What is Biomass Energy?

Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

It's common these days to see and hear a lot about alternative energies in the media. The threat of global warming is becoming worse, so scientists are looking to other sources for our energy needs. This lesson answers your burning questions about biomass energy.

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.

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