The world we have grown accustomed to is centered around the generation and consumption of energy. Societies worldwide, especially industrialized societies, have incorporated power and fuel consumption into day-to-day life. Most international energy production and consumption in the modern world comes from nonrenewable sources like natural gas, coal, and crude oil – fossil fuels. These are energy sources that take thousands of years to form, and once they are used up, they are not easily replaced. This limited supply of fossil fuel is one of the main reasons many are looking to switch to a renewable energy source. A highly discussed type of renewable energy is biomass energy. We will take a closer look at what biomass is, and it’s potential as a sustainable energy source.
The term biomass can be confusing at first glance. It is primarily due to its nuance difference in meaning across different fields. In ecological terms, biomass refers to all organic matter types, which encompass all forms of living and recently living plants and animals. When it comes to energy, biomass is reserved for organic matter used as a source of energy. There are many organic materials used in bioenergy, but the majority come from plants or animal sources.
Biomass gets energy directly from the sun-all organic matter stores solar energy. Plants, which are by far the most excellent source of bioenergy, store energy through photosynthesis. The chlorophyll in plants captures solar energy through chemical processes that convert carbon dioxide from air and water into carbohydrates, hydrogen, oxygen, and complex carbon compounds during photosynthesis. When these newly formed carbohydrates are burnt, they convert back into carbon dioxide and water, releasing the solar energy stored in them.
When biomass is harvested or recycled as an energy source, it is referred to as a biomass feedstock. Biomass production can come in various types of feedstocks. They can be farmed for energy content, like in energy crops, or recycled from industries with organic waste products, such as agriculture, timber production, or food processing. Biomass materials from feedstocks are used for power production, fuel, and products that would typically be made from fossil fuels. There are numerous biomass sources in the world, and they include:
Wood and wood processing – Wood and wood waste are among the most popular biomass sources. They can be used to generate heat and electric power. Examples of wood and wood as biomass sources include firewood (logs, branches), wood pellets, wood chips, furniture and lumber mill waste, and black liquor from paper mills.
Agricultural crops and farm residues – Biomass can be cultivated and farmed. Not only can entire land sections be dedicated to the growth of biomass crops, but many agricultural waste products like crop and food processing residues can be processed into energy. Examples of crops used as biomass include soybeans, corn, switchgrass, sugarcane, algae, and woody plants.
Biogenic materials in municipal soil waste (MSW) – MSW, or as it is more often called garbage or trash, has a lot of biomass potential. It can be used to produce energy in waste-to-energy power plants and at landfills across the country. Examples of garbage used as biomass include cotton, paper, wool products, yard, wood, and food wastes. However, it is essential to note that not all garbage used in energy generation comes from biomass. Certain waste-to-energy plants burn plastics as well. These are hybrid energy sources that generate power with a mix of biomass and plastic waste.
Animal manure and human sewage – The energy of biomass materials can be released in multiple ways. While the most popular method of using biomass for energy is burning, you can also convert it into biogas. This is a natural gas that is created from rotting organic materials. When biogas is captured in a closed container, it can create fires or generate electricity. The most common organic materials used to produce biogas are human, plant, food, and animal waste.
How Biomass is Utilized in Various Bioenergy Technologies
Bioenergy is a term that encompasses all electricity and gas that is generated from biomass materials (organic matters.) It is a very flexible energy source that can quickly meet consumption demands. This is why it is an excellent alternative and back-up for weather-dependent renewable energy like solar panels and wind energy. As we have already seen the numerous biomass feedstocks, we want to take a look at the various ways these organic materials can be transformed into energy in biorefineries.
Biopower tech transforms biomass into electricity and heat through processes similar to those used in fossil fuels. The three main ways of generating power from biomass include bacterial delay, burning, and converting to liquid or gas fuel.
Biofuels are fuels derived from biomass materials and are used all around the world. The industry is massively expanding in Asia, Europe, North and South America. Their aim is to help meet transportation needs in a world with depleting fossil fuels (petrol and diesel fuel). Biofuel can come in the form of ethanol and biodiesel. They are made from plant (soybean, rapeseed, sunflower, palm oil, coconut, hemp, etc.) and animal (tallow, lard, yellow grease, chicken fat, etc.) biomaterials.
In addition to creating electricity and fuels, biomass materials can also be converted into chemicals for making products (like plastics) that are usually made from petroleum. Not every petroleum product has a substitution, but the majority do.
Converting Biomass into Energy
Biomass energy conversion can be done through several different processes. These processes include:
- Direct combustion
- Thermal conversions
- Chemical conversion
- Biological conversions
Direct Combustion – Direct combustion is the oldest and most common method of transforming biomass into energy. All biomass forms can be directly burnt to generate heat for buildings and water, industrial heat processes, and generate electricity in steam turbines.
Thermal Conversion (Thermochemical Conversion) – Thermal conversions include processes that utilize heat to transform biomass into better and more valuable fuel sources. Many thermal conversions exist, but the most basic ones are torrefaction, pyrolysis, and gasification. The main difference between these conversions is the chemical reactions that occur during exposure to different degrees of heat and controlled exposure to oxygen levels.
Chemical Conversion – Biomass can be converted into several useful chemicals. This is done through a range of chemical processes that can convert biomass into fuel that is more practical for storage, transportation, or use.
Biological (Biochemical) Conversion – Given that biomass is an organic natural material, many natural processes can break down the biomass molecules. Throughout the history of biomass utilization, people could harness many of these biochemical processes to perform the conversion process. These processes include anaerobic digesters, fermentation, and composting.
Benefits of Biomass Energy
The increasing popularity of renewable energy sources, like biomass, has become the norm in many countries. These are some of the reasons why people are starting to focus on biomass.
Readily Available – Biomass can be found in numerous forms all around the world. This makes it a readily available fuel source that can easily be used for practical purposes.
Less Greenhouse Gas Emissions – Global warming and climate change are important factors to consider when looking at renewable energy sources. Greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere from fossil fuels can cause a lot of damage because of fewer carbon emissions. Greener alternatives utilize plant growth (their carbon capture capabilities) for the benefit of society. Biomass emissions are more carbon neutral as they release carbon dioxide (CO2) that has been absorbed by the plant during its growth and development. The cycle of absorbing carbon and releasing it is a lot better for the planet.
Reduces Fossil Fuel Reliance – Nonrenewable fossil fuels like crude oil and coal are not only contributing to climate change, but they can also be detrimental to our health. Biomass gives us an alternative energy source that is less damaging to our health and environment.
Affordable – Fossil fuels require a lot of capital and investment to get extracted. Investors need oil drills, gas pipelines, fuel collection systems, etc. Biomass technology is a lot cheaper. While there is a relatively high capital requirement for certain biomass energy, it is nowhere near the expenses fossil fuels reach.
The world is quickly changing to accommodate more sustainable energy. Countries all around the world are looking to go green and help the planet. Biorefineries and businesses that embrace renewable energy need to have the proper technology to safely, efficiently, and consistently process biomass in numerous forms (flake, powder, or wet). Cablevey Conveyors tubular cable and disc conveyors can handle various sizes, weights, and combinations of biomass materials. Our systems are designed to meet the needs of every biorefinery and modern biomass processing facility.