Biomass is a term that has been popularized to describe a clean source of combustible fuel. It is actually one of the oldest sources of energy known to man but has been overshadowed by oil and other fossil fuels in recent decades. Harvesting biomass energy can consist of burning plants such as corn, switch grass, hemp, or palm oil. It’s recent increase in popularity is due to fears of global warming and carbon balance in our Earth’s atmosphere.
Biomass products generate heat energy through combustion just like fossil fuels but remain carbon neutral. This is achieved because the fuel source (plants) are grown before they are burned instead of dug up from sequestered reservoirs under layers of Earth. When new plants are grown they take in CO2 and when they die or are burned the CO2 is released. By contrast, fossil fuels consist of fossilized plants that were buried, along with their CO2, and are no longer a part of our atmospheric content. When these rotted plants and their associated carbon dioxide are released it upsets the balance of our existing atmosphere and harms the ecosystem.
To successfully adopt biomass into our modern day energy structure, fuel sources need to be prepared for steady burning. While logs in a fireplace burn inconsistently and need to be replaced manually, biomass pellets can be fed through a hopper and maintain a steady flow of energy. Biomass is a tricky energy to master while truly remaining carbon neutral because the production of biofuel plants usually demands energy in the form of tractors plowing fields and trucks shipping fuel across the country. In many cases (such as burning ethanol in car engines) the energy output of the “clean” fuel is much lower than that of dirty fossil fuels. In cases like this the energy used to go green actually balances out the benefits. When subsidies are introduced the situation can get even more questionable.
All things considered the renewed interest in biomass as a clean fuel source is a positive step towards more clean options. There are many situations where biomass can be a wonderful and sustainable fuel source and eventually we may even see locally algae or switch grass running cars or home heaters.