Biomass Definition and Uses

The concept of biomass has been largely discussed these last few years. To fully grasp the complexity of the matter and the importance of the scientific breakthroughs in this field, it is best to start with the basics. The main biomass definition is “biological material derived from living or recently living organisms that can be used as fuel”.

green earth

Image Source: Flickr

Biomass energy is undoubtedly the future of our planet. As the world’s reserve of fossil fuels grows thinner and thinner, we find ourselves in need of finding brand new ways to maintain our electricity-dependent society. Together with solar, wind, and water energy, biomass will eventually power up our lives.

Let us take you through the fundamental notions regarding biomass energy so that you can get a better idea about how biomass might improve our future.

Biomass Definition

The concept of biomass is rather different depending on the scientific area it is regarded from. In ecology, the biomass definition states that it is the total number of living species that are found in a given space at a given time. Biomass is measured in weight per given area.

The specific volume and the time frame can be adjusted to describe the entire amount of organisms that live or have lived in a certain place at a precise moment in time.

However, there is another biomass definition according to which biomass is defined as the organic matter that results from living or from recently living organisms. This is extremely important because it can be used to produce power by reutilizing the energy conserved by these organisms throughout their lives.

The plant-based material used for the specific purpose of creating energy is called lignocellulosic biomass. But not only plants can be used to create power. Biomass energy can be obtained from animal matter as well, thus expanding this field to an entirely different level.

Biomass Pyramid Definition

The pyramid of biomass is defined as a graphic representation of the relative amounts of biomass present at each trophic level. The exact shape and size of the pyramid depend on the area it represents, but it always includes the following main categories:

  1. Primary Producers

The primary producers are the organisms that are able to produce the food they need by themselves. They are called autotrophs because they can synthesize complex organic compounds, such as sugars or proteins, by using the material in the environment.

To do so, those that have access to light use photosynthesis, while those who do not have access to sunlight use chemosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is used primarily by plants. It represents the conversion of light energy into chemical energy, which is stored as sugars, starches, and proteins, and used to fuel all of the internal processes of the organism.

Chemosynthesis is used by bacteria, fungi, and algae and it represents the conversion of inorganic matter, such as carbon or hydrogen molecules, into organic matter, such as proteins or sugars, without the use of light energy.

  1. Primary consumers

The primary consumers are the organisms that feed on the producers. Therefore, they are fully dependent on their existence.

  1. Secondary Consumers

The secondary consumers are predators and feed on the primary consumers. They are represented by carnivorous species.

  1. Tertiary Consumers

The tertiary consumers are also predators and feed on the secondary consumers. They are at the top of the pyramid because they are the top of the food chain since they have no direct predators.

The size of each level of the pyramid depends on the number of individuals from each category. For the vast majority of terrestrial ecosystems, the pyramid looks like the one in the picture below. The bottom level is the largest because the producers are the most numerous, whereas the top level is the smallest because the number of tertiary consumers is far lower than that of the producers.

biomass pyramid


Image Source: Uoguelph

For example, in a forest area, the primary producers are the plants, which are present in a very large number. The primary consumers are the herbivores, such as deer or squirrels, that feed on plants only. Because the number of herbivores is smaller than that of the plants, the primary consumer level is represented as being smaller than that of the producers.

The secondary consumers are the carnivores that feed on the herbivores, which are also present in fewer numbers than the primary consumers. The top level of the pyramid are the tertiary consumers, which are predatory carnivores that feed on smaller carnivores, such as bears. They are fewer than the secondary consumers, and so this level is the smallest in the pyramid.

In aquatic environments, on the other hand, the pyramids appears to be inverted because at a given moment in time there are fewer producers than consumers. The explanation is that the lifespan of the primary producers is far lower than that of the consumers. However, their reproduction rate is extremely high and, therefore, the consumers have enough material to feed on.

Biomass Energy Definition

Biomass energy is defined as a renewable carbon-based source of energy, which is derived from living or recently living plant and animal materials. It refers to the conserved energy contained by this living material that can be used to obtain electrical energy.

As far as plant-based material is concerned, the chemical energy it contains can be released by combustion. Therefore, anything from wood to garden residue can be burned to release carbon dioxide and create power.

The system is quite simple. The plants are burned to heat up a water boiler, which produces steam. The stem is then utilized to spin a turbine, which in turn powers a generator that can produce electrical energy.

The main advantage of biomass energy is that it generates less harmful emissions than burning fossil fuels and that it is renewable. This aspect is absolutely crucial in the current context of our society.

Biomass Fuel Definition

Biomass fuel is defined as a fuel obtained from organic matter that can be converted into heat by burning or bio-gasification. The main types of biofuel are biogas, alcohol fuel, and biodiesel.


Biogas is a mixture of different gasses that are produced from organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Agricultural, animal, and municipal waste generate biogas, and it can be collected to produce energy because it is flammable.

Animal Waste

Animal waste is stored in large tanks called digesters, which support the production of biogas, but prevent it from being released into the environment. These tanks are called digesters because the biogas is produced by microbial organisms, such as fungi or bacteria, that feed on the animal waste.

Municipal Solid Waste  (MSW)

Municipal solid waste is the solid trash generated by human society. Burning it releases heat that can be used to produce energy. However, this process creates a considerable amount of harmful emissions into the environment because MSW includes plastic-based material, as well as plant and animal-based matter.

Alcohol Fuel

This is yet another method of utilizing plants to generate energy. The alcohol is obtained by fermenting the plants, which are rich in cellulosic material, starch, and sugars. Please note that alcohol fuel is very different from the alcohol we drink because of its chemical properties. In fact, it is not fit for human consumption.

Ethanol is the most widely used alcohol fuel. It can be used to power certain types of internal combustion engines, which are especially designed to run on this type of fuel. Very low quantities of ethanol can be mixed with gasoline to power regular gasoline engines, whereas fuels containing high concentrations of ethanol are only fit for modified engines.

The name of the fuels that contain ethanol always starts with an “E” that indicates the presence of the substance. It is followed by a number, which indicates the concentration of ethanol in the fuel. Here are the main blends that are in use at the moment:

  • E 100 – this is pure ethanol (a concentration of 100%), and it is in use in Brazil.
  • E85 – contains a maximum ethanol concentration of 85% and a minimum of 15% gasoline. It is in use in the US and Europe.

These two types of fuel are only compatible with vehicles that are especially designed to run on ethanol.

  • E25 – contains a maximum ethanol concentration of 25% and a minimum of 75% gasoline. It is used in Brazil.
  • E15 – contains a maximum ethanol concentration of 15% and a minimum of 85% gasoline. It is used in the US.
  • E10 – contains a maximum ethanol concentration of 10% and a minimum of 90% gasoline. It is used in the US.
  • E5 – contains a maximum ethanol concentration of 5% and a minimum of 95% gasoline. It is used in Western Europe.

These four types of fuel are fit for regular vehicles.


Biodiesel is derived from animal and vegetable oil and alcohol, and it can be used to power internal combustion engines that run on diesel. It can be mixed with petroleum diesel, or it can be used in pure form. As opposed to ethanol-based fuels, biodiesels and biodiesel mixtures can be used for a wide variety of vehicles, without the need for additional modifications to the engine.


Image Source: Wikimedia

The name of biodiesel-based fuels starts with a “B”, which is followed by a number that indicates the concentration of biodiesel in the fuel.  Here are the common biodiesel fuel blends:

  • B100 – this is pure biodiesel.
  • B20 – this type of fuel includes 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel.
  • B5 – this type of fuel includes 5% biodiesel and 95% petroleum diesel.
  • B2– this type of fuel includes 2% biodiesel and 98% petroleum diesel.

If the biomass definition and these basic notions have made you curious about these amazing alternative power sources, then take a look at our in-depth article, All you need to know about Biofuel Energy. You can find out more about biomass energy, how it is produced, as well as its socio-economic impact.

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