Biomass Energy: Meaning, Advantages and Disadvantages of Biomass Energy

What is the meaning of biomass energy?
Biomass energy is energy that is derived from organic matter. The 'bio' part of the word 'biomass' comes from the Greek word for 'life'. So, biomass energy is energy that derives from sources that were once alive.

Biomass energy can derive from many different sources. One key source is dead or decomposed plant matter. Energy is stored in wood and other plant matter, and this can be unlocked when this plant matter is burned.

Two key sources of biomass energy are eucalyptus and cane sugar. This reflects the fact that the majority of biomass energy in the world derives from plant matter. Another example of biomass energy, which can be found in colder climates, is peat. Peat can be dug up from the earth and burned as fuel.

Biomass energy can also derive from the bodies of animals that died, some of them many hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

As such, people sometimes argue whether or not oil (which is made from the bodies of animals that died many millennia ago) is strictly a type of biomass energy or not. More often, oil is characterized as a 'fossil fuel' as it derives from ancient, fossilized matter that was once alive.

1. Multiple sources: biomass energy can be harnessed from a wide variety of different plants and other organic matter. As such, different regions of the world can choose to cultivate the type of biomass energy that best suits their climate. One example is Brazil, which grows plenty of sugar cane and converts this into biomass energy.

2. Encourages local agriculture: the harnessing of biomass energy provides jobs for local agricultural workers.

3. Prevents overbuilding in rural areas: when large swathes of land are devoted to growing crops and other plant and tree matter for biomass energy, these areas are protected from urban sprawl.

4. Encourages innovation: scientists are currently focusing on genetically modifying certain crops to ensure that they provide the best biomass-based energy.

5. Easy to create: harnessing biomass energy is very easy because all that is needed is a space to grow crops and some seeds. This also makes biomass energy very easy to access: even in very poor and out-of-the-way rural areas, people can harness local crops and other organic matter to burn as fuel. Biomass can also be renewed easily as crops can be replanted and harvested every year.

6. No synthetic processing is needed: biomass is a very natural kind of energy. As most biomass energy is derived from plants or from animals that have died naturally, there is no synthetic processing involved. Usually, all that is needed is for people to collect wood, plant matter or peat (or any other organic matter) and then ignite it in order to create thermal energy. The thermal energy can then be used directly for heating (for instance in a fireplace filled with logs) or more indirectly to power electrical generators.

7. An alternative to fossil fuels: some accounts and analyses suggest that we are going to run out of our supply of fossil fuel stocks in a certain number of decades - perhaps even in just 40 to 50 years. As a result, governments throughout the world are in search of an alternative to fossil fuels, and biomass is a likely candidate as it is abundant and easy to renew.

1. Deteriorating soil quality: growing the same crop repeatedly in the same place can deplete vital nutrients from the earth. This can result in poor quality soil and can make it hard for plants and animals to thrive there. Eventually, this can make it difficult to grow the original crop that was being used for biomass energy.

2. Pollution: when burned, biomass fuels can release harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. These include pollutants such as carbon monoxide, which is responsible for global warming (and the greenhouse effect). This is because wood stores carbon which a tree sucks in from the atmosphere when it respires, and the carbon is released when the tree burns.

3. Deforestation: sometimes, people will destroy ancient forests (including the precious Amazon rainforest) in order to clear space in which to grow biofuels. This is the case with sugar cane in some parts of Brazil, for example. The reason for this is often because biofuel is seen to be more profitable (at least in the short term) than preserving ancient forests.

4. Expensive: biomass is actually pretty expensive to purchase if you do not collect it yourself. It is around twice as expensive to buy as natural gas, making it beyond the budgets of many ordinary householders.

5. Smoke: when burned in the home, biomass can often create soot and smoke that stains interiors and irritates the lungs. This can make it a bad choice of fuel for people who have respiratory illnesses, for example.

6. Inefficient: when it is burned, not all of the energy in biomass is converted into thermal energy. As a result, it is a very inefficient fuel, which wastes much of its energy.

7. Takes up space that could be used for other projects: the space that is taken up by sugar cane fields and other biomass fields could be used for other projects such as affordable housing, agriculture, and crops that could provide food for local communities. As a result, it could be argued that biomass fuel wastes space.

Conclusion - Biomass is an all-natural type of fuel, however that does not necessarily mean that it is the best type of fuel for the environment. In fact, burning biomass can be said to be a key cause of climate change. Whilst it is often cited as a good example of renewable energy and a viable alternative to fossil fuels, biomass also has several disadvantages. As well as the fact that it releases pollutants into the atmosphere, for example, biomass is also rather inefficient.

What do you think? Do you use biomass fuels in your home? And if so, what do you think of them? Have they helped you to solve all of your heating needs or have they simply meant that you have to go to a lot of effort in order to get all of the energy that you need?

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