Biomass refers to biomaterials such as plants and animal waste which are harvested for energy; that energy is reused as fuel or power in a new setting. There are a few different forms that biomass production can take:
- Dedicated Crops: Crops such as corn, switchgrass, soybeans, and rapeseed are currently being produced and harvested for the purpose of creating biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. These liquid fuels can be used for transportation.
- Industrial Byproducts: Byproducts are biomaterials left over from industrial processes, such as wood chips and sawdust from paper mills, agricultural by-products like corn stover, orange peels and pulps leftover after juicing, animal manure, and landfill gas.
- Selective Harvest: These naturally-growing biomaterials, like prairie grasses and woody plants can be harvested from lands that are considered marginal or inappropriate for agriculture. Selective harvest must be carried out thoughtfully and intentionally in order to balance its potential for fuel with the need for sustainable practices.
The most developed biomass technology is biofuels, the liquid fuels used for transportation. Biodiesel is produced from oils or fats, and it replaces diesel fuel. Ethanol is alcohol produced from fermentation, and it replaces gasoline. Corn-based ethanol is a viable market technology with skyrocketing market potential. Cellulosic ethanol (which is not derived from food crops) is still in development.
Biomass can also be used to produce electric power, heat, and chemicals, though much of this technology is in still in the research and development stages. Biomass-produced electricity is dispatchable, not intermittent, making it a renewable energy source which is uniquely able to help support base load.
Biomass carries great potential to help reduce global warming. While biomass does release carbon dioxide when combusted, this release is balanced out the carbon dioxide that is sequestered during its growth cycle. By comparison, the burning of fossil fuels releases "new" carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which was long ago sequestered in the earth's crust and therefore isolated from the earth's carbon cycle.
Perhaps the greatest benefit offered by biomass is its ability to increase our energy security and reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil. Right now, biofuels are the
only viable substitute for imported fossil fuels currently used for transportation.