Using Biomass

Biomass

What is Biomass?
How Do Biomass Systems Work?
What Are the Challenges with Biomass Systems?
Why Biomass in Texas?
Who is Working on Biomass in Texas?

What is Biomass? 

Biomass" means any plant-derived organic matter available on a renewable basis, including dedicated energy crops and trees, agricultural food and feed crops, agricultural crop wastes and residues, wood wastes and residues, aquatic plants, animal wastes, municipal wastes, and other waste materials.

Biomass is catching on throughout the U.S. It already is producing 1.2% of all our electricity and about 2% of the liquid fuel used in cars and trucks. But with the volume of waste we produce, we could power much, much more.

Biomass Energy Sources include:

  • Energy crops: Trees and grasses - especially native species - are optimal, but corn has been favored and is most well-known.
  • Trees: Some trees regrow rapidly after being cut back, and can continue to do so for as many as 30 years before the need to be replanted.
  • Grasses: Perennial grasses that prevent erosion and do well in low nutrient soil, such as switchgrass.
  • Food crops: Corn, sorghum, soybeans, and sunflowers are common sources for fuel. But these require annual replanting, maintenance, fertilizers, and energy and are not an optimally sustainable source of energy.
  • Algae: These tiny aquatic plants have the potential to grow extremely fast in the hot, shallow, saline water found in some lakes in the desert Southwest. Forms of algae thrive on carbon dioxide, and emissions from power plants have been used to feed the plants, which are then used in biofuels.
  • Biomass Residues: Basically, leftovers. Industries like forestry and agriculture produce plant and animal wastes in large quantities. Some wastes must be left behind to replenish soil with necessary nutrients, but too much waste left behind can lead to other problems, like runoff that has damaged rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Human Wastes: Our own human waste - garbage and sewage - is also a source for biomass energy. We generate biomass wastes in many forms:

Organic and biodegradable garbage (paper, food, leather, yard waste, woody waste from packaging and cardboard);

Landfill gases given off by decomposition;

Sewage, in the form of methane greenhouse gas that is captured and burned for heat and power by sewage treatment plants.

  • Bioenergy technologies use renewable biomass resources to produce an array of energy related products including electricity, liquid, solid, and gas fuels, heat, chemicals, and other materials. 

How Do Biomass Systems Work? 

Biomass is essentially an indirect form of solar energy. The carbohydrates and complex compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that result from photosynthesis turn back into carbon dioxide and water when they are burned. As long as the biomass used remains equal to the biomass grown, it is a sustainable and carbon neutral energy source.

Biopower 

Generally speaking, biopower refers to using biomass to generate electricity. In some biomass industries, the spent steam from the power plant is also used for manufacturing processes or to heat buildings. Such combined heat and power systems greatly increase overall energy efficiency.

  • Co-firing refers to mixing biomass with fossil fuels in conventional power plants. Coal-fired power plants can use co-firing systems to significantly reduce emissions, especially sulfur dioxide emissions.
  • Gasification uses high temperatures and a lack of oxygen to convert biomass into synthesis gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The synthesis gas, or "syngas," can then be chemically converted into other fuels or products, burned in a conventional boiler, or used instead of natural gas in a gas turbine. 

Bioproducts 

Fossil fuels are used by the petro-chemical industry to make a number of everyday and household products. But many of these products can be made from biomass. It’s simply a matter of converting the right source of biomass into the right chemicals for making plastics and other products that typically are made from petroleum.

Bioproducts that can be made from sugar-based biomass sources include antifreeze, plastics, glues, artificial sweeteners, and gel for toothpaste. Bioproducts that can be made from a syngas of carbon monoxide and hydrogen include plastics and acids—also used to make photographic films, textiles, and synthetic fabrics. Wood adhesives, molded plastic, and foam insulation can also be made from renewable biomass sources.

Biodiesel 

Biodiesel is made by combining alcohol with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking grease. It can be used as an additive to reduce vehicle emissions or in its pure form as a renewable alternative fuel for diesel engines.

Challenges with Biomass 

Biomass requires significant investment to further develop its potential. Refining and processing of biomass into energy remains expensive and experimental.

Energy crops are still land-intensive and require crop space to grow and harvest. However, set-aside lands such as environmental buffers could be put into use to grow energy crops.

Making a truly sustainable biomass industry means powering planting and harvesting through biomass energy. Currently, fossil fuel power is used.

Biomass is less energy dense than fossil fuel, meaning a much larger volume of raw material is required to create a unit of energy. This makes shipping and large-scale bioenergy production cost-inefficient, but it makes community-scale power generation viable, enabling rural or agricultural communities to be more energy self-sufficient.

Why Biomass in Texas? 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), biomass recently surpassed hydropower as the largest domestic source of renewable energy, and biomass consumption in electric utilities is expected to double every 10 years through 2030, with forest land and agricultural land being the two largest potential biomass sources.

Due to its large agricultural and forestry sectors, Texas has an abundance of biomass energy resources within a wide variety of land, climate and soil conditions. Texas biomass is already producing fuel, electricity, and ethanol and biodiesel biofuels while creating jobs from clean, sustainable sources of energy.

Biomass production is a significant industry in Texas, producing nearly 3 million tons of biomass annually and co-producing 462 gigawatt hours of electricity.

Texas’s strong agricultural industry combined with federal research facilities and strong biotech sector position it to be a national leader in biomass innovation.

Texas is rich in raw biomass material from farming, fishing, aquaculture, and forestry.

Biomass energy would be a sustainable, renewable, and plentiful source of homegrown energy.

  • Any community, anywhere, produces raw biomass materials and can harness this energy source;
  • Based on available materials and needs, any locality could design a self-sufficient and sustainable energy system from its own source material;
  • Biomass is cost-effective, carbon-neutral, and yields a number of incidental but significant environmental improvements as it is implemented. 

Environmental concerns over the health of Texas’s air quality and the Gulf Coast and its watershed can be addressed in part with biomass adoption.

Increasing biomass energy can produce dramatic environmental benefits:

  • It reduces air pollution through carbon neutrality;
  • Decreases water pollution, with fewer fertilizers and pesticides – and energy crops planted in environmental buffers on shorelines decrease agricultural runoff;
  • Improved soil quality with plants that don’t draw nutrients from the soil;
  • Reduced landfill waste;
  • Reducing global warming. 

Who is Working on Biomass in Texas? 

Major facilities like Texas A&M, The University of Texas, along with state university research and large agri-business provide the knowledge, R&D, and workforce required to spin out promising new biomass technologies.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) lists renewable energy and efficiency news and websites specific to Texas.

 

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