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Biomass Education 101

By Christine Ethier

Biomass Resources

Basically, biomass energy is the energy that results from rotting organic materials. It’s as simple as that. This energy ultimately from the sun, is stored in the various materials, whether it be organic waste from municipal garbage collection, or some form of plant waste from forestry or agriculture, all of these “waste” products can be used to produce a variety of things including power. The 2007 statistics showed that 53% of the USA’s energy came from this source.

Just as wood has been used to heat and cook for thousands of years, and the animal waste from herbivores has been used for that same purpose, as well as for building materials, we are finding more and more ways to use this herbaceous material to produce fuel and power.


A variety of perennial plants are being used as dedicated energy crops. They can be harvested yearly, take very few years to come into full fruition and are comprised of a large variety of fast growing grasses including elephant grass, bamboo and a huge variety of others.

Bamboo image  

Agricultural crops mainly from corn, soybeans, wheat and other vegetables yield fuel, plastics and chemicals while the stalks, leaves and husks from these crops are used commercially. In the case of corn alone, there are approximately 80 million acres planted annually in the US.

Corn image  

In addition to the biomass from agriculture, modern biomass users have all of the extraneous vegetation from logging sites in forestry, large of amounts of aquatic plants like kelp and seaweed, residues from lumbering like sawdust and municipal waste like paper, cardboard and yard clippings. Even animal waste can be used as our processing becomes better and more finely tuned.

Kelp image  

The ultimate recycling program will see every bit of our societal waste re-entering the stream as an alternate power source.


Biopower, including direct combustion, co-firing, and anaerobic digestion, is the production of electricity or heat from biomass resources.

Most electricity generated from biomass is produced by combustion by burning these resources, producing steam which drives a turbine that activates a generator that produces electricity.

Co-firing, on the other hand, involves replacing a portion of the petroleum-based fuel in high-efficiency coal-fired boilers with biomass. The main advantage is that it reduces the sulfur dioxide emissions of coal-fired power plants.

Finally, anaerobic digestion, or methane recovery is the kind of organic breakdown that goes on in our backyard composters and produces heat and with other technologies added, electricity.



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