Revised June 2022
The term "Biomass" is used in different ways by different people. Biologists and ecologists use the term to describe living and dead carbon-based biological material that is part of the environment’s carbon cycle. As such, it includes all plants, trees, insects, animals, and microbes.
The term "Biomass" is more commonly used to describe the renewable, living and recently dead plant matter whose structural material (cells) can be directly combusted for energy or can be biologically, physically or chemically changed into a useful "Biofuel or other energy product.
It should be noted that coal, oil and other fossil fuels are generally understood to have once been biomass, but over time, that biomass was chemically and physically changed by geologic processes. This material is not considered to be biomass, since the time scale for its regeneration is dramatically longer than that of currently living biomass.
All organic matter is biomass, and can be farmed or collected for utilization. One way to categorize biomass is as either a "residue" (such as leftover corn, soy or wheat stalks, yard waste or industrial or recycled wood waste) or "dedicated biomass crops" (such as corn for ethanol, oilseeds for biodiesel, and short rotation woody crops). Opportunities exist for even more exotic sources of biomass, such as specialized aquatic environments for the production of algae or higher aquatic plants.
Notes on Biomass Production
Any biomass-production strategy has several important hurdles to overcome. First and foremost are the simple economics of the system. Can the biomass crop be sold for more than its cost to produce? In many cases, the answer could be "no". Additional questions and issues that should be addressed include:
- Is the production of biomass compatible with the overall operational strategy for the farm?
- Is the knowledge and skill needed to produce the biomass crop available?
- Are the ecological impacts of biomass production favorable for the farm and region?
- Are the markets for the biomass crop sufficiently reliable to ensure an acceptable level of risk?
A comprehensive feasibility study and business plan is an important starting point, and should describe the markets, material supply, seasonality of production, agronomic factors, economic threats to the system, and similar issues.
Biomass Utilization Projects
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 - sufficient production area and storage of the crop for year-round use would be required. 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 an energy source. 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.
Markets and Future Outlook
In the United States, corn for ethanol production is the largest and most fully developmed biomass market, utilizing just under half of all national corn production. Markets for other crops and materials tend to vary considerably from region to region, and can generally be classified as being in a "developing" state. Thus, smaller scale uses are likely to be the predominant opportunities for the near future, with larger markets opening up only as supply becomes more reliable and economic returns more stable. Markets for "carbon credits", "sustainability credits" and "renewable energy credits" continue to develop, and could provide sufficient economic incentive to make many bioenergy crops and projects economically attractive.
Currently, there is considerable research in many promising areas of biomass utilization that could lead to new markets for biomass. This ranges from improved fuels and related energy products to renewable “green” biodegradable plastics, paints, coatings and high-value chemicals. The production of energy plus non-energy products from biomass is expected to emerge as the dominant approach to biomass utilization, and these multi-product manufacturing systems are referred to as "biorefineries"
- Biomass Program, U.S. DOE - This program develops technology for conversion of biomass (plant-derived material) to valuable fuels, chemicals, materials and power, reducing dependence on foreign oil and fostering growth of biorefineries.
- Bioenergy and Biofuels, National Ag Library, USDA.
- 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. Also see this page
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- USDA Climate Hubs Biomass - USDA - Provides information about biomass relative to climate change.
- USDA Rural Development Biomass - USDA Rural Development - Provides news and information relative to the Rural Development office's biomass programs.
- DOE Billion Ton Update - US Department of Energy - Provides analysis of potential biomass production in the United States with a focus on the technical feasibility of an annual supply of one billion tons.