Biomass power is the largest source of renewable energy as well as a vital part of the waste management infrastructure. An increasing global awareness about environmental issues is acting as the driving force behind the use of alternative and renewable sources of energy. A greater emphasis is being laid on the promotion of bioenergy in the industrialized as well as developing world to counter environmental issues.

Biomass may be used for energy production at different scales, including large-scale power generation, CHP, or small-scale thermal heating projects at governmental, educational or other institutions. Biomass comes from both human and natural activities and incorporates by-products from the timber industry, agricultural crops, forestry residues, household wastes, and wood. The resources range from corn kernels to corn stalks, from soybean and canola oils to animal fats, from prairie grasses to hardwoods, and even include algae. The largest source of energy from wood is pulping liquor or black liquor, a waste product from the pulp and paper industry.

Woody biomass is the most important renewable energy source if proper management of vegetation is ensured. The main benefits of woody biomass are as follows:

  • Uniform distribution over the world’s surface, in contrast to finite sources of energy.
  • Less capital-intensive conversion technologies employed for exploiting the energy potential.
  • Attractive opportunity for local, regional and national energy self-sufficiency.
  • Techno-economically viable alternative to fast-depleting fossil fuel reserves.
  • Reduction in GHGs emissions.
  • Provide opportunities to local farmers, entrepreneurs and rural population in making use of its sustainable development potential.

The United States is currently the largest producer of electricity from biomass having more than half of the world’s installed capacity. Biomass represents 1.5% of the total electricity supply compared to 0.1% for wind and solar combined. More than 7800 MW of power is produced in biomass power plants installed at more than 350 locations in the U.S., which represent about 1% of the total electricity generation capacity. According to the International Energy Agency, approximately 11% of the energy is derived from biomass throughout the world.

Biomass Resources

Biomass processing systems constitute a significant portion of the capital investment and operating costs of a biomass conversion facility depending on the type of biomass to be processed as well as the feedstock preparation requirements. Its main constituents are systems for biomass storage, handling, conveying, size reduction, cleaning, drying, and feeding. Harvesting biomass crops, collecting biomass residues, and storing and transporting biomass resources are critical elements in the biomass resource supply chain.

All processing of biomass yields by-products and waste streams collectively called residues, which have significant energy potential. A wide range of biomass resources are available for transformation into energy in natural forests, rural areas and urban centres. Some of the sources have been discussed in the following paragraphs:

Biomass Cycle
A host of natural and human activities contributes to the biomass feedstock

1. Pulp and paper industry residues
The largest source of energy from wood is the waste product from the pulp and paper industry called black liquor. Logging and processing operations generate vast amounts of biomass residues. Wood processing produces sawdust and a collection of bark, branches and leaves/needles. A paper mill, which consumes vast amount of electricity, utilizes the pulp residues to create energy for in-house usage.

2. Forest residues
Forest harvesting is a major source of biomass for energy. Harvesting may occur as thinning in young stands, or cutting in older stands for timber or pulp that also yields tops and branches usable for bioenergy. Harvesting operations usually remove only 25 to 50 percent of the volume, leaving the residues available as biomass for energy. Stands damaged by insects, disease or fire are additional sources of biomass. Forest residues normally have low density and fuel values that keep transport costs high, and so it is economical to reduce the biomass density in the forest itself.

3. Agricultural or crop residues
Agriculture crop residues include corn stover (stalks and leaves), wheat straw, rice straw, nut hulls etc. Corn stover is a major source for bioenergy applications due to the huge areas dedicated to corn cultivation worldwide.

4. Urban wood waste
Such waste consists of lawn and tree trimmings, whole tree trunks, wood pallets and any other construction and demolition wastes made from lumber. The rejected woody material can be collected after a construction or demolition project and turned into mulch, compost or used to fuel bioenergy plants.

5. Energy crops
Dedicated energy crops are another source of woody biomass for energy. These crops are fast-growing plants, trees or other herbaceous biomass which are harvested specifically for energy production. Rapidly-growing, pest-tolerant, site and soil-specific crops have been identified by making use of bioengineering. For example, operational yield in the northern hemisphere is 10-15 tonnes/ha annually. A typical 20 MW steam cycle power station using energy crops would require a land area of around 8,000 ha to supply energy on rotation.

Herbaceous energy crops are harvested annually after taking two to three years to reach full productivity. These include grasses such as switchgrass, elephant grass, bamboo, sweet sorghum, wheatgrass etc.

Short rotation woody crops are fast growing hardwood trees harvested within five to eight years after planting. These include poplar, willow, silver maple, cottonwood, green ash, black walnut, sweetgum, and sycamore.

Industrial crops are grown to produce specific industrial chemicals or materials, e.g. kenaf and straws for fiber, and castor for ricinoleic acid. Agricultural crops include cornstarch and corn oil? soybean oil and meal? wheat starch, other vegetable oils etc. Aquatic resources such as algae, giant kelp, seaweed, and microflora also contribute to bioenergy feedstock.

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About Salman Zafar

Salman Zafar is a renowned expert in waste management, renewable energy and sustainable development. He is the Founder of EcoMENA, a Doha-based organization meant to promote sustainable development and create environmental awareness in MENA countries. Salman possesses Masters degree in Chemical Engineering from Aligarh Muslim University (Aligarh, India) and has successfully accomplished a wide range of projects, mainly in the areas of biogas technology, biomass energy, waste-to-energy and solid waste management. Salman is proactively engaged in creating mass awareness on clean energy technologies and waste management systems through his websites, blogs and articles. He has participated in various international conferences as session chair, keynote speaker and panelist. Salman is a prolific writer and has authored numerous articles in reputed journals, magazines and newsletters on renewable energy and environmental issues. He is based in India and can be reached at salman@bioenergyconsult.com or salman@ecomena.org

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