Definition of Biomass

What Is Biomass?


Biomass is a biological material that is derived from either living or recently living organisms and can be used as a renewable energy source. Biomass materials can come from many plant or animal origins such as wood, agricultural crops, food waste, alcohol fuels and many more.

Biomass materials are carbon based, in that they are composed of carbon atoms combined with things like hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and other atoms. Biomass can be used as a source of energy by converting it through various processes, for instance:

  • Through chemical conversion, biomass can be turned into things like biofuel and used as energy in homes and vehicles.
  • Biochemical reactions involving biomass like fermentation, composting, or anaerobic digestion, are used to break down biomass into carbohydrates, which can then be used as a source of energy.

Biomass materials, at their core, are renewable resources because they can be grown or generated again and again. Biomass materials are also generally considered carbon neutral – they take carbon out of the atmosphere while being generated and then release it again in similar quantities when consumed for energy. The difference between biomass materials and fossil fuels as an energy source is that biomass materials can be renewed nearly infinitely and carbon neutrally, but fossil fuels cannot and take millions of years to convert into a biological material like coal, oil, or gas.

Here are a few examples of how biomass is used as a source of energy:

  • Wood has been used as an energy source for thousands of years – it is burned for heat, for cooking and to power vehicles.
  • Trash or municipal solid waste (MSW), which contains biomass such as paper, food waste, cotton, can be composted – a process that produces heat which can be captured and used as energy. Non-organic waste can also be burned in waste-to-energy plants that make steam and electricity.
  • As solid waste decomposes in an anaerobic (oxygen-deprived) environment such as a landfill, it produces greenhouse gases such as methane. This is known as a biogas, which can be collected, treated and sold as a commercial fuel. Other landfill gas energy projects use methane gas directly to produce electricity and heat.
  • Used frying grease from restaurants can be collected, refined and used in vehicles as a fuel or in homes as a source of heat energy.

It should be noted that not all biomass to energy projects are environmentally sound. For instance, burning wood and MSW can result in the production of air pollutants like carbon monoxide and other harmful gases.

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