What is Biomass?
Biomass is the term given to the process of producing fuel by burning biological matter. Even though carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur compounds are produced when using biomass fuels, these substances are not released in sufficient concentrations to affect the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. This makes biomass power an environmentally-friendly, green source of fuel. Biodiesel is one example of biomass power.
There is a concern that forests and prime agricultural land are being cleared in third world countries, in order to grow biofuels, making them controversial. It is considered that growing crops to be used as biofuels is more lucrative than growing food to these farmers and there is growing concern that there could be an increase in food shortages and hunger.
However, it isn’t necessary to grow crops to burn for fuel as there are several sources that do not use virgin material. Examples of organic material that can be used for bio-fuels include used vegetable oil, manure, wood, straw, biogas and stover, the stalks and leaves of maize, soy or sorghum left in the field after harvesting is completed.
Another type of biomass power is methane energy production. Methane is produced naturally as a by-product of the digestion of organic matter, such as grass. Cows give off large amounts of methane gas as part of their digestive process, a fact that is criticized by environmentalists who cite it as a major cause of global warming. If the methane gas could be collected, it could be used as an energy source. Waste sludge is another source of methane gas, as are land-fills; methane harnessed from these sources provides a useful purpose for large amounts of waste product. Burning methane gas for power has a secondary advantage – it prevents the gas being dispersed into the atmosphere where it would add to the large amount of greenhouse gases.
Biofuels are alternative fuel sources used to operate cars, trucks, buses and machinery. Instead of being made from oil, biofuels are made from organic or plant material. They are generally considered to be a cleaner alternative to oil products and fossil fuels, being eco-friendly and renewable.
The process that converts biomass into biofuels is called biological carbon fixation. These fuels can be produced from solid biomass, biogases or liquid fuels. They are an effective means of fixing carbon from the base materials used.
Ethanol – ethanol is an alcohol that is produced when starchy plants, like sugarcane and corn, are fermented. In many countries, ethanol has been added to oil-based fuels to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being discharged into the atmosphere. It can also be used on its own to fuel vehicles.
Biodiesel – biodiesel is produced from animal fats, vegetable oil, algae or recycled grease. It can be successfully made with used oils and fats, making it a viable renewable alternative fuel, while making use of a waste product that would end up in land-fill. While biodiesel can be used alone as a fuel source, it is still mainly added to conventional diesel. As an additive to diesel made from oil, it helps to reduce the amount of particulates, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide released into the air. Biodiesel can be used in most diesel engines when mixed with conventional diesel.
Production of biodiesel continues to increase every year with increased availability and research into the technology. Europe leads the world in the production of biodiesel with more than half of the world’s production occurring there in 2010. While it is used mainly in the transport industry, it has applications for the private motorist as well.
Several factors have lead to increasing interest and research in biofuels. These include the price of oil and the fluctuations in its price, the desire for more security of fuel and energy and concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuelled vehicles. Bio fuels address these issues and go some way towards making environmentally-friendly fuels more accessible. The International Energy Agency predicts that biofuels will meet twenty-five percent of the world’s requirements by the year 2050.
So, what do you think? Are biofuels the way of the future?