"Biomass: Any organic matter that is available on a renewable or recurring basis, including agricultural crops and trees, wood and wood residues, plants (including aquatic plants), grasses, animal residues, municipal residues, and other residue materials."
- the Bioenergy Feedstock Information Network,
managed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory
The term "biomass" describes the stuff itself, but what is most interesting is what can be done with it. In a very general sense, it could be minimally processed and used as mulch or as animal bedding. But most of the focus on biomass follows one of two paths: bioproducts and bioenergy.
Bioproducts include a whole collection of things that can be derived from processed biomass. Most of the products made from petroleum can be made from biomass, including plastics, certain cosmetics, glues, antifreeze, and an enormous number of chemicals essential to modern life.
Bioenergy is energy derived from biomass. The biomass can be burned, allowed to decompose to where it releases methane and other gases that can be burned, or it can be digested and the products, including combustible gases, collected. Burning it releases heat, which can be used simply to heat a space, or it can be used to produce steam which can power turbines to produce energy. Among the useful bioenergy products, the most common are ethanol and biodiesel.
Converting biomass to bioenergy has two significant benefits over using fossil fuels:
- as mentioned above, it is renewable, meaning it can be harvested indefinitely
- it does not release additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere beyond what currently exists in the atmospheric carbon cycle
Fossil fuels, by contrast, are not renewable--we have to continue to tap a finite resource each time we need more--and using them puts carbon into the atmosphere that was otherwise sequestered away deep in the earth. Of course, fossil fuels derive from biomass, as well, but it is renewable only over many thousands of years.
For more information on how biomass is converted to useful products, The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program has a good primer on the subject at their site.
In Tompkins County, there are many efforts in play to make use of local biomass. CCETC has an extensive program on heating with wood that includes information on best practices, buying firewood, storing and drying firewood, health and emissions, wood stove safety, proper maintenance of wood stoves, and a page comparing combustion equipment. We are working with several groups in the area, including Cornell University researchers, local farmers, and entrepreneurs, to explore all aspects of making use of local biomass resources, including growing, harvesting, processing, and end-uses. Take a look at the other pages within the biomass web site for the latest on these efforts. And also check out the renewable energy case studies within each renewable energy page that we are putting together featuring a wide variety of projects from around New York State (for example, click here for biomass case studies).