What is biomass?

What is biomass?

Biomass refers to material derived from living or recently living organisms (usually plants, but animal substances as well).

Biomass can be used as a fuel source directly (through processes such as combustion and anaerobic digestion) or indirectly through a conversion process, for example when corn is distilled to make ethanol fuel.  Biomass can be in the form of: wood, energy crops, agricultural residues, food waste and industrial waste.   

In order to meet tough carbon reduction targets, as a society we need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas that causes global warming) that is released into the atmosphere.

The advantage of using biomass as an energy source is that the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in the combustion process (or as it decomposes in an anaerobic digester to produce biogas) is equal to the carbon dioxide it absorbed from the atmosphere during its lifetime.  Therefore it is a carbon ‘lean’ energy (the only net gain of carbon dioxide is released during processing or transportation of the biomass).   The second advantage is that biomass is from sustainable sources as a new supply can be grown relatively easily to replace the harvested material.  As this new generation of the plant kingdom grows, the process of absorbing the carbon dioxide begins again, forming a closed carbon cycle, a loop.

In contrast, energy derived from fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that was sequestered in the earth millions of years ago.  As it isn’t possible to replace fossil fuels, the carbon cycle is one way: we are increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by burning coal, gas or oil.  Obviously, the energy source itself, too, is not replaceable, unlike the biomass sources that can be re-planted and regrown in a relatively short space of time.

Any waste products resulting from the combustion or breakdown of biomass are themselves biodegradable.  So this, too, forms part of the loop.  For example, when wood pellets are burned to produce heat, the resulting ash can be put back into the land, providing a good source of potassium, phosphorous and magnesium for growing crops.  It also provides essential micronutrients, such as copper, boron and molybdenum, so is excellent for use in organic horticulture.  Being high in calcium, it has properties similar to lime and helps to alkalise soil that has become to acidic.  If the ash is applied to land locally, this avoids the transportation costs (and carbon emissions) of it being carted away as ‘waste’.

The UK used to be a net exporter of oil and gas (from the 1970s to the 2000s) but is now a net importer of these two fuels.  Therefore the UK is increasingly subject to the fluctuations of world events and prices for its energy – supplies that are finite and rapidly diminishing.  In order to build fuel security, the Government is creating incentives for the growth of renewable energy – energies that can be sourced locally.  At the moment biomass provides 3% of the UK’s total energy supply needs.  Of the energy produced by renewables, biomass provides 83% (10% being wood).  The Government target is to bring an additional two million tonnes of wood fuel biomass into the economy every year by 2020.

Wood pellets, in particular, are ideal for producing biomass as fuel because they are often made from the by-products of the sawmills and furniture manufacturing industries, i.e. sawdust and off-cuts. They contain more calorific energy per weight than logs and are dried to exacting standards – so fuel is not wasted burning off water.  They take up less storage space and have a greater Kwh energy per weight than logs.

If you would like more information on how you can use biomass to heat your home or business then then go to www.woodpellet-boilers.com


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