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How Efficient is Biomass Energy?

Rahul Thadani
Biomass energy is one of the most widely used renewable sources of energy around today, but many people may still wonder about how good it actually is, because it is a fact that biofuels do leave unwanted residues and waste materials behind.
Renewable sources of energy have long been revered and viewed as a path to the future, but the actual process of switching over to these energy forms is something that is taking longer than expected.
The non-renewable sources of energy on our planet will be completely depleted sooner or later, so the more prepared we are for this situation, the better it will be. Several alternatives have been suggested over the years, and biomass energy is definitely the one source with the most potential for the future.
Interestingly, more than half of the renewable energy used in the United States is a direct derivative of biomass energy, so this is an area that is certainly getting a lot of attention and research. There is still a long way to go though, so we can only expect its popularity and the efficiency to increase as time goes by.
The reason why it has not taken off as quickly as many would have hoped though is its inefficiency when compared with other sources.

What is Biomass Energy?

Any living material that was alive until recently can be categorized as biomass, and the energy that is derived from such sources is what is known as biomass energy. Biomass includes plants, bacteria, fungi and animals as well, so this is a renewable source that will never get extinguished.
Even though fossil fuels and coal also find their origins in living materials, the fact is that these items take millions of years to get created. Hence, they do not qualify as biomass.
The energy that is derived from biomass needs to be channeled out in many different manners though, and this is what ultimately contributes to the low efficiency of biomass.
It is said that this energy is stored in biomass as solar energy that combines with the chemical compounds inside and this is what makes it so complicated to actually derive this energy in the best way possible.
Some of the different methods that are used to derive biomass are combustion, fermentation, digestion, pyrolysis and gasification, and each of these methods have their own pros and cons.
You must also remember that biomass energy does not add to the Greenhouse Effect and disrupt the earth's atmosphere, which is one of the major advantages, so this is another reason why biomass conversion efficiency should be made as high as possible.

Usability and Efficiency of Biomass

Since biomass energy can be used for producing electricity and heat, it needs to be utilized in the best way possible. The actual efficiency depends heavily on the source of the biomass and the method of extracting the energy that is being used. For instance, wood is considered to be a source of biomass and it is certainly renewable.
But, burning wood for generating electricity in large factories is not feasible due to the large number of trees that will need to be cut, and the large amount of smoke that will be released into the atmosphere.
This efficiency would further depend on the condition of the wood as well. Drier wood, for example, produces more heat so it is more efficient than moist wood. In order to make wood like this, a process known as torrefaction needs to be carried out, but this is something that takes time and money.
Moreover, the most common form of biomass energy is extracting ethanol from various sources, but this is also something that takes time and resources. Several procedures need to be carried out in a lab in order to achieve this, so the efficiency is not quite where we would like it to be at the present moment.
Currently the best source for ethanol is corn, but slowly and surely, newer sources and cheaper procedures are being created. Some experts also say that a certain amount of biomass will roughly grant only 25% - 30% of the energy that the same amount of coal would grant.
Moreover, there are several waste products that also arise as a result of harnessing this energy, and this further affects the energy costs incurred and the overall efficiency of these energy sources as well.
Ultimately, its efficiency will depend on the manner in which the biomass is collected. If it is farmed specially for the purpose of creating energy, then this source makes sense. But, simply using biomass because it is around will eventually lead to a depletion of these sources as well, and also cause pollution and leave unwanted residues at the same time.
The amount of energy that is derived should be on par with the environmental damage that occurs, and we still need more time to minimize such damage while using biomass energy.