How Does Biomass Produce Energy?


Everyone is familiar with coal and natural gas as energy sources, and even solar and wind have become better understood over the decades. But even though biomass is more than just a passing fad, it has still flown under the radar in most parts of the country.

Here, we’ll talk about how biomass produces energy – which is mostly electricity for the power industry that goes to our homes and businesses (and in some cases, heat to warm our homes).

What Is Biomass?

Any living thing can be a source of biomass. Biomass is organic material, or material that was once alive. This includes plants and animals, ranging from tall trees to tiny algae in the ocean and everything in between.

There are a few different types of biomass:

  • Woody biomass: This type of biomass comes from forests or woodland areas. It includes the wood of the trees and any waste products from the lumber industry.
  • Agricultural biomass: This includes biomass from wild and cultivated crops, such as corn (which makes ethanol, a biofuel) and sugarcane (which produces fuels known as cane trash and bagasse).
  • Cellulosic biomass: This type covers biomass made from non-edible plant parts and grasses, such as wheat straw, switchgrass, and other energy crops.
  • Algae-based biomass: This is biomass produced from algae, a quickly-growing organism that can be farmed just like anything else. Development of this type is still ongoing and isn’t widely available as of yet.
  • Waste biomass: This type is produced from waste products from animals and humans. It can be burned in a solid form or in a gas form, known as biogas.

How Biomass Is Used for Energy Today

Biomass fuel, like the ones listed above, is either converted into a solid fuel source – often in the form of biomass pellets – or in a gaseous form known as biogas.

The fuel is then burned to produce heat. This either directly warms a home – in the case of residential biomass boilers or biogas burners – or powers a steam turbine that produces electricity.

As of 2018, there were 178 biomass power plants in the U.S. California is the state with the highest number of plants, followed by Virginia. The South and the Northeast are the two regions that make the most use of biomass, followed by the Pacific Northwest. Although, developments in agricultural biomass make the Midwest primed for opportunity.

Collectively, these power plants produced 3.71 quadrillion Btu and have a total capacity of 16.68 GW, or 1.4% of all electricity-generating capacity in the U.S.

The Future of Biomass

Biomass still has a ways to go before it can be one of the top-performing sources of renewable energy. Biomass isn’t currently as energy-efficient as other sources, but advances in technology and the rich abundance of fuel in the U.S. bode well for the future of biomass.

Research being done in the fields of cellulosic and algae-based biomass reveal that these two areas hold enormous promise. Both fuel sources are readily available and can be cultivated intentionally at scale to provide plenty of fuel. Not to say that these don’t apply to woody biomass or other forms, either; all forms of biomass have a tremendous amount of potential.

What is needed is more government support at all levels to provide subsidies and funding for ongoing research and development. Biomass can provide far more energy than it currently does if there’s a will to develop the industry to get to that point.

ProcessBarron engineers, constructs, and installs air, ash, and material handling equipment for biomass plants. Contact the team for more information.