Biomass and Biofuels

Biomass and biofuel

How Biomass can be used for Energy

Biomass is the collective term for any organic material that can be used as fuel, such as wood, plant or animal matter. Wood is arguably the oldest biofuel and probably the first to be utilised by humans following our discovery of fire. But biofuels extracted from plant oils and animal fats also came into common usage as hunter-gathering gradually gave way to crop and animal farming in 10000-12000 BCE. For millennia, people utilised these simple biofuels to cook their food and heat their homes, growing and managing the resources that produced them as required. Not until the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of much dirtier fossil fuels, did this sustainable way of life start to decline.

Fossil Fuels vs Biofuels

Fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) are formed over millions of years from the decayed remains of prehistoric plants and animals. They are non-renewable and, when burned, emit high levels of carbon dioxide, a dangerous greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change. The mining of these ancient resources is equally damaging to the environment. Coal extraction leaches toxic substances into the soil and groundwater and often requires major deforestation to accommodate its industries. The extraction of natural gas can likewise harm local ecosystems and landscapes, with land erosion, sinkholes and even earthquakes being just some of the environmental dangers now attributed to this industry.

However, perhaps the greatest damage to our planet is occasioned by the drilling and transportation of oil. In 1988, the North Sea Piper Alpha explosion and fire caused widespread marine contamination and released five tons of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 likewise impacted on marine life and has gone down as the most destructive oil spill in the industry’s checkered history. War has also played its part. During the Persian Gulf War (1990-91) hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells, set ablaze by retreating Iraqi troops, burned uncontrollably for eight months. In the same conflict, Iraq deliberately pumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf, causing a nine-mile-long oil slick that devastated bird and marine populations and permanently contaminated the region’s ocean floor.

Given our reckless use and over-dependence on fossil fuels, perhaps it is just as well that the world’s natural reserves of them are fast running out. History clearly shows we cannot be trusted to use them responsibly, nor are they a sustainable solution for our future energy needs. But what is to replace them if modern society is not to grind to a halt? One renewable alternative could be biofuels.

Biofuels are derived from plant or animal-based materials (biomass), including managed forestry, oil producing crops and surplus animal fats from the meat industry. Though not without carbon emissions, biofuels produce far fewer greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels and are both renewable and sustainable, since the organic matter required to produce them can be grown year on year. Ethanol and biodiesel (known as liquid biofuels) are the most common biomass fuels currently produced, but solid biofuels, such as wood, sawdust, agricultural and domestic waste and even manure can also be sustainable fuel sources, particularly for biomass boilers.

Biofuel is one of the fastest growing sectors in energy production as nations strive to find alternative sustainable energy solutions that will minimise and even reverse the damage caused by two centuries of fossil fuel use. Animal fat is, perhaps, the most abundant biomass we have at our disposal, since it is already a surplus bi-product of our global meat industry and fuel derived from it is thus cheaper to produce than plant-based biofuels. However, some critics have disputed this sustainability and have even accused the meat industry of being a contributor to our global warming problems, citing apparent high levels of greenhouse gas produced by livestock and major deforestation of land needed for grazing. 

Oil producing crops, such as oil seed rape, corn and soya are a less controversial solution, since such crops can be grown sustainably like any other foodstuff. Yet even this proposal is not without challenge. The effect of biofuel monocrops on habitats has raised serious questions about animal and plant diversity. Food production may also be threatened, as biocrops offer infinitely more profit to farmers than traditional food crops. The threat of deforestation, as more greenbelt is sacrificed for the production of biofuel crops, is likewise a concern among environmentalists.

Yet, despite such objections, biomass fuels have been shown to be realistic alternatives to fossil fuels in both domestic homes and some industries. Moreover, they are infinitely cleaner, as the CO2 released when biofuels are burned is no more than the carbon absorbed by the plants and animals during their lifetime. This makes biomass fuels a carbon neutral energy source that can be cheaply produced, quickly replenished and, above all, sustainably managed.

To start saving energy, money (and the planet!), browse through our list of top rated Biomass suppliers and services below.