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Biomass as an Alternative Fuel: Are You Prepared?

Aug 26, 2008
The oil crisis and world overdependence on fossil fuels have paved the way for new developments in alternative energy sources. One of these alternative sources is biomass, which certainly has the potential of being considered a good substitute for fossil fuel. Seeds of fortune are often planted in the throes of a crisis. Biomass may just be that seed of fortune you are looking for.

Biomass is a natural and renewable energy source that is derived from recently dead biological matter and is used as a biofuel. It usually comes from plants, but it also comes from animal matter and other agricultural biodegradable waste. Examples of plants that can be used as biomass are corn, sugar cane, wheat, and switchgrass. Waste matter from plants like coconut husks, rice hulls, and bagasse (waste from sugar cane) are also examples of biomass. However, biomass excludes organic material which has been transformed by geological processes into substances such as coal or petroleum. In general, biomass can be used in either raw form or some sort of modified, blended form.

Biomass works like this. It is burned to produce heat that makes hot water, which then produces steam that can power turbines. Since biomass is also carbon-based like traditional fossil fuel, it has a comparable burning rate that makes it suitable as an energy source for small-scale power generation. But unlike fossil fuels, biomass absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during its growing lifetime. After its life, the carbon in biomass recycles to the atmosphere as a mixture of CO2 and methane (CH4), depending on the ultimate fate of the biomass material. CH4 converts to CO2 in the atmosphere, completing the cycle. In contrast to biomass carbon, the carbon in fossil fuels is locked away in geological storage forever, unless extracted.

Biomass has become a popular alternative source of energy in farming areas and other areas where there is a huge amount of agricultural waste. Farmers have used biomass to power their equipment and for post-harvest processing of agricultural crops.

As an energy source, biomass has many applications depending on the type of material used, the location, and the processing that it has to undergo to make it usable. The simplest biomass application is agricultural fertilizers. Biomass materials can also be used for fiber or building material. Further chemical processing, such as hydrogenation, can produce a biomass that makes it a suitable fuel source. Biomass is also sometimes used for space heating applications.

Biomass is also scalable. Already there are biomass power plants operating with 11,000 megawatts (MW) installed capacity, representing the second largest amount of renewable energy in the United States, next to geothermal energy. These power plants burn wood and agricultural wood wastes. Aside from burning the biomass to produce heat, gases like methane can also be extracted, which can then be used as fuel for generators, turbines, and fuel cells.

Some environmentalists argue that biomass is part of the carbon cycle and as such emits greenhouse gases that contribute to global warning. That said, biomass emits 50% less than emissions from burning fossil fuel. Furthermore, the disadvantage of having carbon dioxide emission can be offset by the fact that biomass is often sourced from recycled waste materials, therefore significantly reducing solid waste. This helps to classify it as an efficient and cost-effective energy source.

In addition to this environmental concern, biomass raises another critical issue in the food vs. fuel debate. Some argue that using biomass for energy instead of using it as an edible food is unconscionable. This argument has been magnified by the more recent oil and food price crises, where critics point out that biomass could have helped create or at least magnify the rising cost of food staples. However, some studies suggest the amount of crops that go to biofuel production may not be significant enough to tip the food demand.

While the conversion to biomass fuels is probably inevitable, some are concerned about how the conversion will take place: The timing and cost of the conversion is still not clear. Also total direct and indirect costs and what groups benefit and which groups suffer are major concerns. With congressional leadership favoring an acceleration of greener energy in a way that benefits their constituents and lobbyists, the conversion to biomass will create winners and losers.

What the biomass discussion is pointing to is the urgency for industries to begin planning NOW for the inevitability of a greener world. Will you be prepared?
About the Author
Bottom line? Apply this information to improve your profitability, reengineer business models, and strengthen or gain competitive advantage in the marketplace. And apply the free Fiscal Test at http://fiscaldoctor.com/fiscaltest.html.

From Gary W Patterson, www.FiscalDoctor.com Copyright 2008
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