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Biomass explained  

Biomass—renewable energy from plants and animals

Biomass is organic material that comes from plants and animals, and it is a renewable source of energy.

Biomass contains stored energy from the sun. Plants absorb the sun's energy in a process called photosynthesis. When biomass is burned, the chemical energy in biomass is released as heat. Biomass can be burned directly or converted to liquid biofuels or biogas that can be burned as fuels.

Examples of biomass and their uses for energy

  • Wood and wood processing wastes—burned to heat buildings, to produce process heat in industry, and to generate electricity
  • Agricultural crops and waste materials—burned as a fuel or converted to liquid biofuels
  • Food, yard, and wood waste in garbage—burned to generate electricity in power plants or converted to biogas in landfills
  • Animal manure and human sewage—converted to biogas, which can be burned as a fuel
Photosynthesis. In the process of photosynthesis, plants convert radiant energy from the sun into chemical energy in the form of glucose or sugar. Water plus carbon dioxide plus sunlight yields glucose plus oxygen. Six water plus six carbon dioxide plus radiant energy yields sugar plus six oxygen.

Source: Adapted from The National Energy Education Project (public domain)

Image with different kinds of biomass types: wood, crops, garbage, landfill gas, and alcohol fuels

Source: Adapted from The National Energy Education Project (public domain)

Converting biomass to energy

Solid biomass, such as wood and garbage, can be burned directly to produce heat. Biomass can also be converted into a gas called biogas or into liquid biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. These fuels can then be burned for energy.

Biogas forms when paper, food scraps, and yard waste decompose in landfills, and it can be produced by processing sewage and animal manure in special vessels called digesters.

Ethanol is made from crops such as corn and sugar cane that are fermented to produce fuel ethanol for use in vehicles. Biodiesel is produced from vegetable oils and animal fats and can be used in vehicles and as heating oil.

How much biomass is used for fuel?

Biomass fuels provided about 5% of total primary energy use in the United States in 2017. Of that 5%, about 47% was from biofuels (mainly ethanol), 44% was from wood and wood-derived biomass, and 10% was from the biomass in municipal waste. (Sum of percentages is greater than 100% because of independent rounding) Researchers are trying to develop ways to use more biomass for fuel.

Last updated: June 21, 2018