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The world is getting serious about using biomass for energy

In advance of the Renewable Energy World January/February Annual Outlook Issue for 2014, which will be published on Feb. 10, 2014, Biomass Outlook 2014: Is Biomass About To Go Bang? was published Feb. 7, 2014. The biomass outlook is focused on the potential to exploit biomass as a renewable energy source. The article is written by David Appleyard, contributing editor for Renewable Energy World.

Bagasse could be used for bioenergy instead of burning
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Biomass is generally described as waste from living or recently living sources. Wood is the largest class of biomass. Other common examples include food processing wastes, animal and human excrement, and garbage. Algae is a promising area for biomass to bioenergy conversion, as are hemp, switchgrass, and bagasse.

Algae may have the greatest potential since it can produce about 5X the bioenergy in a given amount of time of any other biomass source. Algae is also an aggressive user of carbon dioxide, which helps to reduce the greenhouse gas effect of burning coal, petroleum and natural gas. Biogas typically consists of approximately 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide. If the carbon dioxide is removed from the biogas, it can be used to enhance the growth of algae.

Europe is a major user of wood pellets, which are formed from the sawdust generated at lumber and paper mills. It is preferred over coal as an energy source in Europe for environmental reasons. With increasing prices for petroleum based fuels, environmental issues from fracking for natural gas, tar sands transport costs and environmental concerns, and overall global instability, biomass is becoming a more attractive energy source.

An ideal biomass source is one that uses a low cost or free feedstock at the front end of the process. Garbage, human waste and animal waste all offer major opportunities for bioenergy production, with the added advantage that the producers of this waste are already paying for transportation and waste processing. Columbus has anaerobic digesters at Jackson Pike and Southerly that produce over 2 million cubic feet of biogas each day. Before it was allowed to deteriorate, Jackson Pike used the biogas to make electricity at a municipal electric plant. Some cities in California use biogas to power their municipal buses.

Increasing energy from biomass is getting significant attention in the research community around the world. Biochemistry is yielding new strains of organisms to process biomass into specific energy components, including methane, ethane, methanol and hydrogen. Enzymes are being used to breakdown cellulose to produce ethanol from plants that would otherwise be burned, e.g. corn stalks, rice stalks, and wood chips. Ohio State University has an ongoing program for using anaerobic digesters to reduce the volume of farm waste manure and yield biogas. Biogas can replace natural gas for electricity generation in conventional gas fired power plants.

Catalysts have been developed to enhance the output of chemical conversions of biomass using low temperature catalytic gasification. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which is managed by Columbus’ Battelle Memorial Institute, has been a leader in technology development in a number of areas of biomass conversion. While catalysts have to be regenerated, the overall efficiency of low temperature catalytic gasification units and their compactness and portability offer advantages over anaerobic digesters.

Algae is being converted into oil using PNNL licensed technology in less than one hour, which is significantly faster than the estimated 65 million years that Mother Nature used to make the current stock of petroleum. A separate discussion of algae to oil technology will be provided in another article.

Another major advantage of using biomass as an energy source is the ability to localize the production and distribution of the energy from biomass. India has built tens of thousands of anaerobic digesters in local villages that convert animal and human wastes into biogas that can be piped safely throughout the village. Small generators using the biogas provide electricity in a very safe, inexpensive and environmentally friendly process. The digesters are made of clay bricks and built by villagers. The biogas is piped to huts to replace fires burning cow dung for cooking.

Africa is getting attention as one of the most significant development areas for bioenergy. Growing populations have increased energy demands. Economic issues and remote locations have many people without potable water, waste disposal and electricity. Biomass to bioenergy conversion offers an approach that can be exploited locally while improving overall sanitation and the standard of living for the area.

On a global basis, the increase in population automatically creates an increase in biomass sources. More people lead to more garbage, more human and animal waste, and more plant byproducts. Focusing on biomass as a primary energy source makes sense in that it helps solve social problems related to population density.

There are major initiatives in using biomass to generate bioenergy that involve strategic policies of organizations. The European Union has set a goal of 60% of their heating requirements will be met using bioenergy by 2035. The US has not made bioenergy the same priority as other areas including the EU or South America. Brazil is a global leader in the production of ethanol from bagasse, the former waste component of sugar cane. A significant amount of bagasse and rice stalks are burned in the US, which contributes to pollution, global warming, and a waste of potential bioenergy.

Bioenergy offers partial solutions to the growing global energy demand. Algae into oil offers an avenue to potential reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere. Catalytic gasification and improved anaerobic digesters offers a solution for processing human and animal waste into significant quantities of biogas. When combined with other renewable energy sources such as enhanced hydrothermal extraction, wind farms and solar panel arrays, bioenergy and these other renewable energy sources can make a difference in coexisting with the environment.

You can send your inputs to your senators and representatives at the following addresses. Just click on their names. Senator Sherrod Brown, D-OH. Senator Rob Portman, R-OH, Representative Steve Stivers, R-OH. Representative Pat Tiberi, R-OH. If these are not your representatives, you can find them by going to the congressional website and inputting your zip+4 house number.

Our ability to shape policy to support bioenergy and other green energy sources will be a legacy to our grandchildren and beyond. Our failure to slow the decline of air, land and water quality will impact the quality of life for generations. We need to get involved and help make green energy a priority. Let Congress know that you care about becoming more energy self sufficient through renewable energy sources.

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