using waste material as biomass, we can grow plant material specifically for this use.

A good candidate is switchgrass. This hardy plant is native to North America. It made up much of the oceans of grass that once covered the American plains. It’s a perennial that grows rapidly, requires little care and can be harvested with conventional farming equipment.

Switchgrass has already been used successfully with coal in a coal burning plant to produce electricity. Adding switchgrass means less coal is burned to produce the same energy. This dramatically reduces emissions, especially sulfur which is one of the elements responsible for acid rain.

This approach has some appeal because we could implement it very quickly. Existing power plants can be modified to burn biomass relatively easily. While purists who want coal-burning plants completely eliminated might object, I’m in favor of making any improvement we can right now. Burning biomass is a step in that direction. Biomass can also be used at the home level (distributed energy). The pellets I mentioned above can be burned in a wood burning stove or even a central boiler for heat.

In sum biomass offers yet another partial solution to our energy issues. If you’re interested in reading more about it, you can check out the pages below.

Links to Other Biomass Pages

Click here to go to Methane, Anaerobic Digesters and Biogas

Click here to go to Methane From Landfills

Click here to go to Advantages of Biomass Energy

Other Links

Click here to go to Alternative Energy Primer Home from Biomass Energy

Ethanol As Fuel

Click here to go to Solar Energy

Wind Power

Wood Burining