What Is A Renewable Energy That Uses Plant And Animal Waste?

Introducing Biomass Energy

Biomass energy is a renewable energy source that utilizes organic matter such as plants, animal waste, municipal solid waste, or any other biological material for energy production. It is considered a green and sustainable energy solution because biomass can be renewed relatively quickly compared to fossil fuels.

Some examples of biomass sources include wood, crops, sewage, landfill gas, and alcohol fuels. Wood remains the largest biomass energy source today. Crops such as corn, soybeans, and switchgrass are also popular biomass sources that can be fermented to produce alcohols like ethanol for fuel.

The key benefits of biomass energy include:

  • Renewability – Biomass fuels can be replenished naturally within a human lifespan.
  • Carbon neutrality – The carbon released by burning biomass is recaptured when new biomass grows.
  • Waste utilization – Biomass energy provides a use for waste materials like crop residues, manure, and landfill gas.
  • Rural economic development – Cultivating energy crops can create new jobs and income sources.
  • Potentially lower costs – Biomass is usually cheaper than fossil fuels if obtained locally.

What is Biomass?

Biomass refers to organic material from plants and animals. This includes wood, crops, agricultural waste, and landfill gas. Biomass contains stored energy from the sun. Plants absorb sunlight during photosynthesis, storing chemical energy. When biomass is burned, this chemical energy is released as heat that can be used to generate electricity and provide heating.

biomass refers to organic material from plants and animals used for energy

The most common types of biomass include:

  • Wood and wood processing waste – sawdust, timber slash, wood chips
  • Agricultural waste – crop residues, bagasse, nut shells, manure
  • Food waste – spoiled food, restaurant grease, meat and bone meal
  • Industrial waste – black liquor, paper sludge, demolition wood
  • Landfill gas and biogas – methane from landfills and anaerobic digesters

Using biomass that would otherwise decompose can reduce methane emissions from landfills. Overall, biomass represents stored solar energy and an renewable, organic energy source.

Types of Biomass

There are several types of biomass that can be used for energy production:

Wood and wood waste

Wood and wood waste, including tree branches, yard clippings, wood chips, and sawmill scraps, can be burned to produce heat and electricity. Wood is a major biomass fuel, and can provide a renewable, carbon-neutral energy source when harvested sustainably.

Municipal solid waste

Municipal solid waste refers to everyday items like paper, food scraps, plastics, and other materials that are thrown away. This waste can be incinerated at power plants to generate electricity, or processed to produce solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels.

Landfill gas and biogas

Landfill gas is produced naturally as waste in landfills decomposes. This gas is roughly 50% methane, which can be captured and used as fuel or processed into renewable natural gas. Anaerobic digestion of organic matter like manure and sewage also produces a methane-rich biogas suitable for energy use.


Ethanol is an alcohol fuel made from the sugars in crops like corn and sugarcane. It can be blended with gasoline in varying concentrations for use as a transportation fuel in vehicles.

Benefits of Biomass

Biomass energy offers several benefits that make it an attractive renewable energy source.

Firstly, biomass is renewable and sustainable. Since it utilizes waste material from plants and animals, we can produce biomass energy as long as these organic materials exist. This differs from fossil fuels like oil and coal, which take millions of years to form and are not considered renewable.

Secondly, using biomass reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills. Plant and animal waste can be harmful in landfills, where it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By converting these materials into fuel, we mitigate this environmental impact.

Finally, biomass emits less CO2 than traditional fossil fuels when used for energy. While burning biomass does release CO2, it is considered carbon neutral because the plants absorbed the same amount of CO2 as they grew. This makes biomass less impactful on global warming compared to coal or oil.

In summary, the renewability, landfill reduction, and lower emissions of biomass highlight its advantages as an eco-friendly energy solution.

Biomass Conversion Process

There are several methods used to convert biomass into useful energy forms like heat, electricity, and transportation fuels.


Combustion is the most common and direct method of extracting energy from biomass. It involves burning biomass directly to produce heat and generate steam that can be used to run turbines and produce electricity. With combustion, up to 50% of the energy in the biomass can be converted into electricity.


Gasification converts biomass into a combustible gas called syngas. It involves heating the biomass at high temperatures with some oxygen, but not enough for full combustion. The resulting syngas can be burned directly for heat or power generation. Syngas can also be converted into fuels like hydrogen and methanol.


Pyrolysis uses heat to thermally decompose biomass in the absence of oxygen. This produces a liquid bio-oil that can be refined into transportation fuels. Slow pyrolysis maximizes biochar production, while fast pyrolysis yields more bio-oil.

Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion uses microorganisms to break down biomass in the absence of oxygen, producing biogas. This methane-rich biogas can be used for heating, power generation, and transportation. The nutrient-rich digestate can be used as fertilizer.

Using Biomass for Electricity

Biomass can be used to generate electricity in several ways:

Direct firing: Biomass is burned directly to produce high-pressure steam that rotates a turbine to generate electricity. This is done by feeding biomass fuel like wood chips, pellets or agricultural waste into a combustor or furnace to create heat.

Co-firing with coal: Biomass is burned along with coal in existing power plants to generate electricity. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants. Up to 15% biomass can be co-fired in coal plants without extensive modifications.

Biomass power plants: Dedicated biomass power plants are designed to solely use biomass as fuel. They contain a boiler, turbine generator, and cooling system. The boiler burns biomass fuel to heat water, creating steam to spin the turbine. The turbine is connected to a generator to produce electricity.

Using biomass for electricity provides clean, renewable power from waste materials. It reduces dependence on fossil fuels and diverts waste from landfills. With proper plant operation and emission controls, biomass electricity has environmental benefits.

Using Biomass for Transportation

One of the main uses of biomass is to produce biofuels that can power vehicles and provide transportation. The two most common types of biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel.

Ethanol is an alcohol fuel that is made by fermenting the sugars from crops like corn, wheat and sugarcane. It can be blended with gasoline in varying percentages to power internal combustion engines. E85, which contains 85% ethanol, is a common fuel used in flexible-fuel vehicles.

Biodiesel is produced from vegetable oils and animal fats. It is commonly made from soybean oil in the United States. Biodiesel can fuel diesel engines with little or no modification when blended with petroleum diesel. B100 contains 100% biodiesel while blends like B20 contain 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel.

The increased production and use of biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel provides a renewable alternative to fossil fuels for transportation. Using existing crops like corn and soybeans helps create a sustainable fuel source and reduces dependence on crude oil.

Using Biomass for Heating

Biomass can be used to provide heat for residential and commercial buildings in the form of wood, pellets, or chips. Burning wood is one of the oldest and most common uses of biomass energy. Modern wood heating systems burn wood with high efficiency, producing less air pollution than older wood stoves. Wood stoves and fireplaces are popular for heating homes, especially in rural areas. On a larger scale, schools, hospitals, and businesses can use biomass boilers and furnaces to heat their buildings.

Pellets made from compressed biomass are a common heating fuel as well. Pellet stoves and boilers are fully automated, feeding the pellets into the fire and removing the ash. Pellet heating systems have high combustion and heating efficiencies. Wood pellets are more expensive than wood chips, but are cleaner, easier to handle, and have higher energy density. The use of wood pellets for heating continues to grow in Europe and North America.

Challenges of Biomass Energy

While biomass offers many benefits as a renewable energy source, it also comes with some challenges that need to be addressed for its widespread adoption and long-term sustainability.

One of the biggest challenges is that biomass energy can be more expensive to produce compared to traditional fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. The costs of growing, harvesting, collecting, and transporting biomass feedstocks can make the final energy price higher per unit. The logistics of securing reliable supplies of biomass resources in large quantities adds to the costs as well. More technological advancements and process optimizations are needed to bring down costs and improve efficiencies.

There are also limits to the available supplies of biomass feedstocks. As demand increases globally, sourcing sufficient amounts of agricultural residues, woody biomass, municipal solid wastes etc. may become challenging. Planning for steady supplies along with diversity of feedstocks will be important for the energy security.

Overall, while biomass energy faces some economic and logistical hurdles, continued research, development, and policy support can help overcome these issues and realize the full potential of biomass as a sustainable energy solution.

Future of Biomass Energy

Biomass energy is expected to continue growing as an important renewable energy source. With the world seeking to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions, biomass provides a promising carbon-neutral alternative. While biomass currently makes up about 5% of U.S. energy production, that share is forecast to increase as new feedstocks, conversion methods, and applications are developed.

Research is underway to improve biomass efficiency and expand the range of usable feedstocks. Agricultural residues, dedicated energy crops, and algae are being explored as potential high-yield biomass sources. Converting waste into energy is also growing in popularity. There is also research into pre-treatment processes that make biomass easier to break down as well as new enzymes and microorganisms to improve conversion performance.

Biomass is expected to play a significant role in the renewable energy mix of the future. It can provide reliable baseload power unlike intermittent sources like wind and solar. With sustainable practices, it can be produced almost anywhere so provides localized energy. Biomass will continue displacing fossil fuels, reducing waste, and enabling carbon-neutral processes across transportation, electricity generation, and heating.

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