Sustainability | Renewable Energy

Renewable energy production with biomass

types of biomassBioenergy (biomass, biofuel, biogas) is produced by using wood, crops, or any organic matter; plants, or waste. Bioenergy production incorporates all sorts of organic materials including: agricultural food crops, farm waste, kitchen waste, plants specifically grown for bioenergy (energy crops), forestry by-products - just to mention a few. Algae has emerged as a promising next-gen bioenergetic source.

Biomass can be derived from numerous types of organic plants, in addition to waste or wood. When the source is any organic material, the biomass burned is roughly carbon net neutral, as the biomass burned is releasing CO2 that has been sequestered from the atmosphere. Burning biomass as waste-to-energy is carbon net negative, as there is both prior sequestration of CO2, and avoided emissions due to waste reduction.

Is bioenergy a climate solution?

bioenergy vs. fossil fuels - CO2 emissions
bioenergy vs. fossil fuels - CO2 emissions

Using bioenergy is a climate solution; in that burning bioenergy sources produces less net greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) than burning fossil fuels. To be clear, burning biomass does produce a significant amount of carbon dioxide. The net GHGs of biomass vs. fossil fuels can be determined by comparing avoided emissions from using biomass as a green alternative, with the significant GHGs of just using fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are polluting when extracted, and even more polluting when burned for energy. Biomass is a renewable natural resource that produces CO2 when burned for energy, but that CO2 emitted is roughly equivalent to the CO2 the biomass source has previously sequestered.

Carbon net neutral bioenergetic cycle

The CO2 released from the burning of biomass is then again sequestered by another biomass source; be it a tree, plant, or other organic matter. That biomass source may itself be burned in the production of energy, releasing the CO2 that had been sequestered by the previously burned biomass source. Therefore, when looked at in this light, a case can be made that the use of bioenergetic sources is the result of a carbon net neutral energy production process.

Biomass is used to generate power for a municipality in a biomass power plant. Bioenergy (biomass energy, biofuel, biogas) is also produced from organic material in the gasification process. Bioenergy can also be produced in an anaerobic digester; from organic material such as farm waste, or waste streams from industry, businesses, and municipalities (waste-to-energy), Waste-to-energy is a climate solution, as emissions from landfills are reduced while simultaneously producing energy with a carbon net neutral natural resource (waste when burned for energy is carbon net neutral). Biomass power plants are also sometimes used in parallel with on-site combined heat and power (CHP) plants. CHP using biomass as the feedstock is a low carbon climate solution.

1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation biofuels

Crops like corn, wheat, soybean, sugarcane, and sorghum, are all sources for 1st generation biomass/ biofuel production (just to name a few sources). 2nd gen biomass consists of forestry by-products and woodland matter like wood chips, peat, bark; as well as agricultural waste. Also included in 2nd gen biomass are: plants grown as energy crops like switchgrass, hemp, poplar, palm, and other lignocellulosic plants. Algae represents a promising 3rd gen renewable energy source for biofuel production.

Processes using organic material sources readily found in agricultural sites, rural environments, urban environments, etc... are next-gen renewable bioenergy production methods. These bioenergy methods create potential energy production for the locality where the bioenergetic material is sourced (i.e. the farm where the organic matter is sources).

These methods also create energy production to run generators in power plants; and/ or these biomass sources can be harnessed to supply energy to municipal grids. (Please also see: anaerobic digestion - a proven solution to our waste problem - for more on putting waste to good use in creating renewable energy). Another category of biomass energy, biofuel (discussed below), represents an energy source which is being applied with greater global frequency in modern transportation.

types of biofuels

What are two types of biofuels?

Biofuels are broken down into two types: ethanol and biodiesel. 1st generation biomass/ biofuel is made from: corn, wheat, barley, soybean, sorghum, sugar beet, and sugarcane - starchy crops that are fermented to create ethanol. Ethanol can also be produced from 2nd generation, cellulosic biomass, such as; switchgrass, wood chips, straw, corn stover, and rice hulls. These are just some of the many cellulosic plants and organic materials that can readily be converted into sugars and then fermented into ethanol. The 3rd generation of biofuel, represented by algae, is discussed below in this article.

A small level (5-10%) of ethanol can be blended with standard gas to make an effective gasoline with less environmental impact (this type of gas is used in many first world nations). Just this relatively low level of ethanol blended in fuel for vehicles decreases air pollution compared with 100% fossil fuel gasoline or diesel. A fuel known as E-85- 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, is gaining popularity throughout the world. There are many grades of ethanol-based biofuel, from E-5 and E-10, to E-100.

Biodiesel is derived from animal fats, vegetable oil, and other lipids; which are processed with chemicals or alcohol. Kitchen oil is most the commonly used oil for processing into biodiesel. Biodiesel can then be mixed with traditional hydrocarbon-based diesel (i.e. B-2, B-5, B-20) or used as a clean fuel replacement for diesel (B-100). Brazil, which uses biodiesel blends in city buses, uses an over 10% biodiesel blended fuel for buses.

The future of biodiesel lies in using promising, emerging sources such as algae. A large part of algae's weight is in the form of lipids, making it ideal for biofuel. Often, over half of algae's weight is extractable plant-based oil, to produce the oil needed for biofuel.

Please also see:

Cellulosic biofuel - fuel solutions

In what nations are biofuels produced?

Biofuel ProductionThe US and Brazil; followed by Germany, China, Argentina, and France, are the biggest producers of biofuels (both ethanol and biodiesel) in the world.

What are some countries that use biofuel?

Worldwide, countries that produce biofuels also tend to be the countries that correspondingly consume biofuels to roughly a similar degree. However, Germany is an example of a country that consumes far more biofuels than it produces. On the other hand, many countries, including the United States, are net exporters of biofuels. Both ethanol-based biofuel, and biodiesel, are put to use in transportation vehicles in most countries in the world - particularly countries throughout Europe, Asia, and South America. While there's growing use of biofuels in regions throughout the world, two countries stand out (the same two countries the produce the highest shares of the world's biofuels).

Where are biofuels used the most?

USA and Brazil are the #1 and #2 countries for both biofuel production and consumption. RFS in USA - In the United States, the renewable fuel standard (RFS) mandates that biofuel be blended in transportation fuel (to be increasing from 10% blends). Transportation fuel in the United States is required by law to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuels. Congress created the RFS federal program in 2005, and expanded it 12 years later. Congress created the RFS to make gasoline burn cleaner and more efficiently (reducing GHGs from burning gas), expand the nation's renewable fuels sector, and lower the country's dependence on foreign oil.

Biofuels are spreading in use throughout Europe; for transportation, bioheating, and bioelectricity. Biofuel use achieves the interim climate goal of producing carbon net neutral energy to help reduce GHGs. Biofuels are especially popular in the Nordic countries Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

In Sweden, the E85 biofuel blend is gaining popularity, thanks to a nationwide network of ethanol refueling stations. The country of Sweden hopes to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2045, which is five years faster than most other countries with a similar goal. Biofuels help to lower GHGs from transportation, electricity, and heating; so using biofuels makes nets zero goals easier to achieve.

Waste-to-energy (W2E)

Anaerobic Digesters
Anaerobic Digesters

An application of biomass energy with several benefits is waste-to-energy, such as landfill waste burned for energy in power plants. W2E puts garbage to good use, and cuts down on the size of dumps. Also among the many existing sustainable technologies which can be used effectively for biomass energy production are gasification and anaerobic digestier plants (AD plants). These technologies convert biomass material and viable landfill gasses (LFGs), such as methane, into a usable source of energy.

Also a next-gen bioenergetic production method; landfill gases can be captured and then processed into synthetic natural gas (SNG). Bio-SNG is produced by gasification of cellulosic sources like forestry by-products and energy crops. Along similar lines, biogas is produced by anaerobic digestion of organic material such as farm waste. Essentially, all organic matter found at an agricultural site; including crops, plants, farm waste, livestock waste - can be fed into an anaerobic digester to create bioenergy. The same holds true if the AD plant processes mostly munipal waste and is located in a less rural, more urban, environment.

Biofuels for aviation

Biofuel is used in transportation, including aviation and shipping on a substantial level; both as the primary fuel source for transportation vehicles (light/ heavy duty trucks, ships, airlines), and/ or as part of a biofuel-traditional fuel blend with gasoline and biofuel. Biofuel needs to be converted into liquefied natural gas (LNG) to be effectively used in the transportation sector. A couple of airlines in particular represent present use, and potentially expanded future use, of biofuel blends; and is the subject of this article from Bloomberg-

For years, airlines have experimented with biofuels, aiming to reduce both carbon emissions and their reliance on fossil fuels...several major carriers are planning larger-scale usage of biofuel in 2019 and 2020, including JetBlue Airways Corp.  United Continental Holdings Inc. said it would cut its carbon emissions by half [by using biofuels] compared to 2005 levels, by 2050, matching an industry target set by the International Air Transport Association.

United Eco-skies
United Eco-skies

United Airlines uses the most biofuels in their airplanes of any airline; after Jet Blue helped to pioneer the use of aviation biofuels; as detailed in an article by Fast Company. From this same Fast Company article- '...biofuel blended jet fuel, with a carbon footprint smaller than regular jet fuel, but a comparable cost– is one way that the airline industry can begin to tackle its climate problem. By mid-century, like other industries, airlines will have to reach net zero emissions for the world to stay on track to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement."

Please see: 

Algae: the future of biofuel


Anaerobic digestion - a proven solution to our waste problem

Gasification - creating syngas

Combined heat and power - making the most of energy

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