Biomass

From Open Source Learning
Jump to: navigation, search

Biomass is organic material that can be converted into biofuel or used to generate heat and electricity. The material used in biomass ranges from plants and trees to organic waste from factories or municipal dumps. Biomass is known as a renewable fuel because it is made from resources that naturally replenish themselves- yet it it still does release carbon into the atmosphere. However, its net emissions have a relatively small impact because biomass materials naturally release and ingest similar amounts of carbon through their carbon cycles. [1]. (I wanted to link the wikipedia of carbon cycles, but didn't know how)

In 2005, studies from the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, a leader in the field of biomass research,[2] concluded that approximately 10% percent of global energy consumption comes from biomass, “making biomass by far the most important renewable energy source used to date” [3]. At the same time, we know that no one solution can us to safe number of parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, it must be a "portfolio" of options[4]. That being said, biomass could become a viable and effective way to combat global warming in the next few years, mainly because it is a technology that has already been developed. Certain obstacles, however, do need to be addressed.


Technology

The process of converting plant and crop biomass into biofuel essentially mimics the natural process of carbon cycles. When plants are alive, they consume carbon through photosynthesis, and when they die they release the carbon back into the atmosphere. This delicate balance is a symbiotic relationship – plants and trees need carbon to survive and the Earth’s ecosystem needs to maintain a certain level of carbon in order to function. Yet when humans process huge amounts of fossil fuels, such as coal or oil, it upsets the balance by releasing carbon into the atmosphere that would have otherwise been stored. Fossil fuels have an extremely long carbon cycle (hence, fossil), meaning the carbon they emit isn't neutralized by new coal and oil for a long time. Therefore, if we use biofuels instead of fossil fuels, overall carbon in the atmosphere can be reduced.

Similarly, by taking advantage of waste biomass and the inevitable carbon emissions that waste creates, methane based biofuel can be created. This biofuel does not add any more carbon to the atmosphere than the waste would naturally emit[5]. Public and industrial waste can contain dangerous toxins and release similar amounts of methane when left on its own.

More specifically, the biomass process consists of collection of the organic material, the conversion of that matter to liquid known as feedstock[6], and the subsequent conversion of feedstock into biofuel. There are many technologies to convert feedstock into biofuels; they are usually categorized into three categories based on how the feedstock is broken down. Thermochemical strategies use heat to break down the feedstock, biochemical strategies use enzymes and bacteria, while chemical strategies use chemical reactions. Specific processes are usually chosen according to the matter the feedstock is comprised of[7]. For a more detailed summary of biomass techniques, see this file: BiomassTechniques.pdf [8].

                              A Biomass plant that uses trees as feedstock (From Scotland):
                                    Biomassplant.jpg

Environmental Implications

It is difficult to assess the environmental impact of biomass on a regional or national level because each individual biomass facility is uniquely complex. Every unit draws resources from different systems, whether they be natural, agricultural, or industrial. As a result, the overall carbon output depends on how efficiently those ecosystems are used and taken care of. For instance, the carbon footprint of a biomass plant that uses forestry as feedstock can only be determined by how efficiently the facility reforests the area it takes from. [9]. Given this, what can be said about the environmental effectiveness of biofuel? First, there is more of a consensus about the need for biofuel in the transportation sector, mainly because other renewable energies lack the technological efficiency needed to power transport. Biofuel does allow for a lower net carbon stock in the atmosphere and can be implemented on a wider scale fairly easily[10].

Biomass can play an important role in two related fields: sequestration of CO2 and renewable hydropower. Sequestration is the capture of carbon that occurs after fuel has been created so that it doesn’t enter the atmosphere. If done in conjuction with biomass, sequestration could potentially solve one of its major obstacles – biomass could then be both renewable and close to carbon neutral. In fact, the combination of biomass and sequestration has the ability produce overall negative carbon emissions[11].

If hydrogen, a potentially useful renewable energy [12], is used as the feedstock sequestration from biomass can become a truly powerful force in solving this crisis. Renewable hydrogen power can be extracted through the biomass process. Since carbon is easily seperated from hydrogen[13], creating hydrogen biofuel using sequestration strategies can truly find an environmentally effective way to utilize biomass[14].

Socio-economic and Geographic Implications

As mentioned above, the effectiveness of biomass largely depends on its geographical placement. Since biofuel on its own does produce carbon emissions, there needs to be a balance of agricultural protection and protection against deforestation. For example, Middlebury College, in Middlebury, Vermont, is constructing a biomass plant with the surrounding ecosystem in mind. Simultaneously, the college has decided to focus on “sustainable forestry methods,”[15], to combat the carbon emissions that the facility will produce[16]. Through strategies similar to the one used by Middlebury College, biomass plants can even have a positive impact on biodiversity and job-creation [17].

There are many comprehensive plans for biomass based on specific regions. These plans can range from communal to continental in scale. They work to ensure that the biomass-specific crops and plants harvested by farmers are guaranteed to be sold or subsidized. The plans would also provide farmers detailed instruction on how to most efficiently farm for their region, since biomass farming techniques are not commonly known. Generally, though, farmers would happily participate in any of these plans as long as they are given the opportunity to succeed financially[18].

In the European Union the most successful plans seem to be on a national scale, both for farmers and for biofuel production. A nationally focused strategy has been implemented particularly well in Austria [19], where a concept called “systematic management” has made the implementation of biomass for heating homes a commonplace. Systematic management is a complex system that takes into account both the social and economic structures of an area in order to figure out the best way to introduce new technology. Austria has used this system to introduce more than 600 biomass plants in the last 20 years[20]. Although comprehensive approaches such as this are difficult to achieve, Austria has shown that it is by no means impossible.

Yet opportunity for farmers is not the only socio-economic factor in the implementation of biofuel. There also needs to be a balance between food production and crops for biomass. An example of an unbalanced surge in the biomass crop was the food crisis in 2007. Across the globe, farmers were taking advantage of the new and expanding biomass market, selling corn crops to the renewable energy sector in order to make ethanol. Because there was little regulation, and even in some cases subsidies for selling biomass-intended crops, food prices shot up[21]. The price rise affected people and countries everywhere, but it most devastatingly affected the people of low socio-economic statuses in developed countries[22]. Despite this crisis, biomass does not have to affect people in developing countries this negatively. In fact, these countries might be well prepared to make the transition to larger scale biomass plants. This is because more conventional forms of cooking and heating used in those countries, such as firewood stoves, are part of the spectrum of biomass. [23].

Political Implications

None of the benefits of biomass can be accomplished without the implementation of governmental policy. As seen in the case of Austria, biomass can be efficiently employed on a national level. Despite that, the U.S.A has been less effective in instituting renewable energies, including biomass facilities. Current legislation related to biomass includes security for farmers willing to sell to the biomass industry, as well as federal promotion and research. The Farm Security and Rural Development Act of 2002, which addresses the need for “biobased products to stimulate the initial development”[24] of biomass facilities, was one of the largest recent steps in promoting biomass, yet not much has come from it.

In the 2007 U.S. Senate hearing conducted by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, there was only one mention of biomass. In order to reach the goal of emissions cutting set by the government, all the Committee had to say was, “The use of coal, biomass, and natural gas for liquid fuels production must be accounted for in order to balance net supply against net consumption for each primary fuel.”[25].

However, the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election is nearing, and both party nominees present real plans to find solutions to global warming, nationally and internationally. It is likely that biomass will be a useful and effective part of either of their solutions, and in the re-ratification of the Kyoto Protocols in Copenhagen in 2009.

References

  1. Kimes, Laura. Biomass Conversion: Emerging Technologies, Feedstocks, and Products Washington D.C, U.S. environmental protection agency, 2007.
  2. BioEnergy Trade, Copernicus Institute: the Netherlands. Oct. 26th 2008, [1].
  3. Faaij, Andre. "Modern Biomass Conversion Technologies.(Author abstract)." Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 11.2 (March 2006): 335(33). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008
  4. Pacala, S. and Socolow, R., "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies". 2004 www.sciencemag.org, October 28th, 2008.
  5. Shanmugam, P., and N.J. Horan. "Simple and rapid methods to evaluate methane potential and biomass yield for a range of mixed solid wastes.(Report)." Bioresource Technology 100.1 (Jan 2009): 471(4). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008
  6. Kimes, Laura. Biomass Conversion: Emerging Technologies, Feedstocks, and Products Washington D.C, U.S. environmental protection agency, 2007.
  7. Kimes, Laura. Biomass Conversion: Emerging Technologies, Feedstocks, and Products Washington D.C, U.S. environmental protection agency, 2007.
  8. Kimes, Laura. Biomass Conversion: Emerging Technologies, Feedstocks, and Products Washington D.C, U.S. environmental protection agency, 2007.
  9. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Biomass and Agriculture: Sustainability, Markets and Policies. Paris: OECD, 2004, p. 151.
  10. "Scientists set sights on biomass to reduce fossil fuel dependence". 2006, Imperial College London. October 29th, 2008. http://www.physorg.com/news10331.html
  11. Faaij, Andre. "Modern Biomass Conversion Technologies.(Author abstract)." Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 11.2 (March 2006): 335(33). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008.
  12. Pacala, S. and Socolow, R., "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies". 2004 www.sciencemag.org, October 28th, 2008.
  13. Faaij, Andre. "Modern Biomass Conversion Technologies.(Author abstract)." Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 11.2 (March 2006): 335(33). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008.
  14. Turner, A. John,"Sustainable Hydrogen Production". 2004, www.sciencemag.com, October 28th, 2008.
  15. Ray, Sarah, "New biomass facility to reduce greenhouse gases by almost 12,500 tons a year". 2006, Middlebury College, October 15th, 2008. http://www.middlebury.edu/about/pubaff/news_releases/2006/news632951384540792349.htm
  16. Biomass Assessment Team, "Biomass Fuel Assessment for Middlebury College" (2004)
  17. Faaij, Andre. "Modern Biomass Conversion Technologies.(Author abstract)." Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 11.2 (March 2006): 335(33). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008.
  18. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Biomass and Agriculture: Sustainability, Markets and Policies. Paris: OECD, 2004, p. 354.
  19. Rosillo Callé, Francisco. The Biomass Assessment Handbook: Bioenergy for a Sustainable Environment. London: Earthscan, 2007.
  20. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Biomass and Agriculture: Sustainability, Markets and Policies. Paris: OECD, 2004, p. 307.
  21. Wahlberg, Katarina. Are We Approaching a Global Food Crisis? Between Soaring Food Prices and Food Aid Shortage. 2008, http://www.globalpolicy.org/socecon/hunger/general/2008/0303foodcrisis.htm, October 29th, 2008.
  22. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/26/AR2007012601896_pf.html
  23. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Biomass and Agriculture: Sustainability, Markets and Policies. Paris: OECD, 2004, p. 93.
  24. Biomass and Agriculture: Sustainability, Markets and Policies. Paris: OECD, 2004
  25. United States. 2007 Annual Energy Outlook: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Examine Energy Information Administration's New Annual Energy Outlook, March 1, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2007.