Biomass Fuels Facts
Biomass fuels are essentially any material that from living things that can be utilised as an energy source.
They can be classified into 3 main sources: agricultural waste, energy crops and domestic and industrial waste.
Agricultural waste consists of many types which includes animal manure, and plant matter like stalks and stems of harvested crops. Energy crops include grasses like sugar cane, grains like corn and trees like eucalyptus and poplar. Domestic and industrial waste are made up of mainly rubbish that are produced annually.
Recently in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reducing the dependency on fossil fuels, there have been research carried out to better utilise biomass fuels. This includes the production of bioethanol from energy crops like corn and wheat; biodiesel from soybeans; biogas from garbage and manure; and electricity generated from waste-to-energy power plants which burn biomass garbage like paper, cardboard and food scraps, or even used as a fuel in the form of woodchips for biomass boilers.
Other biomass fuel sources include wood chips or pellets that can be utilised in biomass boilers or pellet stoves to provide heating for a single room or central heating for a building.
Particularly for biodiesel, artistes like Willie Nelson, Daryl Hannah are some of the pioneers in promoting the usage of biodiesel while musicians like Norah Jones and Red Hot Chili Peppers use vehicles that runs on biodiesel when they go on tour.
Why Biomass Fuels? What are its Pros?
Renewable Energy Source
This aspect is more applicable for biogas production and waste-to-energy power plants. Trash is something that is being discarded everyday so it is virtually renewable.
Plethora of Usages for Biomass Fuels for Different Environment
Bioethanol can be used on its own or mixed with gasoline for usage in cars. Similarly biodiesel can either replace diesel totally or blended with diesel in varying proportions for usage in trucks and buses.
Biogas can be produced in varying scales to suit different uses; methane from rotting trash in landfills can be burned in power plants to create electricity. On a smaller production scale basis, biogas can also be produced by farmers via biodigesters that are large tanks containing rotting manure and plant material to produce methane gas for heating and electricity generation.
Electricity generated by waste-to-energy power plants can also be channelled into the popwer grid for usage as electricity.
Growing of biodiesel creates employment opportunities and adds to the economy of countries like United States which is one of the major producers of biodiesel in the world.
In the case of bioethanol, the largest producer in the world is Brazil through her PROALCOHOL programme. This programme initiated due to the Arab oil embargo in 1973 has since then seen the replacement of pure petrol for a blend of bioethanol with petrol being sold at petrol stations. This has reduced the dependency on petrol and reduce the prices of transport fuel.
Similarly for biodiesel, blending with diesel for fuel consumption has also reduced the uptake of pure diesel as a fuel and reduces demand on diesel.
There are also incentives offered by the United States government to encourage the usage of biodiesel. In United Kingdom, there is going to be the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive in 2 phases that promotes the uptake of renewable heating technologies like biomass boilers by paying the consumer tariffs per kWh of renewable heating generated.
Uses of Biofuels
Cheaper and Greener Fuel for Vehicles
Bioethanol can be utilised on its own or mixed with gasoline for cars. Similarly for biodiesel, it can be utilised or blended with diesel for usage in trucks or buses. This blended fuel sources are also cheaper.
Among the biofuels, bioethanol has the most favourable greenhouse gas balance (GHG). Brazilian bioethanol production can reach a GHG balance as high as 90%. This can be further improved by investments in bioethanol that can burn bagasse (a by-product from sugar cane processing) and other waste products to generate power for production of bioethanol.
Emissions from biodiesel have also been shown to be cleaner than conventional diesel as well.
Generation of Electricity
Waste-to-energy power plants burn biomass garbage to generate electricity that is cheaper. This source of fuel is almost renewable since we throw garbage everyday.
Contributes to the Economy
For countries that do not produce crude oil or enough to support their economy, growing of biofuels will allow them to produce their own fuel and reduce their dependence on other countries. Farmers that rely on farming for their living can now switch to growing biofuel crops like canola, soy beans that will be better cash crops.
Potential Future Sources that Do Not Require Land
Algae like Nannochloropsis spp. are potential biomass fuel sources since some algal species can accumulate lipid granules in their individual cells.
Besides that they can also be grown in saltwater, freshwater, and also in wastewater or sewage.
Some Cons to Using Biomass Fuels
There are some cons to using biomass fuels which should be considered:
Amount of Land Required
Growing of biofuel crops like soy beans, canola and oil palm require a lot of land therefore people are worried that it might result in more wild habitat like rain forests are being cleared to make way for more farm land.
Possible Resultant Pollution
Growing of biofuel crops is business venture therefore to ensure maximal crop yield it might require the usage of fertilisers and pesticides which will have to be monitored by relevant organisations.
Clearing of land for oil palm production via practices like slash and burn as practiced by countries like Indonesia in an effort for clearing more land has resulted in air pollution in the form of haze to neighboring countries like Singapore and Malaysia. This is one issue that probably will also requires stringent controls in place to curb such practices.
Usage of fast growing trees like poplar, willow for renewable wood fuel production, can also cause air pollution during their growth cycle. They emit the chemical isoprene which can give rise to toxic ozone upon mixture with air pollutants in the presence of sunlight.
Contribution to world hunger problems
There have been increasing cases that farmers grow crops like corn and soybeans for producing biofuels instead as a food source. This is an issue because there is limited farmland available.
This might cause shortage of food supplies for countries that are less economically developed countries if all of their farmland was utilised for energy crops. However to solve this problem, it might require additional action in the form of policies in the form of sustainable forestry and alternative energy crop types.
1. Owen R. Energy from Plants and Trash: Biofuels and Biomass Power. 32pp. The Rosen Publishing Group 2013
2. Smith J. Biofuels and the globalisation of risk: The biggest change in North-South relationships since colonialism. 170pp. Zed Books (2010)
3. Thomas I. Biomass Power (Energy debate). 48pp. Wayland 338 Euston Road London NW1 3BH 2007
Last Updated 3rd May 2014