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Biomass and Energy Crops and Technology

Abstract

Biomass energy is extracted from living or dead plant matter. This type of energy has an advantage over fossil fuel because it is a renewable energy source while fossil fuel is not. Majorly, biomass energy is used to produce electricity and heat. In this regard, plant matter even in living form can still generate energy as heat or electricity. The most basic way in which biomass energy is harnessed still largely depends on direct incineration because currently to a large extent, biomass such as forest residues, wood clippings, and the likes are still in use.

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Biomass works from the fact that it stores solar energy accumulated over the years then through industrial processes, this energy is extracted through thermal or biological means. The industrial processes may include gasification, alcohol fermentation, or landfill gas. These processes are tailored to utilize various types of biomass fuels such as agricultural wastes, solid wastes, landfill gas, and alcohol fuels; in consideration of the appropriateness of the method.

Most of the end products are used to generate electricity and fuel. Biomass energy is identified to be a more environmentally friendly form of energy when compared to fossil fuel energy but the economic viability of its production still doesn’t measure up to fossil fuel production. In this manner, the biomass industry has been under the threat of extinction over the years because it is hard for biomass energy to compete with conventional forms of energy in the market. These factors together with the history of biomass production are further analyzed in this study but comprehensively, it is determined that the growth of the biomass industry is to be sustained in coming years because of its environmental sustainability.

Historical Background

People normally take for granted the fact that they have the energy to light up their houses, cook food or even heat up the house. Unknowingly, many users encourage the consumption of fossil fuel through increased dependency; oblivious of the fact that the environment takes the brunt of all the toxic gas emissions in one way or the other (be it from urban fields, agricultural fields, or the likes). Currently, many people probably have enough energy to consume but that was not the case in the past. It is important that people understand the energy demand currently existent in the world plus its sustainability because this largely dictates our future as human beings on planet earth (Michael 1990, p. 1).

For example, 25 years ago, America endured a crisis whereby motorists had to wait behind long queues to buy gas because the country was largely unprepared for its energy demands. The same scenario was also evidenced in some European countries and this exposed the fact that the Western world was largely dependent on foreign countries to supplement its energy needs. This sort of crisis enabled research into Biomass energy production (Middlebury 2010, p. 6).

Biomass, therefore, developed out of the need to supplement domestic energy production and facilitate the production of renewable energy as opposed to the heavy reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuel (Michael, 1990, p. 2).

This initiative was majorly fanned through the assertion by scientists and economists in the 70s that the price of crude oil was expected to shoot up to $100 a barrel in the following two decades; considering the inflationary nature of the world economy and the scarcity of energy on the planet (Middlebury 2010, p. 3). From this realization, biomass energy production was birthed. The first biomass energy plants were used to produce energy in small amounts during the early 1980s. Instead of using nonrenewable energy sources like fuel, coal, or natural gas, biomass production relied on the use of plant waste to generate electricity (Ravindranath 1995, p. 2).

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Early types of biomass production greatly relied on sawdust residue to produce energy but as other plant types were discovered and the sawmill industry declined, the baseline for raw materials expanded (Middlebury 2010, p. 4). The new types of raw materials discovered included forest thinning, agricultural byproducts, orchid wastes, urban wood wastes among other types of residue which were also used to decrease the occurrence of forest wildfire and the instances of open field burning of wastes. The burning of these wastes was also used to reduce the space occupied by environmental wastes in landfill areas. Currently, the biomass industry utilizes more than seven million tonnes of biomass wastes which are almost equivalent to about a quarter of all organic wastes deposited in the world’s landfills each year (Middlebury 2010, p. 5).

In the past, biomass used to almost entirely supplement all of man’s energy needs until the advent of the industrial revolution (Middlebury 2010, p. 6). The first type of biomass energy to be used was wood residue and this accounted for approximately 90% of all biomass energy production (Middlebury 2010, p. 6). The prediction by scientists and economists that petroleum energy costs were going to rise tremendously however failed to materialize and this is the root of all problems in the biomass industry today (Colorado University 2008, p. 8).

This is true because the world economy is largely deregulated and flooded by cheaper sources of energy (Colorado University 2008, p. 8). However, the biomass industry has proved to be largely reliable and can sustain itself in the long run because of its environmental sensitivity. It is however unfortunate that most biomass plants have shut down and currently, many Western nations, and indeed other nations, have continuously imported more energy than they did in the pre-energy crisis of the 70s (Middlebury 2010, p. 6).

Currently, biomass power is much more expensive than conventional energy sources (fossil fuel) but history has a way of repeating itself because various concerns still remain unresolved like who pays for clean air? Or who shoulders the cost for enjoying less disastrous forest fires? The current situation is that the world is more focused on the price of energy as opposed to its value and this poses a big threat to the existence or viability of the biogas industry (Middlebury 2010, p. 6).

At the peak of the biomass industry in 1994, biomass production was estimated to account for nearly $1.8 billion of corporate income, and more than 66,000 jobs were attributed to the industry as well (Middlebury 2010, p. 5). However even amid the heavy reliance of the world economy on fossil fuel, about 14% of the world’s total energy demand is supplemented by biomass energy (Middlebury 2010, p. 6).

Biomass Definition and Formation

Biomass simply refers to all plant materials or vegetation (whether in their natural or processed form) used to produce energy. Common types of biomass include fast-growing trees and grasses; agricultural waste matter like wheat straws, corn, or vegetable matter; wood wastes like paper trash, yard clippings, sawdust or wood clippings and methane derived from landfills or livestock; and municipal wastewater treatment (Ruth 1991, p. 3).

Biomass majorly works because it contains trapped solar power that can be converted through industrial processes to produce, heat, fuel, or electricity for domestic or industrial use. In other words, these plant residues store energy through photosynthesis because it is trapped in chemical bonds to be extracted in form of energy or fuel (Middlebury 2010, p. 6). Various industrial processes such as cogeneration, gasification, and fermentation can easily tap into the energy stored in the plant material. Biomass energy can be broadly categorized into three broad subgroups of agricultural wastes, municipal and industrial wastes, and energy plants which are typically effective because they produce more energy when compared to the surface areas they consume on the ground.

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Biomass Conversion

In the conversion of biomass, a number of industrial processes have a varying degree of applicability, but the most common is the direct burning of biomass to produce energy for cooking, heating, and the likes. However, technology has revolutionized the way biomass is transformed to produce energy. The following are some of the major ways devised.

Alcohol Fermentation

The alcohol fermentation process largely bases its system on the conversion of starch to sugar and later from sugar to alcohol fuel which is thereafter distilled and separated (Middlebury 2010, p. 7). Common raw materials for this type of process include plant materials such as sawdust, yeast, wheat, barley, and the likes because they contain some degree of sugar and starch. The most basic byproduct in this process is ethanol which is majorly used as a basic type of fuel in engine combustion or as a viable source of fuel especially in running industrial machinery (Middlebury 2010, p. 7).

Landfill Gas

The landfill gas method relies on the ability of decomposing plant waste matter to produce combustible gases. A great portion of the resultant gas emission is methane which is also found as a naturally occurring gas (Middlebury 2010, p. 8). Technology through the landfill gas method has been developed to harness methane gas energy to act as a reliable form of energy. The following is a section of the landfill gas project using cow manure as its primary source of biomass to power an entire farm in Middlebury.

Landfill Gas

Gasification

Gasification is one of the newest forms of energy production using biomass. This method is largely efficient because it has been proved to have the potential of extracting up to 75% of trapped energy in biomass (but by first converting the stored energy into combustible gases) (Middlebury 2010, p. 6). The extracted gases are thereafter burned like the way wood fuel is burned to act as a source of energy. However, the gasification process is still new and its viability for commercial exploitation has not been properly established (Colorado University 2008, p. 1).

Types of Biomass

Wood and Agricultural Biomass

Prehistorically and today, the most common type of biomass gas energy is usually derived from domestic waste. Wood and agricultural biomass accounts for the most common type of biomass and it includes wood logs, chips, barks, and most organic matter present in the domestic environment. Other common types of biomass energy falling in this category include plant residues available in the domestic environment and agricultural waste products like fruit pits or corncobs which are also readily available in any typical agricultural land (Colorado University 2008, p. 1).

Solid Waste

Biomass energy can be produced in the most unlikely ways. For example, there is nothing new about people burning trash, but if 2000 or more pounds of trash is burnt, the energy produced can be used to generate electricity and can also be equated to burning coal for the same purposes. The raw materials used by “waste-to-power” plants in biomass energy production constitute solid waste biomass (Colorado University 2008, p. 1).

In fact, plants that use solid waste like trash for generating biomass-produced electricity can be equated to plants involved in electricity generation through coal burning. However, producing electricity from trash is not necessarily economically viable when compared to electricity production from coal. Nonetheless, the biggest advantage derived from this type of biomass energy production can be seen from the minimal environmental footprint it leaves when compared to coal or other fossil fuels (Colorado University 2008, p. 1).

Landfill Gas

Landfill gas is the third type of biomass and is majorly characterized by the decomposition of dead plant and animal remains by bacteria and fungi to produce methane gas (Colorado University 2008, p. 1). This process can however be slowed down through the inducement of artificial environments which inhibit bacteria and fungal activity. New regulations across the globe force many industrial players to trap methane gas because of its greenhouse gas effect (Colorado University 2008, p. 3).

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Though methane is a naturally occurring gas, odorless and colorless, it is not necessarily harmless because if it creeps into the domestic or industrial environment and is ignited, it can explode and cause loss of property or life. Landfills can however reverse this process and turn the gas into a viable energy source through purification. This has facilitated the use of methane in stoves and industrial furnaces after its conversion into harmless natural gas. However, the liberalization of the economy has seen most landfill energy being burnt off because other naturally occurring gases are much cheaper and therefore pose stiff competition to its development.

Alcohol Fuels

Most agricultural produce such as wheat, corn, and other plants can be transformed into liquid gas; in the form of methanol or ethanol which can be used to run automobiles and other machines. For instance, Henry Ford had been an advocate of using gasohol (mixture of ethanol and gasoline) to run his cars but the relatively cheaper costs of fossil fuels make such an idea highly unrealistic. This use of ethanol to run cars is also still very controversial and many observers note that crude oil would have to more than double in price for ethanol to be considered as a viable source of fuel in the transportation sector (Colorado University 2008, p. 4).

However, the ethanol production sector has continued to grow because of the exemption of tax by the government (Colorado University 2008, p. 4). The use of ethanol in the transportation sector has however been tried out in many parts of the world because its combination with gasoline provides a cleaner form of fuel combustion than unleaded gasoline and it is also projected that cars that use gasohol have more power than those running on pure gasoline (Colorado University 2008, p. 4). Ethanol, therefore, has the potential of reducing the UK’s dependence on foreign oil by a huge margin.

Uses of Biogas as an Energy Supplement

Majorly, a significant volume of biogas produced across the globe is used for domestic purposes. A significant proportion is also used in the industrial sector while the rest is transformed into electricity, fuel, or into other forms of matter such as liquid gas (for transportation) (Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5). Biomass energy can act as a reliable source of electricity especially for industrial purposes but the biggest advantage associated with it is the fact that its use as an alternative form of electricity provides baseload power which other sources of energy don’t (Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5).

The US has been at the forefront in harnessing this potential and it now stands as one of the biggest biomass energy users for electricity generation; even more than the entire European continent combined (Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5). In other quarters, biomass energy has been widely used as an alternative fuel for heating. This use has especially doubled in the past 13 years or so in Europe through industrial processes and in domestic use as well (Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5).

When compared to fossil fuels, biogas presents a cheaper source of energy. The US, for example, spends more than 50 billion dollars on oil importation and the UK almost spends the same amount of money on importing gas as well (Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5). Biomass energy can slash down these costs in half and therefore more money can be channeled into other development projects, instead of channeling the same to foreign markets which produce crude oil. Biomass sourced from the UK can therefore be used to support the local economy as opposed to the importation of crude oil which is used to support foreign economies.

The establishment of local networks in the sourcing, production, and utilization of biomass energy can potentially reduce the costs associated with transporting fuel by a huge margin. This is true because no region in the UK can fail to produce biomass and therefore if biomass energy is produced on large scale, there would not be extra environmental or financial costs in transporting energy. However, some regions of the UK have been noted to have a higher potential for biomass energy production than others (Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5). The production of biomass energy as an alternative fuel source can also be used to create more jobs because current statistics project that approximately 17,000 new jobs can be created with the production of a million gallons of ethanol (Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5).

Biomass energy can therefore save the country a lot of money which it would have otherwise used to defend its rights over foreign oil reserves. In the same manner, biomass energy can also be used to cut down on military costs expended on energy and therefore redirect the extra cash to domestic needs. The Electric Power Research Institute (cited in Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5) projects that Britain should further tap into the potential of biogas energy because locals can produce up to 5 quads of energy for every 50 million acres utilized and this translates to an increase in farm income of close to $12 billion annually. The US has the potential to consume 18 times Britain’s production estimation (Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5).

Biomass energy can also be used to preserve agricultural land which would have otherwise disappeared into the expansion of industrial land or the development of residential property for commercial purposes. The use of sustainable techniques for agricultural purposes can also ensure there is sustainable soil fertility and therefore the environment will be well taken care of. On the same course of environmental conservation; since biogas utilizes methane gas which is more potent than carbon dioxide, biomass energy is likely to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by a significant degree. Also, the degree of carbon sequestering will increase because more crops will be channeled towards the production of biomass energy.

Useful landfills which are preoccupied with agricultural wastes will also be significantly preserved because of the utilization of agricultural wastes for biomass production. This is true because biomass energy production can potentially use up to 350 million tons of waste matter depending on the extensiveness of biomass production (Biomass Energy Centre 2010, p. 5). This process also has no effect on the production of net carbon dioxide gas emissions because the combustion of biomass energy maintains carbon gas emissions because it only releases the amount of carbon that was trapped in the biomass in the first place. The following diagram explains this process.

Uses of Biogas as an Energy Supplement

The emitted carbon is, therefore, part of the entire carbon cycle because the biomass contains carbon that was consumed during the growth of plants and therefore a balance is stroked between carbon emission and absorption.

In the UK, it has been established that biomass energy can be sustained because its dependence on agricultural and plant wastes can be sustained and easily sourced throughout the country. Fossil fuel on the other hand is very unreliable especially with the observation that the world is slowly exhausting available oil reserves. The use of biomass energy can also be indirectly used to conserve the woodland, forests, and other environmental catchment areas which are largely treasured by most UK citizens, thereby increasing the profile of opportunities for more recreational activities.

To a significant degree, biomass energy production can also be used to protect the environment because it releases lower levels of environmental pollutants and therefore chances of acid rain formation are low. The kind of high technological sophistication in biomass energy production ensures there is a very minimal level of atmospheric pollutant emissions which cannot even be compared to the best fossil fuel boilers available.

Conclusion

Biomass energy production has been greatly hampered by the relative costs of obtaining alternative energy sources. Nonetheless, a fossil fuel which is the most commonly used energy source has a huge impact on the environment. Other impediments to the full exploitation of biomass energy lie in the low levels of investment in biomass research such that the only existent biomass research is undertaken at individual levels. This trend has relegated biomass plants to small niche markets which are difficult to sustain in the long run.

However, technological developments are slowly revolutionizing the biomass energy industry because small projects are proving to be economically efficient and sustainable from an environmental perspective; considering biomass can be easily sourced from the environment. The UK stands in a good position to redirect its energy needs to the biomass sector because it has the land and economic resources to do so. Moreover, the agricultural infrastructure currently in existence can easily support such an initiative. Despite insufficient government support, the production of biomass energy is slowly gaining popularity.

References

Biomass Energy Centre. (2010) Why Use Biomass. Web.

Colorado University. (2008)Types of Biomass. Web.

Michael, B. (1990) Cool Energy: The Renewable Solution to Global Warming. New York: Union of Concerned Scientists.

Middlebury. (2010) Biomass Energy. Web.

Ravindranath, N. (1995) Biomass, Energy, and Environment: A Developing Country Perspective from India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ruth, H. (1991) The Energy Sourcebook: A Guide to Technology, Resources, and Policy. New Jersey: American Institute of Physics.

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