It’s easy to confuse biomass and biofuel. They are nearly interchangeable in terms and biomass can instantly become biofuel. Biomass is anything that is living, or was recently living, and biofuel is basically anything that qualifies as biomass and is actively creating energy. By that description not much has to change for something like wood to go from biomass to biofuel. Let’s saying you are holding a piece of wood, a piece oak to be specific. You take said piece of oak and throw it into a fire you are using to make smores, now it’s a biofuel. Biomass energy is a field that is constantly growing, and people are discovering terms like biomass and biofuel, and it’s important to make the distinction.
Distinction between Biomass and Biofuel
Most commonly people use the term biofuel to represent fuels sources for transportation that are derived by biomass materials. This term generally covers both ethanol, and biodiesel, two fuels we’ll discuss more later. In this context it’s covering two fuels, which are in fact liquids. Fuel has a broad definition, but in general conversation it is most commonly used to describe gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum based liquids that are used for transportation. So when discussing biomass and biofuel it’s common, and correct to refer to ethanol and biodiesel as biofuel. Understand that biofuel is a broad term, and refers to any biomass being used to create power.
Biofuel can encompass a variety of different forms, which can include biogas, liquid fuels or solid biomass. Each of these forms serves a specific role in the future of bioenergy, and has the ability to produce the power required to heat homes, power computers, being drivers on the road, and keep the planes in the sky. Biomass has been made into biofuel since man lit his first fire, and continues to this day as an effective source of energy. Biomass turned to biofuel to generate energy is a growing field in the United States, India, Brazil, and all across Europe. Europe has been constantly expanding their biomass use for years, and as a continent, they are doing more than anyone to take advantage of biomass.
To really understand the difference between biomass and biofuel, you have to understand the fuel types.
We’ve seen many communities, businesses and individuals experimenting and making the personal decision to rely on biomass based fuels for a number of reasons. Some are simply finding ways to save money, others are concerned about the environment, and some are simply looking for the ability to reduce their overall waste. For example the concept of using a wood stove largely died out as central heating and air became the norm, but has experienced a modern revival. A wood or corn burning stove can heat an entire home, and do it for pennies compared to the cost of electric heating. These systems use solid biomass as the fuel to generate heat.
India, Germany and the United States are all seeing the rise of biogas facilities. These facilities often reduce a city’s overall waste, by using it as fuel. Facilities in the United States are using food scraps from major cities to produce biogas, which can on and fuel homes, businesses and potentially vehicles.
A switch to biofuels and biomass derived energy also allows the western world to gain independence from fossil fuels sold by foreign nations. This can strengthen a nation’s economy and reduce their need to rely on others. The use of biofuels prevents us from having to deal with countries that are often unstable politically, and can easily drive the price of oil up at a whim. The risk of losing oil is a real risk, perhaps it’s unlikely, but still in the realm of possibility. One of the goals of using biomass based biofuels is to increase our independence.
While we may not have adopted every form of biofuel to power the United States, we have widely adopted the use of liquid biofuels. More than 90% of the gasoline sold in the United States has a biofuel additive. This is known as ethanol, and a gallon of gas can contain up to 10 percent bioethanol. This fuel additive has over 14 billion gallons produced annually, and is made from mostly corn in the United States.
It’s not as simple as shoving an ear of corn in a gallon of gas and calling it good. For corn to become ethanol is placed through a process that causes fermentation and creates corn alcohol. The process isn’t complicated and has proved to be efficient enough to keep up with the demand required by the United States. Fermentation can also create propanol and butanol, both natural biofuels, but neither is in widespread usage.
The other liquid biofuel is biodiesel. Biodiesel is derived from vegetable oil or animal fats. These biomass sources are refined over and over, and eventually alcohol is added to produce biodiesel. Biodiesel makes up roughly 15% of most diesel sold. Some manufacturers are producing vehicles that can swap between regular diesel and biodiesel. Some vehicles can even run off of low quality vegetable oil, the same kind used in mass by restaurants to cook.
Some folds are collecting this oil at restaurants, filtering it abet, and then turning it into fuel for their vehicles. This is only productive on a small scale at the moment, and only saves money because the vegetable oil is free. Most restaurants will give it away because they have to pay to dispose of it.
We mentioned biogas earlier as a form of biofuel. Biogas is of course a gas, and can be derived in a variety of ways. The most efficient and purposeful way to produce biogas is gasification. Gasification takes massive amount of biomass and processes it a combination of heat and air to draw gas from the materials. The method to produce biogas is anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion takes mostly waste products like food scraps and manure and promotes microorganisms to break down the material, which released methane and carbon gas that is captured by the digester. These forms of gas can be upgraded to work just as well as natural gas.
Biomass and biofuels are both expansive categories. The easiest way to remember the difference is that fuel is strictly burned for energy. Solid biomass like wood can become a fuel, but it can also remain a biomass. Biomass like corn becomes a fuel when turned into ethanol because it is intended to provide power. The same goes for manure in a digester. One thing is sure, biomass and biofuel will power our future.