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Lesson 13


Biomass is receiving increasing attention as scientists, policy makers, and growers search for clean,
renewable energy alternatives. Compared with other renewable resources, biomass is very flexible; it
can be used as fuel for direct combustion, gasified, used in combined heat and power technologies,
or biochemical conversions. Due to the wide range of feed stocks, biomass has a broad geographic
distribution, in some cases offering a least-cost and near-term alternative.

Biomass energy in developing countries, originates from fuel wood, animal wastes, and agricultural
residues, and is primarily utilized for activities which are essential to survival, such as cooking and
obtaining water. Improvements in the living standards in these countries will result in the non-
essential use of energy. Development of technologies that efficiently produce biomass, and convert it
to more convenient forms of energy is therefore very important.


Biomass is typically defined as all living plant matter as well as organic wastes derived from plants,
human, marine life, and animals. Trees, grasses, animal dung, as well as sewage, garbage, wood
construction residues, and other components of municipal solid waste are all examples of biomass.
Biomass qualifies as a renewable resource because commercially meaningful quantities are
regenerated in time scales that are comparable to or less than typical time scale for human use of the
resource. Biomass, in fact, is a natural engine for the conversion of solar energy to high-energy
content products that can be stored, transported, and used conveniently. Plants grow by
photosynthesis, the process of using solar energy to convert two naturally abundant raw materials,
water and carbon dioxide, into carbohydrates and other complex organic compounds of great natural
and commercial value. Some of the simplest carbohydrates formed by photosynthesis are sugars
glucose, C6H12O6, and sucrose, C12H12O11. The photosynthesis reaction leading to the glucose is

6 CO2 + 6 H2O + sunlight C6H12O6 + 6 O2

The light energy required to produce one gram of glucose is 18 kJ. Note that CO2 and H2O have zero
heating value and the energy content of glucose comes from solar input, which plants convert to
biomass energy with conversion efficiency of about 1-2%.

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Because biomass can capture and store solar energy as commercially useful product, it is an enabling
technology for sustainability that is already economically attractive in select applications. However,
appreciable growth in its share of the energy market in developed countries is hindered by its
generally higher costs compared to fossil fuels.

The map in Figure 13.1 shows the biomass resources available in the United States by county. The
following feedstock categories are included in this map: crop residues, forest residues, primary and
secondary mill residues, urban wood waste, and methane emissions from manure management,
landfills, and domestic wastewater treatment. The historical production or consumption of biomass
for 1949-2008 is shown in Figure 13.2. The Total Biomass in this figure includes wood and wood-
derived fuels, biomass waste, and biofuels (i.e. ethanol and biodiesel). Also, the amount of biomass
used for the production of ethanol and biodiesel is shown as Biofuels in this figure. Due to special
interest in production of liquid fuels since early 2000s, the rate of growth in biomass production has
significantly increased since.

Figure 13.1 Biomass Resources of the United States by County

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, 2009

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Quadrillion BTU 3.0

1.0 Biofuels















Figure 13.2 U.S. Biomass Production, 1949-2008
Source: EIA

Solid fuel like wood and plant residues can be burned directly for thermal energy or power
production. It can also be converted to liquid biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel that can be used as
substitute for gasoline and diesel fuel, or to gaseous fuels like methane and biogas that can be
burned for thermal energy or used in gas turbines to produce electric power.

Conversion of Biomass Biofuels

The famous Ford Model T automobile of 1908 was designed to run on ethanol or gasoline or any
combination of the two. During the 1930s some 2000 service stations provided gasoline that
contained 6 to 12% ethanol made from corn. Ethanol is one of the common forms of alcohol; it is an
oxygenated hydrocarbon, C2H5OH. The conversion of biomass to liquid fuel has a long history in the
United States. There is obviously a need for a liquid fuel that can be easily transported to provide
space heating or transportation. In recent years this need has stimulated a renewed effort to convert
biomass to a fuel useful for transportation. The effort focuses on helping to alleviate our growing
dependence on imported oil and on reducing emissions from automobiles. The addition of ethanol to
gasoline increases the oxygen content of the fuel, thus leading to more complete combustion and
reduction of carbon monoxide emissions. In certain parts of the country prone to high carbon
monoxide levels, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated that these ethanol-
gasoline blends be used during the winter months.

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The particular blend of 10% ethanol to 90% gasoline is known as gasohol. Gasohol now receives a
reduction of 5.2 cents per gallon on the current federal excise tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline.
This amounts to a subsidy of 51 cents for each gallon of ethanol. Ethanol now has a per gallon cost of
about twice that of gasoline and has only about two-thirds the energy content per gallon.

The manufacture of ethanol serves as an example of converting biomass into a liquid fuel. Although
other grains can be used, the principal crop utilized in the United States has been corn. After
harvesting, the entire stalk and cobs are chopped up, ground, and mixed with water. The resulting
material is then cooked to help convert the starches into sugars by enzymatic action. The sugars are
then converted by fermentation into alcohol. Distillation removes the alcohol from the rest of the
material; it then is blended, usually with unleaded gasoline, to make a product directly usable in
unmodified auto engines. Figure 13.3 shows diagrammatically the process of conversion as well as
the ways in which fossil fuel energy enters into the various stages.

Grain Starch Sugar
Farm Grinding Cooking Fermentation Distillation Drying, etc.


Oil Gasoline
Fossil Fuels Refinery



Figure 13.3 Schematic Diagram of Converting Corn to Gasohol

(FFE is Fossil Fuel Energy required)

Because there is usually a sizable surplus of corn grown in the United States, fuel tax exemptions have
been provided by a number of states to encourage the use of corn to augment the domestic supply of
gasoline. This is in addition to the federal subsidy mentioned earlier. It has been unclear whether
gasohol would be economically viable if it enjoyed no subsidy but was left to a free market. Because
of the considerable use of fossil fuels in agriculture, it is also unclear whether or not more Btu of
fossil fuel is consumed in the process than are made available in the ethanol. The answer to these
questions is that ethanol is apparently close to the break-even point, but much depends on whether
prime crops or agricultural wastes are used, and on the details of the conversion technique.

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Brazil, which has limited oil reserves, has made a serious effort to shift to alcohol as a transportation
fuel. Sugarcane is widely grown in Brazil and can be converted to ethanol by the process shown in
Figure 13.3. In the 1980s, nearly 90% of the new automobiles in Brazil were designed to operate on
pure ethanol, but now, owing mainly to higher per-mile ethanol costs, no more than 20% of Brazil's
cars run on straight ethanol. However, gasoline in Brazil typically has a 25% mixture of ethanol. Flex-
fuel cars, which run on either gasoline or ethanol, or any combination of the two, are becoming
increasingly popular in Brazil. They now represent 24% of new-car sales, and there are predictions
that this number will grow to 100%.

In the United States, the ethanol production grew by 23% per year, nearly tripling from 2001 to 4.86
billion gallons in 2006. This growth is expected to continue, driven in part by the national Renewable
Fuels Standard (RFS), enacted by the 2005 and 2007 Energy Policy Acts. The 2005 Energy Policy Act
RFS required fuel suppliers to include in their fuel supply a minimum amount of renewable fuels
gradually increasing from 4.0 billion gallons in 2006 (or 2.7% of total fuel supply), then increasing by
0.7 billion gallons each year to 7.4 billion gallons in 2011 and 7.5 billion gallons in 2012 . The 2012
standard is equivalent to a savings of 80,000 billion barrels of petroleum. The act also provided a $1
billion loan guarantee program for 80% non-recourse loan guarantees for the first four plants up to
maximum of $250 million/plant. And it provided a blender's production tax credit of $0.51/gal
ethanol through 2008. Several states have their own RFS and other incentives for ethanol as well.


Biodiesel fuel is produced from vegetable oils, recycled cooking greases or oils, and animal fats. It is a
substitute for regular diesel fuel obtained from petroleum. All of the ingredients of biodiesel have
their origin in plants, as even the animal fats are from animal life sustained by vegetation. Thus
biodiesel is a renewable energy resource. Since vegetation growth removes carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere in about the same amount as is returned when biodiesel is combusted, there is little
effect on the global atmospheric carbon dioxide burden. Other tailpipe emissions, particularly
particulates, are reduced by using biodiesel, but nitrogen oxide emissions are increased. The use of
biodiesel potentially can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

The most commonly used biodiesel fuel is a blend of 20% biodiesel and 80% regular diesel,
designated B20. The use of B100 requires special handling and engine modifications.

The various oils and fats in biodiesel cannot be used directly as a fuel. They have to be converted into
long chain monoalkyl esters. These chemicals are also known as fatty acid methyl esters or FAME. The
conversion process involves reactions with methanol in the presence of a catalyst. Glycerine is a by-

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The main use of biodiesel at the present is as B20 in trucks and school buses. Biodiesel costs more per
gallon than regular diesel, partly because the ingredients such as soybean oil and yellow grease have
a higher cost, by about a factor of two or three, than petroleum. Government estimates predict that
biodiesel use will increase to comply with the Energy Policy Act of 1992, reaching at least 6.5 million
gallons in 2010.

In addition to its use in vehicles, biodiesel can be used in heating furnaces as a way of reducing
emissions and saving on fossil fuels. The heating value in Btu per gallon of biodiesel is about 7% less
than that of regular diesel.

The growing dependence of modern agriculture on fossil fuel energy is often overlooked. In many
ways a modern farm uses land to convert oil, natural gas, and coal into food, and the energy input
from the sun is just part of the picture. In the United States in 1900, one farmer was needed to feed
five people. By 1974, 50 people were fed by one farmer, and the trend continues. The 10 fold
increase has come about through increased use of machinery, electricity, irrigation, pesticides,
herbicides, fertilizers, and improved seeds. All of these ingredients use energy, mostly from fossil
fuels. The production and delivery of these ingredients also employ workers who could properly be
counted within the agricultural enterprise along with the farmers.

One prime example of the use of fossil fuels (natural gas) in farming is that of the fertilizer anhydrous
ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, which has become an essential ingredient in
modern high yield crop production, and hence in the amount of biomass that can be grown for food
and as an energy resource.

Anhydrous ammonia has increased crop yield by a factor of two or three and it has become a major
factor in our ability to help feed the world's population.

Anhydrous ammonia is manufactured by a steam re-forming process using hydrogen from natural gas
and nitrogen from air at high temperature and pressure. The process was developed in 1909 in
Germany by Fritz Haber (1868-1934). It is estimated that about 2 % of North American natural gas
production is used to produce ammonia fertilizer. Our ability to continue high-yield farming could be
seriously reduced by depletion of the natural gas resource.

Conversion of Biomass Biogas

In addition to producing a liquid fuel, biomass can be converted into a usable gaseous fuel, methane.
Methane is the hydrocarbon CH4 that makes up typically 85 % of the natural gas extracted from
underground. The methane produced from biomass has about the same heating value as ordinary

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natural gas, which consists of methane plus several percent of other gases. Several processes are
used to convert biomass to methane. The one that is most common is simply the fermentation of
organic matter by the action of bacteria in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic fermentation). The
organic material used can be crops, agricultural waste (either vegetable or animal), waste from
lumber mills, waste from breweries, algae, sludge from sewage treatment plants, or waste from
municipal disposal sites. In the presence of water and absence of oxygen such organic material will
ferment naturally, and 60 to 80% of the carbon in the organic material is converted into methane and
carbon dioxide. Figure 13.4 shows the process involved. After purification, the volatile gases are
almost pure methane with a heating value of about 1000 Btu/ft3. One pound of dry organic material
will produce about 5 cubic feet of methane. This amounts to about 5000 Btu per pound of input
material; not too much less than the estimate of 7500 Btu per pound for dry biomass. We see here
that the waste-to-energy conversion is quite efficient, if we can ignore the energy needed to operate
the conversion facility.

Figure 13.4 A Unit for Continuous Conversion of Biomass to Methane and Other
Combustible Gases using by Anaerobic Fermentation
Source: Solar Energy as a National Resource, NSF/NASA
Solar Energy Panel, December 1972

The process of converting waste to methane has been in operation for some time at places such as
sewage plants and breweries, and there has been good success in producing useful amounts of
methane. In spite of the high conversion efficiency, in the range of 50 to 70%, the overall costs of
operating the process suggest that it will be economical only if the organic material is waste that

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otherwise would be disposed of. It does not appear that growing crops for methane production will
be economically competitive with natural gas as long as the domestic supply of natural gas holds up.

There is an excellent example of waste-to-energy conversion now operating at the municipal sewage
plant in Boulder, Colorado. This system manufactures methane from sewage, and then uses the
methane to power an engine which drives a generator. The generator produces 700 kW of electrical
power, which is more than sufficient to run the sewer plant. The surplus electricity is sold to the local
electric utility and provides an annual revenue of $93,000. The system was put into use in 1987 at a
construction cost of $2.1 million. Considering both the avoided cost for purchase of electricity and
revenue from the sale of electricity, the payback time for the installation was estimated at ten years.

Environmental Benefits and Impacts

One of the major reasons for producing biofuels is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to
mitigate the effects of global warming produced by fossil fuels. However, according to the Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN)1, some unintended impacts of biofuel
production are on land, water and biodiversity. They are affected by agricultural production and if the
agricultural production is intensified then the side effects are even greater.

The common conception is that growing crops for biofuels will offset the greenhouse gas emissions
because they directly remove carbon dioxide from the air. However, the FAO report indicates that
scientific studies have shown that different feedstocks grown for biofuels have different
environmental effects. Depending on the methods used to produce the feedstock and process the
fuel, some crops can even generate more greenhouse gases than do fossil fuels.

It also warns that nitrous oxide that is released from fertilizers that might be put on the ground to
help the crops grow will have 300 times more global warming effect than carbon dioxide. This is due
to the fact that greenhouse gases can be emitted by both direct and indirect land use changes
because of increased biofuels production by the conversion of land use from one crop to another.
There is also a difference in the greenhouse gas savings of different crops as maize produced for
ethanol has an annual greenhouse gas saving of about 1.8 tonnes per hectare according to the report,
but switchgrass, which is a second generation crop, has a saving of 8.6 tonnes. The amount of
emissions produced throughout the production cycle also have to be taken into account and there is
a balance to be drawn between the direct greenhouse gas savings, the emissions and the potentially
valuable by-products produced in biofuel production.

The State of Food and Agriculture - Biofuels: Prospects, Risks, and Opportunities, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations, 2008.

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The balance also has to be drawn between the greenhouse gas emissions produced in the production
and burning of biofuels and the production and burning of fossil fuels. These balances can vary
between different feedstocks and different locations and production methods; see Figure 13.5. Most
studies have found that producing first-generation biofuels from current feedstocks results in
emission reductions in the range of 20-60 per cent relative to fossil fuels, provided the most efficient
systems are used and carbon releases deriving from land-use change are excluded. However Brazil
has the best conversion rate and the highest savings with typical reductions of between 70 and 90
per cent.

Figure 13.5 Percentage Reduction in Greenhouse Gas of

Select Biofuels relative to Fossil Fuels

One of the most telling impacts of biofuels is any change in land use that might take place. The
impact is typically at the beginning of the production cycle and any change in land use might take
years to balance out the effects and in some cases could show fossil fuels to be more efficient than
the biofuels. This would be particularly relevant if rainforest, peatlands, savannahs or grasslands are
used to grow feedstocks to produce ethanol or biodiesel.

Some studies have shown that in some cases more carbon would be sequestered by converting a
cropland used for a biofuel feedstock to forest than the production of the fuel itself. If the objective
of biofuel support policies is to mitigate global warming, then fuel efficiency and forest conservation
and restoration would be more effective alternatives.

The energy efficiency and conservation are just as important and can be more cost effective than
production of biofuels. A comprehensive understanding of the relevant issues, including land-use

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change, and proper assessment of greenhouse gas balances are essential in order to ensure that
bioenergy crops have a positive and sustainable impact on climate-protection efforts.

In addition to the impacts of feedstock production on greenhouse gas emissions, biofuel processing
and distribution can also have other environmental impacts. The productivity of the land and crops,
improved farming techniques and increases in yields also have an effect on the benefits of biofuel
production. In fact initially the benefits in biofuel production might be obtained by increasing the land
available for growing first generation crops, but eventually improved yields and growing second
generation crops with different crop varieties and better agronomic practices are expected to
become dominant.

The report however indicates that there can be a knock on effect in growing crops especially as
feedstock for biofuels. It can displace other crops and create a greater demand for new land for
growing new feedstocks. In Australia, Canada, and the US this has been seen as land that is used as
non-cereal crop land at present, in the EU it is set aside land and in Latin America it is new
uncultivated land. This land grab to plant biofuel feedstock could see large swathes of land changing
its use. The sugar cane area of Brazil is expected to almost double to more than 10 million hectares
over the next decade and along with the expansion of the Brazilian soybean area this could displace
lands for livestock pasture and other crops. This eventually will place pressure on uncultivated land.

Other significant pressures on the land are going to be seen in the intensification of crop production
through new technology and impacts on the soil through water use and the potential scarcity of
water. This could become a limiting factor in the production of biofuel crops and producing more
biofuel crops will also have an effect on the water quality.

Economics of Biomass Energy

A major factor in biomass energy economics is the high cost of producing and harvesting the biomass.
A 1978 study by the Institute of Gas Technology (lGT)2 reports estimates of feed costs as a percentage
of final product cost for various biomass-to-energy processes ranging from 7% for manure to SNG, to
86% for kelp to SNG3. When feed costs are tempered by collateral factors, the economics of energy
from biomass improve substantially. One example is municipal or food processing wastes, where the
cost of biomass is actually negative because waste collectors are paid to remove the biomass. A

D.L. Klass, Energy from Biomass and Wastes: 1978 Update, Symposium Papers in Energy From Biomass and Wastes,
Chicago: Institute of Gas Technology.
SNG: Synthetic Natural Gas which is a biogas which has been upgraded to a quality similar to natural gas.

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second case involves the forest products industry, where wood is harvested to manufacture higher-
end products, such as pulp and paper or building products, and wastes from these manufacturing
operations are a "free" energy feedstock. Use of such "waste" biomass to supply process energy
needs has enabled some forest products manufacturing installations to become essentially energy
self-sufficient. Likewise, when production and harvesting tariffs cannot be offset, the cost of energy
from biomass can increase substantially. For example, on an equivalent performance basis
(comparable miles per gallon), fermentation ethanol from biomass costs two to three times more
than gasoline or diesel oil. Proponents maintain that progress in technology will lower this cost
differential and that reduces dependence on fuel imports. Furthermore lower emissions of fossil fuel-
derived CO2 will provide unaccounted-for economic benefits that will further offset the ethanol price

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