Biomass is commonly cited as a renewable energy source. The term also is used by biologists and ecologists to describe living and dead carbon-based biological material that is part of the environment’s carbon cycle. Biomass is the renewable, living and recently dead plant matter whose cellulose, sugars and proteins can be directly combusted; or biologically, physically or chemically changed into an industrial chemical or fuel. Industrial biomass is processed into a “bio-product.” Energy-related biomass is processed into a “bio-fuel.” It should be noted that coal, oil and other fossil fuels were once biomass, but over time, that biomass was chemically and physically changed by geologic processes. This material is not considered biomass, since it is nonrenewable and (unless combusted) no longer part of the environment’s carbon cycle.
Organic matter can be farmed or collected for biomass crops. This can be as simple as collecting corn, soy or wheat stalks, or collecting yard waste or industrial or recycled wood waste. It can be as complex as creating specialized aquatic environments for the production of algae or higher aquatic plants.
Any biomass-production strategy has several important hurdles to overcome. First and foremost are the simple economics of the system. An energy audit is necessary. This should look at the energy or product gained and the energy consumed by all aspects of collection, transportation and processing of the material, including any depletion due to storage issues, and all associated costs and values. A comprehensive engineering study, overall feasibility study and business plan should describe the markets, material supply, seasonality of production, agronomic and economic threats to the system, and similar issues.
When considering any biomass-utilization project of larger scope and scale, two points usually are limiting factors or at least important considerations: The immediate availability of material, and the material and transportation cost. For example, limited acres of seasonally-harvested switchgrass will not reliably support continuous power generation for a municipality. Additionally, if the municipality must bear handling and transportation costs that are in excess of the value of the returned energy, even a free material source will not be economically viable as a generation facility fuel. A good way to identify potential problems is to carefully look at the total infrastructure necessary to implement any biomass utilization strategy; then develop risk-avoidance and risk-management plans that cover problem areas.
Currently, there is considerable research in many promising areas of biomass utilization from renewable “green” biodegradable solid and fibrous plastics, paints and coatings to various fuels and high-value chemicals. Much of this biomass is derived from tree and grass species, as well as the “woody” (cellulosic) waste streams from construction, farm and industrial production.
Links for General Biomass Information:
- Bioenergy and Biofuels, National Ag Library, USDA.
- Biomass Action Plan, European Commission - This links to the Commission's biomass and biofuels plans.
- Biomass Energy: From Farms to Forests an Emerging Opportunity for Rural America, Dovetail Partners, 2006.
- Biomass Program, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) - The Biomass Program supports research and development that focuses on biomass characterization, thermochemical and biochemical biomass conversion technologies, bio-based products development and biomass process engineering and analysis.
- Biomass Research and Development Initiative, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) - The Biomass Initiative is a multi-agency effort to coordinate all federal bio-based products and bioenergy research.
- Biomass Statistics, Iowa Public Television.
- BP to buy Ethanol Fuel Plant from Verenium, CNET News, 2010 - A pilot-scale plant uses sugar cane residue to make ethanol.
- Chipping In, Rural Cooperatives magazine, USDA Rural Development, 2010 - Austrian cooperatives play role in making nation a leader in wood biomass energy production.
- Clean and Diversified Energy Initiative, Biomass Task Force Report, Western Governors Association, 2006.
- Corn Stover for Bioethanol – Your New Cash Crop?, NREL, 2001 - This article discusses the benefits and possibilities of harvesting and converting corn stover into ethanol.
- Determining the Cost of Producing Ethanol from Corn Starch and Lignocellulosic Feedstocks, Joint study sponsored by the USDA and U.S. DOE, 2000 - This government study looked at two possible ethanol-producing processes: one using corn starch and the other using lignocellulose.
- Economic Analysis of the Conditions for Which Farmers will Supply Biomass Feedstocks for Energy Production, James Larson, Burton English and Lixia Lambert, University of Tennessee, 2007 - This AgMRC-funded study developed a farm-level model to evaluate contract biomass feedstock production, that is, corn stover and switchgrass, for a grain farm. Four potential types of contracts were analyzed; each offered different levels of biomass price, yield and production cost risk sharing between the farm and the processor.
- Environmental Issue Overview, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1993 - Abstract of a technical report on the environmental issues related to biomass use for energy or industrial product development.
- Ethanol Company Brews Green Energy, Market to Market, Iowa Public Television, 2010 - The fourth largest ethanol company in North America is seeking to commercialize the growth and harvest of algal biomass.
- Manure Digestion System, Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, 2003 - This site provides an overview of a manure digester, including a description, benefits and costs.
- Northeastern California Ethanol Manufacturing Feasibility Study, Quincy Library Group, 1997 - The U.S. DOE's Biofuels Program joined with the Quincy Library Group of Northern California to conduct an ethanol feasibility study. The study examined the effects of thinning two national forests and converting the wood into ethanol.
- Oregon Cellulose Ethanol Study, Oregon Office of Energy, 2000 - This ethanol research evaluated the near-term potential of a cellulose-based ethanol industry in Oregon.
- Prairie Lands Bio-Products - This project in southern Iowa, formerly known as the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, involves a group of about 60 switchgrass growers. In addition to studying switchgrass as an alternative energy crop, the producer group, Prairie Lands Bio-Products, Inc., is looking at other products and markets derived from the plant, such as paper, fiberboard, mulch and logs.
- Synergism Between Agricultural and Energy Policy: The Case of Dedicated Bioenergy Crops, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, 2001 - This biomass research study indicates what crop prices and programs would do if more acres were planted in switchgrass.
- Thermix Combustion Systems - Overview of a new system that uses hog manure in an integrated approach. The system produces a fine dry powder that exhibits excellent combustion properties.
- Western Regional Biomass Energy Program, Western Governors Association.
- Xcel Energy Bay Front Case Study, Eric Anderson and Andrew Dane, University of Wisconsin Extension, 2008 - This energy plant currently operates by burning wood, coal, and limited amounts of shredded tires but has steadily reduced its coal usage and increased its percentage of power produced by wood. This practice has helped the local economy by creating a new market for woody biomass to complement existing wood and wood product-related industries, resulting in additional revenue streams for woody biomass suppliers in the region.
Links checked July 2018.