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Mohammad Karimzada

Plants and Diversity Seminar

Professor Daniel Potter

“Biomass – Plants into Power”

As traditional fossil fuels continue to deplete in volume and release

carbon dioxide, renewable and cleaner energies have become the center of

discussion for both governments and scientists. It seems that aesthetics and

oxygen are not the only characteristics of plants that can be appreciated by

humans; we can also assume that the word “power plants” can mean what is

linguistically implies. Biomass is the key to harnessing much cleaner, more

efficient, and more sustainable fuels, power, and products as compared to

fossil fuels.

Biomass, as an alternative fuel, is defined as being organic material –

from plants and animals – that can be converted into usable energy.

Examples of biomass are wood, organic food scraps, manure, municipal solid

waste, and forestry and agricultural residues (i.e.: corn stover). Yet, as one

can deduce, the major constituent of biomass are plants and their

derivatives. Biomass can be obtained from city landfills, farms, industrial

plants, and other places where organic materials are either products or

byproducts. And, as long as people grow plants and as long as animals

excrete manure, there will always be a reliable source. Biomass is the

equivalent of a cleaner and more obtainable crude oil; therefore, not only
can it replace or reduce the usage of fossil fuels as a source of energy, but

also be used as a substitute for oil in manufacturing industries. People have

been harnessing “bioenergy,” or biomass energy, since the time cavemen

began burning wood for cooking and heating, but it seems modern

technology has found many more applications for this infinite source of


“Biomass can be converted directly into liquid fuels…to help meet

transportation fuel needs (“Biofuels”).” Ethanol and biodiesel are two

“biofuels” that have the potential to completely replace the usage of

petroleum in cars, trucks, buses, lawnmowers, generators; anything that

uses gasoline as fuel. Ethanol is an alcohol, and easily produced by

fermenting sugars derived from high-carbohydrate content biomass

resources such as residues leftover from corn harvesting (“Biofuels”). The

sugars are extracted by subjecting the corn stover to special enzymes, but

there is still biomass leftover in the form of pulp-like material called cellulose

and hemicellulose. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy

Laboratory are currently testing innovative techniques to produce another

kind of biofuel from the leftover cellulose and hemicellulose fibers which are

more specifically referred to as “cellulosic ethanol” (“Biofuels”). These

techniques can readily use a number of crops such as switchgrass and tree

barks such as poplar. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that corn

ethanol production reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 52%, and

cellulosic ethanol up to 86% as compared to gasoline production (U.S. DOE).

One may wonder that if its production makes such reductions, than how

much will its use?! People have been harnessing the “bioenergy,” or biomass

energy since the time cavemen began burning wood for cooking and

heating, but it seems modern technology has found many more applications

of this infinite source of energy.

Biodiesel is a fuel made with vegetable oils, fats, or greases (U.S. EIA).

It can be used in its purest form as an alternative to regular diesel. It is just

as sustainable as ethanol because recycled used grease (i.e.: from

restaurants and homes) and oily crops such as soybean are abundant.

Biodiesel production is also very simple in that it needs to be strained of

larger particulate solids and then used. The use of “biorefineries,” or plants

that produce fuel from biomass, is, very important in realizing the true

potential of this renewable energy.

Biopower, or biomass power, is the use of biomass to generate

electricity. Burning biomass as pyrolysis oil, in syngas form, or in biogas

form, produces biopower. Pyrolysis oil is biomass that has been liquefied by

high temperatures in an oxygen-starved environment. Syngas, “synthesis

gas,” is the product of the same biomass processing but rather in gaseous

form; it is primarily composed of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide.

Rotting biomass spontaneously decays into methane (natural gas) over time
which can be captured and used accordingly in power plants (“Biopower”).

Anaerobic digestion is a process in which “biomass sludge” is fed to archaea

bacteria that produce biogas (primarily methane with some other organic

constituents) as a metabolic byproduct. The purpose of burning any of the

aforementioned products of biomass is to use its steam energy to drive a gas

turbine that in effect produces electricity by turning an electric generator


Just as petroleum is used in manufacturing certain products, biofuels

can readily substitute its use to manufacture “bioproducts.” Just as oil is

broken down into separate components to produce fuels and oil-based

products, biomass can also be broken down into separate components to

build desirable products (“Bioproducts”). Sugars derived from biomass can

be used to make artificial sweeteners, glues, plastics, and anything else that

requires sugars in production. Phenol – another kind of alcohol – can be used

to manufacture wood adhesives, molded plastic, and foam insulation

(“Bioproducts”). Photographic films, synthetic fabrics, and the such are made

with plastics and acids that can be made with syngas that is rich in hydrogen

and carbon monoxide. With an effect so great on multiple areas of both

energy and manufacturing, it is predicted that biomass will have an even

greater impact in the near future and beyond.

The government is currently encouraging more and more American

farmers to grow biomass-convertible crops. The Farm Bill of 2008 established

the Biomass Crop Assistance Program that provides government subsidies to

farmers and landowners who agree to package and deliver usable biomass

material to conversion facilities for processing into the array of energy forms

described above (USDA). The government’s endorsement of biomass

production is obvious: fossil fuels are expensive and becoming increasingly

rare, therefore it only makes sense to convert the nation’s focus to a

renewable and more sustainable energy source. “In 2007 alone, the ethanol

industry helped create more than 238,000 jobs in all sectors of the economy,

boosted U.S. household income by $12.3 billion through increased economic

activity and new jobs, and added an estimated $4.6 billion in federal tax

revenue and nearly $3.6 billion in state and local tax revenues” (“Economic

Growth”). Clearly, everyone – the government, workers, and families – can

possess financial gain as a result of harnessing plant power. On the other

hand, fossil fuels seem to have been a major contributor to the nation’s

deficit in the same year; a major 65% of the entire trade deficit (“Economic

Growth”). It seems that biomass energy can only improve the American

economy and provide a much-needed stimulus.

When fossil fuels are burned, unnatural (as in naturally unintended)

amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. As long ago as

the Industrial Revolution, humans have increasingly allowed the release of

carbon dioxide from the liquid remnant of ancient organisms. Bioenergy, on

the other hand, is neutral in the carbon-cycle. Biomass only stores the

carbon dioxide that plants once used to perform respiration, and when

burned, releases the same amount that would be introduced into the

atmosphere regardless of whether in fuel form or in the form of naturally

dying organisms (basically, plants). Its applications are almost endless, and

to think that it is a renewable, “regrowable” resource serves to console our

doubts of it being a limited supply. Therefore, it is clearly evident that using

plant matter – biomass – as an alternative energy source can only help the

environment and drive America, and the world, towards a cleaner, safer,

more efficient state.

“Works Cited”

" Env ir o nme ntal B ene fi ts." B io mas s Pr o gr am: Envir o nme nta l Be ne fits . 0 3
Se p 20 09 . US DO E, We b. 1 7 Fe b 20 10 .
< ht tp: //w w w 1 .ee r e .e ner gy. gov/ bio mass /e nvir o nme nta l.h tml> .

" B io mass - Re newab le Ene r gy Fr o m Plan ts an d An ima ls." EIA

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< ht tp: // to nto.e ia .do e .gov/ kids /e ner gy.cfm ? page = bio mass_ ho me -
bas ics- k.cfm# to p- co n taine r > .

" B io fue ls." NR EL : Le ar ning - B io fue ls . 02 Fe b 2 01 0 . N at io nal

Re ne wable Ene r gy Labo rato r y, We b. 17 Fe b 2 01 0 .
< ht tp: //w w e l.go v/le ar ni ng/r e _ bio fue ls .htm l> .

" B io po we r ." NR EL : Le ar ning - B io po we r . 02 Fe b 2 01 0 . N at io nal

Re ne wable Ene r gy Labo rato r y, We b. 17 Fe b 2 01 0 .
< ht tp: //w w e l.go v/le ar ni ng/r e _ bio po w er.h tml> .

" B io pr o ducts ." N R EL : L ear ni ng - B io pr o duc ts. 02 Fe b 2 01 0 .

N at io nal Re ne wable Ener gy L abo rator y, We b. 1 7 Fe b 20 10 .
< ht tp: //w w e l.go v/le ar ni ng/r e _ bio pr o ducts .h tml> .

" B io mass Pro gram : Eco no mi c G ro w th." B io mass Pro gr am . 1 1 De c 20 08 .

US DO E, We b. 1 7 Fe b 20 10 .
< ht tp: //w w w 1 .ee r e .e ner gy. gov/ bio mass /e co no mi c_ gro w th .ht ml> .

" B io mass Cr o p Ass istan ce Pro gra m." Ene r gy Pr o gr ams . 0 2

Fe b 2 01 0 . USD A F SA , We b. 17 Fe b 2 01 0 .
< ht tp: //w w w.fsa .usda .gov /FSA/w e bap p?
ar e a= ho me& sub je ct= e ner & to pic = bcap > .