How Does Biomass Energy Work?

From the Global Energy Guide: How Does Biomass Energy Work?

Unearthing more and more renewable sources of energy is one of the most prominent priorities of the modern world, and biomass is one such source. How does biomass energy work? Let's find out.
With conventional energy sources depleting and bent on turning their backs on humanity not very far in the future, it is up to mankind to seek out alternative sources of energy that are renewable and that wreak lesser havoc on the terrestrial environment, than their existing, conventional counterparts. Some options that we have in terms of alternative renewable energy sources are hydro power, wind energy, biomass energy, and solar energy. So what is biomass energy? Where do we get it from? How does biomass energy work? Is this an environment friendly energy option? Well, that's a lot of questions to begin a discussion with! I'll try and answer all of them, in the following segment.

What is Biomass Energy and How It Works

As the name suggests, biomass energy is indeed energy or fuel that is acquired by processing biological mass of matter that is still alive or was recently alive. The energy that is extracted from these living biological matters is either in the form of biological by-products produced by them or by processing the biological mass of recently living matter, such that the resultant product is a usable form of energy or fuel. There are five different sources from which biomass energy is usually generated. These are waste materials, wood, alcohol fuel, trash or garbage, and landfill gases that are produced when the garbage and waste that are dumped at a single landfill site undergo various chemical reactions and putrefaction (the latter is a result of microbial action which breaks down biodegradable waste on a molecular level). That basically means that biomass energy sources are all around us! The use of wood and plant material as a fuel is a well-known phenomenon, as most of us have seen how dried wood and parched plant material is burned to produce heat for a lot of domestic as well as industrial purposes.

So how does biomass energy work? Well, coming to the functional part, biomass energy works in a lot of different ways, depending upon the source from which it is generated, and the form in which it is produced and used. A noteworthy point that I must mention at this stage is that biomass energy can occur in solid, liquid as well as gaseous forms. In its solid form, we can see biomass energy in the form of firewood and combustible waste. An example of biomass fuel in liquid form can be seen by way of ethanol, which is derived by processing and fermenting the leftover portions of sugarcane and corn crops. The methane gas that is released by decomposing waste at landfills is a gaseous form of biomass energy. While most solid forms of biomass fuel is used to generate heat and fertilize soil, liquid forms such as ethanol can be used directly as a fuel (biodiesel, for instance) to power mechanical applications, or can be used as an additive to other conventional liquid fuels such as gasoline. The gaseous forms can be used for domestic purposes (biogas, for instance) as well as for industrial purposes for powering large plants and applications, as well as for generating heat.

The most prominent among all biomass energy advantages is that the sources are renewable as opposed to fossil fuel sources. However, the amount of air pollution caused by carbon emissions from biomass fuels is more or less the same as that from fossil fuels. Since biomass energy is derived from carbon based matter (all terrestrial life forms are carbon based... remember?), emission of carbon on combustion is inevitable. However, since the raw material that gives off the energy are still within the present carbon cycle (unlike fossil fuel sources that have gone out of the present carbon cycle ages ago), they also absorb some amount of atmospheric carbon, which kind of restores the balance. However, this balance can get adversely distorted if the biomass energy sources are not replaced at the same rate in which they are converted and consumed. Also, growing energy crops is seen by many as an undesirable competition for growing food crops for the ever-growing global population, leading to a possibility of further cutting down of forests to accommodate agriculture.