Biomass energy has been in the spotlight these last few decades because it is one of the main alternative energy sources that we have available at this time. As the world’s supply of fossil fuels is getting depleted faster and faster, science has been searching for new ways to power the society. Biomass is one of the central options because it has one major advantage: it is renewable.
As the technology used for obtaining biomass energy and biofuels has become more and more developed, an essential question has emerged: is it sustainable and just how eco-friendly is biomass fuel?
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What is Biomass?
There are two official definitions for the term biomass:
- Biomass is the total amount of living organisms from a given space or volume at a certain time.
This essentially refers to absolutely all living things, regardless of size or species, that take up a certain space at a certain time.
- Biomass is the organic matter, both animal and plant-based, which can be used as a source of fuel.
This refers to all the animal and plant-based matter that can be used as the primary material for energy production systems.
What is Biomass Energy?
Biomass energy is an alternative type of power that can be produced from organic material of plant and animal origin. Some of the most important biomass sources are wood and agricultural products, ranging from plants that are farmed especially for the production of energy to the waste plant matter that results from the agricultural industry.
Other sources are biogases, such as methane gas and municipal solid waste (MSW), which is the vast majority of the waste produced by a society that can be burned and used to produce electrical energy. These various types of biomass produce energy through different types of systems, but the common benefit that they present is the fact that they are far better alternatives to fossil fuels, in spite of their shortcomings.
Biomass produces both energy and heat, which means that they can be used for great many purposes, ranging from powering engines to heating up spaces.
What is Biomass Fuel?
Biomass fuels are defined as the renewable organic materials that can be used to produce energy. Alcohol fuels and biodiesels are the most important types of biofuels, and they constitute a noteworthy alternative to fossil fuels. Biodiesels are of particular interest because they can already be employed for a wide range of engines either alone or mixed with traditional petroleum-based fuel.
Essentially, anything from plants to animal matter can be turned into energy, which gives us a little bit more time to sort out the pressing environmental issues of our unsustainable society.
- Woody Fuels
Wood can be used to produce energy by combustion. Whether it is in the form of wood chippings, wood pellets, sawdust or logs, it can be burned to produce heat and energy. As you can imagine, the main consumer of woody fuels is the forestry industry, but this type of biomass fuel has many uses outside it as well.
- Agricultural Products and Residues
Because plants conserve energy through photosynthesis, burning them can release it back into the environment. This is used to heat up water in special tanks or boilers and then the steam produced here can power a turbine. This turbine spins and powers a generator that finally produces the energy.
Plant matter has proven to be an excellent alternative energy source because it is extremely cheap to grow. Furthermore, the cost of energy production is also affordable, which makes it very efficient.
- Animal Waste and Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)
Animal waste and garbage produce gas, which can be used for the production of energy. These two biomass energy sources are extremely important because something that normally costs an impressive amount to dispose of can actually be used to produce money.
What is a Biomass Pyramid?
The biomass pyramid is a graphical representation of the amount of biomass present in each trophic level. The bottom levels are represented by the living organisms that produce energy, whereas the top levels are occupied by the primary consumers.
Image Source: Tutorvista
As you can see in the picture above, the producers are placed at the bottom level. They are mainly represented by plants that utilize solar energy and transform it into chemical energy through photosynthesis. This elaborate process releases oxygen into the environment, which is vital to all the organisms from the levels represented above in the pyramid.
Furthermore, the herbivores, which are animals that feed on plant material, depend on the biomass from the producer level because it is their main food source. This is why they are called primary consumers.
The following level is represented by the carnivores that feed on herbivores. They are called secondary consumers because they feed on the animals from the second level of the pyramid.
The top level of the ecological pyramid is occupied by the carnivores that feed on other carnivores. They are referred to as tertiary consumers because they feed on the animals from the third level of the pyramid.
Aside from the trophic relationship between the organisms from the various food chains, the biomass pyramid is meant to relay the differences in the density of the population from each level. The producers are the most numerous, whereas the tertiary consumers are the least numerous.
What are the advantages of Biomass?
It is renewable
This is by far the most important advantage of biomass. While fossil fuels have taken millions and millions of years to develop and are running out at an alarming rate, biomass fuels are 100% renewable, and they require short periods of time for production.
It produces less harmful emissions
While biomass energy is not completely harmless to the environment, it is far less harmful than fossil fuels. The main difference lies in the type of carbon dioxide emission generated by these types of fuels. While that of fossil fuels is one of the main pollutants on the planet, that of biomass can be absorbed by plants, which can use it further for their internal processes.
It can reduce the consumption of fossil fuels
By replacing, at least part of the amount of fossil fuels that we use today with biomass, we can preserve the remaining supply for longer. Furthermore, this will give us more time to perfect our alternative energy production systems before the supply is completely exhausted.
It reduces landfills
The sites where various types of waste are buried are called landfills. The gases produced inside these landfills can be used as energy sources by introducing a simple piping system. Therefore, the existing ones can be put to good use, and their number can be lessened over time.
What are the disadvantages of Biomass?
It is less efficient than fossil fuels
Biomass fuels generally have a lower energy density than fossil fuels do. This is why a considerably larger quantity of bio-fuels is necessary to produce a certain amount of energy compared to fossil fuels.
It is unsustainable
We need gargantuan amounts of space to produce all of this biomass that we are later going to convert to energy. This makes it unsustainable over time as the prime source of energy of our society. However, it can still be used to produce part of the necessary electricity.
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It uses up the land that could be used for growing food
The plants that are grown for the specific use of being converted to energy cannot be used as food. This becomes an issue considering that world hunger has yet to be resolved.
It is still very expensive
The costs of producing biomass fuels are still quite steep. While the advancement of technology might improve this issue in the following years, it remains quite an important problem at the moment. This is one of the main reasons why biomass energy production cannot be implemented in low-income countries.
It remains clear that the matter of biomass energy and its use to the environment will be debated on for many years to come. However, scientific advancements are made every day, so there is hope that the most ardent issues regarding the efficiency of biomass can be corrected over time. Biomass remains one of the main replacements for fossil fuels. Hopefully, together with wind and water energy, we can use it to create a greener future for everybody.
If you want to read more about biomass and its many uses, please read our extended article, All you need to know about Biofuel Energy. Here you can find out even more about the production process it entails so that you can get an idea of the size of this industry of tomorrow.
Moreover, you can read about the most controversial aspects of this alternative energy source, as well as in-depth information about its effects on the environment. Then you can decide for yourself whether or not biomass fuels are eco-friendly or not.