What is Biomass?
What is biomass?
Biomass is organic matter made by living organisms containing stored energy from the sun. Plants absorb radiant energy from sunlight and then convert it into chemical energy in the form of glucose, or sugar, through photosynthesis. Biomass includes varied organic matter like grass, leaves, wood, wood chips, rice husk, peanut shells, sugarcane fiber, sewage, etc. The energy contained in these various forms of biomass are passed on to the animals and people that consume the plant matter.
What is biomass energy?
Biomass energy (“bioenergy”) typically refers to the use of the energy contained in biomass matter to meet human needs. Humans have used biomass ever since harnessing the ability to light fires. By burning wood biomass, humans are able to access the chemical energy stored in the biomass as it is released in the form of heat.
How is biomass used today?
Biomass is most commonly used by humans as a fuel to generate heat and power (biopower), but may also be converted into biofuel, biogas, biochemicals, or bioproducts, depending on end-use demand. The International Energy Agency (IEA) states that biomass resources already meet 14 percent of the world’s total energy requirements. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), biomass fuels provided about 4 percent of the energy used in the United States in 2010. 46 percent of that amount was from wood or wood-derived biomass such as wood chips and sawdust, 43 percent came from biofuels like ethanol and 11 percent was sourced from municipal waste.
Biomass advantages and disadvantages?
Main advantages associated with biomass:
- It is a theoretically inexhaustible fuel source
- It is generally cleaner burning and more sustainable than fossil fuels (depending on feedstocks used)
- Alcohols and other fuels produced from biomass are efficient, viable, and relatively clean-burning
- Can cut down on waste streams such as MSW
- Provides employment opportunities in rural areas
- Available throughout the world
The main disadvantages associated with biomass include:
- In some cases, biomass can have a negative carbon balance (see Climate Legislation and Bioenergy Accounting Errors)
- Worry over particulate matter when burned can trigger NIMBY issues (see Is Burning Biomass Just ‘Lipstick on a Pig?’)
- Cost and the logistics of collection (see Biomass Power Potential Huge but Unrealized)
- Energy balance is not a slam dunk
Is biomass energy renewable?
Biomass energy is a renewable form of energy as plants can be grown in a short time and continuously to meet future needs. Due to the prevalence of biomass resources around the world, biomass is considered one of the key renewable resources of the future. But not all biomass is created equal according the U.S. Federal Government. Creating catch-all biomass definitions is tricky and results in confusion when assessing the virtues of various feedstocks. According to a report produced by the Congressional Research Service, a total of 14 definitions of biomass have been included in legislation and the tax code since 2004 (see Biomass: Getting to Renewable). Generally speaking, under the Farm Bill and Energy Independence and Security Act (source of RFS2), for feedstocks to fall within the category of renewable biomass in both bills, it must be an “infinite feedstock” that may be replenished in a short time frame.
Is biomass sustainable?
It depends. As noted above, biomass sustainability depends on the specific biomass resource used as well as how it is grown, harvested, collected, transported, and used. Generally, biomass power is considered to be the most efficient way to harness the chemical energy contained in the feedstock while converting biomass to fuels can require additional inputs of energy. For a more in-depth analysis, see Biomass Hub’s topic guide on Biomass Sustainability.
Image: Flickr/Frank Wuestefeld