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What is Biomass Energy?

Biomass is natural material so if you wonder “what is biomass energy”  – it is creating energy from naturally occurring materials. In nature, biochemicals act to break down the molecules of plant material in a process we call “decay”. Enzymes from bacteria are what make certain grains ferment to make alcohol. The bacterial activity in biomass is what makes gardeners start a compost pile.

For month an organic gardener will toss grass clipping and twigs and kitchen scraps on a pile in an open area where the sun ray’s can reach. Adding leaves, a little dirt on top and keeping the compost pile moist results in a biomass that can become steamy as it decomposes. The end result is composted soil which enriches the garden.

When it comes to commercial biomass energy, the goal is utilize the natural tendency of plant material to decay and find ways to control and refine the process to create heat and generate power. Biomass energy is a science in its infancy and is still being researched and discussed rather than implemented.

The possibilities of what biomass energy could do are exciting. One of the big problems faced by cities and town across the U.S. today is how to dispose of tons of trash we generate in our home and businesses daily. Concerns for cleanliness and safety have led to over-packaging of most of the products buy.

In our Grandmother’s time buying a loaf of bread from a bakery involved a piece of paper wrapped around the loaf – cash paid – and that was it. Today you buy a loaf of bread that is in a plastic bag secured with a paper and wire twister. The bread is place in a second plastic bag at the cashier stand and you have a piece of paper for a receipt.

Many vitamins, over the counter medications and other consumer produce have a small amount of merchandise packed in a cotton topped plastic bottle, sealed with a plastic circle and capped with two layers of plastic for childproofing. That bottle may be packed into a small cardboard box and then at checkout your little bottle of pills goes into a larger plastic bag. The standard packaging methods used today in the U.S. have led to landfills become full long before intended.

In the end you may have 20 pills that can be held easily in the palm of your hand – and it could take two hands to hold the packaging materials used. Unlike fallen tree limbs or other natural biomass material, plastic packaging is very slow to break down in landfills and only a small portion of the package materials are recycled and reused in spite of massive recycling efforts over the past few years.

Evaluating the Potential

Biomass energy would seem to be a natural process that would guarantee environmental advantages over use of fossil fuels. That may be the case but the headlines promoting biomass energy provide a simplified view that is not in touch with reality. Biomass is natural and creates energy naturally as it slowly decomposes. Biomass energy is complex as everything from the type of biomass used in the energy process to the emissions released from the biomass plant must be evaluated. Assessing he greenhouse gas results of using wood for energy requires evaluating several things.

For example, if wood is to be used to create biomass energy it will be composed of logging debris, damaged trees, and whole trees). The energy that results may be heat, electricity or a combination of the two. The efficiencies and emissions must be profiled for the biomass fuel used. The power plant must make a comparison with the fossil fuel being displaced as emission profiles vary. Lastly, forest management is a factor as recovery of carbon from the atmosphere varies with logging practices used.

Do We Understand It Yet?

Biomass energy is a process that is easily grasped by the public. The potential for using trash and animal waste to create an alternative energy source is tempting. Though new packaging materials claim to recycle betterand faster than old containers, the breakdown of plastics remains a major problem for waste management.

Scientists studying what biomass energy is find there are many questions yet unanswered. Before moving to building larger plants, more studies are needed. Biomass energy may be a wave of the future that could save us from our own wasteful habits and provide a renewable and easily sustainable source of power. It could be an expensive boondoggle where power created is too expensive or the process too polluting to be useful.

Summary

What is biomass energy?  It is the energy produced by nature when dead plant matter decays or burns. It is the heat from burning peat or charcoal briquettes. It is the compost heat in your back yard where trash is gradually being turn into earth gardeners refer to as “black gold”.

What is the potential of biomass energy for the future?  We don’t yet know as massive development of biomass energy plants is years away. For now, biomass energy offers the potential to solve not only the crisis of depleted stores of fossil fuels but also the problem of trash and waste disposal. Biomass energy is not a quick fix and not ready for prime time in the alternative energy field. However, it’s worth asking “what is biomass energy” as it may become a prime source of energy in the future.