Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Introduction and Definition of Biomass Energy
Traditional fossil fuels take millions of years to form. First, a massive amount of some organism (usually plants or marine animals) has to die in one general location. Then, heat, pressure, and time slowly (very slowly) transforms the remains into oil, coal, or natural gas. These fuels are very high in energy and can be burned to generate massive amounts of heat and energy. We use them in transportation, industry, and in our homes. But this is not a system that can last forever. Eventually, these fuels will run out, leaving us with nothing to burn for energy. (To say nothing of the environmental damage caused by fossil fuels!)
Scientists realize our dependence on fossil fuels cannot meet our energy demands forever. Human population is increasing, global warming is happening, and fuel supplies are running low. To change our energy consumption for the better, scientists are seeking alternative energy sources, with the goal of eventually ending our relationship with fossil fuels for good. One of the many alternative energy sources that is being extensively studied is biomass energy.
Biomass energy is energy generated by the burning of any recently living organism or a fuel derived from an organism. Obviously, we're only talking about burning certain living organisms here (no one wants to throw squirrels or other little animals into a furnace to generate energy!) Scientists generally turn their focus to organisms that they can grow, and that lack self-awareness. For example, a particularly promising source of biomass energy is corn. You can burn corn directly, or produce fuel that can be burned in an engine.
Promising Sources of Biomass Energy
Scientists are discovering new biofuels all the time, and many of them are quite promising in meeting our energy needs. The paragraphs below detail a few biomass energy sources that are particularly popular in the scientific community.
Solid biofuels: Whenever you burn a recently living material in its solid form, you are utilizing the most basic type of biomass energy source. Burning wood, paper, or sawdust are great examples of solid biofuels in action. Many people have burned wood in campfires and wood stoves. Another application of solid biofuels is using corn or other biomass to burn directly in order to heat buildings.
Ethanol: Ethanol is a type of alcohol derived from biomass. The alcohol can be burned directly for heat or in energy-generating mechanisms. Burning alcohol is promising and generally pretty clean, but the overall process is not the most efficient. It takes a long time to produce ethanol, and the overall output may not be enough to justify the inputs.
Biodiesel: Made in much the same way as diesel, biodiesel is derived from oils or fats instead of fossil fuels. Biodiesel is used extensively in Europe, and can cut emissions by up to 60%. Biodiesel is also becoming more widely accepted in the United States.
Vegetable oil: Vegetable oil waste reclaimed from kitchens (after being used in a deep fryer, for example) can be burned in certain specialized engines. This is a very promising field, as it uses a waste product that would normally be useless.
Algae: Scientists are currently studying the use of fast-growing species of algae as biomass energy sources. Algae burns with a high density of energy (just like many plants), and can grow and multiply very rapidly.
Biomass energy refers to the use of anything recently living as a fuel source, either by directly burning it or by making fuel out of it. There are many promising types of biomass energy currently being studied by scientists. The overall goal is to lessen or eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.
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