As fuel prices propel upward around the world and further concerns mount over global warming, many researchers and policy makers are looking toward renewable energy sources. For the most part, power made from natural sources is low-impact because biological material can be quickly restored through natural processes.
Large markets are starting to shy away from fossil fuels and embrace more responsible biomass alternatives. The field is gaining momentum and there are thousands of newly viable ways to create planet-friendly energy.
What is biomass energy?
Even though it is only now gaining credibility and market share, biofuel is not new. In fact, early humans created biomass energy by burning wood. Biomass is any biological material that can be used for industrial purposes. Coal and petroleum are not considered biomass because they were transformed from organic material into fossils by geological means. When something organic, like wood, is used as fuel, the heat it generates is biomass energy.
The State of Biomass Energy
Continuing instability in global oil markets and the predicted depletion of fossil fuels has created a new interest in biomass energy in recent years. The concept of biofuel is not a new one, but it has always been dismissed in the past as less than cost effective. The rising cost of gasoline and heating fuel has narrowed the price gap. In light of these record prices, adding biomass infrastructure has become more attractive. Proponents of biofuel argue that wider distribution will eventually lead to lower prices.
One of the ripest areas for biomass energy development is the personal vehicle market. The United States is facing record gas prices, and many citizens are having to change their travel habits. Biofuels such of bioethanol, biodiesel, and vegetable oil can all be used to power specially outfitted vehicles.
The Popularity of Bioethanol
Ethanol, in particular, is now used throughout the world to supplemental gasoline usage. Ethyl alcohol can be synthesized from a number of common crops like sugar or corn. Most consumer cars in the United States can use fuel that is 10% ethanol. Flexible-fuel vehicles have engine modifications that allow them to use much high concentrations of the fuel.
Brazil, the second largest producer of ethanol in the world, is said to be the first sustainable ethanol economy. The country is well-known for its sugarcane production and uses its large reserves to produce fuel. E20 (20% ethanol and 80% gasoline) gas mixtures are mandated throughout the country. This system has allowed Brazilians to grow, process, buy fuel, and improve their economy while slowly reducing their dependence on other countries.
The United States uses its significant corn crops to secure its place as the largest worldwide ethanol producer. Most state governments require the usage of E10 in order to reduce pollution and replace the need for MTBE in gasoline.
The use of ethanol is still controversial. Some argue that it raised the cost of fuel mixtures and that extra harvest and production energy negate any environmental benefit. They also cite the tendency of ethanol speculation to increase the price of staple crops and thus taking food away from lower classes priced out of the market.
Producing Heat and Electricity
Biomass fuels are not only in use on the highway. One of the most popular remedies for the rising cost of heating fuel over the past few years have been pellet stoves. These units provide heat to spaces by burning pellets made from compressed sawdust. They are highly efficient and provide a cheap alternative to furnaces and electric systems. Other renewable byproducts from industrial processes can also be burned off. This biomass and other biofuels can be used to produce electricity, but no large scale proof-of-concept has yet been implemented.
The Future of Biomass Energy
As fossil fuels rapidly deplete, governments around the world have recognized the need to harness biomass energy. Since it can be used in existing car engines without minimal changes, biofuels are currently a popular option to replace gasoline and diesel. Solar, hydroelectric, wind, nuclear, and geothermal energy options still outpace biomass with regard to producing electricity, but researchers hope that improved infrastructure will close the gap.
In the rush to find a new way to power the world, scientists are reviewing all available options. Biomass is attractive because it is completely renewable and collection is easy. As research continues, the ways to produce and use biomass energy continue to grow. It is unlikely that it will be the ultimate solution to current energy problems, but it will certainly play a part in the coming transition from fossil fuels.