Biomass Energy

Biomass is organic material which has stored sunlight in the form of chemical energy. Biomass fuels include wood, wood waste, straw, manure, sugar cane, and many other byproducts from a variety of agricultural processes.


Biomass is a renewable energy source because the energy it contains comes from the sun. Through the process of photosynthesis, chlorophyll in plants captures the sun's energy by converting carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground into carbohydrates, complex compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. When these carbohydrates are burned, they turn back into carbon dioxide and water and release the sun's energy they contain. In this way, biomass functions as a sort of natural battery for storing solar energy. As long as biomass is produced sustainably—with only as much used as is grown—the battery will last indefinitely.

From the time of Prometheus to the present, the most common way to capture the energy from biomass was to burn it, to make heat, steam, and electricity. But advances in recent years have shown that there are more efficient and cleaner ways to use biomass. It can be converted into liquid fuels, for example, or cooked in a process called "gasification" to produce combustible gases. And certain crops such as switchgrass and willow trees are especially suited as "energy crops," plants grown specifically for energy generation.

Types of biomass
There are many types of plants in the world, and many ways they can be used for energy production. In general there are two approaches: growing plants specifically for energy use, and using the residues from plants that are used for other things. The best approaches vary from region to region according to climate, soils, geography, population, and so on.
Energy Crops
Energy crops, also called "power crops," could be grown on farms in potentially very large quantities, just like food crops. Trees and grasses, particularly those that are native to a region, are the best crops for energy, but other, less agriculturally sustainable crops such as corn tend to be used for energy purposes at present.
In addition to growing very fast, some trees will grow back after being cut off close to the ground, a feature called "coppicing." Coppicing allows trees to be harvested every three to eight years for 20 or 30 years before replanting. These trees, also called "short-rotation woody crops," grow as much as 40 feet high in the years between harvests. In the cooler, wetter regions of the northern United States, varieties of poplar, maple, black locust, and willow are the best choice. In the warmer Southeast, sycamore and sweetgum are best, while in the warmest parts of Florida and California, eucalyptus is likely to grow well. 
Other crops
A third type of grass includes annuals commonly grown for food, such as corn and sorghum. Since these must be replanted every year, they require much closer management and greater use of fertilizers, pesticides, and energy. While corn currently provides most of the liquid fuel from biomass in the United States, there are more sustainable ways to produce energy from plants.
Fast-growing trees and grasses

Amongst the fastest growing trees, in good conditions, hybrid poplars will shade a 1 story house in three years Hardy and rugged will grow almost anywhere.

Willows or poplars shouldn't be planted within 140 feet of a house or drains to be safe. They have very vigorous far reaching roots and are thirsty enough to make the soil expand and contract with the uptake of water so threatening foundations.

Oil plants and biofuels

sunflowerPlants such as soybeans and sunflowers produce oil, which can be used to make fuels. Like corn, though, these crops require intensive management and may not be sustainable in the longer term. A rather different type of oil crop with great promise for the future is microalgae.

Biofuel (also called agrofuel) is a basic abbreviation of biorganic fuel. This is a scientific name for any plant or animal substance that can burn (combustible organism organic) of two types , plant and animal). Biofuel is an alternative considered to replace petroleum gas (gasoline) or petrol. Most transportation vehicles require high power density provided by internal combustion engines. These engines require clean burning fuels, which are generally in liquid form, and to a lesser extent, compressed gaseous phase. Liquids are more portable because they have high energy density, and they can be pumped, which makes handling easier. This is why most transportation fuels are liquids.

Non-transportation applications can usually tolerate the low power-density of external combustion engines, that can run directly on less-expensive solid biomass fuel, for combined heat and power. One type of biomass is wood, which has been used for millennia in varying quantities, and more recently is finding increased use. Two billion people currently cook every day, and heat their homes in the winter by burning biomass, which is a contributor to man-made climate change global warming. The black soot that is being carried from Asia to polar ice caps is causing them to melt faster in the summer. In the 19th century, wood-fired steam engines were common, contributing significantly to industrial revolution unhealthy air pollution. Coal is a form of biomass that has been compressed over millennia to produce a non-renewable, highly-polluting fossil fuel.

Wood and its byproducts can now be converted into biofuels such as woodgas, methanol or ethanol fuel.

Converting Biomass to Energy

fireThe old way of converting biomass to energy, practiced for thousands of years, is simply to burn it to produce heat. This is still how most biomass is put to use, in the United States and elsewhere. The heat can be used directly, for heating, cooking, and industrial processes, or indirectly, to produce electricity. The problems with burning biomass are that much of the energy is wasted and that it can cause some pollution if it is not carefully controlled.

An approach that may increase the use of biomass energy in the short term is to burn it mixed with coal in power plants—a process known as "co-firing." Biomass feedstock can substitute up to 20 percent of the coal used in a boiler. The benefits associated with biomass co-firing include lower operating costs, reductions of harmful emissions, and greater energy security. Co-firing is also one of the more economically viable ways to increase biomass power generation today. In 2000, the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, a joint effort including Alliant Energy, the U.S. Department of Energy, and local biomass groups, began testing the co-firing of switchgrass with coal at Alliant's Ottumwa Generating Station in Iowa. The project has proved so successful that in 2005, Alliant received permission to build a permanent biomass processing facility at the plant, capable of co-firing up to five percent of its energy with switchgrass.


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