Bioenergy: energy contained in living or recently living biological organisms, a definition which specifically excludes fossil fuels…Organic material containing bioenergy is known as biomass. Humans use this biomass in many different ways, through something as simple as burning wood for heat, or as complex as genetically modifying bacteria.
– University of California-Davis Bioenergy Research Center
Many industrialized nations are prioritizing renewable sources of energy to meet the energy demands of the 21st century. Consequently, researchers are developing new ways to harness the energy found in biomass sources such as industrial and household waste.
This article focuses on answering three questions: What is biomass energy? What is the impact of biomass production? What is the future of biomass energy?
What is biomass energy?
Biomass energy is produced by converting combusting or decomposing organic matter into an energy source, like fuel or electricity. Because the energy in the organic matter comes from the sun, biomass is considered one of the primary forms of renewable energy.
Humans have been using biomass energy since they first discovered fire, and wood is still the most abundant source of biomass energy used today. Commercial processes used in agriculture and forestry, as well as organic components of municipal and industrial waste are also rich sources of biomass energy. Examples of specific biomass sources include agricultural crops and other plants, and algae.
Currently, there are three main applications of biomass energy:
- Biofuels—The conversion of biomass into liquid fuel for transportation.
- Biopower—The direct burning of biomass, or the conversion of biomass into (gas or liquid) fuels to generate electricity.
- Bioproducts—Deriving chemicals from biomass to make products traditionally made from petroleum (e.g., plastics).
What are the advantages of biomass energy?
Because of the nearly limitless amount of biomass material, it can (and likely will) remain a leading source of renewable energy. Biomass energy is also incredibly versatile; people can use it in a wide array of applications.
Many individuals in the scientific and environmental communities advocate for biomass energy production as a legitimate replacement for fossil fuels. In an effort to rely less heavily upon imported sources of energy, including petroleum, some countries are even providing government incentives for the private sector to increase biomass energy production.
Using biomass energy can also potentially reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. While burning biomass and fossil fuels produces equal amounts of carbon dioxide, the emissions from biomass sources “is largely balanced by the carbon dioxide captured in its own growth (depending how much energy was used to grow, harvest, and process the fuel” according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
NREL also notes that biomass energy production benefits America’s forest products and agricultural industries: “The main biomass feedstocks for power are paper mill residue, lumber mill scrap, and municipal waste. For biomass fuels, the most common feedstocks used today are corn grain (for ethanol) and soybeans (for biodiesel).”
What is the future of biomass energy?
Many experts predict that biomass will eventually become one of our main sources of energy, often citing the finite nature of fossil fuel sources. Currently, “bioenergy” is already the largest renewable energy source, accounting for approximately 10 percent of the world’s energy supply.
Technological developments will continue to have a direct impact on the expansion of biomass production. NREL, along with other public and private entities, is developing ways to convert additional byproducts into useable bioenergy. For example, residues from agricultural processes, including corn (e.g., husks, leaves, and stalks) and wheat byproducts will also eventually become a viable source of biomass energy.
Political and economic developments will likely influence the rate and scope at which governments implement bioenergy. The fluctuation in prices of fossil fuels, particularly oil, is an example of this. Another factor in the growth of bioenergy is that many nations are growing increasingly weary of imported sources of energy.
The debate over climate change is also spurring the transition to bioenergy. Most countries have embraced the notion that climate change and global warming are influenced by human activity; most notably, by energy production via the emission of greenhouse gases. As such, the action (or lack thereof) of elected officials will have a measured impact on the application of renewable energy sources, including bioenergy.