What the Heck is Biomass?

By Taylor Brandfass and the Great Green Home Show, GREENandSAVE.com
Posted on Sunday 1st March 2009

Biomass is an organic matter that can be used to make fuels, chemicals and other products, as well as provide heat or electricity. For example, wood is one of the oldest and most commonly used examples of biomass. Burning it produces heat to give us warmth.

Other sources include plants, aquatic plants, animal waste, organic compounds from municipal and industrial waste, which can be used to produce fuels and chemicals, as well as power. Biomass resources can be replenished through cultivation of energy crops such as fast growing trees and grasses.

Unlike other renewable energy sources, biomass can be converted directly into liquid fuels for our transportation needs. The two most common bio-fuels are ethanol and bio-diesel.

Ethanol is made by fermenting any biomass high in carbohydrates, like corn, through a process similar to brewing beer. It is mostly used as a fuel additive to cut down on a vehicle's carbon monoxide, and other smog causing, emissions.

Bio-diesel is an ester, which means that it is a compound formed by the reaction of an acid and an alcohol, with the elimination of water. It is made using vegetable oils, animal fat, algae, and even recycled cooking greases. It can be used as an additive to diesel, or all by its lonesome to power a vehicle.

Good to Know: In moving from fossil fuels to biomass fuels, there will be power loss, however at a minimum. The upside is that the organic compounds in Biomass will degrade more naturally, causing less pollution. It could satisfy almost 5% of our national transport needs. However…massive institution of biomasses will raise the cost of corn as well as other grains, as there will be a new entity competing for them. And even if we took all the grain produced in this country, we would only get about 15% of the fuel we now use.

In summary, biomass is a neat alternative to fossil fuels, but they are hardly the solution. If there is any future for bio-fuels at all, it will be in an ancillary role at best. There needs to be a better system in place, hybrids and full electric cars, that will also allow some drivers to opt for ethanol and other corn-based fuels.

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