The world is on a quest, and make no mistake about it; this is a worldwide phenomenon, to find a renewable source of energy. Our current dependence on fossil fuels is quickly becoming unacceptable. First and foremost, fossil fuels are being depleted at a rapid rate, and our current levels of dependence are far too high on a depleting resource. Fossil fuels are also damaging to our environment, and are causing widespread damage to our overall atmosphere and environment.
The world is experimenting and using biomass, wind, solar, and geothermal energy to provide the future with renewable energy, this is especially true in the case of biomass fuels. Biomass energy sources are ridiculously abundant, because they are made from anything that is living, or was recently living. Biomass can be corn, oak trees, manure, sawdust, grain, and food scraps. This is hardly a complete list, and if it was, you’d be reading it for days. The process of using bioenergy can be both simple, and incredibly complicated. Biomass energy is as simple as burning firewood for warmth, and as complicated as turning corn into ethanol.
Biomass ranges greatly in terms of the production required to make it capable of being used as an energy source. This includes taking something like wood or corn and compressing it into a concentrated form. This concentrated form is known as pellets, or as briquettes. These pellets can be burned in the same place as coal, and provide the same source of power. Ethanol and biodiesel are two examples of biomass derived biofuel that can in fact power our transportation needs. Biogas which can be derived from biomass through gasification, or from waste from landfills and manure through anaerobic digestion, can warm our homes, fuel boilers, and act in the same manner as natural gas after being upgraded.
Right now the processing of biomass is very limited and small in scale. The largest form of biomass production is essentially ethanol, which acts as an additive to fossil fuels and reduces the overall carbon footprint of vehicles. If the country, county, town or etc. using biomass cannot do it in mass, the fuel required to process the material will outweigh the actual amount of fuel processed. This can make it impossible to use biomass at a community level. The cost is often very high to begin, and sometimes is out of the reach of both individuals, and communities.
If we flip the script, and we look at the efficiency of processing biomass on a large scale we see that the numbers reverse drastically. Biomass energy quickly becomes the cheaper, safer, and more effective form of energy when compared to fossil fuels. This is how ethanol was able to become a possibility, it did not happen overnight, but with an initial investment it became remarkably affordable to produce ethanol in large scale operations.
There are numerous obstacles we are facing before widespread use of biomass is possible. First and foremost, the fact that fossil fuels already have their infrastructure in place for harvesting crude oil, coal, and natural gas. These industries have always been booming, and are going nowhere right now. The biomass energy industry does not have the infrastructure, processing facilities and farms in place. When compared to fossil fuels, biomass energy is hardly being used at all.
A large part of the cost associated with biomass processing is the costs associated with collecting, transporting and delivering the biomass materials to processing centers. There are serious costs associated with transportation, and this is compounded by the fact that we don’t have large numbers of processing plants. As of 2015 there are only 227 biomass processing plants in the United States, and there are around 1900 landfills. When a transportation service has to bring hundreds of tons of fuels long distances the efficiency of biomass is reduced. The great news is that the amount of landfills is decreasing, and the amount of processing plants is growing. However, until biomass facilities grow to be a common sight in society, fossil fuels will be the dominant fuel source.
For example, New York City will be introducing a biogas processing center. The purpose of the center is to create biogas from the food scraps from the city, and to extract waste from sewage and wastewater. This community based biogas center will produce enough energy to provide electricity to 5,200 homes in New York.
This is where the key to success lies. Small facilities that can serve local communities are invaluable. These facilities will see a rise in demand as low cost energy becomes the norm across the United States. These facilities will eliminate the need for massive pipelines, and can reduce the overall costs of transportation to an efficient and manageable manner. This reduction in cost is important, but the more important reduction is the energy used to gather, transport and process the materials. If the biomass energy is used where it is produced, you reduce costs, and increase efficiency of production.
One of the largest consumers of fossil fuels is transportation. Ethanol is an excellent source of fuel, is clean, and can be used in most vehicles. However, the costs associated with extracting and processing ethanol are greater than the costs of extracting and processing crude oil. This isn’t the end of ethanol though, as money, science, and political power is backing studies to produce more efficient ethanol, at a cheaper price. The current idea is the possibility of processing cellulose alcohol, which could potentially be much more efficient. This efficiency is guided by the fact that the entire plant can be used to make ethanol, and not just the grain.
Biodiesel works exactly like traditional crude oil based diesel, but is three times more expensive than traditional diesel. The future of biodiesel relies on the ability to produce mass quantities of it, and for it to be sold in bulk.
While biomass based energy isn’t widespread at the moment, and isn’t as efficient as fossil fuel, it still has the potential to replace fossil fuels in the future. The key is having enough demand, and enough infrastructure to support the use of biomass. This can’t be expected overnight, but we are looking at a bright future.