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Biomass

Biomass is good for you!

Imagine a world where things that grow are used to make electricity! Sound like a fantasy? Actually, it’s already possible and is being further developed by scientists right now.

What is biomass?

Biomass is the energy derived from growing things. They can then be used to generate energy or even, in some cases, electricity. Generally, biomass can be separated into five distinct sources:

  • wood
  • garbage
  • waste
  • landfill gases
  • alcohol fuels

How biomass works

Biomass works in a number of ways, depending on the source of energy. Often, it involves directly incinerating biological materials. This is the case with sources such as wood – a commonly recognised source of energy. However, the natural decomposition of animal waste and vegetation gives off gases that can be used for energy production such as methane. Even more useful, alcohol fuels can be manufactured from some food waste. For example, used vegetable oil can be converted into ethanol – a diesel which can be used to power cars.

Advantages of biomass

Biomass is, in theory at least, is an inexhaustible energy source. There is almost no environmental impact when biomass is not directly incinerated and it is available in all areas worldwide. Importantly, the energy produced is relatively cheap as it often comes from waste.

Disadvantages of biomass

As long as some biomass is incinerated, greenhouse gases will be produced. This is harmful for the environment. Similarly, the fact that some biomass involves burning trees means the net energy gained is negligible – it takes more energy to produce the source than the result provides.

Biomass in Australia

In Australia, less than 5% of energy is produced using biomass. 2.4% of Australia’s primary total energy consumption comes from wood, although this is mostly limited to the residential sector. However, biomass in other areas is increasing too. In 1998, there were only 15 landfill gas projects in Australia; in 2004 there were 29. The use of sewage gas for energy is also increasing. In 1997, the installed sewage gas electricity generation capacity was about 7MW, which represented a 59% recovery of methane gas from wastewater treatment plants. This output was expected to triple by the year 2010.

Biomass around the World

Worldwide usage of biomass largely depends on local conditions – in the USA it mostly focuses on burning wood, a plentiful local resource. In the UK much more work has been done on converting animal waste. Even the use of agricultural waste depends on local conditions - sugar cane residue is common in Mauritius whereas rice husks are used in South East Asia. However, while most countries exploit biomass by incinerating waste products, the more advanced technology required to store gas and convert biomass into electricity is more common in developed countries.

Leading biomass companies include Energex Corporation, Algal Biomass organisation and Evergreen Engineering.

Conclusion

Given the fact that much of biomass involves exploiting waste products, it seems certain that governments and companies will pursue it as a cheap energy source in the future. Harmful bi-products such as CO2 aside, biomass also makes environmental sense

Visit our Alternative Energy section for more articles about renewable energy sources.

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