Biomass is an industry term for getting energy by burning wood, and
other organic matter. Burning biomass releases carbon emissions, but
has been classed as a renewable energy source in the EU and UN legal
frameworks, because plant stocks can be replaced with new growth.
It has become popular among coal power stations, which switch from
coal to biomass in order to convert to renewable energy generation
without wasting existing generating plant and infrastructure. Biomass
most often refers to plants or plant-based materials that are not used
for food or feed, and are specifically called lignocellulosic
biomass. As an energy source, biomass can either be used directly
via combustion to produce heat, or indirectly after converting it to
various forms of biofuel. Conversion of biomass to biofuel can be
achieved by different methods which are broadly classified into:
thermal, chemical, and biochemical. Some chemical constituents of
plant biomass include lignins, cellulose, and hemicellulose.
1 Sources of Biomass
2 Comparison of total plant biomass yields (dry basis)
2.1 World resources
2.2 Common commodity food crops
2.3 Woody crops
2.4 Not yet in commercial planting
2.5 Genetically modified varieties
3.1 Thermal conversions
3.2 Chemical conversion
3.3 Biochemical conversion
3.4 Electrochemical conversion
3.5 In the United States
3.6 Second-generation biofuels
4 Environmental damage
5 Supply chain issues
6 See also
8 External links
Sources of Biomass
A cogeneration plant in Metz, France. The station uses waste wood
biomass as an energy source, and provides electricity and heat for
Stump harvesting increases the recovery of biomass from a forest.
Sugarcane plantation in Brazil.
Sugarcane bagasse is a type of
In terms of how biomass is used as fuel, percentages were gathered in
United States of 2016. 5% is considered primary energy in the U.S.
Making up that 5% of primary energy, about 48% comes from biofuels
(mostly ethanol), 41% from wood based biomass, and around 11% from
municipal waste. 
Eucalyptus in Brazil. Remains of the tree are reused for power
Historically, humans have harnessed biomass-derived energy since the
time when people began burning wood to make fire. Even today,
biomass is the only source of fuel for domestic use in many developing
Biomass is all biologically-produced matter based in
carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The estimated biomass production in the
world is 104.9 petagrams (104.9 × 1015 g – about 105 billion metric
tons) of carbon per year, about half in the ocean and half on land.
Wood remains the largest biomass energy source today; examples
include forest residues (such as dead trees, branches and tree
stumps), yard clippings, wood chips and even municipal solid waste.
Wood energy is derived by using lignocellulosic biomass
(second-generation biofuels) as fuel. Harvested wood may be used
directly as a fuel or collected from wood waste streams to be
processed into pellet fuel or other forms of fuels. The largest source
of energy from wood is pulping liquor or "black liquor," a waste
product from processes of the pulp, paper and paperboard
industry. In the second sense, biomass includes plant
or animal matter that can be converted into fibers or other industrial
chemicals, including biofuels. Industrial biomass can be grown from
numerous types of plants, including miscanthus, switchgrass, hemp,
corn, poplar, willow, sorghum, sugarcane, bamboo, and a variety of
tree species, ranging from eucalyptus to oil palm (palm oil).
Based on the source of biomass, biofuels are classified broadly into
two major categories. First-generation biofuels are derived from
sources such as sugarcane and corn starch. Sugars present in this
biomass are fermented to produce bioethanol, an alcohol fuel which can
be used directly in a fuel cell to produce electricity or serve as an
additive to gasoline. However, utilizing food-based resources for fuel
production only aggravates the food shortage problem.
Second-generation biofuels, on the other hand, utilize non-food-based
biomass sources such as agriculture and municipal waste. These
biofuels mostly consist of lignocellulosic biomass, which is not
edible and is a low-value waste for many industries. Despite being the
favored alternative, economical production of second-generation
biofuel is not yet achieved due to technological issues. These issues
arise mainly due to chemical inertness and structural rigidity of
Plant energy is produced by crops specifically grown for use as fuel
that offer high biomass output per hectare with low input energy. Some
examples of these plants are wheat, which typically yields 7.5–8
tonnes of grain per hectare, and straw, which typically yields 3.5–5
tonnes per hectare in the UK. The grain can be used for liquid
transportation fuels while the straw can be burned to produce heat or
electricity. Plant biomass can also be degraded from cellulose to
glucose through a series of chemical treatments, and the resulting
sugar can then be used as a first-generation biofuel.
The main contributors of waste energy are municipal solid waste,
manufacturing waste, and landfill gas. Energy derived from biomass is
projected to be the largest non-hydroelectric renewable resource of
electricity in the US between 2000 and 2020.
Biomass can be converted to other usable forms of energy like methane
gas or transportation fuels like ethanol and biodiesel. Rotting
garbage, and agricultural and human waste, all release methane gas,
also called landfill gas or biogas. Crops such as corn and sugarcane
can be fermented to produce the transportation fuel ethanol.
Biodiesel, another transportation fuel, can be produced from leftover
food products like vegetable oils and animal fats. Several
biodiesel companies simply collect used restaurant cooking oil and
convert it into biodiesel. Also, biomass-to-liquids (called
"BTLs") and cellulosic ethanol are still under research.
There is research involving algae or algae-derived biomass, as this
non-food resource can be produced at rates five to ten times those of
other types of land-based agriculture, such as corn and soy. Once
harvested, it can be fermented to produce biofuels such as ethanol,
butanol, and methane, as well as biodiesel and hydrogen. Efforts are
being made to identify which species of algae are most suitable for
energy production. Genetic engineering approaches could also be
utilized to improve microalgae as a source of biofuel.
The biomass used for electricity generation varies by region. Forest
by-products, such as wood residues, are common in the US. Agricultural
waste is common in
Mauritius (sugar cane residue) and Southeast Asia
(rice husks). Animal husbandry residues, such as poultry litter, are
common in the UK.
Sewage sludge can be another source of biomass. For example, the Omni
Processor is a process which uses sewage sludge as fuel in a process
of sewage sludge treatment, with surplus electrical energy being
generated for export.
Comparison of total plant biomass yields (dry basis)
If the total annual primary production of biomass is just over 100
billion (1.0E+11) tonnes of carbon /yr, and the energy reserve per
tonne of biomass is between about 1.5×103 and 3×103 kilowatt hours
(5×106 and 10×106 BTU), or 24.8 TW average, then biomass
could in principle provide 1.4 times the approximate annual 150×103
terawatt-hours required for current world energy consumption. For
reference, the total solar power on Earth is 174 PW. The biomass
equivalent to solar energy ratio is 143 ppm (parts per million),
given current living system coverage on Earth. The best currently
attainable solar cell efficiency is 20–40%. Additionally, Earth's
internal radioactive energy production, largely the driver for
volcanic activity, continental drift, etc., is in the same range of
power, 20 TW. At around 50% carbon mass content in biomass,
annual production, this corresponds to about 6% atmospheric carbon
content in the form of CO2 (for the current 400 ppm).
(1×1011 tonnes biomass annually produced approximately 25 TW·h)
Annual world biomass energy equivalent =16.7–33.4 TW·h.
Annual world energy consumption =17.7 TW·h. On average, biomass
production is 1.4 times larger than world energy consumption.
Common commodity food crops
Agave: 1–21 tons/acre
Alfalfa: 4–6 tons/acre
Barley: grains – 1.6–2.8 tons/acre, straw – 0.9–2.5 tons/acre,
total – 2.5–5.3 tons/acre
Corn: grains – 3.2–4.9 tons/acre, stalks and stovers – 2.3–3.4
tons/acre, total – 5.5–8.3 tons/acre
Jerusalem artichokes: tubers 1–8 tons/acre, tops 2–13 tons/acre,
total 9–13 tons/acre
Oats: grains – 1.4–5.4 tons/acre, straw – 1.9–3.2 tons/acre,
total – 3.3–8.6 tons/acre
Rye: grains – 2.1–2.4 tons/acre, straw – 2.4–3.4 tons/acre,
total – 4.5–5.8 tons/acre
Wheat: grains – 1.2–4.1 tons/acre, straw – 1.6–3.8 tons/acre,
total – 2.8–7.9 tons/acre
Oil palm: fronds 11 ton/acre, whole fruit bunches 1 ton/acre, trunks
Not yet in commercial planting
Giant miscanthus: 5–15 tons/acre 
Sunn hemp: 4.5 tons/acre
Switchgrass: 4–6 tons/acre
Genetically modified varieties
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Trends in the top five countries generating electricity from biomass
Thermal conversion processes use heat as the dominant mechanism to
convert biomass into another chemical form. Also known as thermal oil
heating, it is a type of indirect heating in which a liquid phase heat
transfer medium is heated and circulated to one or more heat energy
users within a closed loop system. The basic alternatives of
combustion (torrefaction, pyrolysis, and gasification) are separated
principally by the extent to which the chemical reactions involved are
allowed to proceed (mainly controlled by the availability of oxygen
and conversion temperature).
Energy created by burning biomass is particularly suited for countries
where the fuel wood grows more rapidly, e.g. tropical countries. There
are a number of other less common, more experimental or proprietary
thermal processes that may offer benefits such as hydrothermal
upgrading (HTU) and hydroprocessing. Some have been developed for use
on high moisture content biomass, including aqueous slurries, and
allow them to be converted into more convenient forms. Some of the
applications of thermal conversion are combined heat and power (CHP)
and co-firing. In a typical dedicated biomass power plant,
efficiencies range from 20–27% (higher heating value basis).
Biomass cofiring with coal, by contrast, typically occurs at
efficiencies near those of the coal combustor (30–40%, higher
heating value basis).
A range of chemical processes may be used to convert biomass into
other forms, such as to produce a fuel that is more conveniently used,
transported or stored, or to exploit some property of the process
itself. Many of these processes are based in large part on similar
coal-based processes, such as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, methanol
production, olefins (ethylene and propylene), and similar chemical or
fuel feedstocks. In most cases, the first step involves gasification,
which step generally is the most expensive and involves the greatest
Biomass is more difficult to feed into a pressure
vessel than coal or any liquid. Therefore, biomass gasification is
frequently done at atmospheric pressure and causes combustion of
biomass to produce a combustible gas consisting of carbon monoxide,
hydrogen, and traces of methane. This gas mixture, called a producer
gas, can provide fuel for various vital processes, such as internal
combustion engines, as well as substitute for furnace oil in direct
heat applications. Because any biomass material can undergo
gasification, this process is far more attractive than ethanol or
biomass production, where only particular biomass materials can be
used to produce a fuel. In addition, biomass gasification is a
desirable process due to the ease at which it can convert solid waste
(such as wastes available on a farm) into producer gas, which is a
very usable fuel.
Conversion of biomass to biofuel can also be achieved via selective
conversion of individual components of biomass. For example,
cellulose can be converted to intermediate platform chemical such a
sorbitol, glucose, hydroxymethylfurfural etc. These
chemical are then further reacted to produce hydrogen or hydrocarbon
Biomass also has the potential to be converted to multiple commodity
Halomethanes have successfully been by produced using a
combination of A. fermentans and engineered S. cerevisiae. This
method converts NaX salts and unprocessed biomass such as switchgrass,
sugarcane, corn stover, or poplar into halomethanes.
S-adenosylmethionine which is naturally occurring in S. cerevisiae
allows a methyl group to be transferred. Production levels of
150 mg L-1H-1 iodomethane were achieved. At these levels roughly
173000 L of capacity would need to be operated just to replace
the United States’ need for iodomethane. However, an advantage
of this method is that it uses NaI rather than I2; NaI is
significantly less hazardous than I2. This method may be applied to
produce ethylene in the future.
Other chemical processes such as converting straight and waste
vegetable oils into biodiesel is transesterification.
As biomass is a natural material, many highly efficient biochemical
processes have developed in nature to break down the molecules of
which biomass is composed, and many of these biochemical conversion
processes can be harnessed.
Biochemical conversion makes use of the enzymes of bacteria and other
microorganisms to break down biomass into gaseous or liquid fuels,
such a biogas or bioethanol. In most cases, microorganisms are
used to perform the conversion process: anaerobic digestion,
fermentation, and composting.
Glycoside hydrolases are the enzymes involved in the degradation of
the major fraction of biomass, such as polysaccharides present in
starch and lignocellulose. Thermostable variants are gaining
increasing roles as catalysts in biorefining applications in the
future bioeconomy, since recalcitrant biomass often needs thermal
treatment for more efficient degradation. Some examples in today´s
processing include production of monosaccharides for food applications
as well as use as carbon source for microbial conversion into
metabolites such as bioethanol and chemical intermediates,
oligocaccharide production for prebiotic (nutrition) applications and
production of surfactants alkyl glycoside type.
In addition to combustion, biomass/biofuels can be directly converted
to electrical energy via electrochemical (electrocatalytic) oxidation
of the material. This can be performed directly in a direct carbon
fuel cell, direct liquid fuel cells such as direct ethanol fuel
cell, a direct methanol fuel cell, a direct formic acid fuel cell, a
L-ascorbic Acid Fuel Cell (vitamin C fuel cell), and a microbial
fuel cell. The fuel can also be consumed indirectly via a fuel
cell system containing a reformer which converts the biomass into a
mixture of CO and H2 before it is consumed in the fuel cell.
In the United States
The biomass power generating industry in the
United States consists of
approximately 11,000 MW of summer operating capacity actively
supplying power to the grid, and produces about 1.4 percent of the
U.S. electricity supply.
Public Service of New Hampshire (later merged with other companies
into Eversource) in 2006 replaced a 50 MW coal boiler with a new 50 MW
biomass boiler at its Schiller Station facility in Portsmouth, NH.
The boiler's biomass fuel is from sources in NH, Massachusetts and
Currently, the New Hope Power Partnership in Palm Beach County,
Florida is the largest biomass power plant in the U.S. The 140 MW
facility uses sugarcane fiber (bagasse) and recycled urban wood as
fuel to generate enough power for its large milling and refining
operations as well as to supply electricity for nearly 60,000
Vermont in 2017, biomass cost $85 per megawatt, and wholesale
electricity was about $25 a megawatt, making biomass more expensive,
particularly when compared to fracked natural gas.
Second-generation biofuels were not (in 2010) produced commercially,
but a considerable number of research activities were taking place
mainly in North America, Europe and also in some emerging countries.
These tend to use feedstock produced by rapidly reproducing enzymes or
bacteria from various sources including excrement grown in cell
cultures or hydroponics. There is huge potential for second
generation biofuels but non-edible feedstock resources are highly
Using biomass as a fuel produces air pollution in the form of carbon
monoxide, carbon dioxide,
NOx (nitrogen oxides), VOCs (volatile
organic compounds), particulates and other pollutants at levels above
those from traditional fuel sources such as coal or natural gas in
some cases (such as with indoor heating and cooking). Use
of wood biomass as a fuel can also produce fewer particulate and other
pollutants than open burning as seen in wildfires or direct heat
Black carbon – a pollutant created by combustion
of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass – is possibly the second
largest contributor to global warming.:56–57 In 2009 a Swedish
study of the giant brown haze that periodically covers large areas in
South Asia determined that it had been principally produced by open
burning of biomass, and to a lesser extent by fossil-fuel burning.
Researchers measured a significant concentration of 14C (Carbon-14),
which is associated with recent plant life rather than with fossil
Biomass power plant size is often driven by biomass availability in
close proximity as transport costs of the (bulky) fuel play a key
factor in the plant's economics. Rail and especially shipping on
waterways can reduce transport costs significantly, which has led to a
global biomass market. To make small plants of 1 MWel economically
profitable those power plants need to be equipped with technology that
is able to convert biomass to useful electricity with high efficiency
such as ORC technology, a cycle similar to the water steam power
process just with an organic working medium. Such small power plants
can be found in Europe.
On combustion, the carbon from biomass is released into the atmosphere
as carbon dioxide (CO2). The amount of carbon stored in dry wood is
approximately 50% by weight. However, according to the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, plant matter used as a
fuel can be replaced by planting for new growth. When the biomass is
from forests, the time to recapture the carbon stored is generally
longer, and the carbon storage capacity of the forest may be reduced
overall if destructive forestry techniques are
Industry professionals claim that a range of issues can affect a
plant's ability to comply with emissions standards. Some of these
challenges, unique to biomass plants, include inconsistent fuel
supplies and age. The type and amount of the fuel supply are
completely reliant factors; the fuel can be in the form of building
debris or agricultural waste (such as removal of invasive species or
orchard trimmings). Furthermore, many of the biomass plants are old,
use outdated technology and were not built to comply with today’s
stringent standards. In fact, many are based on technologies developed
during the term of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who created the United
States Department of Energy in 1977.
Energy Information Administration
Energy Information Administration projected that by 2017,
biomass is expected to be about twice as expensive as natural gas,
slightly more expensive than nuclear power, and much less expensive
than solar panels. In another EIA study released, concerning the
government’s plan to implement a 25% renewable energy standard by
2025, the agency assumed that 598 million tons of biomass would be
available, accounting for 12% of the renewable energy in the plan.
The adoption of biomass-based energy plants has been a slow but steady
process. Between the years of 2002 and 2012 the production of these
plants has increased 14%. In the United States, alternative
electricity-production sources on the whole generate about 13% of
power; of this fraction, biomass contributes approximately 11% of the
alternative production. According to a study conducted in early
2012, of the 107 operating biomass plants in the United States, 85
have been cited by federal or state regulators for the violation of
clean air or water standards laws over the past 5 years. This data
also includes minor infractions.
Despite harvesting, biomass crops may sequester carbon. For example,
soil organic carbon has been observed to be greater in switchgrass
stands than in cultivated cropland soil, especially at depths below
30 cm (12 in). The grass sequesters the carbon in its
increased root biomass. Typically, perennial crops sequester much more
carbon than annual crops due to much greater non-harvested living
biomass, both living and dead, built up over years, and much less soil
disruption in cultivation.
The proposal that biomass is carbon-neutral put forward in the early
1990s has been superseded by more recent science that recognizes that
mature, intact forests sequester carbon more effectively than cut-over
areas. When a tree's carbon is released into the atmosphere in a
single pulse, it contributes to climate change much more than woodland
timber rotting slowly over decades. Current studies indicate that
"even after 50 years the forest has not recovered to its initial
carbon storage" and "the optimal strategy is likely to be protection
of the standing forest".[not in citation given]
The pros and cons of biomass usage regarding carbon emissions may be
quantified with the
ILUC factor. There is controversy surrounding the
usage of the
Forest-based biomass has recently come under fire from a number of
environmental organizations, including
Greenpeace and the Natural
Resources Defense Council, for the harmful impacts it can have on
forests and the climate.
Greenpeace recently released a report
entitled "Fuelling a BioMess" which outlines their concerns around
forest-based biomass. Because any part of the tree can be burned, the
harvesting of trees for energy production encourages whole-tree
harvesting, which removes more nutrients and soil cover than regular
harvesting, and can be harmful to the long-term health of the forest.
In some jurisdictions, forest biomass removal is increasingly
involving elements essential to functioning forest ecosystems,
including standing trees, naturally disturbed forests and remains of
traditional logging operations that were previously left in the
forest. Environmental groups also cite recent scientific research
which has found that it can take many decades for the carbon released
by burning biomass to be recaptured by regrowing trees, and even
longer in low productivity areas; furthermore, logging operations may
disturb forest soils and cause them to release stored carbon.[citation
needed] In light of the pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions in the short term in order to mitigate the effects of
climate change, a number of environmental groups are opposing the
large-scale use of forest biomass in energy production.
Supply chain issues
With the seasonality of biomass supply and a great variability in
sources, supply chains play a key role in cost-effective delivery of
bioenergy. There are several potential challenges unique to bioenergy
Inefficiencies of the conversion processes
Storage methods for seasonal availability
Complex multi-component constituents incompatible with maximizing
efficiency of single purpose use
High water content of many biomass feedstock
Conflicting decisions (technologies, locations, and routes)
Complex location analysis (source points, inventory facilities, and
Seasonal availability leading to storage challenges and/or seasonally
Low bulk-density and/or high water content making transportation of
biomass less economical
Finite productivity per area and/or time incompatible with
conventional approach to economy of scale focusing on maximizing
The limits for the traditional approach to economy of scale which
focuses on maximizing single facility size
Unavailability and complexity of life cycle costing data
Lack of required transport infrastructure
Limited flexibility or inflexibility to energy demand
Risks associated with new technologies (insurability, performance,
rate of return)
Extended market volatilities (conflicts with alternative markets for
Difficult or impossible to use financial hedging methods to control
Lack of participatory decision making
Lack of public/community awareness
Local supply chain impacts vs. global benefits
Health and safety risks
Extra pressure on transport sector
Decreasing the esthetics of rural areas
Policy and regulatory issues
Impact of fossil fuel tax on biomass transport
Lack of incentives to create competition among bioenergy producers
Focus on technology options and less attention to selection of biomass
Lack of support for sustainable supply chain solutions
Institutional and organizational issues
Varied ownership arrangements and priorities among supply chain
Lack of supply chain standards
Impact of organizational norms and rules on decision making and supply
Immaturity of change management practices in biomass supply chains
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Microbial electrolysis cell
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Wood fuel (a traditional biomass fuel)
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